Jo McCaughey

Music

Kurt Vile's Wisdom Has a Twang to It

In the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, cars struggle to pass through the intersection at Frankford and Girard Avenues. Depending on the time of day and any one person’s individual sense of urgency, pedestrians—some meandering, some with a sprightly spring in their step—populate the crosswalks. On an evening in early June, Kurt Vile found himself in the midst of such a crowd, headphones on, listening to his then-unannounced seventh solo album, Bottle It In, taking the songs for a test ride through his city.

Though Vile, his wife and their two young daughters primarily reside in another area of Philadelphia, he still has a house around these parts, a convenient crash pad for times like this one when their other home was undergoing renovations. Fishtown is nostalgic for Vile—with its bars, venues, the record exchange—and roaming its streets and alleys with his own music helps bring clarity to the album’s final touches. “I was left to my insane devices to finish the record,” Vile recalls, practically singing his way through “insane,” a twang on the last syllable. “Running around town blasting it in headphones, just like 'ahhhh.'”

Vile is meticulous when it comes to his records (“You can have the same exact songs on a record, but have a weird sequence and it'll change everything. It’ll fuck with people’s psyche”), his live shows (he could be “more professional” on stage, he mentions), his daily schedule (don’t ask him to use Google Calendar). Though his music is best suited for dusty roads, solitary walks, or within a plume of smoke, it takes a lot of work to sound so carefree.

His first solo album in three years—following 2015’s acclaimed b’lieve i’m goin down… and a year on the heels of his collaborative project with Australian rocker Courtney Barnett—Bottle It In was written and recorded at various studios across the country while touring or road tripping with his family. With lyrical nods to friends and kin, mental rebellions and mania, the record serves as a testament to both love and fear, progression and reflection.

Vile's songs encompass a mood, a color, a place. They can be specific, like opening track "Loading Zones," an ode to avoiding parking violations in Philly, or as amorphous as the haze over a sweltering city, like the drifty near-11 minute slow-burning title track. With riffs that build and collapse onto themselves and vocals that sing-song the listener into the chaos of Vile's mind, Bottle It In is the result of journeys lived.

But on this late September afternoon, Vile is on a brief homecoming. It’s still light outside, but in the back of Fishtown Tavern, where Vile muses about the last three years in between bites of a kielbasa sandwich, it could be any time of day. Filtered light leaks in through windows illuminating slivers of Vile’s face when he shakes his distinctive mane out of his eyes.

“How’s my hair?” he asks—and quickly answers, “Terrible! My hair’s not as good as it used to be.” Maybe it’s age or maybe it’s the shampoo, but he says his curls have seen better days. Vile used to think about age and youth at other points in his life, but he’s a father now. It doesn’t matter that he’ll be 39 in January, doesn’t do yoga as often as he should, or needs to cut out dairy from his diet;Vile is enjoying life. But it took some time to get right. “I got everything pretty well balanced these days,” he says. “In the early days of trying to figure it all out—music combined with being a father—[it] was definitely more of a struggle with all the shows. It’s not like I was an overnight sensation making a living off the bat comfortably…I feel pretty comfortable now in general, but it was insane working and being away.”

Things are going to be fine. I can't say how.

As if trying to reconcile those absences, midway through Bottle It In, Vile makes a heartfelt declaration: “Loved you all a long, long while.” Just as the sentiment could be dedicated to Vile’s intimate social network, it can just as easily be extended to the audiences at his shows, the people who buy his records. The two great loves in Vile’s life, he says, are his family and his fans—and with each album, he finds the population of the latter grows. New records are an opportunity to reach potential converts, listeners who can come to appreciate Vile’s lyrical wit, guitar prowess, meditative compositions, meandering ten-minute jams.

Vile recognizes his music may not be as pop radio-friendly as some of his peers, that his records require a few steady listens to really sink in, but his self-proclaimed reputation as a constant hitmaker has fueled an inner fire, a desire for a Tom Petty-caliber pop hit. “Back in the day, I called myself the Constant Hitmaker, and part of is funny—that's always been my sense of humor—but another part is I really had songs that were sort of pop hits,” he says, citing “Ocean City,” an acoustic folk ditty written in 2004 but opens 2010’s Square Shells.

This professional slow burn has afforded Vile as many opportunities—like a chance at true longevity —as challenges—namely the time away from family, day jobs in blue collar roles. He now gets to see the world and play festivals, but would be just as satisfied booking small clubs again.
Vile is unconcerned with the future anyway. “Things are going to be fine,” he quips. “I can't say how.” But regardless of what the next few years hold, he’d like to take some time off, to give himself a break from the endless cycle of leaving and returning. Coming home is all he’s known for the better part of a decade. But to be home, to sit in the yard under the trees with his family, drinking a cup of coffee, reveling in an empty agenda—no press, no required socializing for the naturally shy musician—that he could get used to. “Any moment like that is the best moment in my life.”

Vile doesn’t mow the lawn in his tree-filled yard, but he pays someone to. Growing up, one of his chores was handling the landscaping at his grandfather’s house in nearby Broomall, Pennsylvania. Physical labor provides an excellent opportunity to zone out, Vile says, to ignore the phone and computer screens he disdains so much. Though there are plenty of things in life to decry, to be fearful of, there are just as many reasons to forget it all.

“I'm totally terrified of things and have a lot of love in my life,” Vile says. “I'm afraid of how insane the world is right now, political unrest. All kinds of things. But I'm not afraid at this moment.”

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Allie Volpe
Allie Volpe
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