The last time I interviewed Kurt Vile, he had me help him move a stand up piano that heâd bought out in the Rockaways. This time, when I arrive at his workhouse in central Philadelphia, he remembers. âYouâre the one who did me last time, right? Cool. You can still ask me whatever you want.â For the next month or so, I would, and weâd speak both in person and over the phone, each conversation going a little bit deeper into his psyche than the previous one.
The Philadelphian is 38 years old, but he still laughs like a kid. Heâs always cracking jokes (âI love Mexican beer; Iâm a Modelo-holic!â), and he follows them with a quick snort. His whip smart brain moves quicklyâat one moment, heâll be telling you a story about playing with John Prine, then heâll reference a specific moment in a Grateful Dead documentary, then find a way to shit on Trump, and somehow make a reference to Steely Dan along the way. The overall effect isnât jarring or dizzying, though; itâs effortless and absorbing. His hair might be stretched down to the middle of his back, but thatâs the closest Vile gets to a rockstar clichĂ©. Youâll quickly realize that heâs, quite simply, a lot like you, and a lot like me, and thatâs why his music feels like itâs made for all of us.
His new record, Bottle It Inâhis seventh solo studio album, out October 12 on Matadorâis classic Vile style. You know it when you hear it, but words Iâve written and deleted while trying to describe it include âintrospective,â âpsychedelic,â âfunny,â âepic,â âdrone-y,â âheady,â âweird,â âgritty,â and, my personal favorite (for being bad), âkickass.â What this evolving, fumbling processâalong with his own fucked up, endless (and at times, oblique) descriptions of his musicâtaught me is that Vileâs art is essentially a reflection of the way life always rolls onward, a process youâve gotta cruise on a bit before you can even begin to grapple with its ups and downs. Tracks like “Bottle It In” or “Come Again” demonstrate his ability to find a groove and let it ride, amplifying whatever your current mood is. In Vileâs view of life, everythingâs a circle: The more you live, the more you understand, and the more you understand, the more your live. âItâs something flying in the sky in the weirdest way possible,â he tells me at one point, when describing himself and his creative output. âYouâre like, what the fuck is that thing trying to go forward and backward at the same time? Shoot it!â Then he laughs.
As time went on, I realized that our conversations had started reflecting that circular quality, with Vile riffing on the same reference points and subjects when talking about Bottle It In: Neil Young, the importance of experience, evolving while holding onto your roots, the weight of existence. Still, each time, it felt like he was expanding on the different ideas and thoughts that make us human. At one point, he would talk about a small mental breakdown he had while trying to pull together the album, but then would slip back into his cool, witty selfâa conversational style thatâs not too dissimilar from how he approaches songwriting. And even as we finished our final conversation, there was still a part of him that felt like he was just getting warmed up.
âI was a little foggy to explain what the hell was going on,â he tells me, referring to the first day we met up in Philadelphia. âBut now Iâm all greased up!â Then, of course, he laughs.
Noisey: Is Bottle It In the best record youâve made?
Kurt Vile: I always say that. The record before this was pretty stripped back, I guess. But this one is pretty filled up. You gotta combine everything and live it. If you know too much of whatâs gonna happenâif youâre too prepared, it becomes contrived. Sit around and rehearse with a band before you go inâthatâs ridiculous. Thatâs not real life.
I find your music to be pretty psychedelic. I love your rendition of âOutta the Woodworkâ from the collaborative album with Courtney Barnett.
Iâm dabbling back into getting into weed again. I was so anti, but now there are these vapes and these edibles, and youâre like, hey, that was cool, that wasnât so bad. [ Laughs.] That was my first song that drew me to Courtney. She loved âPeeping Tomboy.â I actually laughed when I first heard her version, because it was so good. I didnât know âOutta the Woodworkâ was going to come off so Alice Cooper, but it did in the moment. That was something else with this new album: When I went to sing, I always at least had a guitar, just in case. Thatâs what I mean by living it. You canât just say, âLetâs get a bunch of vocals.â Youâve gotta bounce off everything for it to be real.
You keep saying how youâve gotta live it.
Iâve always had that sort of approach. But it took me awhileâmaybe my 20sâto find it. But thereâs also this thing in your 20s, [where] thereâs so much inspiration that you donât even have time to analyze it. As you get older, youâll be influenced by someone like Neil Youngâor someone real raw. Youâll always find that the rawest people, the most soulful people; everything they record is pretty much live, because thatâs where it all happens.
