We’ve Got A File On You: Kurt Vile

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Kurt Vile — the beloved and reliable purveyor of a hazy, zoned-out, weirdo brand of classicist rock — is back with his first album in four years. His first release for Verve after a fruitful stint with Matador, (watch my moves) finally arrives this week, supplying a whole of Kurt Vile-ness after that long wait. While Vile’s stuck to the same core sound he’s been refining and turning over a few years, there’s something about (watch my moves) that feels quintessentially him. Maybe it’s that he made a good chunk of it at home, thus returning to an older style of recording for him; maybe it’s the fact the album languidly sprawls out over 15 tracks until it feels like a long, deep hang.

On the occasion of (watch my moves), we caught up with Vile about his new album, and lots of other odds and ends from across his career — from voicing cartoon squirrels to collaborating with peers and heroes alike to getting a goddamn parade thrown for him in his hometown of Philly. Read our conversation below.

(watch my moves) (2022)

(watch my moves) is your first full-length album in several years, and it’s also your major-label debut. But at the same time you also made a lot of it in your new home studio, and you’ve spoken about how it was a return to an older style of making music for you. Was there any sort of conscious mindset going into that, knowing it was a set of firsts?

KURT VILE: Definitely a new chapter. The beauty was I was also — before I knew we were going to be stuck at home, etc. — I was working towards this anyway. I think the new energy from Verve… it wasn’t like we were shopping around to the highest bidder. They were genuine fans and they approached us about making a record. All those things combined, I just wanted to come out swinging. I always want to come out swinging. But something about all those natural elements coming together and thinking of the best way to build my studio up into hi-fi and put all my energy into being comfortable at home. Just being able to have access to the way I used to work, but in more classy hi-fidelity. Being happy in my new neighborhood. All those natural elements. All natural energy. Just keeping it organic and positive.

But it was a challenge, too. When the studio was finally built — things always take longer than you think, you know? I was working on music the whole time and learning ProTools and basics. Once I finally had people over, I felt physically ill. I didn’t have the balance right. It’s like, OK, now my studio is in my house, which means I don’t know how to relax. It’s just finding the balance. We got some great material here. The latest single, “Mount Airy Hill,” that’s one of my favorite songs of mine of all time, and it was all done at my house. The record was half here and half with Rob Schnapf in LA. Flash forward to now, I do now feel 100% comfortable here. It’s not like when someone comes over to work I feel insane again. It feels completely natural. It was just built into my life now and it’s awesome.

You have some very cool guests on the album: James Stewart from Sun Ra Arkestra, Cate Le Bon, Chastity Belt.

VILE: I saw James Stewart play with the Arkestra and I thought it’d be amazing to play with him. I told my manager I wanted to get in touch. Sun Ra’s in Philly, turns out James is in Jersey. He came in very much like a session, very friendly but he came in and played and left. He agreed to be in the video. So surreal, he agreed to wear the Sun Ra outfit. I can’t wait to hang with him again.

But other people I play with are usually people I meet along the way on the road. Like Stella [Mozgawa] from Warpaint, I met her when I started hanging with the Warpaint girls and I needed someone to help me play drums on “Wakin On A Pretty Day.” She just kinda becomes a member of the band, a friend that comes in and out. I met Cate through Stella. It’s really just people you connect with on a personal level but you also have to love what they do. I toured with Cate and I realized she produced bands — like I didn’t know she produced Deerhunter. I just loved being around her and I loved that record Reward so I just went for it.

Similarly, on that same session — Chris Cohen. His music is unbelievable, he should be more known. He has these three perfect albums. They just break your heart. I was turned on to his music through Julia [Shapiro] from Chastity Belt. I was turned on to Chastity Belt through Courtney [Barnett] when I went on tour with her. Chastity Belt, I love that record. I liked it right away because it’s immediate, and at first the lyrics are sort of funny, like they’re singing about being bored or whatever. But it has more significance. It’s smart music, but it’s so catchy. We became friends.

It was during that time — Cate and Chastity Belt and Chris — in my life I was getting excited about current music again. I guess I hadn’t been paying attention as much, I was listening to more old music. I was really inspired. I just get obsessed and I’ll see if they work with me, basically.

I’m a big Springsteen fan, and I remember years ago when you did your “Downbound Train” cover. So when I saw the tracklist I sort of thought… “No way.” “Wages Of Sin” is a pretty deep cut. Which, on some level, makes sense — everyone’s done “I’m On Fire” to death. I think the big seven-minute arrangement here of “Wages Of Sin” is really beautiful. Had you thought about doing it for a while?

