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Kurt Vile Abides

Singing the existential blues made the Philly songwriter famous. With his great new album, ‘Bottle It In,’ he’s just looking for a good time and a calm mind

Kurt Vile kicks back in the Catskills before the release of his seventh solo album, 'Bottle It In.'

Kurt Vile kicks back in the Catskills before the release of his seventh solo album, 'Bottle It In.'

Daniel Topete for RollingStone.com

Follow a long strip of one-lane blacktop through the woods off New York State Route 28 and you’ll find a spooky old estate called Big Indian Springs. A 20-bedroom Victorian hall perched on 37 acres of rolling Catskill foothills, it was once a summer camp for young women who worked in garment factories; now it’s an Airbnb. With faded portraits lining the walls and spiders and frogs crawling across the mossy lawn, the vibe is somewhere between Dirty Dancing and The Shining, depending on how paranoid you’re feeling. Don’t bother trying to use your phone, it’s out of range.

Being off the grid suits Kurt Vile just fine. Sitting on the wraparound porch in jeans and a green T-shirt he got at the Ramones Museum in Berlin, unruly curls falling well below his shoulders, the 38-year-old Philadelphia singer-guitarist squirts several drops of a tincture labeled “Calm Mind” into a plastic water bottle and gives it a thorough swish. “Ayurvedic herbs,” he explains after gulping down his concoction. “It’s like nature’s Xanax.” He doesn’t sound entirely convinced.

Vile’s label, Matador Records, has rented this place out for a few days to celebrate the completion of his seventh solo album, Bottle It In. There’s work to be done — a music video to shoot, a living-room concert to livestream, band rehearsals to run through — but it’s also a chance for him to unwind a little, breathe the mountain air, get his mind right after a stressful year or three. The new album’s writing and recording stretched out over many months, during which time he also made another full-length LP with his friend Courtney Barnett (2017’s delightful Lotta Sea Lice) and attempted to finish a film score he’s since abandoned. About a year ago, feeling overwhelmed by all the demands on his time, Vile delayed the release of Bottle It In from spring 2018 to October 12th. If he hadn’t, he says, “I was prepared to have a serious breakdown. Pretty normal.”

Since coming to national attention with 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo, Vile has emerged as one of indie rock’s most affable champions, an honest-to-god guitar hero and a disarmingly funny lyricist, especially when he’s narrating his own ever-present existential panic. Take “Pretty Pimpin,” the lead single from 2015’s B’lieve I’m Goin Down…, where he sings about dissociation over spiraling electric riffs: “I woke up this morning, didn’t recognize the man in the mirror …'” With 44 million Spotify streams, it’s his biggest hit by far.

On Bottle It In, Vile does his best to come back to earth. If his last solo record was a dark, lonely night of the soul, this one feels more like a friendly jam session with his longtime backing band, the Violators (multi-instrumentalists Rob Laakso and Jesse Trbovich, plus drummer Kyle Spence). Beneath the easygoing charm of its surface, though, Bottle It In is an album with serious ambitions. On highlights like “One Trick Ponies” and “Loading Zones,” he sounds like he’s simultaneously swinging for another modern-rock hit and searching for an inner peace that’s just beyond his grasp.

Vile credits his wife of 15 years, Suzanne Lang, with helping him stay grounded. “She’s read every book in the world,” he says in awe. “She’s, like, an enlightened individual.” A trained Ayurvedic health consultant who home-schools their two daughters, aged eight and six, Lang has been encouraging him to clean up his diet lately (hence the herbal tincture). “The goal is just to get a little more healthy all the time,” Vile says. “And I do notice a difference.”

One major part of his own path toward enlightenment, he tells me, has been cutting back on drinking: “You think it’s not a big deal, but over time, alcohol is really bad for you. It definitely relieved some stress this past year, but it just exacerbated it later.”

Or at least trying to cut back. When he arrived here in the Catskills, he’d gone four weeks without a drink. “Then I had some beers, and I already feel way cloudier,” he adds, shaking his head. “After this weekend, I’m not gonna drink again, ’cause I’m really on top of my shit.”

Born and raised in the Philly suburbs, Vile took a leisurely route to indie stardom, from handing out homemade tapes and CD-Rs of his songs starting in the late 1990s, to co-founding future festival headliners the War on Drugs with his buddy Adam Granduciel in 2005, to signing with Matador as a solo act in 2009. “I’ve always been prolific,” he says. “It just took me until I was 29 for someone to actually put my music out.”

