The music on Kurt Vile's new album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze, is deeply relaxed and absolutely confident in its laid-back, stretched-out, fingerpicked trance vibe. So much so that it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that the Philadelphia rocker is a prototypical stoner dude.
Reasonable perhaps, but incorrect. Sure, Kurt Vile - yes, that's his real name - looks the part. He's the guy with the past-his-shoulders hair to rival The Addams Family's Cousin Itt, and who sat down to talk on a recent morning at the Rocket Cat Café in Kensington, up the street from the four-story-tall mural that provides the cover image for Wakin (Matador ***1/2), the singer and guitarist's fifth album.
But conversation with the tightly wired songwriter and guitarist is more intense than chilled-out. When talking about the mural by artist Steve Powers, a fan who approached him with a concept inspired by Wakin's lyrics, he says, "It's like a genius idea. You can see the name and the title from the El, and when you drive up Front Street, it just explodes. So it's like an advertisement and a Kurt Vile mural." He pauses and says, "It's about time," with mock braggadocio, before letting out a demonic laugh.
Rather than a slacker, Vile is a prolific songwriter with a work ethic. "I've always been ambitious," he says. "I always knew music was my thing."
Vile, 33, lives in Northern Liberties with his wife and two daughters, the older of whom, Awilda, 3, appeared in a TV commercial in which Vile spins the song "Never Run Away" on vinyl, and she dances around the room. As he prepares to head out on a tour with his band, the Violators, that will include a hometown Philadelphia date May 18 at Union Transfer, Vile says that the sumptuous track "Wakin on a Pretty Day" is about "feeling really good at home, and I don't really want to go, but I have to."
He grew up in Lansdowne, the oldest son in a family of 10 children. Five boys slept in one bedroom, on two bunks and a trundle bed. "It was crazy," he recalls. "Maybe it's just my artist's personality, but I could always tune things out. Nobody had any personal space. I think everybody in my family knew how to go into their imagination."
His roots-music-loving father, a SEPTA train driver, gave him a banjo when he was 14. Three years later, in 1997, he had switched to guitar and recorded his first full-length tape of originals. "I acted like I had a record out, I was that delusional."
After high school, Vile followed his then-girlfriend, now-wife Suzanne to Boston, where she was in graduate school at Emerson College.
For two years, he drove a forklift ("It was awful"), a skill that came in handy when the couple returned home, and he spent five years working for the Philadelphia Brewing Co.
Along the way, his affection for alt-rock bands of the 1990s like Pavement, Come, and Dinosaur Jr. (whose producer at the time, John Agnello, helmed both Wakin on a Sunny Daze and its 2011 predecessor Smoke Rings for My Halo) shaped his sound.
It evolved further with his discovery of guitarist John Fahey and his musical partnership with Adam Granduciel, who leads the Philadelphia band the War on Drugs. The pair bonded over a mutual love of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, whose influence can be particularly heard on stomping Wakin tracks like "KV Crimes."
Vile signed with esteemed indie Matador Records in 2009, and after following a DIY approach on his 2009 album Childish Prodigy, he teamed up with Agnello. "I was stoked to work with somebody who had been around the block, who knew the classics," citing work Agnello did on Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. (Vile does a powerhouse cover version of "Downbound Train.") "I could only see so far in my own experience," Vile says.
Agnello praises Vile for his ability "to just let it fly in the studio" on Wakin, which was recorded in Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles. "He can come in super-prepared with complete songs, or fly by the seat of his pants. He's that kind of artist. He never stops writing."
"I'm probably the most intense person he works with," Vile says of Agnello, who also produced Love Sign, the new album by Philly rock band Free Energy. "I'm the son he wished he never had."
On Wakin's "Was All Talk," Vile sings: "Making music is easy - watch me."
"When it's good, it is easy," he says. "It's pretty easy to find new songs in my guitar, once you're playing all the time. It's that whole Neil Young philosophy: Lay it down with as much feeling as possible. Don't overthink, just let it flow."
Wakin sports six songs of more than six minutes. "It's got some long songs," he says.
On the shimmering 10-minute-plus closer, "Goldtone," Vile sings, "Sometimes, when I get in my zone, you'd think I was stoned / But I never, as they say, touch the stuff." ("People say I'm like stoner-rock," he says. "But I generally can't handle weed.")
"To me it's like a natural evolution," he says of Wakin. "It's getting a little more experimental, but not in an abrasive or overly arty way, just always getting back to a pop sensibility. When you have your favorite pop songs, you have to go back and play them over and over in your car. With these, you don't have to start them over as much."