Kurt Vile's music doesn't immediately sound folk. When listing off his early influences, the Philly-born singer-songwriter points to bands like Sonic Youth and Pavement. But underneath the distorted tones his songwriting style — however brash it may come off at times — is undoubtedly influenced by the folk of artists like Neil Young.
Vile's recent success with his third album Smoke Ring for My Halo is largely due to his reinvigorated passion for folk music. Highlights from the album include “Peeping Tomboy” and “Baby's Arms,” two beautifully-warped ballads. His 2008 debut Constant Hitmaker skewed heavily toward acoustic-based folk, but 2009's Childish Prodigy is a much more scuzzy, psych-influenced effort. Layers of heavy distortion and effects coat fan favorites like “Freak Train,” but the rambling, metaphorical style of the lyrics is rooted in Vile's appreciation for folk music.
The success of his 2011 work Smoke Ring For My Halo, Vile says, stems from his attempt to combine healthy doses of his different influences. Raised by his father on classic rock and folk artists like Doc Watson, Vile grew up in close proximity to the blue-collar explosion of Bruce Springsteen, whom he recently covered on his So Outta Reach EP. He and the Boss also shared a similar working-class background. The song “Space Forklift” from Constant Hitmaker alludes to Vile's former job as a forklift operator.
He's since quit the job, but even during his days driving a forklift, Vile always maintained what he calls “romanticism for the rock n roll lifestyle” through reading books on bands like the Rolling Stones. With a wife and two children at home, he's intent on not repeating the same mistakes as his idols. Going largely undiscovered until 2008, the upward trajectory of his career in recent years is representative of a larger shift within the music industry.
Rather than capturing an audience through radio airplay and marketing campaigns, most of Vile's fans have arrived through internet buzz and licensing deals. He sold out the Echoplex in 2010 just a few nights after his song “He's Alright” closed out the season finale of Eastbound and Down. Several months after Smoke Ring For My Halo was released, Vile's longtime friends in The War On Drugs followed a similar path to successful results.
By extension, a new wave of psych, folk and garage-inspired artists like Atlanta's Gentleman Jesse, Nashville's Jeff the Brotherhood, and even Ty Segall are seeing a rise in popularity. “It's all just timing really. I think people are just starting to catch on,” Vile explains, denying any organized plan for success. In a way, Vile is simply carrying on the legacy of deceased rocker Jay Reatard, the modern innovator of the “let them come to me” model. With Smoke Ring For My Halo landing on Spin, NME, Paste and Pitchfork's Top 50 albums of 2011 lists, he's become an unassuming hero to stoner kids rocking out in garages across the country.
With such massive shifts occurring in the music industry, Kurt Vile possesses one of the most important tools for survival, his passion for writing and performing. He's blocked off the later part of this year to record his next album, but loves touring as much as possible and is thankful for the balance between a chaotic life on the road and a more sedentary lifestyle at home. “Touring can get pretty grueling, but I really love having both,” he says, with obvious glee.
Typically Vile tours with a backing band called the Violators, but his upcoming solo dates in L.A., Santa Cruz and Pioneertown are something of a return to his folk roots. Throughout our interview Vile excitedly discusses the chance to play alongside Meg Baird and Michael Chapman, even crediting the latter for recent inspiration. If you're ever looking for a sign of a true musician, it's the guy talking up his touring partners rather than the size of the venue or the number of tickets sold.
Kurt Vile performs at Largo tomorrow night, June 7