The rocker talks about country influences on his new rock album, which features guests like Mary Lattimore and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon.
“You’ll have two days in the studio or six. I find you get just as much done in two,” Kurt Vile tells Entertainment Weekly. “Longer than that, you might fuss a little too much.”
The Philly-bred rocker’s new album Bottle It In (out Oct. 12) is a decidedly unfussy product of several of those brief studio sessions, with stop-offs in destinations like Bridgeport, Conn., with Peter Katis; Los Angeles with Rob Schnapf and Shawn Everett; and Brooklyn with his Violators’ bandmate Rob Laakso. The location and personnel changes were woven in with Vile’s psych and country influences, plus special guests, including Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon.
Ahead Vile, 38, chats about the recording process and how song ideas never really die.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I was just listening to last year’s Lotta Sea Lice, your record with Courtney Barnett. Did working with her influence how you wanted to move forward with this one?
KURT VILE: Anything I made during this time was a discovery time. It was an extension of playing music in general. I was on the road [with] Courtney, at an early [show], in Nashville at the Ryman… I’ve been nerding out with country music for a long time. But I’ve been doing all kinds of projects in between touring, as opposed to taking a long break to make a record.
How much of your time in studio is one of those short stop-offs, versus like a week in studio?
It happens often. I’m feeling pretty good about doing that now.
Talk about where you recorded this album and why you decided to record there.
I’m used to working with multiple people. I picked some favorites. My last [solo] record B’lieve I’m Goin Down, we were behind schedule and Peter Katis was available last minute to pick up. He saved the record in four days, just mixing two songs a day. He did a good job so I thought I’d go in studio with him and a full band for this album. On the last record I worked with Rob Schnapf, it was my first time with him. I went solo over there. He’s got good pop sensibilities and weirdness, so he became my California guy. Between those two I needed one more perspective. While I was hanging with [Warpaint drummer] Stella [Mozgawa], she recommended Shawn Everett. All those three people, I went to twice if not more.
And I also worked with my bandmate Rob Laakso. Other bandmates are engineers too. I just work with people I’m comfortable with, not just one person.
Does locale or location have much to do with your records?
It has everything to do with it. It has to be with being in the moment. The more naturalist the scenario, the more natural things come out.
My favorite session, arguably, for the record is where I did “Bottle It In” and “Cold Was the Wind” — [it was] the same session. I flew out to the desert to hang with the Sadies. I sat in with them at Stagecoach [Festival]. And I was at Willie Nelson’s birthday show. They sang happy birthday to him, and Neil Young’s on stage playing harmonica. Any time you can get in the desert, you should! So then I drove solo to Rob Schnapf’s.
Then there was one favorite recording, “Bassackwards.” We had one more Violator’s show, a one-off in Utah. It was in this park with 9,000 people. I wasn’t expecting much and it turned out to be the best show ever and then I flew out to Shawn. So just combine things instead of setting up and being like “I’m going to sit and record now.” You gotta have the foresight too, though. I like booking short-notice and just see who’s around.
I like “Bassackwards” a lot too. Where lyrically did you come from on that one?
I wrote the verses where I’ve written before: My family would go down to Ocean City, we’d rent a house on the bay. You can see it in one of the Courtney-Kurt videos. I wrote it there, the bay-beach stuff. After that show, I flew to L.A. and that bassackwards thing, I had that written before, and it just fell into line in the hotel. I never know they’re going to be quite so long. It was kind of magical. It was the first time I worked with Shawn and we just turned on the drum machine and rolled tape. I sang it live three times or so, didn’t think about it for awhile, circled back and realized the one take was where it’s at. And this record’s secret weapon is Mary Lattimore on harp and Joe Kennedy on keyboard.
Any other firsts on this record?
There’s always steady evolution. Things are a little new. It was a first to have Kim Gordon on the record, but at the same time she’s a friend so it felt right.
You have mentioned Sonic Youth being an influence on you. Any other heavy influences on you for this?
People like Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, outlaw country types of people, um…
…George Jones, John Prine…
Neil, Willie. I love “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” [harmonica player] Mickey Raphael plays the pocket. They all happen to be country musicians.
I usually space out on this question. I get so deep, it’s hard to give it justice, to explain. I usually just spew out my current favorites.
Which song did you feel you had the most time to get your head around ? Or baked the longest?
All of them shouldn’t take long at all. Sometimes the actual recording, I find the song doesn’t take long but then you sit around and tinker with it. The “Check Baby” mix took a long time. You should not be chasing a song too long. It should be effortless.
How many songs have you started and then abandoned?
Plenty. Ideally I come back to them. Every record, there’s a good amount.
Are there any you’ve truly abandoned?
Not really. For “Loading Zones” — granted I didn’t record it — it was the first single on this record. That song, the lyrics were weird enough that it was on deck to record for B’lieve I’m Goin Down [from 2015] but it was a little too weird. But I’m glad I waited because I kinda needed to grow up a little and I needed this confident delivery to make it this rock song.
You’re just celebrating the 10 year anniversary of Constant Hitmaker and [former band] the War on Drugs’ Wagonwheel Blues. Do you look at your creative life through milestones?
Subliminally. It’s kinda nice. It’ll be cool to once my first Matador album [2009’s Childish Prodigy] came out because I’ll have a label that puts out really cool anniversary stuff. I have lots of leftover stuff. I’m really sitting on an obscure goldmine.
How have you felt about other bands that do the rarities and B-sides sets thing?
I love it when it’s legitimate stuff. As long as its not throwaway. I’ve learned over time, if you call something a demo, chances are, people aren’t gonna listen. Just give it a fancy name. I don’t think this stuff is throwaway. I put out a deluxe of Wakin on a Pretty Daze [in 2013] and I guess some people thought there was hardly anything on there. But whatever. Some people thought it was a rip-off.
Do you read your own press?
Yeah, I have to. If I go to the trouble of doing it, I might as well read [about] it. [Laughs] Are there people who don’t?
There’s a lot of people who don’t care what critics think.
Ultimately I try not to.
Has it ever been helpful?
Helpful for confidence. Some people are good at not reading it. I’m just not that kind of person. I wanna know what’s going on. Also depending on the interview, they can make you sound like a real wiz, when in reality you’re just in outer space rambling. [Laughs]