Before pressing play on Kurt Vile’s new album, its artwork sticks out. b’lieve i’m going down… , the Philly rocker’s sixth record, shows Vile sitting alone with an acoustic guitar, just like the image on his breakthrough Smoke Ring For My Halo. “This is definitely more of a loner record,” Vile tells EW of b’lieve, which largely foregoes the crunchy riffs and psychedelic jams that Vile and his band the Violators packed into 2013’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze. “The last record was really Violators-based,” he says. “This one it’s like half and half.”
But whether Vile deals in electric groove or acoustic precision—and on b’lieve it’s usually the latter—he keeps his Möbius-strip-like guitar melodies intact. Recorded partly in Joshua Tree and lyrically nodding to topics from Dust Bowl history to early Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel songs, b’lieve is Vile’s most American-sounding album yet. “It’s got a lot of West Coast vibes,” Vile says. “I definitely feel comfortable on the East Coast in a natural, ball-busting way, so we get that edgy thing. Then when I go to the West Coast I can tap into the more ethereal drifter thing.”
Vile might explore big sounds and ideas in the studio but in conversation he’s grounded and affable. This seemingly-oxymoronic mix of clarity and disjointedness has contributed to Vile’s image as a stoner—although, as he joked on a Wakin track, he’s “never touched the stuff.” When EW connects with Vile, he’s not helping to refute that stereotype. “Hi, I’m at the Spin Doctors concert,” the musician’s voicemail laconically states when he doesn’t initially pick up. “I’ll get back at you.”
Vile’s 2015 will soon ramp up in a big way. b’lieve comes out Sept. 25 and along with sharing lead single “Pretty Pimpin”—streaming below—the rocker announced a slew of tour dates and the album’s tracklisting on Tuesday. Vile chatted with EW about getting back to his loner roots, being influenced by Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor, and why a potential reunion with former War on Drugs bandmate Adam Granduciel isn’t out of the question.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Wakin on a Pretty Daze exposed you to a larger audience than ever. Do you think that influenced b’lieve?
KURT VILE: I feel like every one of my albums does a little better and my audience grows a little more. That’s not guaranteeing that that’ll happen again, but in an ideal world… It’s funny because I could definitely answer that question if you were asking me about [Wakin]. For Smoke Ring I was touring more than ever and getting really slick at guitar. I had all these guitar-y songs and a lot of parts, and I was excited to go in the studio.
[b’lieve] is definitely more of a loner record. There’s plenty of guitar and plenty of instruments, but it’s more lyrical. The arrangements are more open. The last record was really Violators-based. This one it’s like half and half. I went out with the Violators to record down in Athens and from touring Wakin we had a rapport, a certain tightness as a band. [But to] cover all my bases in case it didn’t all work, I went with one Violator bandmate, Rob [Laakso] to California to play with some of my best California friends, Stella [Mozgawa] from Warpaint on drums and “Farmer” Dave from Beachwood Sparks.
On Smoke Ring For My Halo’s album cover you’re by yourself, holding an acoustic guitar, and it’s the same on this album. What does that say about b’lieve?
That’s a good shot captured out in Joshua Tree at the studio, Rancho [de la Luna], where I recorded. It’s a great shot, with the Dobro. There’s more electricity on this record, but it is sparse. My whole life I’ve been writing acoustically. If there’s an up and down cycle, which I think most people have, I’d say Smoke Ring was down, Wakin was a little up, and this is down. It’s not completely down in the dumps, but it’s realistic. It’ll be interesting to see if every time I make a record it goes up and down completely.
Is there a lyrical theme behind this record? What’s happened for you since Wakin?
Life happens all the time. There’s great things that happen in life, exciting things, loved ones that you accumulate or the ones that you’ve had your whole life. You’re always building stronger relationships. And there’s all kinds of sad things that happen in life too, like deaths. The older you get, you see the world around you—it’s always been that theme for me, the life theme, the reality theme, mixed in with the audiophile-record-nerd. I’m an obsessive, so whatever I’ve been reading a lot of lately, mixed with what I’ve been listening to a lot lately. I think it’s just music and life, combined.
What were you reading and listening to when you were recording the record?
It depends on the song. I was writing “I’m an Outlaw,” the banjo song, for years on and off. When I first started I was reading Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, but then there’s Flannery O’Connor references, like Wise Blood. Another song references [O’Connor’s] The Violent Bear It Away.
“Outlaw” is the main one I’m talking about. It’s got the mystique and the magic and the paranoia and the psychedelia and the life and death. Then it’s got outlaw American Southern Gothic vibes. And it’s got the record nerd references, like I say I’m “on the corner, alone in a crowd,” which is very drifter, but then later on I capitalize it as On the Corner, and it’s like the Miles Davis record in my Walkman. You go from Gene Clark [of the Byrds] to Clarence White’s the first amazing songwriter in the Byrds and then the last amazing guitar player, Clarence White, within the span of two seconds. For the obsessive record nerd type, with the same mind as mine, it’s almost like inside jokes. Basically, it’ll flip some people out. It flips me out! I get excited when I’m on to writing some far-out, heavy, and subtly humorous and subtly not funny at all lyrics. [laughs]
Performing live, how do you flip between your jammed-out electric stuff and your fingerpicked acoustic material?
It’s a toughie, because you also have to bring new life into the old songs. [Wakin] is two and a half years old at this point and it took a bunch of tours to even get those arrangements down. To figure out the new songs is a whole other freaking journey and I won’t say it’s not frustrating, because it f—ing is. We’re still practicing. I don’t really know what to do. [laughs] But it’ll be fine, eventually.
I know you’re buddies and used to play with the War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel. Do you guys still keep in touch? Think you’ll make music together again?
We keep in touch, for sure, but he doesn’t live in Philly anymore and he’s so busy. Whenever we see each other it’s just like yesterday, but we’re both so busy now. I’m sure we’ll definitely make some music at some point, but I don’t know when. We saw him at Coachella, because I had been recording, finishing the record in L.A. and then we went over to Coachella and saw the War on Drugs, who were awesome, and we saw Steely Dan, who was awesome in a completely different way, and AC/DC who was awesome in a completely different way. Then we went to the desert at like six in the morning and woke up and shot the album cover in Joshua Tree.
Had you been to Joshua Tree before?
I had been there a long time ago on a road trip with my wife—well, she was my girlfriend back then—and then I hadn’t been back until we recorded at Rancho de la Luna, maybe around October of last year. Then I went back again for the photo. The sessions were really fruitful. We recorded there for eight days and I recorded other places a lot more, but we got really good stuff there.
b’lieve i’m going down tracklisting:
1. Pretty Pimpin
2. I’m an Outlaw
3. Dust Bunnies
4. That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)
6. Life Like This
7. All In a Daze Work
8. Lost My Head there
9. Stand Inside
10. Bad Omens
11. Kidding Around
12. Wild Imagination