Jeremy Mage posts up on a park bench with rocker Kurt Vile and discusses his songwriting methods, audience expectations, and the definition of “psychedelic.”
There are some problems you want to have: Kurt Vile sat on the pavement on Delancey Street as he tried to pair down an overloaded guest list to his long sold-out show. Stressful, sure, but selling out the Bowery Ballroom is cause for celebration. With the guest list near finished and turned in to management, we walked a couple blocks to a bench at Sara Roosevelt Park and talked about Kurt’s creative process, where his songs are coming from, and the resolution of a long standing mystery.
Jeremy Mage So I guess I’m most interested in asking you about your creative process.
Kurt Vile Okay. Well, it’s not just cut and dry . . . I’d say for the most part, you sit down, and you tap into something. You just start playing a chord, and you really feel it—you really feel this riff you’re playing, and lyrics slowly come around, maybe a simple line, and you think of that simple line, it might be in the middle of the song, it might be at the very beginning.
JM Yeah. It’s interesting ‘cause I read a couple interviews that said that you tend to stockpile lyrics in notebooks, but from what you’re telling me, you tend to start from the musical side.
KV Yeah, I start from the musical side . . . The music and the word, or the delivery, that’s musical, too.
JM As a teenager I got to study a little with Allen Ginsberg, and one of the first things he told me when he looked at my poems was, “You know, writing should be about communication, not masturbation.”
JM If you read his work it can be obscure, but you know that every line was meant to communicate, and I feel sort of the same about yours. I don’t always understand what you’re trying to say, but it feels meaningful, even if I don’t know what it meant to you. What’s your relationship with meaning and narrative in songwriting?
KV I think a lot of it’s open to interpretation, but to be honest, I try to explain sometimes, but it’s really the kind of thing that means something to me and I can figure out exactly what it means but I can’t really express it or I don’t wanna express it or explain it, because it’s pretty personal, you know? Even though it can be abstract. But certain things are very straight up. I don’t write super literal, but it’s just kind of emotions, feelings. I mean, people close to my life can figure out what songs are about, you know?
JM Yeah! I feel like one of the themes that comes up sometimes in your music is a sort of exhaustion, or for lack of a better word, apathy? The songs don’t come across as apathetic, but apathy seems to be a subject sometimes.
KV Uh huh… can you define apathetic?
JM Like, not giving a shit.
KV Yeah, I know it comes off that way, and part of that’s my Philly sarcasm . . . I mean, I think my family, some have the sarcasm gene. I definitely do. I find that humorous to deliver something that way. There’s humor in there. But also, you can look at “Society is my Friend” for instance, and like, the whole “Blood Bath” thing . . . It’s sarcastic, but it’s a little dark. I mean, you can look at life, and it’s beautiful, but life is also really fucked up at the same time. It’s always both! You know what I mean, everything has its good and bad. It’s just being human, you know? I’m not like a non-believer . . .
JM What about on a personal level? Like I said, this question of motivation seems to be a theme in some of your songs, but just looking at your output, you seem like you must be a pretty disciplined individual. What’s your relationship with personal discipline, and your habits as a songwriter/producer?
KV Once it comes down to it and you’re rolling along, I really get things done, but the process, right before that, when you don’t have no idea what’s about to happen, there’s all kinds of anxiety, and you wonder, Am I gonna pull this off? It’s like a slight fear, but then once you get rolling . . . I think that’s the scariest thing in a way It’s exhausting after a while. I remember making this record, I was going in with a producer [John Agnello], it had to be good. I knew I could make it good. I had these songs, but still, I had no idea what was gonna happen on the other side. So there’s all this built up anxiety—some people have it more than others. I tend to stress and obsess, and then, once I get rolling, I’m like, super stoked and cocky, you know? (laughter)
JM In terms of your habits, how much do you work on your music on a regular basis?
KV I guess, lately . . . I think I did a shitload of work for so long, and now, I’m just on the road doing it. I guess it’s not as urgent, but I do work on music. I work on it slower than I’ve ever worked on it in my life. I have these song fragments . . . conveniently, I have a good memory that way, so I can go back to them. Eventually, when it comes down to it, I’ll sit down and organize what I have, and I’m sure it’s a lot! And then, once I start working on that, that’s when [snap snap].
But once you’re in the moment and you’re working on a record, for instance, lyrics—they start popping into your head. I’ve always been a down to the wire kind of guy, you know, a procrastinator? (laughter)
JM So, were these songs for this latest record seasoned before you recorded them? Had you played them out?
KV Not really. I mean, the record before [Childish Prodigy], we were playing “Freak Train” before the record came out, but then again I did record it. Certain songs [on Smoke Ring] like “Peeping Tomboy”, for sure, I started playing that right when Childish Prodigy came out, I was playing “Baby’s Arms” …
JM That’s such a fucking great song, I gotta say.
