‘I was super excited,” Kurt Vile says, legs bouncing as he perches on the edge of an orange chair. “Just grateful for the gig.” The singer-songwriter speaks from the basement of his century-old Philadelphia home, relaxing in the corner of the studio he designed as a hideout when he’s overwhelmed or nervous. “I hadn’t played for so long,” he explains.
Vile talks about the time in November 2020 when Seth Meyers asked him to perform John Prine’s Speed of the Sound of Loneliness on his talk show. It would be the first time anyone had performed live on the show in eight months, due to the pandemic, and Vile relished the challenge. Vile is a follower of Prine, as is Meyers, and that would also serve as a tribute: Prine had died of Covid seven months earlier.
But the dream soon turned into a nightmare. As a car took Vile to New York, his back began to throb. At the TV studio, the makeup artist stood on the other side of the dressing room door and instructed her on how to apply blush. Additionally, Vile had decided to change the song’s tempo from his usual trot to make it his own, speeding up some passages and slowing down others. However, as he rehearsed alone backstage, he feared he might make a mistake. When the show aired the next day at Thanksgiving, her fears were confirmed. “People said I just slaughtered that song, that John was rolling in his grave.” Vile lets out a soft laugh, leaning back so far in his chair that he almost disappears. “I felt like I let John Prine down. I spiraled.
That night, Vile escaped family Thanksgiving celebrations and fell into an all-consuming spell of self-doubt, playing the guitar and working through his despair on his own. By the time he went to bed he had written Like Exploding Stones, a candid take on his own failures. Synthesizers relax as he strums his strings, slowly singing simpler times while brooding over performance anxieties and the pressures of life in the public eye. “It was”, he says, “an exorcism”.
Vile – still lean and fresh at 42, with a childlike sense of momentum – has specialized in carefree stoner jams full of melodious banter for nearly two decades now. Although written in the first person, its inscrutable songs have long felt resistant to easy interpretation, so the candor of Like Exploding Stones is a game-changer. The slow-burning seven-minute song, recorded as Vile’s band jammed to the tape he made that night, is the lead single from (watch my moves), his first album in four years and his most staff to date.
It was also his major label debut, recorded in the home studio he built with money from Verve Records. It’s a bold departure from someone who poses as a perpetual teenage skateboarder, dressed in flannel and a Cate Le Bon t-shirt, with his basement shower full of skateboards and guitars. “I can be in the bullring,” he says, comparing himself to Willie Nelson or Bob Dylan. “I know I have the ability, the chops, the songs. And I like the idea of having songs on the pop charts, of connecting with people. I have these abilities. But can he do all this and retain his specialness, while dealing with the anxieties that these opportunities can bring?
Vile talks about his music with intensity and is frustrated when his upbeat songs are seen as thrown away: he thinks his latest record, 2018’s Bottle It In, has been misunderstood, the complexity overlooked. “It was a deep album. I get so deep and work so hard. I want to blow minds. It gives off a high-pitched, mischievous laugh that’s more like a howl. “I very rarely let music through that could be embarrassing, which I’m not wildly proud of.”
Making records became Vile’s raison d’être soon after his father, a bluegrass enthusiast, gave him a banjo for his 14th birthday. He skipped college and moved from suburban Philadelphia to downtown, earning a living through various jobs while compiling tapes and recording with his friends and roommates, The War on Drugs. Shortly after their 2008 debut, Vile left these psychedelic rockers at heart and signed with Matador, his career bubbling as indie music spilled over into the mainstream. When Matador asked him for a single after being there for over five years, Vile wrote Pretty Pimpin. “I was trying to write a hit song,” he says, “and I did.” The song has now had 92 million Spotify streams. “I’ve touched this area enough to know I can go back. I want to do that with every song now, in different ways.
Vile felt he had reached a plateau within indie, where each new record was released much like the last. “It’s always a small step,” says Vile, who avoids eye contact by staring at the ground until he lands on a spot he likes, like he does now. “I put everything I have into all my records and at the end of it I’m exhausted. How many times can I do this without trying something new?”
After Vile took part in a Velvet Underground tribute on Universal affiliate Verve, the executives there asked about his plans. Barely 40 and at the end of his contract with Matador, he felt the time was right to jump in, not least because Verve’s extended family included the Velvets, as well as Alice and John Coltrane. “I’ve always been a hustler, thinking ahead,” he says. “It was an opportunity for me to see what had happened.”
On March 11, 2020, Vile met with his longtime manager, Rennie Jaffe, in Philadelphia to sign his new contract and celebrate. Later that night, Donald Trump announced a travel ban, in response to Covid. Despite Vile’s ambitions, this sudden hiatus and the cancellation of her upcoming tour has brought a whiff of relief. The musician had struggled for years with what he calls the “ping pong psyche”, thinking more about what was next than what was happening now. Part of him yearned for the kind of home stability the pandemic provided.
Stuck in Philadelphia, Vile developed a routine, aided by the fact that he had quit drinking the previous year (and smoking weed, more or less). He was in bed at 10 p.m. and up at 7 a.m. to drink coffee and read to music before recording until the evening. His daughters – Delphine, nine, and Awilda, 11 – studied upstairs with their mother, Suzanne Lang, Vile’s wife of nearly 20 years. His world has become smaller. “We have such beautiful trees here,” he says. “I just started thinking about them.”
Vile used Verve funds to turn his basement into his dream studio, dubbed OKV Central. The studio is an extension of Vile’s already musical home: In an upstairs room, an organ and piano sit surrounded by books, records and sketchbooks. Stacks of albums and cassettes fill every corner of the basement, the walls serving as sanctuaries for bands Vile loves: Neil Young box sets, Dinosaur Jr setlists, ZZ Top tapes, liner notes from Silver Jews. Vile snaps a photo of rapper Schoolly D and beams, “Philly pride!
This continuum between work and family life fuels the new songs, which are faith-based in a way Vile has rarely been. Despite its bluster about success and stardom, (Watch My Moves) is intimate and unguarded, a domesticity record in the age of the pandemic. “Write about what you see around you,” he croons over string beauty Chazzy Don’t Mind. “Children and flowers / And days for hours.” The lyrics evoke children’s toys on the windowsill, favorite records on the stereo, new growth in old gardens. His brother Sam and nephew Coda star in the video for Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone), while his daughters flank their father – hidden behind an alligator mask, naturally – on the album cover.
Vile laments global crises during Jesus on a Wire, a charming country number. Playing the guitar at home, he concludes, might be all he can do to help now. He agrees it’s his “back to basics” record, acknowledging that the next step – going on tour to promote it – may not be easy.
“I’m finally thriving here in the woods making music on my own,” he said later over the phone, three days into the band’s practice. He slips outside for the first time since rehearsals began and adds: “But in reality, I’m about to plunge back into those crazy times, with all their anxieties.” As his voice trails off, he notes that the weather is great, though he doesn’t know if it will be for long.