PREVIEW Walking around the streets of his hometown Philly, Kurt Vile is on the other end of the phone talking about his various fixations and some of his musical dopplegangers.
"I was obsessed with Springsteen," he says, after pausing to ask for a pack of Camel Lights at a corner store. "I still love Springsteen. I love all the greats. I don’t love everything, but usually I get obsessed with everything. And Neil Young! I’ve always liked Neil Young, but a few years ago I read his biography Shakey [by Jimmy McDonough; Random House, 2002] and I was a psycho fan afterwards."
The first rumblings most of us heard from Vile, apart from his work with throwback psych-rockers the War On Drugs, were earlier this year, when he released God Is Saying This To You? (Mexican Summer) as well as a reissue of his 2008 debut Constant Hitmaker (Gulcher/Woodsist).
These lo-fi albums were compiled from home-recorded songs dating back to 2005. They are rife with woozy sound effects, gossamer instrumentals, and electronic drum beats. Vile’s voice resonates through vignettes about operating forklifts, conversations about red apples, and a scene devoted to riding on a yellow Schwinn while "blasting classic rock in spring." He evokes the isolated melancholy of Nick Drake, and Young’s dulcet-toned, raconteur-esque acoustic numbers.
But Vile isn’t fingerpicking himself into any niche. Constant Hitmaker‘s ecstatic opener, "Freeway," is a beacon of light, shimmering in ’70s pop glory but dosed with Vile’s wizened lyricism. On the March 2009 release The Hunchback EP (Richie Records/Testoster Tunes), Vile and his band the Violators hold nothing back. All amps are cranked to 11, resulting in reverb-laden songs so epic, it’s clear Vile is ready to walk far away from his lo-fi roots, at least for a while.
"On stage, Kurt Vile and the Violators are a serious force," says Richie Charles, the EP’s producer. "I suppose they take their cues from Kurt, but they operate as four dudes whose blood is being pumped by a single heart. The Violators should not be underestimated."
Vile’s facility for writing winsome, bare-bones fingerpickers and wailing Crazy Horse jams is a testament to the intensity of his ideas. "My mind’s always wandering," he says. "Theres so much on my mind about my music right now that it’s taking up all my brain."
These obsessive tendencies are finally paying off. In late May, Matador Records signed Vile, calling him one of the more important figures in modern-day American music. "Signing Kurt was the easiest decision we’ve made since we sponsored a seniors’ Jai Alai league in the early ’90’s," says Matador co-owner Gerard Cosloy. "The liability risks are much lower this time around, and the music’s far better, so everyone’s a winner."
Vile’s next album, the cunningly-titled Childish Prodigy, is due out in autumn. "It’s the closest thing I have so far to my masterpiece," he says. "It’s not super-clean or anything, but it’s most definitely not lo-fi. You can keep uncovering stuff in there. It’s my first album album."