You just opened for Neil Young. What was that like?
Amazing. In Quebec. It was in front of like 80,000 people. I know all those guys he plays with and Iâve met Neil Young a handful of times. I always get, like, one or two words in, but then people sort of protect him from me, you know? [ Laughs.] It was a good show, but I opened with that song âWheelhouseâ from the last recordâand sometimes I forget I get nervous. I flubbed one note in the beginning intro, and it twisted me and I flipped out. I just didnât move. I was about to be funny and be all over the place, but then I kind of shut down.
Is that the most people youâve played for?
That was the biggest crowd weâve ever played for. I just wanted to do right by Neil. I knew he wouldnât be watching, but his crew would be. Itâs whatever.
Did you talk to him at all up there?
Nah. Iâve only talked to him just a little bit in my life, and itâs hard to not start geeking out. I canât hide it. The first time I saw him [on tour] with Promise of the Real was in Nashville a couple years ago. It was an awesome show. I got backstage and they played âDown by the Riverââit was like a half-hour. And I saw him and I was like, âAh man, Neil, Iâve seen you ten times and weâve met a couple times, and this was the best Iâve seen you by far.â Because it was. And then I was like, âIt was like you were underground and in outer space at the same time.â And he looked at me right in the eyes and was like [adopts Neil Young accent], âWe can go to outer space whenever we want.â
“And I saw him and I was like, ‘Ah man, Neil, Iâve seen you ten times and weâve met a couple times, and this was the best Iâve seen you by far.’ Because it was. And then I was like, ‘It was like you were underground and in outer space at the same time.’ And he looked at me right in the eyes and was like [adopts Neil Young accent], ‘We can go to outer space whenever we want.'”
How has the political climate over the past couple years impacted you as an artist and musician? You have some âVile â18â signs going around as part of album promotion.
Thatâs just a funny sign, and it shouldnât take anything away [from the real issues]. Just vote. Vote against Trump. You canât ignore whatâs going on. Itâs impossible.
Does it change the way you think about your music?
It usually inspires that stuff. Itâs in all my songs. Ultimately, if youâre gonna keep making a certain kind of music, whatâs going on is going to be in your songsâor else youâre just making pop music. And I like pop music. I make pop music. But itâs a mish-mash.
Following the success of your release with Courtney Barnett and your previous solo record, do you have expectations for this record?
On the last record, I got superfans. Even a song like âPretty Pimpinââthat was my first hit single. I got followers, and we also had to learn how to play professionally. I can finally just do what I want. I know, no matter what, itâs going to be good, because I know the record is good. I donât know how every single magazine will review it, but if theyâre smart, theyâll give it a good review. But I donât care. Iâm happy with it. Itâs super musical, pretty epic, a lot more guitar solos, pretty psychedelicâand everything combined. Itâs what I do.
Did you think youâd be at this point over ten years in?
Well, Iâve always been doing it. I come from this blue collar place and blue collar upbringing. Iâm from Philly. Iâm a little bit of a paranoid person. This is my quality of music. So back then, did I know if I would still be doing it now? Back then, I was hoping someone would just fucking put my shit out already. If nobody put out my records ten years ago, Iâd probably be dead or something. [Laughs.] Iâd probably be a really dark person.
Do you feel lucky?
I know Iâm lucky. But I equally did my part. But stillâIâm lucky. Iâm in a world where I can rewrite history. Not that I would, but you can forgetâbe like, âFuck, I donât want to do this.â But thatâs not even the point Iâm trying to make. Itâs more that I donât have to hustle as much because I hustled back then. Now I can just do the press.
Where do you feel like you fit in the history of music?
Iâve done a lot of things Iâm proud of. I sat in with John Prine recently, and it was incredible. Heâs the greatest living American songwriter. I was shitting myself, but only a little. [ Laughs.] That makes me feel good, but itâs sort of on the wave weâre talking about. Iâm stoked about it, but Iâve been doing this long enough that it feels normal.
Are you an anxious person?
I certainly can be. Iâm not anxious right now, but I was anxious maybe last week, because I wanted to chill out. Itâs the world we live in, too. Iâm more of an analog person, but itâs demanded that Iâm not. In a cynical moment, I get angry because I gotta be on the computer. Like, part of being a rock star of my caliber is being good at data entry? Turn on the fucking laptop again? Itâs depressing. But itâs not. But it is.
