When Kurt Vile was in his 20s, he was known around the Philadelphia music scene as “the CD-R guy,” an eccentric hustler constantly trying to get people to pay attention to his melancholy, lo-fi psych-folk songs dubbed on cheap circular plastic. But now that Vile is in his 40s and has firmly established a well-respected career as one of the most consistent and unique singer-songwriters in indie rock, he knows he doesn’t have to push so hard.
“I’m not too worried about anything really,” he tells me during a recent interview. “I feel like I’ve proved a lot on this album, to be honest. But at the same time, I have nothing to prove.”
The album to which he refers is (Watch My Moves), his eighth solo LP due on Friday. While Vile is justifiably proud of the record, he concedes that listeners might need to spend some time with it before it fully sinks in. In the 2010s, Vile earned comparisons to classic rockers like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty thanks to durably hooky indie hits like “Baby’s Arms,” “Wakin On A Pretty Day,” and “Pretty Pimpin.” But lately, he’s favored dreamier grooves and free-floating arrangements that let songs drift for several minutes, as if lost in a stoned reverie. The languid epics of 2018’s Bottle It In signaled this change in direction, and (Watch My Moves) fortifies it.
Over the course of 20 years, Vile has compiled a large catalog of collaborative albums and EPs, including 2017’s Lotta Sea Lice with Courtney Barnett and 2020’s thoroughly charming country-tinged effort Speed, Sound, Lonely KV, which featured the late John Prine. But when we met up to discuss his discography, purely for the sake of relative brevity, we opted to focus only on his solo albums, which Vile happily (and proudly) discussed.
Constant Hitmaker (2008)
I’m honestly pretty proud of all my phases. I’m not embarrassed about anything. It’s just a timeline for me, of what I was into and where I was at. I got a crazy photographic/audiographic memory. I can even see the albums. You see a lot of things at once. It’s pretty cool. The mind is a very psychedelic tool.
The way I’m talking now, I was talking the same way then. I’m talking the same game. That’s why on Constant Hitmaker, I was talking about writing hit songs. Songs like “Freeway” that could have been a hit. Should have been a hit. “Don’t Get Cute,” “Freeway,” “Breathin Out” — they’re all catchy pop songs. It was all the best songs on my previously released CD-Rs that not many people heard.
I like how it’s got a stretch of pop songs. Then it gets a little psychedelic, like an American folk/pop version of shoegaze music where it just goes up and down. If you listen to those segues and then you flash forward to the new record, they’re still there. They’ve always, ultimately, been there. But especially when you’re working from home, I feel like those things creep in a lot more. When you’re at home, you tend to play more weird synths on the fly. Or you’re just going about your day and you start messing around with something. Because it’s all your gear. Whereas if you go into the studio, you’re bringing everything. All already it’s gotten altered somehow. All of a sudden your brain got altered.
Whether it’s on your nice equipment or on a tape recorder upstairs or on a Zoom recorder or your iPhone, the one lesson I learned is, it doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, you can mix it all together. People don’t notice or care. Or if they do notice it often sounds cool if there’s a little hiss.
God Is Saying This To You … (2009)
Keith [Abrahamsson] at Mexican Summer, who put the record out, says there’s something special I was onto then, that I never did again. He’s right. Songs like “Beach On The Moon,” you can hear the melancholy in the lyrics. And you can hear the urgency in “My Sympathy” and that finger-picker “Songs For John In D.” I really think that I’ve come back to that. Because I can hear the same sound in my voice in “Flyin’ Like A Fast Train,” the same quick urgency. I feel like I’m there. I feel like I’m off the grid. I feel like my guard is completely down again. I do feel like I can tap into the past and the present and the future. I feel like I can do that now.
Constant Hitmaker came out, and then Keith got in touch with me and wanted to put out a record. I was like, “Oh, that sounds cool. I’ll have to go through my CD-Rs.” I was about to go on my first European tour ever, opening for The War On Drugs. I was in The War On Drugs, and I was opening as Kurt Vile.
God is Saying This to You … came out a little before Childish Prodigy. The Hunchback EP also came out in 2009. That was all a result of getting a bunch of offers. Matador definitely wasn’t too happy, I’d say, that they all came out at the same time. But it was like a freak perfect storm of coming out of that DIY, lo-fi scene. Putting out some obscure albums and then getting offers for more cool vinyl releases.
