OnMilwaukee.com – Kurt Vile Feature
Kurt Vile lives in the moment as he makes Milwaukee debut
By Joshua Miller
Special to OnMilwaukee.com
Published March 30, 2016 at 1:56 p.m.
Singer-songwriter Kurt Vile lately has been living life in the moment of late, from recording his latest album “b’lieve i’m goin down…,” released last year, to performing on live stages across the world. So when he makes his Milwaukee debut Tuesday at The Pabst Theater with his band The Violators, he’ll likely make the most of the experience. He’s not sure his plans outside the show, but he is a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “What Made Milwaukee Famous” and is excited to play a new city and experience the spontaneity that comes with it.
He had a similar feeling while he was recording “b’lieve i’m goin down…”. It was during the writing of his song “Wheelhouse” that he realized it was best to record the songs in the moment live. The song was the first they did in the sessions, and it came out quickly when he and his band played it live. It features him with California guest musicians Stella Mozgawa on drums and multi-instrumentalist “Farmer” Dave Scher.
“They reacted to my lyrics and such in real time,” Vile said. “I was paranoid at the time as I wasn’t sure if the song was done, and even before I heard it back, Stella told me it was the best song I wrote. So that made me feel a little better and then I heard it back.”
He said it helped informed the direction of the album because “all of a sudden there were these songs coming out in real time while I was recording in the studio.”
“The ones that came out in the studio at that time were more surprising and exciting than sitting with your songbook before you go in the studio or something,” he noted.
Vile once said in a past interview of his latest album that he “wanted to get back into the habit of writing a sad song on my couch, with nobody waiting on me. I really wanted it to sound like it’s on my couch — not in a lo-fi way, just more unguarded and vulnerable.”
“Maybe, looking back, I was trying to capture that as the last albums I had recorded in expensive studios and the songs may have been written in an intimate way but the result came off relatively slick,” Vile said. “I’m still proud of it. Songs like ‘Waking On a Pretty Day’ and ‘Society is my Friend,’ those couldn’t have come off better.
“But I feel there are certain songs that do suffer from the studio atmosphere at least where you’re not comfortable. So I wanted it to feel like I was on a couch in a familiar living room even if I was somewhere else. To me, it’s sort of that home vibe that I had to capture somehow.”
Most of all he says he “wanted to capture the song like it was really there.” One reference point for Vile is Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.” While he stressed that they didn’t set out to make it sound like that record, they “tried to make it sound like it was played there in the room.” He also says that one needs to be careful not to overmix a song.
“It’s tricky because once digital is involved you can mix it through too many things, and all of a sudden you’re overmixing things,” Vile said. “Everything sounds like it’s going through too many effects. People will mix it too long and take away from the song. I think people overthink and overmix, and I’m one of those people who overthink too. I think the faster you get the hell away the better.”
On the album, Vile continues to fine-tune his skills as a singer-songwriter and guitarist.
“It’s funny. I look back now, and I don’t know why it is, but I feel I always get better at guitar these days,” he noted. “I was thinking of how meticulous my next album is going to be with more guitar playing and whatever. Back then (for “b’lieve”) it just fell back into simplicity. It was like a retro soul reconnecting scenario or something.”
Over the years, his music has appeared on TV and film. In fact, in 2011, there was a backlash when he licensed a song for a Bank of America commercial. Some were commenting that he had sold out, but he quickly released a statement that he was only supporting his family and needed the money.
“I think that’s such a boring, outdated cliché, to sell out,” he explained. “I’m not saying I would do a commercial for a cause that’s horrific. I’m not sorry I did a commercial for Bank of America. I understand why people don’t like Bank of America. I did it and took some money for it, and at the time, it felt like the right thing to do. I’m not sorry I did it.”
Sometimes when his music is in TV shows, he says that “after awhile, when I hear my voice, it sounds different.”
“A song like ‘Pretty Pimpin’ I’m proud of, but I’ll hear it one too many times and it sounds like me from two years ago and it’s in context within a TV show – that, for a second in silence, I get slightly embarrassed for myself,” Vile said. “When I’m embarrassing myself, I don’t care what other people think. Ultimately that’s what I want: to be in TV and movies and sometimes commercials, which are not as cool, but if the price is right, I’ll do it. If I see it, it’s cool, but if I look out for it, it’s less natural.”
On a related note, Vile recently showed up in animated form on HBO’s “Animals,” where he plays himself as a “stoner squirrel” that sings and plays guitar. He recorded a song about nuts, which the squirrel Vile sings to admiring fans.
“That was fun,” he recalled. “I’m into comedy. I’m always role-playing an eternal comedy with my friends, and I like the idea of taking it to show business. But I feel like I’m a little green. I did a little acting with Jon Lovitz, for instance, for something on camera, and I feel I pretty much blew it right away. So I’m not 100 percent natural behind the camera just yet. In real life I am.”
Vile has remained busy writing new songs. He covered The Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain” with Dinosaur Jr guitarist J Mascis for the massive star-studded three-disc Grateful Dead compilation “Day of the Dead” being released in May.
“That was awesome. We did ‘Box of Rain,’ which is the first song off of ‘American Beauty,'” he says. “It’s such a uniquely beautiful song. It turned out really good. I think it was the first recording we did as a band before we were working on [b’lieve] so it was a good way to dive in and playing with J Mascis is always a good time.”
Vile says that he was invited by Aaron [Dessner] from The National several years ago to contribute to the project.
“I appreciate the Dead but when he asked me in particular I just loved the song ‘Box of Rain,'” he said. “It was funny because they were planning on doing it. The song really spoke to me so I was like, ‘If you decide not to do it, I’ll be on your comp.’ So they gave it to me.”
Over the past year, Vile has experienced many memorable moments, including playing to a sold out Sydney Opera House in Australia. He said he felt like he was “under the microscope being looked at,” but that the Australian audience was “cheering me on with a loving turn of endearment in Australian bogan accent.”
Right now, he’s looking forward to writing and recording his next album.
“I can tell you that I have a lot of new songs, and I’m thinking about my new record all the time,” Vile says. “I have a vision in my mind, but it’s still not fully baked. So I’m not ready to tell you a style. I think it will be more meticulous than this past record but at the same time on the same page of keeping it real and not over-doing it.”