How Kurt Vile Rediscovered the Sound of His Couch for Darkest LP Yet

Inside the Violators frontman's open-ended return: "The record happens as my life happens"

It's 3 p.m. in Los Angeles, which means that Kurt Vile has just finished eating breakfast. When the beloved psych-rocker began working on his new album last year in Philadelphia, he wanted to reconsider the way he makes music and unlearn some of his acquired habits. This, it turned out, was best done in the still of the night. "It's the first time I've had this long of a break from touring and recording," he explains. "I've developed this routine at home. I wait for the kids to go to bed, then my wife falls asleep. Then it's dark and quiet enough for me to work on songs. I just keep going later and later, until sunrise."

At first, this process didn't take him very far. "I wanted to get back into the habit of writing a sad song on my couch, with nobody waiting on me," he says. "I really wanted it to sound like it's on my couch — not in a lo-fi way, just more unguarded and vulnerable."

He has since recorded coast to coast, fulfilling the album's title with sessions in Brooklyn, Athens, Georgia and Southern California, where he would watch the sun come up over the rugged desert-scape of Joshua Tree National Park. Although the local Rancho de la Luna Studio has hosted artists like Dave Grohl, Queens of the Stone Age and PJ Harvey, Vile originally flew there to visit the prolific Malian rock collective Tinariwen. "They're my favorite live band," he says. "A couple times they reached out to work with me but it never panned out. Turns out they were recording at Rancho de la Luna. I flew out to Rancho just to jam, then my family met me out there and it was like. . .suddenly my head was just clear. It was really spiritual. That's when I decided to book some studio time for myself."

Vile ended up spending eight days there, where he was joined by Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa and sound artist Farmer Dave Scher, both of whom appeared on his 2013 album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. The sometimes Violators frontman thinks producer Rob Schnapf, who previously worked on Beck's Mellow Gold and Elliott Smith's Either/Or, make a perfect fit for what's shaping up to be his darkest record yet. "It's definitely got that night vibe," Vile says wryly. "KV's Night Life — it's my sequel to Donald Fagen's The Nightfly."

The pair themselves had connected almost by happenstance, and the whole course of the record seems guided by instinct, leaving room for such serendipitous encounters. "We're not doing this in any linear sort of way," Vile explains. "The record happens as my life happens — I go home and record a song, mix it somewhere else. I'm not just writing and recording it all at once."

His voice perks up significantly when he mentions his brand-new handmade banjo, which will take more of a leading role in handful of "ethereal, Appalachian-influenced folk songs" that appear on the record. Meanwhile, Vile's own musical tastes have been drifting toward mystical, jazzy trances — records by Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders are central to his evolution as an artist. Whereas Wakin was a warm, grounding meditation, Vile hopes to encapsulate the more transcendent, soul-traveling elements of these newer influences. "The music drones on and on, but in a freer way," he says. "There's a sort of melancholy in the way the music just sprawls. It wanders.

"Everybody goes up and down throughout their lives," he continues. "Smoke Ring was a downer, then Wakin was an upturn. My music has to be funny and sad and happy and loving, it's gotta have it all. When somebody's just too dark all the time, it's just drama. Or if somebody's too funny?" He pauses to correct his course. "Well, I like being too funny sometimes."

Keeping in line with his intuitive approach, Vile has yet to set a release date. He hopes the album will come out at some point in autumn and has only scheduled three summer shows, leaving more room for unexpected developments. Right now, though, he's enjoying a little complacency. "I can't imagine having to get moving all over again," he says. "But it's the law of inertia: If you're not moving, you'll just keep laying on your couch and reading books. But when you're busy playing shows and recording, the momentum sets in. At first you'll have anxiety about it, but just jumping right back into it makes it easy. Then you love it all over again."