ACL Fest 2011: Kurt Vile
From a provocative Philly songwriter to harmonic Alabama sisters, family plays important role
Kurt Vile owes a lot to family. The Philadelphia-born-and-raised singer and songwriter received nearly every kind of support an aspiring young musician could hope for: gifts of musical instruments, the constant encouragement of his mother, a father who exposed him to classic American artists ranging from Doc Watson to Charlie Patton to John Denver, and, eventually, nine younger siblings to play with, influence and generally bounce off.
That, and his name: Kurt Vile, the type of moniker that practically demanded that he become either a recording artist or a minor-league member of the Legion of Doom.
"My mom understood when I knew college wasn't for me. I couldn't imagine going to school; I could never pay attention but I was smart enough to know I needed to pay attention. She was like ‘I know your true love is music,' and my parents never put pressure on me," Vile says by phone from Copenhagen. "And my brother Sam has a band, playing coffeehouses and things, while my brother Paul is actually coming to Austin to play with us. It'll be his first time on the road. He's a great banjo and guitar player. My youngest sister Madeline has picked up the violin and plays it amazingly. She's only 13. It's just a musical family."
Which is not to say that Vile's success isn't his own. For all the myriad, throw-a-dart-at-the-wall influences ascribed to him in countless reviews and features — lofty comparisons like Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, to name a few — he has a style that's entirely Vile. This year's "Smoke Ring for My Halo" — his fourth full-length album and second on Matador Records — offers the best distillation of his strengths yet, pairing Vile's moody and oft-lonely, yet sardonic and literate, lyricism with intricate fingerpicking and a light touch of reverbed psychedelia.
It's his first album with a proper producer — John Agnello, who's helmed records by Dinosaur Jr., the Hold Steady and Sonic Youth — and it's picked up rave reviews from Rolling Stone, Spin and a coveted "Best New Music" tag from Pitchfork.
"I know this record has a broader appeal, like a rock kid can like it and not feel bad or get made of fun of," Vile says with a ghost of a chuckle.
Vile kicked off his musical career early, playing trumpet in the fourth grade, before growing interested in the guitar. His father, a longtime bluegrass fan, bought the budding rocker a banjo instead.
"I'm glad I started with the banjo, actually, so I didn't get stuck in the box of standard tuning. There were no walls to me. The possibilities were endless," Vile says. "I got my hands on a guitar about a year later. Our neighbors would always hear us jamming, so they gave me this acoustic guitar they had laying around, which is totally the best thing someone could ever do for you. You're 14 or 15 and all of the sudden you have the coolest tool in the world."
Vile took to penning songs and released his first tape at 17, kicking off a long and steady stream of self-released material. He temporarily relocated to Boston in his early 20s, driving a forklift for work — inspiring the brilliant "Space Forklift," possibly the best song ever written about operating heavy machinery — and first started using the name "Kurt Vile and the Violators" with his backing band.
Vile eventually returned to Philadelphia, where he played guitar with friend Adam Granduciel in rock band the War on Drugs and slowly but steadily built a profile through his prolific self-releasing of new material.
"I put out about seven or so CDs under my name before I finally got a label to put out (first album) ‘Constant Hitmaker,' which was a sort of a best-of of those recordings" says Vile. "That's the vision I had of how to do it. I put out vinyls and CDs for the buzz; I didn't want to wait around for things to happen."
That strategy paid off. Vile was eventually signed to Matador — a particularly meaningful development for a longtime Pavement obsessive — and was tapped by Animal Collective to play for their installment of the artist-curated All Tomorrow's Parties Festival, as well as getting plum music placement in the surprisingly poignant final moments of the second season of the HBO comedy "Eastbound and Down."
And though Vile is increasingly visible since the release of "Smoke Ring for My Halo," he's thankful for being something increasingly rare in the modern musical world — a gradual success story who's grown more popular organically over time.
"I was lucky in that it all happened kind of slowly. I was actually kind of scared that I'd, like say Wavves for instance, be somebody who gets that big success right away and then kind of doesn't know how to handle it," says Vile. "In a way I've been kind of relieved because I've always felt like I could do whatever I wanted to. Not being overhyped is very freeing."