Interview by Matty McLoughlin
Images by Cameron McCool
Styling by Lisa Mosko
“These days my head’s screwed on pretty straight,
—Kurt Vilewhere I start from the beginning and go to the end.” — Kurt Vile
Philadelphia-based musician Kurt Vile is best known for his eponymous solo project, producing six albums since 2008 up to this year’s b’lieve i’m goin down… A founding member of The War on Drugs, Vile released one 2008 record with the band before parting ways. His repertoire includes banjo, guitar, piano and trumpet, alongside The Violators, his backing band in studio and on tour.
Matty McLoughlin is a founding member and guitarist of the San Diego-based band The Soft Pack, who originally went by The Muslims. Eventually relocating to Los Angeles, the band released two albums: The Soft Pack (2010) and Strapped (2012). McLoughlin currently resides in LA.
Born in Australia, Stella Mozgawa is drummer for the Los Angeles-based band Warpaint, whom she joined shortly after their debut EP, Exquisite Corpse (2009). Her releases include Warpaint’s The Fool (2011) and Warpaint (2014).
Multi-instrumentalist Dave Scher, referred to as Farmer Dave, is a producer and touring musician with outfits including Animal Collective, Elvis Costello, Interpol and Kurt Vile. He is guitarist for the Los Angeles-based Beachwood Sparks and a founding member of All Night Radio with Beachwood Sparks’ Jimi Hey.
Kurt Vile wrote b’lieve i’m goin down… during the nighttime, and that essential weight remains beneath the warmth of his banjo and casual turns of phrase. Roaming from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to write and record, Vile called on a bi-coastal group of backing musicians including his East Coast backing band, The Violators. The result is what he considers his best work yet, a sentiment echoed by the likes of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, who aptly described its culmination of talent:
“Kurt does his own myth-making; a boy/man with an old soul voice in the age of digital everything becoming something else, which is why this focused, brilliantly clear and seemingly candid record is a breath of fresh air. b’lieve i’m goin down… is a handshake across the country, East to West Coast, through the Dust Bowl history (Valley of Ashes) of Woody honest-straight-forward-talk Guthrie, and a Cali canyon dead-still night floating in a nearly waterless landscape. The record is all air, weightless, bodiless, but grounded in convincing authenticity in the best version of singer-songwriter upcycling.”
Matty McLoughlin, fellow musician and member of the Soft Pack, talks to Vile about the making of b’lieve i’m goin down…
Matty McLoughlin: Your lyrics and vocals have always been natural sounding, conversational, non-forced. How often does the first line you come up with stay in the song?
Kurt Vile: I would say the first ones pretty much always end up in there. Or first verse ’cause that’s the one you feel the most. And if I’m really feelin’ the whole thing quickly, which happens a lot—three, four verses—then you just fine-tune it. An album or two ago I would write these lyrics and be like, this sounds like the third verse or something, but now the first verses end up being what I write. These days my head’s screwed on pretty straight, where I start from the beginning and go to the end.
MM: I really enjoyed the piano on the record. I specifically lost my head there. Did you write the piano? Do you find it liberating and productive to write on instruments that aren’t your primary ones—guitar and banjo?
KV: I did write that on piano. I’m a good guitar player in general, but I don’t always think about where my fingers are. Even if I just stopped for a second I would know, but sometimes I choose not to think about it because that is kind of liberating. You can play anything and don’t have to think so much about the theory behind it, just feel the melody. That’s why I love the piano—it’s all there in front of you and just chimes away.
“I just had a lot of things to get off my chest.
I finally took the night as far as it could go.”
— Kurt Vile
MM: It’s almost like a ouija board effect. Your hands do it, and you’re like, “Oh, shit.”
KV: It’s all in front of you. I definitely have limited ability, but I was feelin’ the piano in general. It wasn’t so off the cuff. I was just practicing a little bit, getting into the piano world.
MM: Your songs always have a strong sense of humor, which can be difficult to accomplish in rock music. Rap is always one million times funnier, but with rock you have to weave comedy in more subtly. Did you always feel comfortable putting humor in a song? Or was that something that developed over time?
