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Kurt Vile Finds Darkness in the Desert

Mar. 29, 2016
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Photo by Marina Chavez

Kurt Vile delivered a bold statement on the opener from 2013’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze. Whereas oftentimes a slow-burning nine-minute track closes a record, the Philadelphia native eschewed standard convention and put that sucker right up front (granted, he does save an even longer one for the end). “Wakin on a Pretty Day,” with its warm guitar tones and lackadaisical solos, floats along like a calm early morning summer breeze—the type of song that feels like a lucid dream set inside a room with melting walls. Even with the prolonged runtime, it functioned as the album’s first single and proved that Vile’s mellow, wry aesthetic greatly benefited from the extra space on that song and the half a dozen others that ambled past the five-minute mark.

That laid-back approach continued on last year’s follow-up, b’lieve i’m goin down, but it didn’t necessarily translate to lengthy songs again. Rather, Vile implemented that easy-going ideology toward the recording process, which spanned more than two years in studios all across the country, including Athens, Ga., his hometown of Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Whenever the inspiration struck, he would press record. This sporadic method led to multiple revelations that helped define the album. 

“The more I went back the more the songs kept getting better or more crucial to the record,” Vile explains. “While I was in the recording process, I was also writing. All of a sudden these songs were coming out. I had a bucket of songs and ideas for the record, but the songs that started coming out while recording were better. Songs came out at the last minute. ‘Pretty Pimpin,’ ‘Life Like This’ and ‘Imagination’ were all made at the end of the record. They didn’t even exist and then because I had been recording a lot all of a sudden I went right into the studio and cut them.” 

“Pretty Pimpin” turned out to be Vile’s biggest hit so far, a huge success for Matador Records—it was the seminal indie-rock label’s first No. 1 hit on a Billboard chart (Adult Alternative) when the song topped the list in March—and it’s difficult to think what the album would have been without such an accessible tune. b’lieve i’m going down is mostly a somber affair, an introspective record occasionally assuaged by Vile’s clever musings.

That reflective nature largely emerged from Vile’s eight-day recording session in the California desert with David Catching (Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal) at his Rancho de la Luna studio in Joshua Tree. “Man, it’s a mystical, magical place,” says Vile.

Musicians outside his backing band, The Violators, traveled to the studio to inject different styles to the recordings. “Anyone I play with is a totally unique musician,” Vile says. “They always bring something to the table that can’t be recreated by somebody else.” Notable contributors were Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa and the West African blues group Tinariwen, who jammed with Vile a week before his session at the studio and provided the inspiration for the melancholic, droning “Wheelhouse.”

Insulated from the outside world, Vile experienced the beauty of the arid wasteland, but also the blight after concentrating a little more. “I will say that I was all entranced by that spiritual desert thing and I almost wanted to get a house there,” Vile remembers. “I heard it was cheap and I was like, ‘How could it be so cheap here?’ And of course, it is beautiful but there’s also a dark side. I went back again and I was more exhausted, or not in as good a headspace, and I sort of saw the dark side of the desert.” 

While Vile doesn’t regret the freewheeling recording strategy, he already has an idea on how he wants the next album cycle to start. “Especially on the last three records, it gets more epic every time, a little more extravagant,” he says. “I feel like my next record I work on I’m going to stay close to home.”


Kurt Vile and The Violators play their first show in Milwaukee at The Pabst Theater on Tuesday, April 5 with openers Purling Hiss. Doors open at 7 p.m.

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