It's probably unfair to characterize an artist by talking about a four-second stretch in one of their songs, but if it's Kurt Vile and the four seconds are the count-in to "One Trick Ponies," you could do worse. The song, from 2018's Bottle It In, kicks off with an egg shaker, someone counting down to the first bar, and when it lands, Vile says "ohhh, shit." It's not really a profanity. He's not upset. It's kind of a happy "oh shit," like he's in a tired good mood, sort of relieved.
The song that follows is a warm one, all about the bittersweetness that comes with having close friends and family you don't get to see enough. It's catchy as hell. Barack Obama listed it as one of his favorite songs of 2018. It's one of Vile's most popular songs overall. And while the sunniness and straightforward narrative of the lyrics are not exactly standard for him, that "oh shit" moment — an unguarded, un-angry, uncensored bit of honesty — is everywhere in his music. It's there later in "One Trick Ponies," when he sings "I've always had a soft spot for repetition" (which the people listening have surely already figured out), and then sings it again.
The line is funny in the low, dry, genial sense of humor he's used in his music for his entire career, the "never was my style" in reference to brushing strangers' teeth in "Pretty Pimpin'." Vile sounds like a man that has neither the motivation nor the energy to lie in his lyrics, and it's that honesty and humor that makes him memorable in the first four seconds you turn on one of his songs.
You'll have a chance to experience that in person on Sunday, when Vile and Cate LeBon play Hartwood Acres as a part of Allegheny County Parks' Summer Concert Series. Pittsburgh City Paper spoke to Vile ahead of the show. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
There’s a line in “Bottle It In” — “I wanted everything but I think that I only got most of it” — that first appeared on your song “I Wanted Everything” from 2010. What was it about that line that made you want to use it again?
It just fell in line. I’m kinda proud of that part of my style where I can reference my old songs. I like to bring them back here and there. Just in the moment of writing that song on the keyboard at home, it was very much written, you know like the way you’d hear it, that’s the way the lyrics came to me, from top to bottom. In the moment, it fell in line with the subject matter of this feeling of slightly rejected, not full-on, it’s also kind of ironic. Isn’t that the American way? You want everything but you think you only got most of it. [Laughs]
What is the oldest song on Bottle It In?
The oldest song is definitely “Mutinies.” It has some up to date lyrics, but the whole “the mutinies in my head keep staying/I take pills and pills, try and make 'em go away” — that’s from high school, actually. The more updated stuff about “small computer in my hand,” I didn’t have one of those when I was in high school.
There’s a kind of song that you write, I’m thinking of “Freak Train,” “Goldtone,” “Inside Looking Out,” and “Laughing Stock,” that all take place on basically just one chord. The progress and dynamics happen elsewhere, not in chord changes. Are you in a different mindset when you write those?
It’s meditative. It’s basically like a groove, a hypnotic groove. By the time I was writing “Freak Train,” I was coming out of mainly a folk-influenced thing. Then all of a sudden there was like a psychedelic thing happening in the ether, there were a lot of bands getting psychedelic, like Ariel Pink or something. Then there’s like krautrock bands [who use only] one chord. I dunno, one moment you just kinda realize you can get off on one chord. There’s so many variations in a chord, that’s kind of the beauty.
“Goldtone” I guess has a few more chords, but they’re really just setting up the transition back to the one-chord.
Yeah, there’s other chords in that. It’s some form of a C to an A-minor. It’s kind of meditative, right? I wrote that on tour. I had a Gold Tone — the Gold Tone resonator I’m holding on b’lieve I’m goin down … — that was the influence. The fact that I was playing that guitar, but also like a double, or multi-, more than double meaning. It’s like a gold tone, it’s like a perfect chord, meditating on a chord or a tone. All those things combined. Yeah, it could mean what you’re talking about, that meditative one riff or one chord, getting lost in it.
Courtney Barnett covered your song “Peeping Tomboy” on the record you did together, Lotta Sea Lice, and it’s really the only song that’s not some form of a duet. How’d that idea come along?
That was her idea. Basically, I went over there one Australian summer and I said “I got a song, I have an idea for a duet” and she was like, “Yes definitely, and I’ll bring a song for you.” She wanted to do “Tomboy” and did that on her own actually, while I was away. I wanted to do “Out of the Woodwork,” which I did, and we tried to do a version somewhere backstage in Europe. I had my bandmate Rob record us, and ultimately when I came back the next summer to Australia again, basically the project grew and turned into a whole record.
My version didn’t come into fruition fully until she was there, I needed her as my muse. I needed her there to help me sing her song. Even just to be there. She was playing percussion while I was playing guitar, just so I could feel it and sing it, I wanted to channel her with her there. She did “Peeping Tomboy” all on her own. When I heard it, my mind was blown. I laughed, even, it was so good that I laughed.
What song did you initially bring her?
“Over Everything.” That’s kind of how the whole record was born.
Is there an instrument that you have that you like to mess around with at home but don’t really bring on tour or record with?
I have so many instruments on every wall. Pianos, keyboards, synths, guitars, banjos. I still pull out my trumpet.
Did you start with the trumpet?
I started with trumpet; I didn’t write music on the trumpet. In elementary, junior high, and high school, I played the trumpet until 11th grade. I’ve been picking that up lately.
Do you still have the chops?
Yeah I still have it. I still play it. I play a trumpet solo on “Amplifier” from Childish Prodigy, there’s a trumpet solo at the end. That’s me.
Back to Bottle It In. There’s a sound on “Cold Was The Wind” that sounds like a sample of seagulls being played back at different speeds. What is that?
They are birds, actually. They are birds.