KV Thanks man, I was playing that acoustically at random times back in the day. After a while I kinda hung it up. After we recorded the album, I was stoked on the title track “Smoke Ring for My Halo,” and we were playing that out before the record was out, but then all of a sudden we just stopped. We realized it was cool to play that for us, but people just . . . Like for instance, “Peeping Tomboy”, that’s easy! It’s just me, and it’s kinda pretty. I had it down, so I could deliver that. But playing songs that people don’t know, just working ‘em out for us—I just realized it goes over people’s heads. I know bands like Animal Collective do that, and I always loved that when I saw them. But that’s the kind of music where they’re figuring it out live. Actually, a lot of my older music was that way, like “Hunchback.”
JM “Hunchback” sounds like a Stooges song to me.
KV Yeah! It turned into that in the studio, even more so, but we were, like, working those out as a band, and we’d be playing gigs, locally, for the most part, and then going to the studio. That’s a whole other thing. But this record was very composed in the studio. I mean, the songs I composed before the studio, but . . .
JM And how much of a concept did you have of the kind of production textures you wanted before you got into the studio? Or did it come out of experimentation? Plan, or experimentation?
KV I think a little bit of both. I mean, I demoed “On Tour,” “Ghost Town,” with my friend Mary [Lattimore] who played harp, I demoed “Baby’s Arms,” so those were kind of the main centerpieces. And then I’d say “Puppet to the Man” and “Society is my Friend,” those were completed in the studio, where I was getting a sketch down, and then I figured it out once we had stuff down, so that was half written in the studio. But yeah, the other ones . . . There’s always a little bit of improvisation. That’s the beauty of rolling tape.
JM By the way, were you rolling tape? I haven’t seen production notes, did you record to tape?
JM So the whole thing’s to two-inch?
KV Yeah, to two-inch, and then once we fill those tracks up we dumped it to Pro Tools.
JM At this point in your career, do you have to do any kind of battle with expectations that people have of you?
KV I think a little bit. I think I’m over the hump now, because—I’m not gonna say I’m always good live and I’m a little nervous tonight, just ‘cause I have a whole bunch of shit on my mind, but it can be a pretty raw experience. We’re getting better all the time at performing, for sure. But that’s not gonna guarantee that we’re not gonna fuck something up. So sure, somebody can say we suck. Or maybe it’s spotty, maybe this song was amazing, but we made the wrong move and we fucked this song up. But people had expectations for this record, and obviously my records before were more lo-fi, but they just happened to be, you know. So some people say this sounded a little clean and like my most uninspired, but actually it was my most inspired! (laughter) But you know, I’m seeing more and more people stoked on the record. And I know it’s a grower, as well.
JM But as an album, an album statement, Smoke Ring really hangs together.
KV Yeah, no, for sure that’s the one. That was a very conscious effort to make like a record record and not a collection. I mean with Childish Prodigy I tried the same way, but it was still a little . . . you know, it’s pretty psychedelic, and all of a sudden there’s “He’s Alright” after some like, noisy blues tune. It all made sense in my mind, and it does make sense, ‘cause that’s just where I was and that’s the kind of music I was making. But this record I made from start to finish with John, so of course the record . . . I mean, I coulda screwed up and still made it, ‘cause we recorded other songs that didn’t make the record and might have been the wrong choice, but . . .
JM It worked out!
JM What’s your first musical memory?
KV My earliest was my dad playing certain records and me really loving them. He used to play this Rusty and Doug Kershaw record, Lousiana Man, and the guitar was so good, but it was like, bluesy and Cajun. And they would also play John Denver, and there was a song called “Calypso,” it’s so beautiful—well, the chorus is so beautiful—it’s all these people singing. The verse is kinda sappy, but once you get to the chorus it’s incredible. And it made me realize that “Take Me Home, Country Roads”—I think that song’s totally perfect.
JM Yeah, I agree with you. What does the word psychedelic mean to you in your music?
KV Well, I read the definition of psychedelic in the Syd Barrett book, and the idea is to get as many ideas into as little amount of time as possible. But for me, it’s just the atmospheric thing. You know, effects, delay. I always say this new record has psychedelic undertones where my older records had psychedelic overtones. Like “Beach on the Moon” or something, that’s pretty obviously psychedelic. I could just say “Beach on the Moon” and you might know what I mean by psychedelic. (laughter)
JM That’s funny, I remember that Syd Barrett definition, but it never seemed quite right to me, but it’s a hard word to define.
KV It wasn’t him that made it, but it kind of makes sense in a way. But yeah, there’s true psychedelic and there’s gimmicky psychedelic. Psychedelic to me is like, some haze, some atmosphere. It usually involves delay pedals. (laughter) From now on, when they ask me about psychedelic, I’ll be like, Delay pedals. (laughter) Easy answer.
Jeremy Mage is a producer and songwriter living in New York. His website is here.