When Smoke Ring for My Halo dropped earlier this year on Matador, Kurt Vile officially established himself as more than just an indie darling. Along with his occasional touring band, the Violators, the Philadelphia native polished his lo-fi hiss, bringing the psych-ish brand of Americana into a cleaner realm—one that’s beautifully fronted by an assemblage of acoustic guitars and a reverbed vocal drawl. You’d be hard-pressed to find a pair of songs released this year that rival Smoke Ring‘s shining openers “Baby’s Arms” and “Jesus Fever.” Joe Wetteroth of Chicago-based Brain Idea interviewed Vile in anticipation of Pitchfork weekend; Vile plays Subterranean on Sat 7/16 and the fest on Sun 7/17 (see our Pitchfork guide). Brain Idea, who just released the 12-inch EP Cosmos Factory, sling their fuzzy, spaced-out postpunk at the Empty Bottle on Sun 7/17, opening up for the Fresh & Onlys. —Kevin Warwick
I was listening to Smoke Ring recently, and the whole thing was way cohesive and amazing—but it seemed like there wasn’t much time between records. Actually there was. I started Childish Prodigy on my own time in 2007 and recorded it slowly. Then I did a bunch of touring. I started Smoke Ring in March of 2010.
It seems like before this record you’d been pigeonholed into the lo-fi stereotype. Yeah, sure. I guess the recording quality could fall into that category, even though it’s different from most lo-fi, a little more mid-fi, you know what I mean?
I feel like maybe you were just working with what you had at the time. Yeah, totally. Childish Prodigy was done mostly by my buddy Jeff Ziegler, who has a home studio, and it’s not lo-fi equipment. It’s not top-of-the-line hi-fi, but he’s got a lot of great stuff. Before that I was recording at home. That was digital eight-track, and we definitely are kind of gear nerds. Yeah, we used what we had, but I’ve never used GarageBand. It was never my religion. It’s just what I had to use, and I used it to the best of my abilities. It was never like, “Aw, it’s better, shittier.”
The heart is still in the songs on this record. What needed to be accented is accented, like strings ringing out or really pumping the acoustic guitar on one song. That’s perfect. Cool, man.
I’ve read a bunch of interviews, and it seems like they bring up kind of Americana-type comparisons, like Tom Petty, Bob Seger. But I’m also hearing a bit of Cocteau Twins-type production. You want to talk about other influences? A major influence was definitely Sonic Youth, that feeling when it totally drones out. But also the line, “Society is my friend, he makes me lie down in a cool bloodbath”—I came up with that quick, but it sounds like “Society Is a Hole,” an older Sonic Youth song, where it’s like, “It makes me lie to my friends.” It’s funny because I know Thurston [Moore]; he got “Society Is a Hole” from mishearing Black Flag. He thought they said, “society is a hole,” and when he realized they didn’t, he just put it in the song. It’s like a subconscious torch-catching scenario.
The record doesn’t straight-up rip off anything; it just brings up vibes and emotions. It’s a very current record, man. It kind of took me aback, because I really like Crazy Horse and stuff like that, and I like to hear somebody that takes those things and is still new. Yeah, Neil Young was the best. He’s number one in finding the essence of a song. It’s not like it has to be the perfect production, like Fleetwood Mac or something. He’s about catching the emotion so it can be raw and still give you that feeling. I think about Neil Young all the time when I record. I’m an obsessive, though, so that’s different from Neil Young. I mean, he’s obsessive, but you can go too far on a song and get a headache, because you’ll be like, “Why can’t we fix this song?”—and you’re steadily ruining it by fixing it.
Matador seems to let you do pretty much whatever. The new record and Childish Prodigy and the EP are all pretty different. You’re not putting out one particular album over and over again. No. And at the same time, it’s not like Ween. I do love Ween, but Ween’s not me. Usually those releases are capturing different eras. I jumped from Childish Prodigy to that kind of clean, poppy, but still psychedelic sound on [the EP] Square Shells, but in reality, that stuff is way older than Childish Prodigy. It’s an evolution.
You did a tour with J Mascis not too long ago. Was that a reaffirming thing? Oh totally, and a total honor. Not only did I open for him, but he’s a genuine fan of my music. We share a producer in John Agnello, so we kept crossing paths, and then I got to play on J’s record. We like each other as people. He’s hilarious and thinks we’re pretty funny. I definitely can’t play guitar like J Mascis, but to be in that company is incredible.