Childish Prodigy (2009)
I had most of Childish Prodigy in the can since 2007 or so, and I had been shopping it around with no luck. That was my “studio” album that I was saving for a bigger label. Except the more up-to-date song was “He’s Alright,” which is a great song. That got added at the last minute.
We got Matador to put it out, but we sent them the same record twice. We sent it once and I guess they heard it. Then we played a show in New York where they came to see if they wanted to sign that band Tyvek. But we opened and my manager Rennie sent them the record again. You want to hear the new Kurt Vile? Just playing dumb. Then they listened the second time.
It was my new sound. I just knew that was where I was at. It is where Adam [Granduciel] worked with Jeff Ziegler for the first time. Jeff did all of Slave Ambient and some of Lost In The Dream. But that connection first started from Adam working with me on Childish Prodigy. In September 2005, me and Adam took a couple of weeks off our jobs to record. We got songs like “Overnite Religion” and “Blackberry Song.” Those were the throwbacks that made it onto Childish Prodigy. But they felt the same. They had that same psychedelic sort of thing.
I like that Childish Prodigy is the closest to a punk record I’ve made. It’s like a psychedelic punk record that also has some blues. There’s some Charley Patton-style finger-picking and delivery in songs like “Dead Alive.” But there’s also noise and stuff like that. That’s definitely an underrated record, if you’re talking in Pitchfork terms. But I know it became Kim Gordon’s favorite record. I know it became Bradford Cox’s favorite record. I know it was an influential record.
Smoke Ring For My Halo (2011)
I was noticing getting more shows and taking all the offers I could. And I could see a difference in my fans. I remember playing Primavera Fest and the European people just screaming out for me. It was surreal, but it was beautiful. But that’s a melancholy record and I think it’s my only conventional style “classic” record. The closest version to some kind of classic rock record
It’s also got a lot of folk. Folk music was probably my biggest influence then. Like Bert Jansch and John Martyn. Definitely into Joni Mitchell and things like that. There’s a Joni Mitchell delivery on “Ghost Town,” it’s got “The Last Time I Saw Richard” vibes. I wrote “On Tour” on this early bare-bones tour. It was a tough tour for the band to go on. I enjoyed it, but not everybody in the band enjoyed it. There were some disagreements. Then I remember I was feeling sensitive after a fight. I wrote “On Tour” backstage. Lord Of The Flies. “Watch out for this one, he’ll stab you in the back for fun. I’m just playing. I know you man. Most of the time.”
But “Baby’s Arms,” that should have been a hit. That was an older song. It sounded cinematic. That song really is a special tune. There’s no beating around the bush with that one.
Wakin On A Pretty Daze (2013)
I guess you could say that’s my epic classic record. It’s fully produced by John Agnello, same as Smoke Ring. But we spent more time in the studio. I had big ideas. I was on the road a lot for Smoke Ring. Those were the kind of songs I was writing at soundcheck. “Wakin On A Pretty Day.” “Was All Talk” — they got a lot of parts to them.
I was just liking the idea of classic ’70s songs on the radio that you want to play over and over again, except you don’t have to press play. You don’t have to start it over as many times, because the songs are longer. I didn’t necessarily think “Wakin On A Pretty Day” would be 10 minutes long. I didn’t think “Goldtone” was going to be 10 minutes. But I just knew they had a hypnotic quality, like a dolphin or something. Go under the water, come up for air. I wanted to make it seem disorienting, and I pulled it off.
John Agnello was there to capture us rocking out. That’s the only thing you can really do, just rock out. Just play those clubs and play loud and rock it out. Maybe that’s part of why there are so many guitar solos on that record. But I don’t think about it that way. On B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down, I kept removing the guitar solos because something was bothering me about overdubbing. I just like to be live more and if it’s not live, I wanted to be playing with people while we overdubbed together.
B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down (2015)
We didn’t use a conventional producer. We didn’t know what we were going to do. My bandmate Rob did a lot of the engineering. And also my drummer Kyle, who has a home studio in Athens, we used him for certain tracks. Then I went out to the desert to reconnect with Farmer Dave Scher from Beachwood Sparks and All Night Radio. He’s my California buddy. He’s a character. He played a lot on Wakin. We went out to L.A. for the first time on Wakin for some of the sessions and brought John with us. Then Stella [Mozgowa] showed up and she saved that record. So, I knew I wanted to go out to the desert and record and have Stella come, and Farmer Dave and Rob. I feel like I wrote “Wheelhouse” right as soon as I showed up in the desert. I don’t think it was even written.