When it arrived in September 2015, B’lieve I’m Goin Down… seemed at first like another quietly excellent release in a catalog full of them. Then came “Pretty Pimpin,” which soared to Number One on Billboard‘s Adult Alternative Songs chart in the spring of 2016, becoming the first such radio-based chart-topper in Matador’s history.

“It’s a whole different scene once people love you for a song,” Vile says. “We had to grow into playing theaters without me, in particular, losing my shit — turning into a shell, thinking we bombed within the first song. Crowds can pick up on that pretty easily.”

In time, he learned to tolerate and even enjoy his improved fortunes. On breaks between tours with the Violators, he took family vacations to Hawaii and New Zealand, writing songs whenever he had time and then ducking into studios around the U.S. to get his ideas down as fast as possible. “I read a Stones book as a kid,” he says. “They’d go to some studio in L.A. for two days, no sleep, record ‘Satisfaction’ and go back on tour. What better way to record? Play the music and get the fuck out of there.”

Last summer, after a memorable night with the Violators in Salt Lake City — “It was in the park and the tickets were cheap, so there were, like, 9,000 people there, just going nuts” — Vile continued onward to L.A. to see producer Shawn Everett. He’d already recorded much of Bottle It In with familiar collaborators including Rob Schnapf and Peter Katis, but it was still missing something; Vile was hoping Everett, who’s had a hand in several of this decade’s most Grammy-friendly alt-rock releases (including the most recent album by Vile’s old friends and ex-bandmates in the War on Drugs), could help figure out what. Heading into their first meeting, Vile wondered if he’d made a mistake: “I almost had a panic attack, not knowing how it was going to turn out. Then he showed up and it was totally cool. You have to make yourself uncomfortable for a second to feel free later, you know?”

Among the songs Vile recorded with Everett is Bottle It In‘s nine-minute-plus centerpiece, “Bassackwards,” a slow-burn psychedelic dream with an undercurrent of dread. In part, he tells me, it’s a song about his fears for the future in a time of global warming and skyrocketing hate. “The world is backwards as fuck right now,” he says.

As a white Pennsylvanian from a working-class background, Vile fits squarely in the demographic slice that delivered his home state to Donald Trump two years ago. He voted against Trump — “of course” — but he knows people on the other side of the national divide, including some of his nine brothers and sisters, all of whom live in or around Philadelphia. “I have siblings who are Christian, so they’re Republican because of abortion, et cetera,” Vile says. “I remember they were posting the most insane news clippings. The fact that you could vote for someone so blatantly negative because of religious leanings …”

He trails off and rises to get ready for the evening ahead. “I got so much to be happy for,” he says. “And so many things to be terrified about.”

Kurt Vile in upstate New York in September.

Kurt Vile and friends party in the mountains. Photo credit: Daniel Topete for RollingStone.com

A few hours later, a well-lubricated music industry party is in full swing. All four members of the Canadian country-rock group the Sadies are roaming the premises, as are Chavez/Zwan guitarist Matt Sweeney; the president of Matador Records; a documentary film crew; and at least a dozen more of Vile’s bandmates, associates and employees. Over in the living room, the musicians take turns performing for the cameras. After a while it gets hard to tell where the vape smoke ends and the smoke machines begin. Outside on the porch, someone is reciting the lyrics to Queens of the Stone Age’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” (“Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol/C-c-c-c-c-cocaine!“) and laughing.

Vile himself darts antsily from room to room, light beer in hand, the life of the party for five minutes at a time. It’s hard to tell how much fun he’s really having, but he loosens up as the night goes on. After midnight, he joins the Sadies, the Violators and Sweeney for a rowdy rendition of country singer Charlie Rich’s 1977 hit “Rollin’ With the Flow,” a cover of which appears on Bottle It In. “While guys my age are raising kids, I’m raisin’ hell just like I did,” Vile sings, hamming it up like a fully sloshed lounge singer. “I’ve got a lot of crazy friends, and they forgive me of my sins …”

The next morning, I find him back on the porch, eating a fried egg sandwich and drinking black coffee. “Last night got a little sloppy,” he says. “This is the real me.”

He picks up a banjo and plays some gentle bluegrass licks. In an hour, he’ll be on his way back to Philly. In a month, he and the Violators will begin their fall tour of Europe and North America. “This was the perfect lost weekend,” he adds, flashing the most genuine smile I’ve seen yet. “I’m ready to grab life by the balls.”

In This Article: Kurt Vile

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