Like so many who are lazily branded overnight sensations on the internet, Philadelphia native Kurt Vile (real name, no less) has in fact been seriously plugging away at it for quite some time. His first single appeared on the mysterious Foxhole Atheist Records in 2003, and subsequent releases for tastemaker labels such as Mexican Summer and Woodsist clearly announced the arrival of something special. He is now happily installed with indie giant Matador Records, and his fourth album, Smoke Ring for My Halo, has pushed him into the big league, earning the former forklift driver the chance to commandeer a prime set at the Pitchfork Festival as well as tour with such former idols as Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
The album presents a marginally more cleaned-up and song-orientated slant to his trademark style, which draws heavily on the intricate guitar picking of John Fahey and the atmosphere of Neil Young’s more intimate moments, often alongside a healthy helping of lo-fi psychedelia and the hazy indie touches that suggest the likes of fellow travellers Dinosaur Jnr and War on Drugs.
Talking to the 31-year-old, who is inevitably on his way to yet another gig – this time supporting the Flaming Lips – is uncannily like listening to his records. You can’t help but be lured in by his humble mumble, gentle humour and disarming nature, which is possibly enhanced by the fact I’ve woken him from a tour-van nap.
We begin by discussing the overnight sensation tag, and the fact he may have helped conjure that up with Overnite Religion, from 2009’s sublime Childish Prodigy album.
“That’s funny, because when I wrote that song, Overnite Religion, I used that line because I was feeling really inspired by songwriting. I felt like I’d reached a new place, and that was in like … 2005.”
Pausing for dramatic effect and to allow himself a chuckle, he concludes, “It’s been a long night!”
Given Vile has clocked up well over 200 gigs this year alone, and has relentlessly put himself around for his music over most of the past decade, it almost qualifies as an endless night. His upcoming Australian and New Zealand tour marks the conclusion of his busiest year yet, and through necessity he has managed to master the art of writing on the road.
“At first, I didn’t think that it was, but it’s very possible. I’ve been writing lots, so I’m really excited to start the next record, not immediately, but taking my time. They usually start with acoustic guitar but just being on the road so much these days and having a new guitar that I really like – well, new to me – a Fender Jaguar that I really love, and kind of buying new effects pedals randomly, I’m writing during soundchecks, too.
“I’m definitely hearing more electricity in this next record, but acoustic, too – it’s not going to be Black Sabbath or anything.”
Compared with his previous releases, which all have their merits and charm but also a tendency to drift, Smoke Ring for My Halo benefits from a firm focus in the song selection stakes, as well as the influence of producer and indie legend John Agnello. The recent emergence of the five-track EP So Outta Reach, which features out-takes from the sessions, shows how stringent the selection process was.
“We had to make some tough decisions just because physically they didn’t fit on the vinyl, but also, looking back, sonically some of them didn’t fit. Too much information is a bad thing, you know; keep the record short and sweet … I think with this album in particular it was very songy – rather than sprawled-out, epic, longer psychedelic tunes – so it just made more sense to have a few less songs.”
With Vile’s band the Violators in tow and a rare appearance, at Vile’s special request, by Dunedin experimental superstar Alastair Galbraith in support, this debut New Zealand show promises to be something special.
SMOKE RING FOR MY HALO, Kurt Vile (Matador); King’s Arms, Auckland, December 1.