While many artists are currently focused on crafting finely trimmed singles in order to appeal to the flittering whims of broadband-era attention spans, a converse trend has also emerged. In recent years, a number of musicians have seemingly taken the depleting capital of the album as an impetus to comprehensively explore the expressive capacities of the long-playing format. Philadelphia’s heartland-rocking ramblin’ man Kurt Vile is certainly unfettered by commercial norms. This year’s Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Vile’s fifth record, comprises lengthy songs unpacking the possibilities of simple chord progressions, and is distinguished by Vile’s droll existential musings. Releasing an 11-track, 70-minute record in 2013 is a gutsy move, and Vile admits he encountered some doubts along the way.
“There’s always obstacles and different meltdowns of over-listening and trying to figure it out,” he says. “You definitely have meltdowns where you think the whole thing is not going to work out even though there’s potential. Ultimately I was going for something big and epic, shooting for something a little different – [trying] to grab ’em by the balls a little bit.”
After a string of lo-fi solo releases and a record as a member of The War On Drugs, 2011’s Smoke Ring For My Halo brought Vile to the attention of a broader chunk of the music listening populace. Despite Smoke Ring’s bold success, Vile wasn’t interested in rehashing the record’s concision. In contrast, Wakin On A Pretty Daze is a meticulously layered, effortlessly paced production and Vile understands this sort of artistic turn could be unsettling to some listeners.
“Ideally I want people to freak out about it, but I know it’s a challenging thing. I’ve heard it enough; I’ve listened to it over and over so I know all the nooks and crannies. Other people hear it the first time and it’s usually different than my last one, which they might have liked, then at first they think they don’t like it but it’s really just because you’ve got to listen. It takes multiple listens to get it all.”
However, those who pay ample attention to Vile’s records are generously rewarded. His reputation amongst critics has gone from strength to strength with each album release, which indeed would be a major confidence booster. Yet Vile dismisses any yearning for flattery.
“Even if somebody doesn’t get something you put out that’s a little rough and they give it a bad review – you can get upset at first, but it’s almost better because you’re like, ‘Well, you don’t get it but it doesn’t really matter.’ You don’t want somebody kissing your butt forever because there’s some bubblegum shit that’s really popular.”
Tenaciously pursuing one’s artistic aims, particularly in the face of heightened external expectations, requires substantial self-confidence. Rather than adopting a modest attitude, Vile strives to harness the strengths of his idiosyncratic creative identity.
“I want to destroy. I’m quietly competitive. I love so many artists but I definitely just try to push the envelope. There’s this place in there that’s my own style that you can hope to do different than anybody else could do.
“A great musician has their own thing. For instance, my friend Stella [Mozgawa, Warpaint] who played drums on the record, she just has her own thing; sort of the most musical drums I’ve ever seen. I’m not saying anybody’s the greatest – well, she is one of the greatest drummers I’ve ever seen, but that’s not what it’s about really. She has her own super unique personality. It’s almost a self-searching thing, more than conceiving, ‘This is the kind of sound I want to make.’ It comes out of you, as a person, and you just observe it as you go.”
Still, every musician risks getting trapped in a routine, even if it’s the making of their own individuality. Vile’s response is to compulsively seek out new territory. “I get obsessed with new music all the time and it definitely, through osmosis, comes in there, but it’s about channelling it through yourself. You’re always going to naturally go new directions unless you get disenchanted and become a parody of yourself or lose interest. I think [it’s about] just loving music and finding new influences and evolving the way you’re playing and the way you’re recording.”
In that spirit, Wakin On A Pretty Daze features some of Vile’s most advanced work as a lyricist. With a mixture of everyday wisdom and comic irony, he illuminates themes such as the joy of existence, inescapable human fallibility and defiant self-confidence. Vile’s vocals are also more prominent in the mix than they have been in the past, though he says his lyrical abilities were never in question. “I was always confident in my lyrics. I like them from everything that I’ve put out. I think that in the earlier ones you can’t hear them as much, but that was [due to] lo-fi production values.”
Vile’s determined self-evolution is reflected in the timeless quality of his compositions, which continue to reveal themselves on repeated listens. However, looking ahead, he can’t completely discount any self-doubt. “I’m just pretty confident,” he says. “[But] that doesn’t mean I’m not going to freak out on the next record and get self-conscious or paranoid.”
BY AUGUSTUS WELBY
Wakin On A Pretty Daze is out now through Matador/Remote Control. Kurt Vile & The Violators play Paradiso at Town Hall for Sydney Festival on Wednesday January 22 alongside Shining Bird. Vile is also playing a solo show at the Circus Ronaldo Tent, Hyde Park on Thursday January 23, and appearing at Laneway Festival, Sydney College of the Arts on Sunday February 2.