Up and Down, All the Time: Kurt Vile's Victory
With his sixth record 'b'lieve i'm goin' down,' the Philadelphia singer-songwriter looks to break into the mainstream. We spent a day helping him move a piano to see if it's possible.
All photos by Jessica Lehrman
"I've gotten better at interviews," Kurt Vile says between sips of a beer. But he's not talking to me; he's talking to his brother, Paul, over the phone. It's a late weeknight and I've just spent the day with the 35-year-old. We're drinking beers now—he's enjoying a Guinness, and I a Budweiser. Even though we're in a trash dive bar in Greenpoint that probably violates multiple health codes, these beers taste especially good. Because we spent the day sweating. A lot.
"Yeah man, and I'm smarter now," as Vile says this he winks, and then laughs—well, not laughs, but gives more of a little chuckle, what I'd come to label in my head as the Vile Smile through our day together. And the Vile Smile goes something like this: It launches out of the side of his mouth as he kind of inhales while exhaling, moving his lips like he's chewing on a piece of gum, the laughter crawling out before he can finish whatever he's saying. It sounds a bit like he's slurping from a straw, and his shoulder also twitches, uh, a lot. "I'm like, OK, you wanna interview me?" He continues. "I'm gonna move this piano at Rockaway Beach. You can help me do that."
Oh yeah, the piano. That's part of this story, I guess, because about seven hours before these beers, Kurt was ordering me around a baby stand up piano, shoving it across some wood floor we didn't want to scratch (Don't worry: We didn't).
But for now, this is a story about Kurt Vile, a self-proclaimed constant hitmaker and childish prodigy from Philadelphia, a man whose hair reaches down to the middle of his back, a man whose music is comfortable and familiar yet somehow challenging, a man who's found himself at a crossroads of such with his career. Vile's music demonstrates that he understands the nuances of the human condition—or at least has grips on why we all go up and down so much—in ways that many contemporary artists don't even pretend to, creating muddling music that will have you staring at your shoes in an effort to understand why you have to wear shoes. "Life is mortal," he says. "There are all these rewards and consequences. Sometimes you embrace them and sometimes they knock you over. I think everybody feels it and goes up and down all the time." He trails off. "Maybe I go down harder than others."
Vile's just released his opus: a record called b'lieve i'm goin' down, a culmination of everything that'd defined Kurt Vile until this moment, to seemingly much acclaim. The album's received critical praise from all the important people—Pitchfork gave it "Best New Music," The New York Times wrote that it's filled with "aw-shucks charm" and "poignant sadness," and Grantland dedicated thousands of words investigating if this record would "take him to the next level." On tour now, he recently sold out back-to-back nights at New York City's legendary Webster Hall, a feat he says he knew he'd always do, but didn't ever actually know if he'd do it. "I always dreamed of playing there," he says, before telling me a story about once driving from Philadelphia to New York for an Animal Collective concert in 2007. "There was electricity in that venue. I wanted that. I needed that."
Now, he's arrived, both at Webster Hall and with a potentially mainstream record and, it seems, everything is going well. Right? Well, maybe.
The narrative of how b'lieve i'm goin' down came together isn't much different than previous Vile releases. But the pressure on this record is higher than ever before. Five years ago, the idea that Vile could represent indie rock in the mainstream would be quite the claim to make—his early records were almost unlistenable at times because of their stubbornness to remain gritty and purposefully sound like they were recorded for a CD-R. But with his previous two albums Smoke Ring for My Halo and Wakin' on a Pretty Daze and, of course, b'lieve i'm goin' down, Vile's cleaned up his act, presenting a sound that's just as sophisticated, but more listener friendly. Just listen to the catchy-yet-self-conscious fever dream that is "Pretty Pimpin."
"Every record does a little bit better for me," Vile says. "I'm glad I have that song, because I needed one banger that could hopefully be played a lot on the radio."
