Friendly foe: Kurt Vile pulls dark lyrics from a light heart

Solo act Kurt Vile takes an enlightened approach to writing his dark, sometimes comical, psychedelica founded in a blues gospel tradition. Publicity photo. Solo act Kurt Vile takes an enlightened approach to writing his dark, sometimes comical, psychedelica founded in a blues gospel tradition. Publicity photo.

Prepare to have yet another of your rock star illusions dismissed. Kurt Vile is a pretty happy guy.

Vile’s dark, sometimes raunchy lyrics belie the upbeat, irreverent manner that was on full display in his recent phone interview with C-VILLE. At one point in the talk, during which he was headed backstage for a show, Vile said out of nowhere, “Mountain Dew.” No, it wasn’t some psychedelic non sequitur or euphemism. He was just excited about an ice-cold bottle of soda that someone offered him.

But there is one thing that rankles Vile. He’s often defined by the media through his longtime friend Adam Granduciel’s band, The War on Drugs. So while his solo career took off in 2011 when his fourth full-length studio album Smoke Ring for My Halo charted on the Billboard 200, Vile had been making music alone in his living room since long before backing Granduciel.

Touring on his current critically acclaimed LP, Wakin on a Pretty Daze, Vile is bringing his solo act, along with his band, The Violators, to the Jefferson Theater on July 19.


C-VILLE Weekly: React to the following phrase: middle school band.

Kurt Vile: “Classic. Marching band, jazz band, concert band—yes. In fourth grade, there was a demonstration on instruments. They played the trumpet, and it seemed cool cause there were only three valves. I played it all through elementary school, middle school, and up through 11th grade. I quit a couple of times. It wasn’t like I sat home and practiced much. I was a natural, but sometimes it was like, ‘aw fuck, I have to go after school to band practice.’ You’re young and self-conscious, and the trumpet was kind of dorky. Girls would ask me to play, and I would get paranoid that they were staring at me.”


There are a lot of people staring at you now. How would you define what they’re looking at?

“Kurt Vile—a fucking guitarist, solo musician, songwriter. Music is what I do. It’s what I love. I love so much other music around me. I breathe it. I am always listening to it, I’m always thinking about it. I’ve been doing my solo thing for a long time. Forget The Violators and The War on Drugs. Just think of me and Adam jamming in his house, recording, being tight bros, developing styles together, having like-minded philosophies. We were just in the city, talking about how we know what’s going on and everybody else doesn’t—young kids honing in on this unique thing.”


How do you go about writing songs?

“I can’t really explain. I pick up my guitar and play. It’s just me. I’ve played my whole life. Somewhere along the way, I found my own voice. I’ve been doing it so long at this point that it’s just my personality. It’s not a stage act. It is totally zen. It’s like walking down the street. But it’s not like I just pick up my guitar and write lyrics right away necessarily.”


So you typically start with a riff and then write lyrics?

“I pick up my guitar and make shit up as I go. Some people want this like exact thing, but it’s not that way.”


I think of your lyrics as being like a movie trailer. You offer just enough of what you’re thinking about to keep us interested.

“It’s not like I tell a story from beginning to end. It’s more introspective, but I guess relatable, when it is some kind of depressing—or non-depressing—sentiment. Then I move on to more psychedelic imagery.”


The song “Society is My Friend” always interested me. What was the process behind writing it?

“I had a dark riff in one of my signature open tunings, and it just came out: ‘Society is my friend/it makes me lie down in a cool blood bath.’ It sounds dark and poetic but a little funny too, in a dark comedy kind of way. But it’s also a subconscious thing from listening to music. It sounds like, ‘society is a hole/it makes me lie to my friends,’ which is from a Sonic Youth song. They got it from a Black Flag song.”


I hear a lot of religious references in your songs. What’s the source of that?

“I don’t know how many religious references there are on the new record, but I grew up in a religious family. Plus, there is the blues-gospel tradition. That’s just like the earliest music: people in the fields, singing gospel. It’s a traditional thing. But everybody—Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen —references religion. And it’s a little more than that because I was surrounded by it my whole life.”


You’re clearly a student of music.

“I study just naturally. Everyone in my band is always listening to music and talking about it, but it’s not like we have this roundtable discussion. We all have that sort of idea that this is what we’re supposed to be doing.”


Does it ever feel less natural and more like a job? What are your thoughts about music sales these days?

“You have to play the game and adapt to new times. It’s fine for someone like Neil Young to say giving a song to a commercial cheapens it, because he has sold millions of records. No disrespect to him, but you do what you have to do. I never experienced the ’90s where records were selling like crazy.”


I think a lot of people in Charlottesville’s music scene can relate. Are you familiar with the city?

“We’ve been there twice, and it was awesome. The first show was better; the next time we just kind of set up and played. This time should be generally a well-oiled rock show with peaks and valleys, a couple of climaxes.”


Kurt Vile & The Violators  The Jefferson Theater, July 19