VILE: Funny that you ask it that way. I attempted a cover, or we did do a cover, around 2007 with the Violators back when Adam [Granduciel] was in the band. I always wanted to uncover that version. I haven’t heard it in a long time. Springsteen, people ask me lately… at this point he’s a member of the family. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we don’t. I’ve paid my respects. There’s a reason he’s called the Boss. When you get deep into him for the first time, he is the Boss.

I was on the road a lot, Springsteen had come out with Western Stars. I thought it was his best record in a long time and it just resonated with me. I’d listen to it on the plane. That first song, “Hitch Hikin,’” it’s so good. That first single, “Hello Sunshine” — I could hear what he was drawing from. I was picking up what he was putting down, this American travel thing. Between listening to that a lot mellowing me out on the plane, and I was back into certain songs on Tracks. I just loved how “Wages Of Sin” is a masterpiece, and a dark masterpiece at that, but it’s an outtake. I love how he’s got whole albums of outtakes — like Darkness On The Edge Of Town has that whole other CD that’s like the best record that never came out.

Have you ever heard back from Springsteen about these covers?

VILE: I never heard back, but I think it would be in his best interest to check this one out. It’d be weird for him to ignore it. It’s like, “Wow, somebody covered ‘Wages Of Sin’…” I have a funny impersonation of him. [Bruce Springsteen voice] “Why did he do that track maaaan?” Sure, people cover him all the time. But I think I would spook him out in a good way. He could talk to Obama about it, you know what I mean? [Laughs]

Ten Songs (2003)

It’s interesting you’ve spoken about the new album being a bit of a return to the way you used to make music. Your “official” debut, Constant Hitmaker, came out in 2008. But your first release is almost 20 years old actually. Where did you think this was going to go back then?

VILE: In early 2003, I had moved back from Boston. In Boston, I’d really gotten a lot of life lessons, really cut my teeth working ball-busting forklifting jobs. I was making good money for the first time in my life. I bought digital 8-tracks and all this stuff. I met some college kids there that were cool, but ultimately I was living the blue-collar existence — which was cool, but I was definitely depressed at that time for various reasons without knowing. I came out of that. I learned to fingerpick, I met some great friends, I moved back home.

I was at my parents’ again for a second, not having to work. I was fingerpicking like crazy. All the best stuff on those CD-Rs, “Song For John In D,” I put it on God Is Saying This To You…. “My Sympathy,” that’s from that time. I love how there was serious urgency and rawness in that music. I was always trying to get back there in some way, but you’re never going to get totally get back there. There is this calm, laidback thing. I can be myself right here and get as close to that as I’m going to get. But I’m not 23 years old anymore, I’m 42.

The War On Drugs (2000s)

So during this reentry to Philly, you’re working on your own music and then you also link up with Adam in the War On Drugs. Constant Hitmaker and Wagonwheel Blues both arrived in 2008.

VILE: Yeah, Constant Hitmaker came out in February and Wagonweheel came out in the summer.

Within a few years, the Drugs go off on their own trajectory and you had a big breakthrough with Smoke Ring For My Halo. Did you learn lessons during that time that kind of crystallized what it was you wanted to do with your own music?

VILE: The whole time, I was chasing my own thing. Me and Adam met in 2003 and we played in each other’s bands but then it was around 2005 — he took off a couple weeks of work and we recorded a couple songs that made it on to Childish Prodigy, like “Blackberry Song.” “Overnite Religion.” It was just me and Adam realizing we played so well together. There was stuff happening in the world in general, cool music, psychedelic music, but we also knew we were tapped into this thing in Philly. A sort of psychedelic thing combined with classic whatever. The War On Drugs thing came out of that. I was stoked to play with Adam, but honestly as soon as it was apparent he got a record deal, I already was like, “Oh shit, how am I going to get my own thing off the ground.”

I went on one tour with him and he was gracious enough to let me open, to do my own thing. I’m glad he let me do that. He kept going as the War On Drugs, I stayed home. Constant Hitmaker came out, and then Mexican Summer was asking for something, and that became God Is Saying This To You…. I got a deal with Matador, and then Smoke Ring came out. I was just grateful, though. Adam, he came back around — Matador encouraged me to do a proper followup record and get a producer. It was cool, but then Adam showed up and it was like the old Violators back on the road again because he toured with me for Childish Prodigy.

Smoke Ring came off so good, and I didn’t know if Adam was going to come on tour with me. He was trying to get a record done, and then he decided he was going to go out on tour with me for Smoke Ring. Somebody else would’ve been like, “Oh, you’re not playing in my band, I’m not going to play in your band.” But I honestly needed Adam. Not only because he’s my best friend, but the music thing — we were just locked in. Then Slave Ambient came out and he had to go on his way. It’s been amazing watching him keep doing his thing.