KV: Honestly, I get really excited the wackier it is. I might edit myself later and be like, alright, that’s just too silly, but I think I fine tune the subtle humor thing. It has eased into itself.
MM: What songwriters do you find funny throughout history?
KV: Randy Newman can be funny. Some people are obviously funny like Ween. Shit, there are so many. I can’t think right now. I just woke up.
MM: I know you guys recorded the album in different locations. Did you use the same musicians each time or was it a cast of different people who were around?
KV: If I was ever by myself, my bandmate Rob Laakso was always there. My full-time East Coast band, The Violators, was involved. And when I was on the West Coast I used Stella Mozgawa or Dave Scher. Basically it’s two bands on there. Sometimes they morph into each other, and sometimes they’re separate. I kinda like that.
MM: Farmer Dave’s a fucking great dude. He’s a fun guy to play with.
KV: He’s the best.
MM: Is there any dream destination for you to record? Say money isn’t an issue—like Studio One in Jamaica or how the Stones rented a mansion.
KV: It’s always kind of logistical. I can’t imagine going into some historical studio or doing something weird. Whatever I do is always fun in its own way, but more natural, like going to LA for a second because people are there and adventures ensue. I like to figure it out as I go.
MM: Where did the album title b’lieve i’m goin down… come from?
KV: It spawned from a title track that didn’t make the record. When I recorded the instrumental segment of b’lieve i’m goin down…, it came out so cool—a blues delivery that captures the vibe of the record in general. My idea was that I could put in this title track where I’m saying that line over and over again. I was like, how would this ever work unless it was a title track? And it’s funny now because it wasn’t even on the record.
MM: Right on. What records were you listening to a lot while you were writing the album?
KV: I sort of forget now, but I built up influence on Randy Newman and John Prine. Also John Coltrane’s classic quartet, but I also started getting into his later stuff which I didn’t like as much at first, Interstellar Space and stuff. And Pharoah Sanders’ Karma, Alice Coltrane, shit like that.
The Nightfly is the 1982 debut solo album of Donald Fagen, co-founder of American jazz rock band Steely Dan. The album made Platinum in both the US and UK, received several Grammy nominations and placed on EQ Magazine’s Top Ten Best Albums of All Time alongside the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
MM: I read that you referred to this record as your Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly. That album rules and has one of my favorite album covers ever. What is it about the nighttime that allows you to focus and produce your best music? I know you have to keep hours with your kids, but have you always been a nocturnal person?
KV: For a long time that’s just been when I’ve been creative. Then it reached some crazy peak because we were out in the desert, for instance, and didn’t have a proper producer, and I just kept staying up later and later. It almost became a twisted game. Once I got used to it, I took it to the extreme. I’m enjoying getting up earlier these days. I’m sure I’ll tap into the night thing again, but I’m cool either way. I just had a lot of things to get off my chest. I finally took the night as far as it could go.
“That new Beach House album is sort
of like Xanax on the airplane.
I don’t take Xanax on the airplane anymore,
so it’s convenient to just listen to that.”
— Kurt Vile
MM: Multi-instrumentalist Jesse Trbovich seems like the longest-tenured Violator. What qualities make for a great backing band member?
KV: Everybody I play with has to play more than one instrument, and basically, they gotta be a friend. Everyone’s kind of a nerd at something. Something related to music but not just playing their instrument. Jesse’s a total record nerd, as am I, but even more so. He’s into building pedals and amps. Everybody’s obsessed with sound.
MM: Did he consult you before he cut his hair or tell you why he did it?
KV: When I heard he was gonna do it, I thought he was gonna look really bad, but he looks way better [laughs]. I’m glad. Obviously we’re all mid-to-late 30s and beyond. Even my drummer Kyle showed up just yesterday and had cut his hair too. They both look way better.
MM: Last album tour you busted out the all-white clothes, which I thought was pretty sick. Do you have any ideas of stage wear this go-round?
