A sea of reverb

Full-time job: Whether touring, recording or resting at home, Vile says, “I have to do what I know how to do, what’s always on my mind: music.” Photo by Shawn Brackbill

"People who listen to more straight music can get into this record I guess," says Kurt Vile with a full-throated laugh.

The Philadelphia-based songwriter has been struggling to articulate the more accessible nature of his last record, 2011's Smoke Ring For My Halo, and is clearly amused by what he came up with.

The phrasing may be comical, but his take on the album rings true. On its surface, Smoke Ring is unmistakably Vile: melodic guitar leads float in a sea of reverb and delay while the singer's elastic, half-spoken vocals meander around the melody like a snake through tall grass. But this is a more straightforward take on the noisy, churning fuzz and drone-y ambiance of his back catalog.

There's always been a folkiness to Vile's psychedelia. On Smoke Ring there's just more of it. The bright, fingerpicked acoustics and warm open tunings are still spaced-out, the repetitive lines and extended instrumental breaks are as trance-inducing as ever. But there's no denying that Vile was spot on when he described Smoke Ring as an "epic folk" record shortly after its release.

"There were some people who were surprised, I guess myself included, once it was so acoustic," he says. "Even though I said a long time ago that I want to make a folk record, I kind of forgot that I said that. … But I did work hard on pop sensibility, although it's kind of my own version of it. And it is easier to listen to. Simple a lot. But still kind of unique, I guess, in its own way.”

But Vile cautions, "People who just started listening to this record and like it, they might be disappointed next time when there's more … electricity or something. I know for positive I'm not going to deliver another acoustically driven record. But I'm sure I'll have those kind of songs. And also, if there's electricity, it's not going to be overkill like Black Sabbath or anything like that."

Wherever the nuances of his next collection fall, Vile is clearly in his element these days. The success of Smoke Ring, his second for indie heavyweights Matador Records, has thrust the songwriter headlong into the role of full-time rocker, and Vile seems comfortable with the job description. The past year has seen heavy touring, but he is pleased with the direction and far from burnt out. Writing, recording and touring, Vile says, "It's all one in the same.”

"I used to think that I couldn't write on the road, but now I write a lot. When I'm forced to be playing guitar, it's all really natural. Doing both is basically surrendering to the fact that it's not a part-time job. That's not the kind of music that I write. I just live the life. … I have to do what I know how to do, what's always on my mind: music, you know."

Playing more live shows, where he's restricted to one or two guitar parts, has also helped Vile edit himself. Ironically, having too many good ideas can be a problem. He readily admits that it's a struggle not to overdo things in the studio, where the sky is the limit.

"I have a tendency, really fast, to just add a bunch of guitars, and all of a sudden you've filled up all the space." 

On the next record, he hopes to balance the layered atmospheres with a "crystal" clarity that allows room for his melodic lines to breathe. "Space," Vile emphasizes, "is always very important."

"A lot of that goes with experience," he explains. "The best thing is just being able to go on the road and play all the time.  …You're so in it, so in your element after a while. It'll be easier this time around to play a really good guitar part and just say, 'That's the part.'

For now, fans will have to wait for those "crystal clear" lines. The new record is in the early stages of production, and Vile seems reluctant to share the new songs with audiences. Not only are they works-in-progress, but the nature of YouTube and similar sites means performing a song once is essentially releasing it to the world.

"Unless it's this real simple thing that I'm feeling and ready to play for people, I generally don't. My new record won't come out for a long time, and I don't necessarily want, all of a sudden, people to already know some new song. It's too early for that right now. Once I go in [the studio] a little bit, I'll get stoked. I think the plan is just to record and not think too much about it. And once I want to play some new songs for the people, I will."

— Dane Smith can be reached at dsmith@mountainx.com.

who: Kurt Vile and the Violators, with Supreme Dicks and Sore Eros
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Sunday, March 25 (9 p.m. $12 advance, $15 day of show)

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