Kurt Vile on Sonic Magic, Nine-Minute Songs, and Gary Numan
The term "singer/songwriter" conjures images of musicians lounging in coffeehouses while strumming open chords on classically tuned acoustic guitars to overly earnest lyrics.
But since leaving his band War on Drugs to go solo, Kurt Vile has consistently subverted the stereotype with experimental atmospherics. This signature sonic approach can be heard as early as his first full-length, 2008's Constant Hitmaker, which opens with sparkling electronics that rise up from the ether, only to be drowned out by a rapidly clacking drum machine before a delicately distorted guitar takes over.
Over the course of five albums, Vile's knack for fascinating soundcraft has never faltered. And far from being some hippie dullard (yet reserved enough to avoid the overwhelming din of neo-psychedelic rock), the 33-year-old remains impossible to predict. On his latest record, 2013's Walkin on a Pretty Daze, he has evolved again, exploring longer, ambling compositions while finding new ways to add aural decoration.
Asked about particular effects, such as the spectral flute-like tones on "Baby's Arms" — the opening track of his breakthrough 2010 album, Smoke Ring for My Halo —Vile details the techniques and equipment used to achieve this sonic magic.
However, he admits, they are not always his ideas. "I'm kind of jealous of certain bandmates I have," Vile says, "like Jesse [Trbovich] and Rob [Laakso] and my old bandmate Adam [Granduciel]. They can sit there and get a tone in the moment, especially out of an amp or something, whereas my brain just goes on lockdown, and I'll just be like, 'Aww, this amp is broken.' "
Three years after the success of Smoke Ring, he seems to have grown more at ease with the writing process. His songs wander more organically, and the new album contains some of his longest tracks.
"I do feel comfort," Vile says. "And who lately has opened with a nine-minute song that is hypnotic and sort of like a pop song where it doesn't feel that long? I was just thinking with a wider spectrum lately — just playing riffs that are so good you could just bob your head and get lost in that sort of Neil Young way."
As for other, lesser-known influences, he points to the electronic New Wave tuneage of Gary Numan. "I mean, everything is an influence, but Gary Numan — and in particular 'Are Friends Electric?' — I got obsessed with that shit right into coming from a long tour. I was in Amsterdam in this bar, where they had this good DJ, and there was no one there, but I was in the right frame of mind."
The Numan effect emerges in Vile's "Air Bud," which features electronic beeps and tones triggered, like those flute-like tones in "Baby's Arms," by his guitar picking. "It was kind of through osmosis," he notes, discussing the similarity. "Just the way to look at things... to kinda open your mind to see what happens, but never direct thievery. It's more like an idea."
One has to wonder what influence the Magic City will have on Vile. "I'm very excited to come to Miami," he says. "My friend Brian McKinley, who is the guitar player from RTX and Black Bananas, said he went to Miami and it changed his life.
"I'll keep an open mind. I think we'll have a blast. I welcome everybody to show us a good time. We're gonna pull every stop we gotta pull."
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