KV: I wish I was more on top of stage clothes. I do wanna look cool. For the time being I have a ton of those blue ‘What’s Up Kook?’ t-shirts from my “Life Like This” video and blue pants.
MM: When you’re making a record or sitting with a bunch of music, is there someone outside of the band, the label or your management, that you play your stuff for to gauge their opinion?
KV: I just record so my band hears it. I write my songs, sit with them and my family will overhear me playing them in real time on guitar. Then I go and record them eventually, and the band hears them. I get nervous for sure before anyone’s officially said what they think of it. I send it to my manager and give them a zillion disclaimers.
MM: What was the last cool book you read?
KV: A rock bio about Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire by Nick Tosches. It was nuts. Right now I’m reading George Jones’ autobiography ’cause I hear it’s supposed to be crazy too. I read a lot of good stuff in a row: Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, about being a woman in Hollywood in the 1970s. A couple books by Philip K. Dick, but I had to put the second one down. I was reading Ballast, but he’s just losing his mind. He was schizophrenic or whatever. I’m gonna pick it back up ’cause I love the book. It just gets a little dark.
MM: What else would you pursue if you got sick or bored by doing music? A creative thing, say gardening.
KV: If I could decide to not play music live, I feel like I could always work the film/licensing angle or something. I do like comedy and the idea of being involved in TV, just getting my foot in the door. As long as I could be kind of stupid, a little bit funny, I would do it. I’m a character in this HBO cartoon that’s coming out eventually.
MM: Speaking of the TV comedy thing, were you a big SNL fan? Do you have a favorite era?
KV: Sure, when I was a teenager because that was the Chris Farley era. When Will Ferrell came out, obviously he changed comedy, but I feel like a little after Will Ferrell they would all just laugh out of character too much.
MM: There was an awesome Chris Farley biography that came out called I Am Chris Farley. He was the nicest person ever but just the most scared person. If he wasn’t making you laugh, he felt like you didn’t like him. So all that drug stuff was just a way to deal comfortably.
KV: I understand that.
“Would I want to be around in the ’60s in Bob
Dylan’s prime? There’s no contest.
So maybe I should just stay in the ’70s while Bob
Dylan is going in and out of hiding.”
— Kurt Vile
MM: Who are some of your favorite recent recording artists?
KV: Lately I’ve been appreciating Liz Harris [of Grouper] who has this new band, Helen. She’s really cool in the way she records—she has a really pretty voice and then gets this texture where she pushes pedals and overloads the tape. I really love that new Beach House album (Depression Cherry). It’s more washed out and shoegazey and a little more stripped somehow. It sounds like anthems from an ’80s movie with Molly Ringwald but lusher and prettier. Sort of like Xanax on the airplane. I don’t take Xanax on the airplane anymore, so it’s convenient to just listen to that. Also Steve Gunn is an amazing finger-picker. Nathan Bowles is a great banjo player. I’m really obsessed with Courtney Barnett right now.
MM: Who was your first favorite band that you found on your own?
KV: I remember buying the Smashing Pumpkins’ Lull tape, just cause it was a cheap four-song EP on cassette. I would probably like it now if I heard it, even though Billy Corgan’s angst and anger is dated. On my own I discovered Pavement. “Cut Your Hair” was on the radio. I was on the phone and listening to “Cut Your Hair.” He shouted, “No big hair!” That song’s hilarious. I bought that tape and it obviously changed my teenage life.
MM: Same with me. “Cut Your Hair” was in A Very Brady Sequel on HBO. That’s how I got into Pavement, hanging around during the summer watching HBO at my buddy’s house.
KV: It was a good era. I was at the right teenage age, and alternative radio was playing cooler things like fucking “Voodoo Lady” by Ween.
MM: If you were to be a musician at any time period in the past, which do you think would be the most fun?
KV: I always think of the ’70s because it was hi-fi production. Crazy stuff was going on. Then again, that was the era when everything was blowing up, and the ’60s were still sort of wide open. But would I want to be around in the ’60s in Bob Dylan’s prime? There’s no contest. So maybe I should just stay in the ’70s while Bob Dylan is going in and out of hiding.