As festival season barrels onwards, there are events at both extremes taking place this weekend. V in Chelmsford will have the superstars but the really interesting bands are headed for the bucolic surroundings of the Brecon Beacons and the Green Man Festival.
It’s there that Kurt Vile and his group The Violators will be demonstrating why his recent output is the current high water mark for indie rock. While London’s chance to catch up with him again has been cruelly dashed after the last-minute cancellation of the Jabberwocky Festival, it’s still worth seeking him wherever you can. This former forklift driver has, along with his former bandmates in War on Drugs, made their Philadelphia home city the place to go for effects-laden guitar music that is broad in scope, sonically ambitious and emotionally involving.
“It’s a fruitful scene at this point, for sure,” the 34-year-old tells me. “I think it’s become more sophisticated and rich with artists that are real and raw. It’s really cool to see so many interesting bands who are my genuine friends be able to put out their music.”
Despite that punk rock name, which he insists is on his birth certificate, Vile’s sound is calm and loose-limbed, characterised by meandering, echoing acoustic and guitar lines and his drawled, barely singing vocals. His last two albums — his breakthrough fourth, Smoke Ring for My Halo, and the 2013 follow-up, Wakin on a Pretty Daze —have swelled the demand for his stoned strumming and been critically adored, not least by this critic. They’re on a constant loop round my way.
The most recent one has done so well that, despite already being of epic length, it was reissued last November with an extra EP of songs that took it up to the 100-minute mark. It doesn’t feel indulgent or like he forgot to press the fade button, however. The songs relax into themselves, drifting along in a beautiful soundworld from which there’s no hurry to escape.
“There was no question it was going to be a double record,” says Vile of its construction period, during which the eight-, nine-, 10-minute songs piled up. “I had so many lyrics.” He offers abstract, personal snapshots in his music, his feelings veering far and wide. In Shame Chamber he’s enduring self-esteem issues. In contrast, in Was All Talk he’s cocky about his abilities, mocking those who doubted him in the early days and singing, “Making music is easy, watch me!”
Public desire to hear these tunes has meant that he’s still touring 16 months on. He enjoys the circuit, hanging with other bands at festivals such as Green Man, and still plays the odd support slot too, if he admires the artist. When we speak, he’s about to warm up for Nick Cave in Philadelphia — a dream fulfilled. “I’ve been an obsessive fan for a while. He’s mind-blowing.” He turned down Beck, though, insulted by the pay on offer. “He gave us the lowest, high-school band offer known to man, and we were like, ‘Sorry, I’m going to stay home then open for Nick Cave, who slays crowds, thanks.’ ”
At festivals and in support slots he has to edit himself, just doing one or two of the really long ones and otherwise sticking to what he calls the “quote unquote singles”.
In this regard, he looks to Neil Young, who also has to pick and choose his epics in concert, for inspiration. Young is an idol, Jimmy McDonough’s biography Shakey his number one rock read, while the legend’s casual yet uncompromising approach is audible in Vile’s songwriting. “He’s the guy for me. He just does whatever he wants all the time, always trying new things.”
He could air some new songs this weekend. He’s well into thinking about his next album. “I think I’ve evolved,” he says. “I want to put out my version of some sort of classic rock thing, obviously updated.”
He says that he’s getting heavily back into keyboards, having mainly been a guitarist up to now. He’s able to spread out a bit because he now has his own studio in Philadelphia, where he can keep all his gear and spend as much time as he needs. “It’s my space, my temple. It’s going to be a hit factory, basically,” he says, not entirely seriously.
In fact this fast talker is both funnier and far more professional than his dazed music and unkempt look suggest. He treats the studio like an office, going in every day when he’s in town, and avoids partying too hard when on tour. “After a while you put yourself in check, because ultimately you’re not going to be that creative.”
He’s also a homebird, staying in the city where he grew up, married to his childhood sweetheart for 11 years. They have two young daughters, Awilda and Delphine, whom they intend to home- school. “I don’t really have fond memories of school. Just jumping through class to class, like herding sheep or something, and being surrounded by certain people who aren’t nice. Everybody is projecting everyone’s energy on each other. It’s not healthy for the periphery of your brain.”
He probably wants his children to experience the space he never had, growing up as the eldest son of 10. But that environment helped him become a performer.
“In a way we were all starved of attention but it’s to my advantage because I have one side of me that’s like a ham for wanting to be on stage, to be the centre of attention. Then also because there are so many people, you can zone out and go into your own world, play with your Star Wars figures or whatever. So I can tap into either thing at any given point.”
Following school he drifted through multiple menial jobs, including driving a forklift at a warehouse in Boston while his wife completed a poetry course in the city. But he was always focused on his music, using the office computer to book gigs. Now he is driven to make great songs while supporting his family. He’s settled and happy. “I can already tell this is going to be a Philly record,” he says of his next release. “I’m just going to get back to my roots. I’m in a good place.”
So his heart is in Philadelphia but his band will be in Wales this weekend. If you aren’t into him yet, make the journey, or dig him out online at the bare minimum, and join a growing cult.
The Green Man Festival starts tomorrow and runs until Sunday, Glanusk Park, Brecon Beacons (0871 220 0260, greenman.net)