It is. I always joke about how weâll all never reach the end of the feed.
I think that honestly, by the next record, Iâll know what makes me stressed, and itâs usually computer-related. Phones, too. Thatâs what the world is stressed about too: Static. Insane electricity everywhere. Everybody is wanting everything from everyone fast. Nobodyâs even looking at each other anymore. Itâs the root of my anxiety. Thank god my wife helps me sometimes before I freak out, but I just canât look at a screen after awhile, you know? Thatâs a big part: Just donât look at a fucking computer screen. Call somebody up.
“Thatâs what the world is stressed about too: Static. Insane electricity everywhere. Everybody is wanting everything from everyone fast. Nobodyâs even looking at each other anymore. Itâs the root of my anxiety.”
I remember life before the internet. You remember before the internet.
Thatâs part of why Iâm more bitter than ever. I remember. I was way less stressed back then.
How are you feeling about life?
Iâm happy. Iâm happy with my family. The world is terrifying and brutal, though. Nobody could imagine things would turn like this. Trumpâclearly something he likes about Putin is that heâs clearly fucking with both sides. And Trump is clearly influenced by that. Turning people against each other.
Iâll never forget Chappelleâs monologue right after Trump got elected, where he was like, âWell, we elected an internet troll.â
Thatâs it. Itâs the internet again. Itâs the computer again thatâs making everybody miserable.
Fucking computer, man.
Iâm a victim. I have people that I watchâIâll never say who they areâand Iâm like, âMan, youâre so full of it.â The screen in general makes it so you canât turn away. Itâs like Trump: Bad press is good press. Heâs got the best press in the world.
I wanna believe and be hopeful in the future.
Me too. Itâs really bad, though. Itâs beyond.
I saw you perform at BAM with John Cale at the 50th Anniversary Velvet Underground shows at the end of last year. It kicked ass.
I loved that show. It was right at the end of the Courtney Barnett tour. I went straight there. I was still flying high from touring and in that mindset. The very last thing I did on the Courtney showâthere was a soundcheckâand I made this guitar loop. So backstage, in between playing with John Cale, I wrote all these lyrics, and it turned into that âSkinny Miniâ song on the record. A couple days later I went to LA and I recorded it.
Did you know John Cale before the show?
No. I take those things head-on. He invited me, and then I was slow to respond. Sometimes I feel sort of guilty [about touring]âeven though I brought my family with me. But while I was away, I didnât know if I should do it. I get a bit homesick on the road and then Iâm not thinking. But apparently he was like, âWhat do we gotta do to get Kurt to come? We need Kurt!â [Laughs.] Heâs a badass.
If you had a chance to travel back in time, what would you tell your 19-year-old self?
I donât know man. I was so dumb. I had never been anywhere. I think about Neil Young. He played âRockinâ in the Free Worldâ when we opened recently. And in the middle of it, he was like, âFUCK YOU TRUMP.â So if Neil said it, I can just agree with Neil. We all agree with Neil. Or at least most of us.
Do you want to follow in Neilâs footsteps?
Iâm always gonna do my own version of that. Iâm a little more introverted than Neil. Also, Neil came from the hippy era to the post-hippy era. He was even into Reagan for a minute. Heâs gone through all kinds of things. Heâs a legend though. I canât do what Neil did.
No, but I also can. In my own way, in my own era. I can do it.
Thatâs how I describe you. âHe might be our generationâs Neil Young.â
Thatâs cool. I can tap into that anytime. I can go to outer space whenever I want. [Laughs.]
Are there any ways in which you feel misunderstood?
No, because Iâm just kinda past wanting to prove. I just donât think as much about that stuff anymore. Thatâs always kind of a trick question. I even feel like we talked about it last time, when I was like, âPeople better fuckinâ like the record!â And now Iâm like, yeah, sure, they better. But if they donât, theyâre just dumb. [Laughs.] If right after this I read a bunch of reviewsâtheyâre either gonna get it or not.
That makes sense. We place expectations on ourselves.
Definitely. I expect to be understood, and Iâll let you know if not. [ Laughs.] In Long Strange Trip, that doc about The Grateful Dead, they track down the lyricist Robert Hunter, and they ask him to interpret the lyrics. He spews the lyrics out, super psychedelic stuff, and heâs like, âWhat part of that is not self-explanatory?â Itâs pretty badass.
How do you feel about getting older?