With that record, I think it was me knowing I can’t just do one thing. I know I have strengths here with the Violators, but I also have these other friends I want to play with. The more West Coast thing. But at some point we hit a wall. Around that time, I recorded the song “All In A Daze Work” and it’s just solo acoustic. It had that heartbreak vibe in it. We went out to L.A. again to try to keep the flame burning. That’s when, coincidentally, Rob Schnapf got in touch with Chris Lombardi at the label. He was like, “I’d like to work with Kurt.” I was like, “Oh wow. The dude that worked on Mellow Gold wants to work with me.” Then while I was out there, totally inspired, I wrote “Pretty Pimpin.” It’s been my biggest hit yet.
Bottle It In (2018)
I’m really proud of Bottle It In. It’s a transitional record. That was all about being out there on the road and capturing a feeling on tape and continuing with trying to do the live thing. I had the keyboards prerecorded. I knew the lyrics. But I showed up in L.A. basically after playing with The Sadies at Stagecoach. They’re really good friends of mine. Dallas [Good] just passed away. Insane.
The title track, you can’t touch it. That’s as close as I can get to spiritual jazz with a rock element. I have a Mellotron horn solo that happens in the middle. All that happened live. Then you listen back, you’re like, wow, it’s going to be tough to edit this down because it’s got so much feeling. “Bassackwards” is similar. It’s just a hypnotic groove with the lyrics. It’s some kind of folky shoegaze thing where I just go in and I bob my head up and down. Sometimes I come up for air. Sometimes I go to outer space and then I come back. There’s lots of really cool production on that record. You got to spend time with it. But I revisited it early in the pandemic and I’m really proud of it for sure. Deep record.
(Watch My Moves) (2022)
It’s been a weird couple years, but I liked it. I built a studio here. Luckily I had a few songs in the can. Well, more than a few. But three songs made it that were in the can before the pandemic hit. If I had to start a record from scratch on a new label just in my home studio, that’d be weird. Because I like to have my worlds overlap from the previous phase, ideally. When the record was finally due, I actually panicked and booked more time with Rob Schnapf in L.A., just because he has an established studio. I love working with Rob. I went there over this past summer three times in two-week increments. It ended up being an even split between studios.
Now, even after the record’s finally turned in, I’ve been working. It’s even more comfortable. It’s just like, learning how to fake yourself out so that it’s the most natural laidback scenario possible. There was some good tension, I guess. I feel like the studio was not quite ready and I had to rush to get it ready. Then I wasn’t necessarily comfortable in it right away when Rob got here. But then by the time he left, I was totally comfortable. I like when nobody’s here.
“Exploding Stones” was really just a demo that I had recorded. I had the Violators play over top of it one morning when I was feeling too out of it. It was the first time we had reconnected since the pandemic, when people were comfortable being around each other without it being too weird. Next thing you know, we added all these synths to it pretty quick. That was the first song to really have some promise when we got back together.
I’ve always loved that Springsteen song “Wages Of Sin.” There are certain songs on Tracks in particular — “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart,” “Restless Nights.” More recently, one that I rediscovered was “Sad Eyes.” That’s when I got back into “Wages Of Sin.” We recorded a version of that with Jeff Ziegler back in 2007, the original Violators, including Adam. But I was always wanting to revisit that. I turned my bandmate Kyle, my drummer, onto it. He really got into it on the Bottle It In tour. He was like, “Oh, we could do our own version of that.”
I think my records are always enough of something new in my evolution. I’ve always got new things to say. I just think I’m emitting my personality and being comfortable where I’m at in my life. It’s a little bit cocky, and sometimes funny. But it’s also confidently played with dreamy chords, and it just puts you in the zone. All those things that I’ve become a master of, it’s what I’m doing and I’m cranking it out from my own house at this point. It’s just the way it is.
Basically, I just want it to be as honest as possible. I want the songs to creep up to me. In the older days, I used to think too much. Oh, why am I not writing? Am I going to write a good song? None of that matters, because now I like when I’m not writing. I like to be present in whatever I’m doing and then the music comes through inspiration. If you just go about your day, inspiration’s going to strike. I’m not too worried about anything really. I feel like I’ve proved a lot on this album, to be honest. But at the same time, I have nothing to prove.