How Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile found the freedom to keep it simple

Between his conversational drawl and free-flowing guitar twang, the quietly entrancing Kurt Vile has blossomed into a bona fide indie rock success story. It’s happened as naturally as can be, starting with home-recorded obscurities and picking up steam across an assured procession of albums for trusted American label Matador. The Philadelphia native has always done particularly well in Australia, and he’s returning here in March for a tour without his backing band.

Vile’s latest album is 2015’s equally restful and playful b’lieve i’m goin down…, which yielded the much-loved lead single – and Keith Urban favourite – ‘Pretty Pimpin’. Since then he’s made the usual touring rounds but more recently branched out with a flurry of cool collaborations that include team-ups with Tinariwen, The Sadies and Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval.

Chatting on the phone from Los Angeles, where he was doing “a few odds and ends” as well as recording for a day, Vile didn’t sound too fussed at all about hurrying his next album (despite an admitted wealth of new material). He’s content just to spend more time with his family and dabble happily in whatever strikes his fancy during this fleeting pause for breath between album cycles.

Is touring solo something you do often?
I did a European solo tour in 2014, which was fun in a way, but premature. It was after Wakin On A Pretty Daze came out, toward the end of the album cycle. But this is gonna be a good time in Australia – I’m definitely in a good place to just do a simple gig.

Do you ever showcase material live before you record or release it?
Maybe I’ll do that on a solo jam, but it’s two different worlds. In a way I have these two alternate realities: playing on stage feels like an alternate reality, and then I go into my songwriting/recording world and just keep them kind of separate. But I have enough songs at this point that if I get sick of some, I can throw in some others.

The last time you came to Australia, you played the Sydney Opera House. Was that a crazy feeling, playing such a famous space?
It is pretty cool. I would say our performance was not an A-plus. I feel like if I played there again next week with the band, we would kill. But it didn’t matter. I joke about this a lot, but I’d be doing something like tuning my guitar, and usually that’s when people talk. But instead I just had these Australian dudes cheer me on, like [in a wobbly Australian accent], “C’mon, Kurty. Yeah, Kurty. Tune that D, Kurty.” It was amazing. It was the best. That was the peak of my existence, just to have Australians accept me for who I am. That’s kind of the ultimate for me.

You’ve always done really well here.
Yeah, I feel good over there.

And you’ve played with Stella Mozgawa, who’s Australian. She drummed on the last record, right?
Yeah, she drummed on the last couple records. She’s on the cover of Modern Drummer right now, actually.

You’re doing a lot of collaborations at the moment. Is it nice for you to just play on other people’s songs rather than worry about your own stuff?
I think just a balance of everything is cool. All those opportunities I was invited to, so it’s just a process that pops up. Somebody throws something at you, so you just go for it. And I love all that music.

Have you done anything in recent years with Adam [Granduciel] from The War on Drugs?
Yeah, he sat in with us when we played LA last time, with Sufjan Stevens. We played the Hollywood Bowl – we had this slot where the sun was going down, and it was perfect. Adam sat in for the last song, which was ‘Puppet To The Man’. We haven’t recorded together in a long time. He’s just wrapping up a new record at the moment. He’s been pretty busy in his own world, so I don’t get to see him so much.

How has it been for you watch Philly’s music scene explode over the past few years?
Yeah, that’s cool. Even though a lot of the new bands I don’t necessarily know, the people that have stayed in Philly that I grew up in my 20s with – Meg Baird or Jack Rose, Purling Hiss, Birds of Maya – that’s all still there. Record nerd world. But that’s not necessarily the scene that [people elsewhere are] talking about. Well, I know Waxahatchee. And there’s a band, Sheer Mag, that I like – I only know one song. They have all these big labels courting them, but they’re just doing it all themselves.

“A lot of times I’ll look at a guitar and space out on what the note is, but I’ll look at a piano and it’s all right there.”

I’m lucky, I just grew up here. I’m so close to New York but don’t have to move there, or to LA to benefit from music. If I was somewhere more landlocked, I don’t know how possible it would have been for me. And there’s one last little DIY era happening in Philly where people are still listening to CD-Rs – I can tap into that DIY world and still travel up to New York to play shows there.

I listened to that Parallelogram EP you did with Steve Gunn, and I was struck by the piano on the Randy Newman cover, ‘Pretty Boy’. How much do you play piano?
On the last record I just got into it a little bit. And actually, that’s Mary Lattimore playing piano on the Randy Newman song. But I play piano on ‘Lost My Head There’, and there’s a piano part that ‘Life Like Mine’ came out of.

But I guess I was just focusing on certain piano players. My piano influences had accumulated, like Randy Newman, parts of Donald Fagen, and a lot of jazz: Alice Coltrane, McCoy Tyner. I love Jerry Lee Lewis – that’s a new one. Obviously that’s unreachable for me, but I focused on piano in certain ways in the last year or so. I still compose on it, and I’m actually a much better piano player now than I was during that era.

You’re so associated with guitar, so is it nice to have something else to turn to?
Sure, but I’ve always had keyboards and synths and all those things. When I was a kid, a decent piano player gave me one lesson and taught me the basic chords. I’ve always applied that to my recordings since I started, so even in my earliest recordings there’s keyboards in the background. So it was just getting a more classic piano sound in there recently, which often was buried under the guitars previously.

But yeah, I like all kinds of musical outlets. Piano’s a real pure one, ‘cause it’s all out there in front of you. A lot of times I’ll look at a guitar and space out on what the note is, but I’ll look at a piano and it’s all right there. You know what note you’re playing.

I read that you aren’t planning to release another album for a while, but you have an EP planned.
Yeah, I’ve got an EP or two planned.

But you want to take some time before a proper album?
Probably. I’m not in a major rush. At this point, in my world, I feel like a year is like a month. It sort of catches up to you, because of the amount of work that goes into promoting a record and then actually going on the road.

I feel like I’ve been rushing my whole life. I have tons of material for the new record, but I’m just gonna take it slow. I’m just going to enjoy my life, travelling and playing a gig here and there. I don’t have to really rush. I figure this might be the year to sit back and see what happens in the world anyway [laughs].

Kurt Vile 2017 Australian solo tour dates

Tuesday February 29 – Perth Festival, Perth WA
Friday 3 March – Twilights at Taronga, Sydney NSW
Saturday March 4 – Melbourne Zoo Twilights, Melbourne VIC
Thursday March 9 – QPAC , Brisbane QLD
Saturday March 11 – Meredith Supernatural Amphitheatre, Meredith VIC
Sunday March 12 – Panama Festival, TAS