It’s been quite the journey for the guitarist and singer-songwriter Kurt Vile. Having that distinctive (and real) name helps, but that will only take you so far. A dedication to your craft, and working with like-minded souls is most important, and Vile has that in spades. He knew early on that music is what he wanted to do. From DIY recording and releasing in the early part of the century, to forming The War on Drugs with long-time friend and collaborator Adam Granduciel, Vile signed with the highly-esteemed American independent record label Matador in 2009 and has remained with them ever since, combining work with The War on Drugs, a high profile collaboration with Courtney Barnett, and his own music, in forging an impressively productive career, whilst at the same time trying to be a dad to his two young daughters.
Perhaps that explains the working methods on coming up with his new album, Bottle It In, once again recorded with his band The Violators, and which took a good two years to complete. “I’ve been bouncing around a lot and recording all over,” Vile says, whilst preparing to drive up to the Catskills for some promotional work. “My family would meet me in the middle of America, and we’d go on a road trip somewhere. I would record in-between all that stuff. The thought of doing an album cycle, touring an album for two years, and then going into a studio and starting a record from scratch, I just don’t have that in me any more. It makes me want to throw up! I just want to live my life and go in and out of a studio in real time. “
Bottle It In is an epic journey, touching upon his on-going musical love affair with Neil Young, but also his new found appreciation of country music. Like a lot of his work, it has an ear for a pop composition, combined with some deliciously sprawling yet controlled jams and solos, it’s an album that also heavily features his sometimes under-appreciated vocal. It’s a narrative-cum-storytelling voice that recalls Bob Dylan, but with Vile’s laconic drawl peppering it with its own distinct personality.
With Vile’s commercial success (and reliability), it allows him to have the freedom to work up new recordings in the way he sees fit. “I had done it like this in the past, when I was self-releasing stuff, I was more or less recording all the time. It was a way of life. When I signed to Matador in 2009, there were a couple of records that I knew someone was paying for studio time, and I had to decide who I’m going to work with, like a big to-do. Which was cool, but then I wanted to get back to my roots, and record whenever we wanted, or by myself, with various band mates who have their own studios. I’ve met enough people that I’ve worked with that I could just go in and out of a studio, and not really tell Matador, or worry about that kind of thing.”
Along with his trusted Violators – Jesse Trbovich, Rob Laakso and Kyle Spence – Vile reached out to some friends, old and new, to help fashion Bottle It In. Including the likes of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Cass McCombs, and Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa, a particular musical favourite, and who has lent her expressive sticks style to Vile’s last three albums. I tell Kurt I am fan of her. “Everybody loves Stella,” he replies.
What’s Kim Gordon’s contribution? “She plays some cool feedback on the end of ‘Mutinies’. That was just a pretty laid back occurrence, because when I went to record with Shawn Everett the first time (he helped produce the album) I showed up in LA a day early, and Steve Gunn, who we love and is in our family was playing. He was playing at The Echo, and Kim was in the audience. We’re friends, and I told her what was happening, and she said ‘let me know if you need any acoustic guitar feedback’, which is her current definition of what kind of sounds she was making. And, it worked out.”
Playing with your heroes, it’s what musicians often dream of when learning the ropes. As well as sharing a stage with them. Which is what Vile did recently when he opened for Neil Young at an outdoor festival gig in Quebec, watched by 90,000. “It was awesome. I was terrified. We definitely didn’t bomb, but I didn’t take off, either. I didn’t go into outer space. We got invited because I happened to be in Austin, around SXSW time, and I played Willie Nelson’s ranch, a Buck Owens reunion, and there were people there who saw me, and Promise of the Real, Willie’s kids, they played with me, backed me up on a couple of songs. So, it was a real special day, and the next day when I was actually playing SXSW, my buddy/manager Reni was there and he got an email before I was about to go on stage, saying that we got invited to open that show. I couldn’t believe it. I even bootlegged a poster. They only had a festival poster, so I had somebody make a poster. I had to capitalise on that.”
A fan all the way it seems. Which helps to explain his collaboration with fellow guitarist and songwriter Courtney Barnett, resulting in the Lotta Sea Lice album of last year. Both are brilliantly expressive guitarists, and both have that speak-sing casual wit and a shared indifference to the pace of the modern world. It was the perfect musical marriage. “We’re mutual admirers. I just got really obsessed with her,” he says. “That was a really cool project. That was the first time I had a 50/50 collaboration with somebody. We didn’t write together, but we brought material in and bounced off each other really good. There was only eight days in the studio, but over a year. A really good time. All those things inspire and inform you in some way.”