Thirties are cool, but you still have a lot of the naivety of your 20s in there. So a lot of the wisdom comes in the 30sâfrom my experienceâand you get a lot of perspective. Of course, youâre a little more tired. Thereâs this movie Neil Young made called Muddy Track in like 1987, and he had just put out Life in 1987, and he was in his 40s. In some ways, heâs out of touch with something, but in others, heâs more in touch than ever. Because he lived it. That song âWhen Your Lonely Heart Breaksâ is really mellow and dark and beautiful. You couldnât deliver something that fucked up and beautiful without a certain perspective of getting older. Thereâs humor in that movieâitâs hilariousâand you wouldnât be acting quite like that if you werenât older and experienced. Thatâs one of my top inspirations for my 40s.
Does 40 feel like a big number to you?
Well, my wife just turned 40, and Iâm 38â39 in January. I wouldâve thought Iâd be more afraid of being 40, but this has honestly been […] Look, I like this time. I like this perspective. I like whatâs going on in my life. Musically, I feel in control of something. I still might have a shitty show, but even itâs shittyâin the old days, I felt like if it was shitty, itâd be shitty. Now, I feel like if itâs shitty, it still might be good, you know? Thatâs where Iâm at. Honestly, I like things to be a little bit shitty and fucked up.
This record flows back into some of your earlier, weirder, drone-y shit. Was that a purposeful decision?
Iâm always trying to get back to my roots in a weird way, while also going forward, you know? Knowing where you come fromâitâs always fun to come back, but I always want to fine tune and go ahead at the same time.
Thatâs on your way to space.
This is definitely a deep record. Iâm always wanting to put my heart on there, but this one, for once in my life, I even had a slight, you know, mental breakdown or exhaustion or whatever. I was gonna put out this record a little sooner, but this was the first time Iâd really chilled out. It was really convenient to able to do the record with Courtney, and Iâm so glad I did it; I learned so much being able to do that. But on top of it, I was going to try to get my record out sooner. But then I was like, âFuck this.â And I lived in it more. I was in and out of the studio the whole time since my last solo recordâin and out of the studio for three years. Nonstop. Living it that way. Iâm always wanting to do my best record, but I knew I really wanted to lay it on here. The only way I restrain myself is that itâs gotta be able to fit on one CD.
“Some people just stay themselves.”
Tell me about that mental breakdown.
I was just trying to do too many things and had too many things on the plate. I had the Courtney record, which was going great, and I was working on a film score. I was pretty exhausted in general. I think I was pretty down in the psyche. Drinking plenty to numb and calm me downâthe things that we all do once we get older. I think things catch up to us. I was also trying to turn in my record at the same time and I was like, âFuck this.â Again, I like to have a lot of different things going onâI learn plenty from themâbut I just had to postpone the record.
In the early days, Iâm glad I didnât; you have to keep moving. But it feels really good to think on it more. In the meantime, you just start recording all the stuff you didnât think you were going to record anyway. Ultimately stuff gets a little better all the time anyways. Just keep doing what youâre doing, just donât fuckinâ rush to the pressing plant if you can get away with it.
Do you feel a desire to stay âcoolâ or âhipâ or whatever, and do you think about the way you and your music are perceived?
I do think about that. And I feel more inspired than ever. My style of music, even from the first recordâIâm always trying to make it hypnotic and catchy in its own weird way, even if itâs long. Even if itâs fucked up. Iâve read the arc of many a rock bioâitâs in my brains, you know?âso I think about that concept often: When people fall off or whatever. Sometimes they donât fall off; sometimes they do and make a comeback. But I feel like thatâs my style of musicâto always bring me in and bring others in as well. Whoâs to say that once Iâm 50, I wonât fall out of touch for a second? I donât know. I think about someone like John Prine, [whoâs] always been a sincere songwriter. Some people just stay themselves.
Itâs gotta feel good to be at a point in your career where you are afforded the luxury of time.
Totally. But I still love the Neil Young thingâputting tons of things out. Thatâs another way I feel like Iâve gone back to my roots. With Constant Hitmaker [in 2008], I had so many home recordings and I could put all the best ones on there. And Iâm sort of in that place with all my new material. I could start putting out multiple EPs while Iâm sitting back. I like the idea of waiting, but I also like the idea that all the sudden thereâs gonna be a shitload of KV EPs coming out. Weâll see. [Laughs.]
Adam Mignanelli is a senior design director at VICE. Follow him on Instagram.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.