Musical gatherings known as pickin’ parties are staples in the bluegrass tradition. These communal jam sessions can be found on the porches of Appalachia, or in the case of musician Kurt Vile, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Before he became an established guitar virtuoso, the first stringed instrument the Philly native picked up was a banjo.
“My dad gave me a banjo for my 14th birthday. I really wanted a guitar, but he was into bluegrass music and he convinced me to get a banjo,” Vile says. “I had a cousin who played music who I really looked up to—he ended up being my first drummer—and I think he told me it’d be cool to have a banjo, just because it was kind of unique, and so I played it like a guitar. And then a year later, the neighbors across the street gave me a guitar because they always heard us playing and jamming on the porch.”
Kurt Vile & The Violators
The Jefferson Theater
Vile creates with a specific aesthetic that’s due as much to his lyrics and vocal delivery as it is to his technical savvy. For nearly a decade, he’s built a catalog of psychedelic folk rock replete with lyrical satire, meandering jams and intricate fingerpicking. His music is primitive but cosmic; classic but mystical; riff-laden but completely dreamy. For his latest release, 2015’s b’lieve i’m goin down, he returns to his roots for a more intimate approach, incorporating the piano and even bringing back that banjo on the standout track, “I’m an Outlaw.”
“I wrote [‘I’m an Outlaw’] on my original banjo,” he says. “I was reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, which is an insanely far-out epic. It’s a profound book.”
But Vile’s outlaw isn’t your father’s fugitive. Instead, the narrator in his song is “going nowhere slow” and “on the brink of imploding alone in a crowd.”
“It was sort of Southern gothic, sort of Flannery O’Connor meets somebody just floating around in their consciousness, almost like traveling while just sitting on their couch,” Vile says. “You know, like sort of being an outlaw maybe on another dimension kind of thing. Like, you can be an outlaw but be sitting in a chair. Sort of in the way but not quite as creepy as that movie Lost Highway by David Lynch.”
Vile has a reputation for being lost in his own mind—a melancholic, stoned loner—and it’s easy to see why. But the reality is that he’s a family man with a knack for introspection and a voracious cultural palate.
“Every record, I get different obsessions and I discover what kind of record it’s gonna be,” he says. “I read plenty, but I think on [b’lieve i’m goin down] I definitely was reading obsessively and I think it was coming through.”
He’s nothing if not self-aware, and his lyrics are better for it. The album’s trippy opener and lead single, “Pretty Pimpin’,” is an anthemic identity crisis in which he goes to brush his teeth and doesn’t recognize the guy in the mirror. The punchline comes when he realizes that the “stupid clown blocking the bathroom sink” who is wearing his clothes is “pretty pimpin’.” The song was his first chart-topper, peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Adult Alternative Songs chart. It was a long time coming for 37-year-old Vile, who realized he wanted to play music for a living at the age of 17, when he produced his first tape.
“Once I laid down my first song on my friend’s brother’s four-track and I heard it back…that day, I just knew,” he says.
After a stint living in Boston and working as a forklift driver, Vile returned to Philadelphia, where he and friend Adam Granduciel formed the rock outfit The War on Drugs. The War on Drugs’ debut album came out in 2008, the same year that Vile also released his first solo album, Constant Hitmaker. Vile and Granduciel supported each other, and when Vile ultimately decided to concentrate on his solo career, Granduciel played in his backing band, The Violators. In 2009, Vile accomplished a major feat, signing to indie stalwart Matador Records.
“I used to fantasize that I was gonna be on Drag City [Records] or something,” he says. “And then I just stepped up…Pavement, who was my favorite band when I was a kid, they were on Drag City and then they went to Matador. But I just went straight to Matador.”
What followed was a slew of alternative heavy-hitters: Childish Prodigy (2009), Smoke Ring for My Halo (2011) and Wakin on a Pretty Daze (2013). B’lieve i’m goin down is his sixth studio album and fourth on Matador. It was tracked at seven different studios across the country—from Brooklyn to L.A. to Joshua Tree, California,—and features a cameo from Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa and a press bio written by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon (how’s that for street cred?). The mobile nature of Vile’s recording process is a direct reflection of where he’s landed at this point in his career —that is to say, adrift.
“I feel like these days I’m always just sort of writing songs all the time,” Vile says. “I think when I first started out writing songs, it was more like in a conventional way where I’m like, oh, okay here are the chords, now I have to fill up this grid and I’ve gotta fill up all the lyrics. And then there’d be times when I wouldn’t be writing and I’d get all stressed out and be like, well, I guess I’m washed up. But now, I sort of know it’ll come and go and I don’t mind. I don’t get stressed. I’ll just pick up a guitar wherever I am and be writing parts slowly and just take my time.”