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As we chat, Kurt Vile is getting ready to play the Pitchfork Festival, and he's totally cool with it. His voice exudes a sinewy, rural-and-cold-steel-Philadelphia toughness as he proclaims, sounding like he just won a street fight, "I can't wait to see all those bands!"
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Vile has been busy touring in support of his latest album, Smoke Ring for My Halo, a record deep with layers and one that's continued to reveal a litany of cranky topical rants to his fans since its release in March.
In keeping with his background as a banjo player influenced by a bluegrass-performing father, Vile's early work was more about loops and strums. But touring has added new dimensions to Vile's music, and he's integrated full-band rock power effectively with his more reflective style.
Vile's songs may snarl sarcastically when he addresses bummer tours with limited label support ("On Tour," which sounds like an update of the sonic scrawl Neil Young made on Tonight's the Night) or enduring social struggle (album centerpiece "Society Is My Friend," which caustically echoes Psalm 23), but they are often described as intimate, mind-kneading, and sensual, the kind of music best experienced through headphones.
"My preference these days is to play out with the band. We're all on the same page," he says. "I mean, I still play solo in-between — I will say, we definitely rock more. Depending on our mood, it can get really loud. Some purists who may have loved the last record, they might get pissed off. We're not going to go out there and karaoke the album just because it's mellow, you know. It would be kind of boring for me."
His backing band, The Violators, is made up of friends Vile has had "for a billion years. We went to shows together . . . we see eye-to-eye."
"In My Time" sounds like a pre-synthesizer Lindsay Buckingham when he first figured out his pedals, ringing blissfully and gently. Asked if he's still working with loops, Vile says, "I'm not completely through with them yet. I still work with them in ProTools: I just did this EP, which has a demo version of one of the songs I like, and we just kind of patched it up. People first get a pedal and then they kind of go crazy . . ."
Regarding the black humor of his lyrics juxtaposed with the studied elegance of his playing, Vile says, "I think, for whatever reason, I like to make it pretty, and the lyrics aren't as angry as people think. They're really just more sarcastic. I just don't want it fake or boring."
Vile's work could be compared to the apocalyptic complaints on another Neil Young record, On the Beach. "Right now, it'd be more like I want to get the first Van Morrison record. That's what I'm really into." Vile says he's currently obsessed with a song Van Morrison cut in the '90s "from this Christian album, and the song is called 'I'm Not Feeling It Anymore,' and it's incredible."
He has longed use faith as a topic, but it's been a murky career statement. "I don't really know. I was brought up in a religious family. I was exposed to it. I used to have — less and less — but I've had Christian guilt my whole life. But I can't really speak for society and what role religion plays today. I decidedly stay in my bubble, I guess."
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