Ridin’ the Riff and Rollin’ With the Flow

At a private Q&A to celebrate his new album Bottle It In, we learned how Kurt Vile’s studio perfectionism illuminates his slacker style

Kurt Vile in performance/Photo by Justin D. Joffe

On a humid night in mid-September, about a month before the release of his seventh solo album, Bottle It In, Kurt Vile saunters over to a stool in the small performance space at the back of the Matador Records offices. A crowd, largely comprised of journalists and music industry people, munches on hoagies (a beloved staple from Kurt’s hometown of Philly) and starts drinking until Vile takes his seat, with Matt Sweeney of Chavez fame taking the other stool. Woven between short, acoustic sets, Vile and Sweeney get into a candid and often hilarious conversation that touches on just about everything.

“They got this office because of me,” Vile jokes. “The house that Vile built.”

Bottle It In sits comfortably among Vile’s best work—it’s hooky but not rushing off to prove itself, often comfortable riding one riff for a whole song but never falling into sounding monotonous or boring—although some fresh production flourishes deserve recognition (Vile counts himself among the album’s multiple producers).

Harpist Marry Lattimore’s celestial strumming elevates the title track from a meandering mumble poem to a profound and involving centerpiece; “Check Baby” turns up the crunch with a gurgling, bassy synth line that recalls earlier sound loops of Vile’s like “Freeway”; The choir vocals of Lucius inch the main riff of “One Trick Ponies” ever toward reverie; A Charlie Rich cover of “Rollin With The Flow”, similarly, conveys Vile’s comfort with things staying the same over production that is anything but, in this case, pedal steel and bolo tie vibes that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Dylan’s Self Portrait.

 

 

The paradox of Bottle It In lies in Vile’s insistence on singing about things staying the same—from being cool with “one trick ponies” and “rollin’ with the flow”—while the album sounds meticulously crafted eclectically produced throughout. At one point in their chat, Sweeney asks Vile about his perfectionism in the studio, a quality that Vile doesn’t stress so much on the road, when his arrangements and recitation of verses take on their own, looser forms.

Sometimes my voice is lazy, and sometimes I have a band behind me and we’re rockin’,” says Vile. “ Or if I’m in the studio, I have a certain kind of swagger. I feel confident in the moment if I’m really feelin’ the song.” He mentions “Check Baby” off the album: “It definitely rocks, and I was definitely feelin’ it.”

Vile also expresses his belief that being meticulous in the studio is fine, so long as you know when it’s time to let go.

“Yeah, you can overdo it pretty quick,” he says. “I like to listen to things over and over again, I do…and make minute changes. But you’ve gotta walk away, I have learned.”

“That’s part of the reason why I’m not starting a record from scratch at the end of recording a previous album cycle. I’ve just gotta live my life. I think people sometimes spend too much time overthinking things. If you just walk away, come back later. You don’t have to build up ‘the record’ in your head…you’re just makin’ music, really.”

Writing a solid riff leaves much room for studio detail to fill in the fineries of a song, too, and to that end Vile is a riff master. During the audience portion of the Q&A, Rock And Roll Globe has the chance him a question about this specific quality of his songs—how does he so artfully compose songs around a single riff, and what are his philosophies, if any, as to what makes a riff worth riding for a whole song, anyway?

“I like things that are familiar,” Vile tells me. “But there are only so many notes in a scale, and you can only go so far without getting sued, so I don’t worry about it until somebody calls.”

Vile acknowledges that Neil Young, another proud riff rider, was a great influence on his process. When Sweeney asks if Vile had ever “smoked a doob” with Young, Vile demurs at first before answering.

Fear and Loathing on Hudson Street: Vile x Sweeney/Photo by Justin D. Joffe

“We were playing with [Neil and his band] recently, and during the encore I ran over to where they were in a circle, huddled, passing a joint around,” Vile said. “ I did grab it from the drummer. [Neil] didn’t look at me at all. I’m afraid of Neil Young.”

Vile and Sweeney unpack that last statement a bit more- it’s not that Young did anything especially scary to Vile so much as the fact Young’s presence, and his loud, booming voice, are super intimidating.

They say that you should never meet your heroes, but sometimes you meet your heroes and it goes just fine. Vile had long wanted to meet John Prine, for instance, and he recalls a time when Sweeney helped make that happen. Once, when Vile was in Nashville, Sweeney came into his studio and told him that Prine would be playing in town at The Station Inn. Vile came through to play and also met Prine, who was great.

Also on the bill were Sturgill Simpson and Billy Ray Cyrus. At the end of the performances, all the musicians were crammed together in the tiny backstage area. Vile asked Cyrus if he’d ever heard that Cypress Hill song “I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That,” where they say, “Just like Billy Ray Cypress Hill/Chill, I’ll bust that grill.” “No, I never heard it!” exclaimed Cyrus.  He was psyched.

On the way out with two sleepy kids in tow, Kurt bid farewell to the other musicians. ‘Hey, listen man, I got bad news for ya,” said Billy Ray.

“Your daughter, the one that was in your lap? She looks just like Miley when she was her age. I can see it in her eyes… you better watch out!”

 

Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural treasures. Reach him on Twitter @joffaloff.

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