Culture / Music

Watch my moves – Kurt Vile is all about the simple life

kurt vile

Kurt Vile likes to take his time. But three months deep into the New Year and the musician and former War on Drugs guitarist is sailing through personal and professional milestones. In February, Vile hit one million streams on Spotify with his 2015 track Pretty Pimpin. It was the song that thrust the musician into the mainstream, and his old record label, Matador, insisted he mark the occasion with an Instagram post.

"I think it's awesome," he tells me over Zoom from his Philadelphia home office. Behind him, volumes of the Complete Oxford English Dictionary are huddled together on a timber bookshelf . "If you look at it like 100 million people played it, that's cool. But it's not like selling 100 million records. You know? It's a little different."

When we speak, Kurt Vile has just turned 43. "I feel good. I really like 40s. At first it's pretty ominous, let's put it that way, all that over the hill talk. But I'm healthier now than I was in my 20s and 30s. I was partying way too much back then, for one. I also like to take it easy. I got kids." He spent his birthday at Philadelphia Record Exchange with Suzanne, his wife of 20 years, and their two daughters Awilda and Delphine, and later they went out to eat.

"I didn't think about it much when I was younger, but now that I'm older I realise how nice it is having a day just to hear from all your friends," he shares. "It's sort of sweet."

These days, Kurt Vile practices yoga when he can and no longer drinks. In the short stints between projects, he does as little as possible and more importantly, without any glint of guilt. Part of that means sitting around listening to old records, like those from Sun Ra and Duke Ellington, drinking coffee and reading books. At the moment, it's a whiplash-inducing stack of biographies, including one on Thelonious Monk, DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution and What If Our World Is Their Heaven?: The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick. Exactly the kind of literary rabbit hole you expect from a self-professed and time-tested obsessive.

All of this is to say, Vile doesn't feel the pressure to move at a frenzied pace – or if he does, he certainly isn't giving in. "I feel it's my job to just enjoy living the simple life until it's time to start moving again." His latest album (watch my moves) reflects the relaxed philosophy of a man taking each day as it comes. It's confident and curious, yet you get the sense while listening that you're an invisible witness to someone working through, working out, shifting and changing direction. It's not clear where you'll end up, but each woozy melody is enough reason to buckle into the passenger seat.

His collaborations unfurl just as organically. Cate Le Bon lends her voice to the album and jumps on piano, Stella Mozgawa of Warpaint helms the drums. Mozgawa described working with Vile as "the best recording experience of my life... It never really felt like we were making a record, there was so much freedom." Courtney Barnett, a close friend and co-creator of 2017 record Lotta Sea Lice, told GQ she was "carefree" creating that album, noting how Kurt was "really encouraging".

In our conversation, Vile is tentative and thoughtful, goofy and generous. The only limitation is the interview format – there is more to be said that can't be fleshed out and rammed into 20 minutes. Like the "old crazy party stories" his idol, John Prine,  once entertained him with. Vile only half heard them anyway, he was too busy trying to hold it together in front of the late singer-songwriter.

In 2020 Vile released his EP Speed, Sound, Lonely. "The first song I recorded for the record was another John Prine song, Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, because I wanted to get his attention". At some point his friend managed to hook him up with an opportunity to sing one song with Prine. "It wasn't just me, it was a lot of guests but I didn't realise," he explains.

"They asked me what song I wanted to do and it was How Lucky. John agreed to it. Then we were mixing this EP, by which point, I had known John for a few years and played some shows with him. When he finally showed up to play he told me 'you know I love to sing with you Kurt.' We had only sung together a few times and he was just being a country gentlemen but it was amazing." It turns out that would be the very last recording John Prine made before his death in April 2020.

If you like John Prine, if you've ever been mystified by John Fahey's guitar or Bob Dylan's plain speaking, you'll enjoy Kurt Vile. Their sonic imprint smoulder at the edges of his songs. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and I don't pretend to keep up. But that doesn't mean he can't appreciate Caroline Polachek or Charli XCX – pop artists he came across courtesy of his daughters. In high school, back when he was playing the trumpet and still skateboarding around Lansdowne, Philadelphia, his idols were bands like Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. Now they're his friends.

All these years later, Kurt Vile has produced for Dinosaur Jr. because they were fans of his first record Childish Prodigy; opened for Sonic Youth and when Pavement played Philadelphia, he got to perform Zurich is Stained on stage with the band. It's astounding to think Vile has achieved all this in just over a decade, and without leaving his hometown. He's a quiet achiever, that's for sure. But all of this pales in comparison to his latest accomplishment: unlocking the secret to a thick and tousled mane.

"I had long hair when I was younger and there were definitely awkward experiments where I didn't wash it to keep it greasy," he laughs. "That was gross. Flash forward to now, my youngest sister Madeline has the best hair in the world and she's got me on this routine." Along with a flannel and skinny jeans, Vile's curtain of wavy brown hair has become his signature signifier.

"It's a funny story," he prefaces. In his early 20s, when he was roving from one blue-collar job to the next, "I had long hair and I was working at this brewery with this kid that didn't really like. He was pretty annoying," he quips. "Then I decided to cut my hair short, too short, and I was at a party and not feeling it at all. But then this kid who I didn't like very much took one look at me and said I looked like Tom Hanks. I was like, 'shit, I can never have short hair for the rest of my life.'"

The clothes come with a simpler explanation. "It's easier than keeping on top of styles," he shrugs. "It's a uniform."

In late March, Kurt Vile will fly to Australia for the second time in six months to kick of his national tour. "I'm looking forward to all you people. You're my people," he says. He'll play Fremantle Arts Centre, Kambri at ANU, before stopping by the Sydney Opera House, and later Meadow Festival then Castlemaine Festival.

Vile's most salient memory from his last performance at the Sydney Opera House seven years ago, was being surrounded by Australian male voices. "Because the Opera House is round, all around my head I could hear [puts on an Australian accent] 'Yeah, tune that G Kurty. Come on Kurty. Get it Kurty.'" Now, it's something of an inside joke.

If there's one more milestone Kurty would like to squeeze out of this year, it's another album. "But I'm not in any rush," he adds. "I don't even know when I'm going to start but I'm always thinking about it." Either way, you can trust he won't force it. "I think it's just about being present. I am not a practising Buddhist but I respect it's teachings. That idea that your true home is in the now... that's what I'm into."

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