In That Moment

Laid back Philly rocker Kurt Vile on signing with a new label, his new record, and what he looks for in collaborators.

There’s an old saying: Wherever you go, there you are. Or as Kurt Vile puts it, “Everything happens where you are in that moment.”

The Philadelphian singer-songwriter’s laid-back rock has always had a distinctive flow — a wavelength that invites you to vibrate sympathetically amid mind-expanding observations and instrumental explorations. But over the last couple of years, the new Verve Records signee has sharpened his ability to ride the crest of the here-and-now, resulting in one of his finest albums to date, “(watch my moves).”

Released in April, Vile’s major label debut follows an 11-year run on indie label Matador Records, as well as a pre-COVID decision to slow down and spend more time at home. In one fell swoop, he committed to building a home studio — the “OKV” referenced in new song “Palace of OKV in Reverse” — inked a new deal with Verve and settled in for the pandemic. “I probably imagined staying home as long as the pandemic forced us to,” Vile says. “But reality is if there was no pandemic, I probably would have just kept moving around, and I was tired from that.”

The production of “(watch my moves)” was largely split between sessions at Vile’s home in the Mount Airy area of Philadelphia and Los Angeles, where co-producer Rob Schnapf is based. The results have their own sense of being present. Lyrics offer an especially clear line of sight into Vile’s thoughts when he’s in that flow state, sometimes even reacting to songs as they unfold, as if Vile is sharing the listening experience. It’s part-window, part-mirror, given how Vile’s words have a way of reflecting your own experience the more times you hear them. He’ll hold that mirror up to an audience of Richmonders at the National on Wednesday, Oct. 12.

While he also stopped by in 2018, Style Weekly kicked off a recent phone conversation reminiscing about his 2016 performance on Brown’s Island, which followed an opening set by hometown hero-turned-fellow Philadelphian Lucy Dacus.

Style: Your last conversation with Style Weekly was just before you played Friday Cheers in 2016. How did that night go?

Kurt Vile: That was a really cool show. It was a free show, it was outside. At the time it was a huge crowd for me. It still is. I met Lucy that day. She had just signed to Matador. It was a great show.

What led to signing with Verve?

I had been on Matador from 2009 until this new record… They’re still like family to me. Verve reached out at a time when my contract was up. I met everybody there, and it was like, “Well, clearly this is an opportunity for me to explore” … I signed to them knowing that I was going to build my home studio and take my time. Sort of chill out for a while and reset. Stay at home as much as possible [and] record at home as much as possible, instead of always, in addition to touring, leaving my home to also record. Its toll was wearing on me, so I was trying to get back to my roots in a lot of ways…

And then the pandemic hit. The deal was already in motion before there was any pandemic, but I literally signed the contract the day everything shut down. I was like, “Alright, if my plan was to build a home studio, I’m glad that’s already been in motion, because it looks like we’re going to be sitting at home for longer.” It was all a perfect storm of a bunch of cosmic and natural things happening at once.


Which parts of “(watch my moves)” were recorded in which location?

Nothing is ever black and white. But Rob Schnapf — I had started working with him on “B’lieve I’m Goin Down.” He was just going to mix the record. Me and my bandmates were working on the record ourselves and then we needed somebody to help us by the end. I didn’t know who I was going to work with and Rob Schnapf reached out…

The band got real tight on the “Bottle It In” tour, and the very last thing I did was bring the Violators in to record with Rob Schnapf. That was January of 2020, right before any pandemic hit. We recorded that song “Cool Water” and the Springsteen cover [“Wages of Sin”] right out the gates… I was excited to go back with Rob, but I didn’t know when. Then me and Rob talked throughout the whole pandemic, and he helped me build my studio. He’s like a father figure, in a way, but he’s also just a best buddy. He’s one of my great friends.

What do you look for in new folks to collaborate with?

It depends. Sometimes I’m just a straight-up fan… When I wanted to work with Courtney Barnett, I loved the song “Depreston.” But before then, a couple of years earlier, I had played a show with her, and I knew we had mutual friends, so I knew it wasn’t out of reach, but you still have to win them over…

With Cate Le Bon, I was friends with her, and I was listening to a lot of her music, and I definitely liked it, but then I heard that song “Home to You,” and that’s just an earworm. That’s a next-level song … I knew we were doing some shows together, and then next thing you know, I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t know she produces.” So I wanted to work more extensively with her in the studio. There was one session before the Rob Schnapf sessions, in Stinson Beach outside San Francisco, with Cate Le Bon producing one song that made the record. It’s “Jesus on a Wire” that she’s on.

It’s being a fan, and connecting on a friend level, too. Then there’s heroes — meeting your heroes and playing with them. Like J Mascis or whoever, and obviously Pavement was a huge band for me growing up. [On Oct. 5], they played Philly and I sat in. I sang on the song “Zurich Is Stained…” It’s like, “Wow, nostalgic moment frozen in time.” It’s kind of like my life’s work, really, because I’m sort of obsessive. I’m just a fan of the music first.

What do you appreciate most about living in Philadelphia at this point in your life?

I love my old neighborhood, Northern Liberties, next to Fishtown in Philly. I’m still really connected with that. I still work there a lot. But we moved out to Mount Airy, and it’s just beautiful out here. You get the best of all worlds. It’s like you’re in the forest, but you’re still in the city. For that reason alone, I knew this is home.

Kurt Vile and the Violators will perform at the National on Wednesday, Oct. 12. Julia Shapiro will also perform. Tickets are $25. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and music starts at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, visit thenationalva.com. To hear his latest album, “(watch my moves),” visit kurtvile.com.

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