Some artists seem to live their art. Understated and with seemingly old souls, they wear their integrity on their sleeves, shrugging off both attention and compliments. Kurt Vile is one of these. The Philadelphia-born musician creates ambient psychedelic rock that integrates melody with noise. His sound is soaked in sustain and reverb that recalls My Bloody Valentine or Atlas Sound. Yet Kurt Vile remains an enigmatic figure. In concert, he stays hidden behind his shaggy mane, speaking more often to his backup band than to the audience. But the public always loves a reclusive innovator and, without trying, Vile has garnered industry attention as well as praise from noise-rock pioneer Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.
But Vile has not reached this level without putting in the work. Growing up as one of 10 children, he began his musical education on the trumpet at school. After asking for a guitar, he was given a banjo by his father. These beginnings shaped his later sound, which now integrates finger picking with rootsy/psychedelic riffs.
As a teenager, Vile listened to alternative rock like the Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth and Pavement. “I was in a bunch of bands when I was younger but when I was about 17, I started getting heavily into music,” Vile explained. By 2003 he had started self-releasing records under his own name, but played live with a backing band coyly called Kurt Vile & The Violators.
Nevertheless, it is his sound that has awarded him the most attention. Mixing reverb with drum tracks and folk guitar, his music is at once strange and incredibly melodic. His singing is smothered in echoes but remains downplayed as the attention remains on the instrumental aspect of the song. “I’ve always listened to stuff with a tinge of weirdness,” revealed Vile. “Over time I started getting into reverb, but it’s really when my friend started playing for Ariel Pink that I got into effects pedals and all that stuff. It became a kind of juvenile Brian Eno thing where I wanted to make things sound different.”
Yet his sound is still evolving. Even Vile admits that he will probably grow out of reverb at some point. Having released two full-lengths and a slew of EPs, Vile has come a long way in his songwriting. Starting off as more of a “studio geek,” his early albums are much more ambient and complicated, with nods to Sparklehorse and Ariel Pink. Now that he has begun to tour more extensively, he has evolved a more musical style. But the creative process remains the same, with Vile beginning on an acoustic guitar at home and then moving on to the studio with his band. “Sometimes I have an idea about what I want it to sound like, but then once it’s recorded it comes out completely different,” he explains, “You can’t spend too much time thinking about it though. Or else it gets contrived.”
Now on his way to finishing up a third full-length record, Vile is positive about the future. “The band gets better all the time,” he says. “When [my debut] Constant Hitmaker came out, the Violators were good but now we’re really ready to give to them!”
Which is why you should see Vile this Thursday. Be prepared for “something a little different, kind of unique. We’ll be playing as a trio which is a first but it should come off pretty good.” As usual, the understated artist.
See Kurt Vile open for Superchunk, Sept. 23 at Le National. The concert is brought to you by CJLO and tickets for Concordia students are $10.