Near the end of Kurt Vile’s interview with Pure Volume, the singer admits to spacing out, asking “what exactly were we talking about?” And nothing about that fact would surprise fans of his work. On his last album, the title track spoke of being dazed, while on the first single from his latest album, b’lieve i’m goin’ down, speaks of waking up and being confused by the person staring back through the mirror. Spacing out is an important part of life it would seem for Vile, where one can easily reflect on both the highs and lows, and for the Philadelphia-based songwriter, it has resulted in a vital and soothing brand of music that is consistently finding a wider audience.
With the recent release of b’lieve i’m goin’ down, Vile is embarking of North America and then Europe. We caught up with Vile before his tour kickoff in Boston, to discuss his increasing audience, and how success has affected his art.
Pure Volume: Going into your latest album, and probably with the couple before, there is this knowledge that more people will be hearing your record than ever before. What kind of expectations does this put on you creatively?
Kurt Vile: I think I use it to my advantage. In my head, I think I do top every record, in just a matter of refinement. But if I recorded a bunch of lush pop jams that didn’t reek of sellout, I don’t know if that that would do better than if I recorded a slow-burning, deep record. I’m able to keep those thoughts separate. I thought more about it on the last record, Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze. I thought more about the public. But either way, it’s a good inspiration or problem to have.
PV: Does that also translate into your live show, since you’ve gone from playing in front of a couple hundred people at a venue like The Smell to more than a thousand at a venue like The Fonda here in L.A.? Has that made you up your live game?
KV: I’m working on that now. I’ve had anxiety about that for forever because of the size of the crowds and being out of practice. I’d played a few promo gigs without all of my normal band, using Stella Mozgawa as my drummer and Farmer Dave Scher, playing Conan and stuff, but we just had a warm-up gig here in Philly with all the Violators and I was nervous as hell. It was a nightmare to all my crew. But it came off as pretty rock and roll. Definitely a little sloppy, but I think I’m already stoked for my first official show tonight in Boston.
It comes together quicker if you are in a good place mentally and with your musicianship. So yes, I do want to up my live game, but I still get off on spur of the moment jamming or a more raw sound. I’m not trying to make it too slick. And there are little things, like ‘how am I going to make this banjo song work?” For “I’m an Outlaw.” I still haven’t found the right banjo, yet.
PV: You mentioned your anxiety, and you touch on it on the new album on “That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say),” and that’s certainly something that as a musician, whether songwriting or performing, you don’t want to let it affect you adversely. But at the same time, a big part of who you are as an artist is this honesty you are trying to tap into. How does your anxiety affect you as a songwriter and as a performer?
KV: I think if I’m feeling a certain way, and if I’m tapping into my guitar, I’ll write a song. Ideally, in a live setting, I feel a certain release. Of course it is different if it is going badly, then I’ll just want to get off stage. I’m sure if I’m feeling anxious and things aren’t going well, I can give off a robotic performance, but ideally, it should be a release. You never feel higher than when you come off that stage, and if the show has gone remotely well, then that’s the ultimate high.
The contrast is funny. Playing my warmup gig, I wanted to just die before the show. I was so angry, I thought it was all going to be terrible. And then the encouragement from the crowd and the actual playing makes me feel like a completely different person. I love it.
PV: Listening to the new album, there is also this sort of peace with life’s inevitabilities, the mundanity, and the highs and the lows. Do you find yourself more at peace with life the older you get?
KV: I’m not at peace with sad things. I’m grateful because there are so many parts of life that I like. I have a family that I love, and I’m grateful for that. There’s this constant evolution and growth before your eyes. And then with music, I’m getting to play it for people and see the world, and I’ve got these great friends. But I’m not at peace with the sad things that can happen at any point, but I guess music helps.
PV: You’ve been working many years to make music your career, to make a decent living and have a family. How has the level of success you’ve achieved at this point surprised or disappointed you?
KV: I’m not disappointed. I probably felt more surprised before, when things seemed like more money than it was. Like an advance check or a publishing deal. When you are coming straight out of blue collar, these checks may have seemed bigger, though they could still help you out.
But I’m content where I am, though I like the idea of making of making business deals or being involved in a movie or whatever. There’s all kinds of ways to play the game and try to get out there, and I think it’s fun. I like the idea of becoming more successful. `I know i’ll never be, like, filthy rich, but I like thinking about how I can get a little rich. - laughs-
PV: Has that taken the pressure of the creative side?
KV: My life’s never been too cushy because there is always the hustle and the struggle, so you have that side of songwriting, where you can think about struggle and you’re not just bullshitting. Not that I’m putting down the other way. Gram Parsons was notoriously rich and stories are that he wasn’t always the nicest guy, but he could sing like a bird and had such pain behind behind it.
But I’ve never compromised my music, I just have a little more solid ground now thanks to support from my label. Things get a little smoother all the time. So yeah, I guess the answer is yes.
PV: You’re looking ahead at all these tour dates, with Waxahatchee on some and Cass McCombs on some. Do you enjoy going on tour or do you get homesick missing your family?
KV: I definitely miss my family when I go away. But I’ve worked on this record for so long, that this is the time to really embrace this moment. I’m a natural musician and this is my time to really go for it. I’ll probably put out plenty of more albums, but you never really know what will happen. This is the time to really unleash the music. The touring actually goes by pretty fast. Next thing you know, my family will be meeting me in Australia. That’s one of the perks of the job.