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Kurt Vile: "Life is beautiful and terrifying and hilarious"

Kurt Vile is carving out his own naughty niche with dodgy parking advice...
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Published: 1:37 pm, October 15, 2018Words: Liam Konemann.
Kurt Vile: "Life is beautiful and terrifying and hilarious"

In Philadelphia, Kurt Vile parks for free.

"If you know a loading zone and you know exactly what you want to do, you can be in and out in twenty minutes and often get away without having a ticket, you know?" he laughs. Kurt Vile laughs a lot. That beyond chill, ‘so laid back he's practically horizontal' persona of his is no rock star affectation.

Kurt's parking strategy has come up for discussion off the back of his track ‘Loading Zones', the opening song on his upcoming seventh solo album ‘Bottle It In'. The song is about parking in loading zones, naturally, and about knowing your town so intuitively that you develop a kind of geographical shorthand. Kurt originally wrote it during sessions for previous album ‘b'lieve i'm goin down...', but thinks the track needed time to grow into itself.

"It's classic rock-ish, but it's got a sort of punk acoustic delivery-swagger," he says. "It would've come off differently a couple of years ago, so it needed to grow into this sort of FM-rock, classic-rock delivery mixed with a little psychedelia. All that kind of thing."

In conversation, like in his songs, Kurt Vile is not bound by the conventional rules of language. He throws adjectives and nouns all in together, using one in place of the other to create an entirely original turn of phrase. Sentences are abandoned midway in favour of something more accurate, or simply absorbed into the statement following behind. Having slipped out from underneath the rules of grammar, he manages to say exactly what he means, but not at all what you were expecting. It's fluid, or maybe in transit, just like many of the tracks on ‘Bottle It In'.

"I'm always writing songs here and there, they accumulate. But I travelled a lot for this record; I'd go into the studio straight from tour for a day or so, sometimes by myself, sometimes with a band," Kurt says. "Go on trips in between or combine different things, like tour into the studio, into meeting my family, into travelling across the country and back into the studio. Combining all things, not compartmentalising as much, keeping it all like everyday life. It's like waking up or something…"

"The moments you're the most stressed are because you can't imagine what's going to happen on the other side"
Kurt Vile

The record's perpetual motion is underpinned by a slight neurosis, not from the claustrophobia that sometimes precedes the need to travel, but from the act of travelling itself. For a while there, Kurt was terrified of flying.

"Forget the statistics, but just the fact that you're literally up in the air so if anything went wrong you're five miles high or whatever, and then people are like ‘well you know you're more likely to die in a car', and you're like ‘well guess what, I'm used to being in a car!'" He laughs. "That very much explains the recording process too. Like ‘Hysteria', I was on the way to LA to do a recording session, and I had the basic chords of ‘Hysteria' written, and the first verse and those lines came pretty quick in the moment," he says.

As the name suggests, ‘Hysteria' captures his fear of flying with woozy guitars, a glockenspiel ticking off the seconds as Kurt daydreams about being dropped off "somewhere on the side of a cloud". These moments of fear, he has noted, are when you most want to tell the people you love that you love them in case it's the last time you leave them behind. But, he says, the terror also heralds the arrival of possibility.

"There's another song that kind of captures the recording vibe-slash-mood, slight panic mode. I talk about being on the plane in ‘Cold Was the Wind' as well. ‘On a plane, I'm drinkin' red wine, cause like everybody else I'm afraid to die, did I mention I'm afraid of dying?'," he quotes, laughing at himself.

"The plane is kind of scary, and it takes me a lot to get the hell out of my zone, to get out of my home and switch over. I'm getting better at it. But I think that those moments are kind of cool because also on the plane it's a peak moment where you're on the way to somewhere else, to some kind of new beginning no matter what you do because you've got to figure it out on the other side.

"Usually the moments you're the most stressed are because you can't imagine what's going to happen on the other side, but at the same time, there's going to be something new that can be often rewarding. But you gotta work for it, you know?"

While it seems like the record is preoccupied with movement and transition at every level, Kurt doesn't think it's necessarily about leaving places or mindsets behind. Not entirely, at least.

"I think another part of my music is staying somewhere like a temple, like a couch," he says. "Sometimes it's about when you get somewhere and finally just totally…" he trails off, one description mentally colliding with the next. "Whether it be the couch in my sunroom where my records are, or the beach, sometimes it's the opposite, you know? Sometimes it's about not wanting to move at all and having that luxury for a moment."

"Most of my songs are just a running gag of some sort"
Kurt Vile

Songs like ‘Loading Zones', his hometown ode, are points of permanence on an album in flux. The fingerpicked ‘Mutinies' also has deep roots, with the first verse dating back to his teenage years. The song cropped up again during sessions for ‘b'lieve i'm goin down…' then went back on the shelf, finally finding a home on the second half of this album.

"One of my earliest best friends who I played music with, John Newman, I recorded a demo of that first verse on his four-track," says Kurt. "He taught me how to fingerpick, and he died of cancer in our early twenties, so that was a chapter closed, and moving on. You know, I come back to songs often, and I kept coming back to that riff, and I added some more up to date lyrics like ‘the small computer in my hand explodin'' you know, that's life today..."

The thought carries him away, and he riffs on it, following it down the rabbit hole before coming back, as he says he always does, to his roots. "Scrambled eggs for brains, spitting brains, look down to do a specific thing and do it from your phone, forget about it, you just forget what you're doing. Things coming at every angle, you got news coming from your phone, like mandatory murder TV straight to the brain," he muses.

"I think in general I'm always thinking about my roots, referencing my roots and recurring riffs and lyrics and also moving forward. It's about trying to get across how you've grown, but it's important to stick to your roots as well. Trying to do something new at the same time, that nobody else has quite done, but I think the key is you gotta have an underbelly of roots."

In some ways, ‘Bottle It In' is cyclic, always heading home but taking the long way around. Kurt knows where he's come from, treating his past with respect and never losing sight of it. Like ‘Mutinies', ‘One Trick Ponies' is a tribute to his roots through a connection to his friends - this time with a sense of rolled-eyed affection.

"Basically, at the start, it's about friends, but it's also comedic. People like me, I like to tell the same joke over and over again, and to certain types of personalities it annoys them more every time, and I like that, but to other people, it becomes a little funnier every time," Kurt says.

"It's partly comedy, partly a love letter to my friends. Mainly I'm thinking about anyone in my life that is gone, or here but that I don't talk to as much, or who's dead, but it's also just about life. Music."

In his own eyes, at least, Kurt is something of a one-trick pony himself. "Most of my songs are just a running, recurring gag of some sort, you know?" He says.

It's essential to the process. Without the humour, the fear and neurosis take over. Besides that, sometimes when people take themselves too seriously, it becomes a pantomime, making it difficult to take them seriously at all. It's kind of unrealistic, Kurt says.

"Life is both. Life is terrifying as well, all those things, beautiful and terrifying and hilarious and I always thought it was important. Someone like Nick Cave... I'm sure that he can be funny, but also he can be very profound and dramatic, and he's somebody who I believe every word from, but other people... I can smell when some people take themselves too seriously," he says. "And I take myself plenty seriously, but there's a lot of humour in life, and I just love humour as a release, you know?"

Despite its name, then, ‘Bottle It In' might be more about letting it out.

Taken from the November issue of Dork. Kurt Vile's album 'Bottle It In' is out now.

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