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Overnight Prodigy

Philly's Constant Hitmaker Kurt Vile quits his day job

kurt vile (his real name, seriously) is eager to release his backlog of songs--and do tours he doesn't have to book himself.

By Judy Berman | Posted 8/5/2009

Kurt Vile

Sonar, August 11

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Popular legend has it that Philadelphia's Kurt Vile is the latest in a deluge of lo-fi revivalists of the No Age and Times New Viking variety. He also sounds something like a "bedroom Tom Petty." But his solo work is just a side project; Vile's main gig is as front man of Philly indie band the War on Drugs. Oh, and "Kurt Vile" isn't just a clever nom de rock--it's his real name.

Strangely enough, only that last statement turns out to be true. All of the misinformation currently circulating can only mean one thing: Kurt Vile is on the verge of something big. His career has reached that crucial period when many more people have heard about him than have actually listened to his music. After spending a few years recording at home and distributing his music on CD-Rs, Vile struck a deal with pioneering micro-indie label Gulcher Records to release a debut album, 2008's Constant Hitmaker. Then, in March, Mexican Summer put out God Is Saying This to You, a limited-edition LP culled from an enormous backlog of quality songs.

And that won't be the last we hear of Kurt Vile in 2009. A mere seven weeks after breathlessly revealing he had joined its roster, indie gold-standard Matador Records announced it would be releasing yet another Vile full-length, Childish Prodigy, on Oct. 6.

Unlike some of his peers, Vile has no mixed feelings about moving beyond the cult-favorite status his bedroom recordings have earned him to reach a wider audience. In fact, he is jubilant about his Matador deal and the possibilities a larger budget and bigger marketing machine represent. "It's the best label I could hope to be on," Vile says by phone from Philadelphia. He adds, with a chuckle, "I'll be able to go on tours that I don't have to book myself."

Music has always been more than just a hobby for Vile, whose other gigs have included a grueling stint as a forklift operator. Vile recently parted ways with his latest day job and is using his unforeseen unemployment as an opportunity to schedule more performances and prepare for the release of Childish Prodigy. "I always wanted to do this for a living," he says.

Vile's drive to excel is palpable in his music, a dreamy fusion of folk and psychedelia. The refrain from "Don't Get Cute," a languid, melodic track from Constant Hitmaker, punctuated with blunt stabs of drum machine, is telling: "Can I use you?/ I want to be a success/ Give me my style." Vile says the song--like many others--is, at least obliquely, autobiographical. He wrote it back in 2005, when "I really did want badly to be a success."

Then there's Constant Hitmaker's catchy title. "There was a Rolling Stones album called England's Newest Hitmakers," Vile explains. "So I used to call myself 'Philly's Newest Hitmaker.'" Later, when choosing a headline for his MySpace page, Vile tweaked the title on a whim, and "Philly's Constant Hitmaker" was born. "It's cocky but humorous. I don't take it too seriously," he says. And while Constant Hitmaker might seem a tongue-in-cheek title for a first album on a tiny label, it's not entirely insincere, either: Vile's goal really is to make hits.

Thankfully, Vile's ambition hasn't harmed his songwriting ability. If anything, it seems to have made him an even more meticulous musician, deeply invested in refining each composition until it meets his high standards. "I've always been obsessive about the songs," he says. "A song will come together, and I'll work on it for weeks, every little line, every little guitar part." His imagistic lyrics, filled with nimble wordplay and rhyme, undergo a similarly painstaking process. The words to his song "Freeway" appear, in different forms, on no fewer than three different recordings. "Usually what happens is, one weird line comes out and I work around it," Vile says.

It is through this scrupulous attention to detail that Vile transcends the "lo-fi" label. While Vile notes that he has many friends involved in the movement, he has never really identified with it. He does listen to some punk, but the Americana tradition has made a stronger impression on his music. "I've always been into Delta blues," he says. "I'm interested in artists that pay attention to the music from the past that was truly influential," from Bob Dylan to John Fahey to The Anthology of American Folk Music. Vile's rugged, textured voice and facility with a banjo make him a fitting heir to this pantheon.

Perhaps Childish Prodigy will finally prove that, when it comes to classifying Kurt Vile's music, "lo-fi" will never quite suffice. Although "Overnight Religion" is one of the few early-bedroom recordings that made it to the album, the single sounds lush and multi-layered, fleshed out in loud, clean guitar riffs and ethereal bells. The way Vile tells it, Childish Prodigy is his best material; he recorded most of it before landing the Matador deal, pulling together songs he felt were too strong to waste on records that wouldn't get adequate distribution. And--as though three full-lengths in 20 months wasn't enough--he is already eager to get back in the studio to make a fourth album. "Music is all I ever wanted to do," he says. "I just try to make everything better each time."

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