It's been painted as a darker record than we're used to, mainly because he recorded it late at night, but my ears hear something that's more mature and smartass. Vile's music thrives on juxtaposition, and isn't that the most human feeling? "Sometimes I talk too much but I gotta get it out," he sings on "Wheelhouse," "but I don't wanna talk, I only wanna listen." Vile, like all great post-modern writers, emphasizes the monotony we face with daily existence, bouncing back and forth of feeling fantastic and feeling like you want to die, depending on which side of the bed you rolled out of (even if it was the same side as yesterday). He tells me that he has more than two records worth of material. "I recorded a lot because I want this record to fucking destroy."
Moreover, Vile's roots align with another recent successful rock 'n' roll story (something that feels weird to type in the current era of music), The War on Drugs, a band who catapulted to major success after their 2014 critically-acclaimed release Lost in the Dream. The group's principal songwriter and frontman Adam Granduciel is a former member of Vile's backing band The Violators, and he and Vile spent much of their twenties together, trapping themselves in houses and bars and studios in Philly, recording and making music and being creative. This was the era when Vile was cocky, using that phrase "constant hitmaker," and playing the best guitar in the city. In 2011, after Granduciel's band found a little bit of early success, the two parted ways as they wanted to focus on their own projects. According to Vile—who told me this directly multiple times in our interviews and to numerous other publications over the last couple years—there is no bad blood. That's clear. The two are still friends and he speaks very highly of Granduciel's success ("He's even dating someone famous!"). It seems like two friends who've seen each other's potential, to a certain extent, realized. You can't help but be happy for someone you care about, right?
But on this late summer night in early September, and maybe this is due to the three or four beers we've ingested in a faster pace than I'm used to, when Vile speaks about Granduciel and his success and how the War on Drugs have become as much of a household indie rock name as you can become (the same week Vile will sell out two nights at Webster Hall, Granduciel's band will sell out Radio City Music Hall, a venue twice Webster Hall's size), it's easy to see there's… something there. I won't call it jealousy, because it clearly isn't. It's more of a longing. "I was so happy for [The War on Drugs], but it kind of fucked with my psyche. I was always kind of blue collar guy; I had to find my niche. I just didn't know my path because it was such a lo-fi, psychedelic, stubborn thing. I don't think my fucking psyche is ready to hit the majors. And I don't think I have to. Things can grow really fast. One day I'd love to play a stadium—and maybe one day I'll have it all together. But I feel like I have to fuck up in front a thousand people; that's part of the charm."
Earlier in the day, we're flying down the highway from Rockaway Beach to Greenpoint in the self-proclaimed "KV van" with a piano strapped in the back we'd spent about an hour trying to move. The van, which Vile used to tour in, is full of pretty much every cliché you'd imagine a musician has—cassette tapes, CDs, CD-Rs, empty plastic bags, a few pairs of old Converse shoes, guitar pedals. It smells like a record store, but one that specializes in used vinyl with an owner who's old as hell and probably makes no money. To make this alt-rock fantasy come to life even more, there's a pile of books on the backseat. On top? Michael Azerrad's legendary tale of 80s rock, Our Band Could Be Your Life.
Vile sits behind the wheel, a rare moment of wearing shorts (well, cut off jeans). He's wearing a blue trucker hat and bright red socks that stretch up his legs. No sunglasses. Between bites of a packed lunch of potato salad and a sandwich, he tells stories about recording b'lieve i'm goin' down in Los Angeles with producer Rob Schnapf—a dude known for working with alt legends like Beck, Elliott Smith, and more. "I'd record all night, for hours on end, until it was perfect" he says. "I always want to prove something. I always up myself. In the moment, I'm feeling so cocky, rightfully, but then you'll sit with a record forever and you just won't know and you'll second-guess yourself."
