If you’re a fan of classic rock legends like Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, and Neil Young, then you should listen to Kurt Vile. The Philadelphia native first made waves with 2008’s “Constant Hitmaker,” a cleverly named collection of folksy, lo-fi bedroom recordings, and after signing with Matador in 2009, he’s proof that a boy and his guitar can still blow minds. Released in March, “Smoke Ring for my Halo,” his fourth full-length album, is built on poetic introspection and striking harmonies. We sat down with the decidedly chill rocker, who describes his new album as “abstractly cowboy,” before his gig at New York’s Webster Hall.
BULLETT: You’ve just been to London, and soon you’ll fly over to Australia. How’s life been on the road?
KURT VILE: It has its ups and downs, but everyone’s been getting along great. Not that we ever got along terribly or anything. Musically, everyone’s just playing all the time, so it’s going just fine.
Yeah, it’s been awesome. I’ve toured with Jay Mascis and even Thurston Moore, and some other bands that I really like and am friends with now like RTX. And we’re playing with Blues Control again tomorrow, who are some of our best friends. I’ve always dreamed about playing with Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr. so it feels good to fulfill those dreams. I aim for that stuff.
Have you learned anything from watching their performances?
You learn different things, not always musically. You learn from every experience, and if someone’s actually cool you form a friendship. That’s one of the coolest parts about music and touring. Once you have a career you make all of these different friends, and hopefully you can call them on the phone and say, Hey Steven Drozd [lead guitarist for the Flaming Lips], come over and play on this track. When we opened for Jay Mascis I’d watch him play every night, and I’d sit backstage and play acoustic. It was like osmosis. I couldn’t play as good as him, but I was still playing way better than I’d ever played.
I’ve been reading a lot of the reviews of your most recent albums, and it’s interesting because a lot of critics say that Smoke Ring for My Halo was your most mature album. Do you agree?
Sure, it’s kind of like, in a joking way, the adult contemporary record. I mean, it’s not really, but it’s definitely more serious. There have been so many different levels to the way I’ve done things. I made my first record DIY, and then I got a small label to put it out. Then I put out a vinyl and started to understand how it works. I made that Childish Prodigy record before I knew who was going to put it out, and then Matador did, which was awesome. Then I had all this encouragement from them, and I knew I wanted to make a next-level record. And to be 31, I guess I am a more mature person and player now, if just from experience and age.
Are you conscious of possible reviews when you’re making music?
I’ve had to think about that a lot, not in a sellout way, but there have definitely been different pressures. I think your second record, if your first one didn’t totally blow up, is really make it or break it. And they all knew I could do it, but when it comes down to it, I don’t really think about that anymore. I’m totally past it. I just think, Forget about lo-fi, or psychedelic, or any scene or any hipster thing. I was never a hipster, anyway, but there are all of these levels you have to go through. I just think I’m just a regular old musician now. I’m my own self. Yeah, I think it’s very acoustic. It’s kind of abstractly cowboy. This is my most cowboy record.
I started listening to you with Constant Hitmaker, and I loved that you had made that whole album at home. Do you miss those days at all?
No, I can still do that if I want. I still play at home all the time. I’m going to get a space really soon. I was just thinking about how awesome that will be. I was looking at this space in Philly. I’m just afraid of the thought of all my shit getting stolen. I might still do it, but you can’t just rush into that because one day you’ll show up, and sure you’ve got insurance, but you’ve still got to get all of your stuff over again. That’s depressing.
Isn’t there something about that intimate atmosphere though, about being at home versus being in someone else’s studio?
Totally, but only at first. And now John [Agnello], who I’m going to do my next record with, is one of my best friends. And we know where we like to work, so you can still capture that. It’s not like we are editing out all of the little nuances and mistakes, so it still captures that thing. And if it sounds too pristine, you can fuck it up a little if you want. So it’s still sort of like being in my living room. And John wants to be my dad.
Things keep popping up. That’s the weirdness once you start making music and become a little successful. All of the sudden people book you. People are always asking you to do things like eight months from now, and I have a daughter and a wife, but I’m stoked. I really want to do my next record. It’s love-hate I guess because you’re on tour and getting better all the time, and then you come home and it’s good to be home. I guess we think about something else wherever we are.