Dazed and Enthused
There are few artists that embody the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s open-ended approach to programming better than Kurt Vile. See, Vile isn’t exactly a cut-and-dry roots-fest type: He didn’t build his rep playing house shows in rural Manitoba. Vile first emerged in the mid-’00s with beloved Philadelphia indie-rock outfit The War On Drugs. His two most recent LPs, 2011’s hazed-out, decadent Smoke Ring For My Halo and 2013’s adventurously laid-back Wakin On a Pretty Daze, made him a regular on the Coachella-to-Sasquatch corridor (and, tellingly, he’s played Sled Island before, too). And his guitars — Vile’s calling card — aren’t inspired by kitchen parties, vinyl Can-country comps or Americana standards. If anything, they pay tribute to the college-rock icons: J. Mascis, Stephen Malkmus, and more Mascis.
Anomalous as it might seem, though, Vile has also quietly slotted in plenty of roots fests, particularly those with gutsier programmers. Like Atlanta’s Shaky Knees, for example. Or Toronto’s TURF. Or, well, Calgary’s very own folk fest. “Well, I mean, acoustic and folk music are definitely part of my sound,” says Vile. “Even with the, uh, the electricity [in my songs], there’s still folk and roots music in my music. A lot of folk types — those are my people, so I can stretch myself across genres without any self-consciousness.”
True enough. But then again, Vile’s seamless songwriting is so immediately relaxed — and, dare we say, enchanting — that he can get away with most of his musical experimentations. Without self-consciousness, at that.
Take Pretty Daze: It’s indisputably his most challenging work yet, with Vile spinning his creations into 10-plus minute guitar wanderings and his lyrics often getting lost for minutes at a time. (Heck, album opener “Wakin on a Pretty Day” clocks in at nine minutes.) Yet critics, and most listeners, correctly noted that Vile’s songs never felt masturbatory, meandering, or even unfocused. “That [experimentation] comes naturally. I play every day, so I have the knack for music. It comes easily,” he says, reinforcing the sentiment of Pretty Daze standout “Was All Talk,” in which he lazily croons that “making music is easy — watch me.”
“But now, with all these gigs, you get better at guitar all the time. It’s not like I’m sitting there practicing scales. I’m out there living it. I like how the songs evolve on the road, and it’s feeling really natural playing as a unit [with his backup band, the Violators].”
Which, he says, is a stark contrast from the process of recording Pretty Daze. “We did a lot of subbing [for live musicians] on the record. For certain songs I’d play to a drum machine first, and my friend Stella [Mozgawa] from Warpaint played live on ‘Girl Called Alex.’ I’m liking the whole real-music-in-real-time vibes of playing every night.”
Those vibes have also earned him well-deserved props from the slackerati’s heavy hitters — notably, Mascis, in an interview with Spin, heaped praise on Vile’s ability with the guitar. (“He’d never revel to my face, but I’ll definitely revel to his,” Vile says with a laugh.) And beyond the Dinosaur Jr. guitar master, Vile also hints that he’ll be jamming soon with his “all-time favourite” in Malkmus.
“I hung out with him in Berlin, and to hear Malkmus say nice things about my music is amazing. He’s my childhood god!” laughs Vile. “One day I’m going to jam with him. I’ll see him at [Oregon festival] Pickathon, and maybe we’ll do a couple shots of tequila.”
For someone who’s just brought up the prospect of playing with one his idols, Vile comes across as pretty relaxed. But, he says, things are good right now: He’s touring on a batch of fresh songs, his band is “oiled up,” and his busy touring schedule has allowed him to support his wife and two kids comfortably.
“Well, the touring schedule is pretty hardcore, which is tough on the family time,” he says. “But for me, it’s like I’m at the office. Life’s high traffic right now, but we won’t be on the road for five years. So we’re capitalizing now. We’re striking while it’s hot.”