We joke about the idea of a band selling out, or how it's possible to make money these days. He tells a story of an unnamed peer who took a lot of money to have their music appear in a commercial. I unfairly assumed that Vile is someone who'd loathe the idea of corporate America, simply because, from a distance, he seems to be a dude who'll happily say fuck the man. Turns out, he's also a dude who'll happily take the man's money. Does Vile hope this record makes him rich? Does Vile even want to be rich?
"I like the idea of having money. I don't have a big house but I want one. Maybe I'll get one if I fucking feel like it!" He laughs, and then adopts a fake commercial announcer voice: "Coca Cola is really bad for you, but it's delicious and I don't care!"
Listening to directions from his iPhone, he's a surprisingly great driver (something he'll really prove later while parking this monster van in an overpopulated Brooklyn neighborhood). The soundtrack for our drive is Grouper's most recent record, Ruins, an awfully melancholy choice for a sunny afternoon. He doesn't care. He "fucking loves" it.
I ask about the piano, assuming there was some sort of special or mythical story behind it, about why he had to drive to New York get my ass out there to help him move it.
"Eh, not really," he says. "It's from like 1910 or something. I like the way it sounds. And once I get my head stuck on something, I need it. I'm just kinda like that, kinda weird like that."
Maybe b'lieve i'm goin' down will actually be Vile's moment. Back in the bar, I ask him if he thinks the record will do well.
"I hope it does well," he Vile Smiles again in a way that's both sheepish and charming. You'd think, listening to his music, that Vile would be the kind of person who wouldn't want to talk much—somebody who's just always avoiding eye contact, looking for an excuse to get out of a conversation, an introvert. But it's truly the opposite. Vile is warm and welcoming, asking you as many questions as you ask him. (After a couple more beers, he'll start prying me on the inner-workings of music journalism; I assure him it's something he's not interested in). "You know, I think it will do a little bit well. I know that. There's definitely… a feeling in the air," he says, before trailing off. I go to ask another question and he stops me, wanting to finish his thought. "I don't want to jinx it too much."
I don't buy it, and tell him so, suggesting that it's obvious he'll be mad if the album doesn't sell well and say he doesn't need to worry about being humble in this conversation.
"OK, fine. If every song sounded like 'Pretty Pimpin,' I would tell you that—unless this world is rigged—this record is going to be a smash," he says, before leaning over and proclaiming directly the recorder and the three other people on the other side of the bar. "If it doesn't do well, I'll be pissed! I'll be pissed!" He takes a victory sip of his beer and leans back in his chair. "In my later twenties, I got freaked out for a second that I wouldn't make it, but look at me now." He laughs. "How'd I get through that? I don't know. I wrote some of my best shit ever."
At one point, I suggest his music will amplify any mood. If you're happy, it will make you cheery. If you're sad, it will make you depressed. He carefully pauses and looks up before he responds: "I've never heard anyone describe it that way." Then he says something he's told me multiple times throughout the day: "Man, I go up and down all the time."
But to quote a lyric from "That's Life, tho (almost hate to say it)," a song from the record that encapsulates our conversation: "That's life, though," right?
He continues: "This [record] is going to be as much of a projection of my true self and my inner monologue. It comes off melancholy a lot—but that's just when I write music. I'm not going to say I was in a dark place. Love is intense and sadness is intense. My favorite kind of song is the most beautiful song that you love so much and it's so good it makes you want to cry a little bit. Any jam can sound like that on a certain day."
Vile stops talking and looks at me, wiping his curly hair from his eyes and face with both hands. At this point, after a day full of moving a goddamn piano and sweating way too much and thinking about what his life's work means, I can't help but also want this record to fucking destroy. Kurt Vile is, in a lot of ways, every person I've ever known who's busted their ass in order to make it.
To what, exactly? I guess that remains to be seen.
"I feel good right now," he says, and Vile Smiles one last time. "I'm also a little drunk. I'm having fun. It must be the alcohol!"
Eric Sundermann is the managing editor of Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.
Jessica Lehrman is a photographer based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Instagram.