Heartland Rock Revival:
Kurt Vile is the Answer
Few musicians are speaking for the common man these days, despite that there’s arguably more to begrudge now than ever before. There’s as much beauty to bask in too, of course – a natural flipside; the light that creates the gloomy shade.
Garage, punk and all sorts of electronic music prevail on today’s indie radar, but nobody’s really reaching to get the fists of listeners clenched for any reason beyond to pump along to a melody. There’s an emotional gap to fill, and a rebirth of heartland rock could be the answer – with Kurt Vile as the right man for the job.
Raised just five miles from Philadelphia in Lansdowne, a borough birthed by a railroad stop, Vile grew up in the most blue-collar of environments. His father drove trains and his mother stayed home to raise their 10-child family. Until a few years ago, Vile worked, even for a while as a forklift operator, because he simply had to, he says.
But those aren’t Vile’s only qualifications for the title. He has more to offer than a very American story and an acoustic-based sound that’s repeatedly (and justifiably) compared to the seminal purveyors of heartland rock. Vile embodies all imaginable characteristics of a person who could make the genre, albeit an updated variety, work now.
Its pioneers – Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Bob Seger and the like – wouldn’t prosper today in the same way they did in the ’70s. More than half a decade has passed since heartland rock could flourish with freshness, plowing through the mainstream to full-blown reign. But what made that sound more than just another brand of mainstream rock – the society-reflective sentiment which fueled its importance – sure as hell still does.
Rock hasn’t found such a combination of accessible sounds and plainly profound, layman-level lyrics, where a duality between bitter decay and romantic nostalgia can thrive, since the heyday of heartland rock. That’s not to say societal woes and upswings haven’t been interpreted by countless bands. They have and always will be, but most often, the method is aggressive, through fun-time escapism or other routes that show little regard to balance.
And it’s all in the balance. Over a four-LP span, Vile’s lyrics have remained consistently indicative of a very American push-and-pull. On “Puppet to the Man,” one of the grittier tracks from this year’s Smoke Ring for My Halo, Vile speak-sings almost like he’s preaching, “Well I think by now you probably think I am a puppet to the man/ But I shout it out loud because I know that I am/ Sometimes I’m stuck in and I think I can unglue it.”
“Be as little of one as you can get away with,” Vile says of that label, “but you have to cooperate a little bit with that guy if you’re going to keep going. I’m not going to run a revolution of resistance.”
In a society that simultaneously praises and condemns rebellion against the norm – in other words, utter individuality – that outlook of that lazily defiant tune is one that’s easily embraced.
Vile doesn’t fully accept the heartland rock stamp, though. Maybe he’s afraid of pigeonholing himself. However, his reluctance certainly isn’t due to a denial of similarities between himself and the genre’s motifs.
“We have other influences,” he says. “But we are a very American band.”
Vile’s musical plight lines up, at least symbolically, to the American dream – he self-recorded tracks on CD-Rs, piecing LPs together into lo-fi collages until finally recording Smoke Ring as a proper whole with the seasoned John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and even John Mellencamp’s Uh-Huh). But practically every moderately successful musician or band somewhat parallels that path.
And it’s true there’s a spacey, echoing touch to Vile’s mildly distorted sound. In addition to the obvious roster of influences, an artist-on-artist interview with Brain Idea’s Joe Wetteroth published in the Chicago Reader revealed Sonic Youth as one of his inspirations. He even said osmosis might be to blame for the lyrics to Smoke Ring‘s “Society,” which contains a line much like a Sonic Youth song (“Society Is a Hole”) that Thurston Moore, according to Vile, said originated from misinterpreting a Black Flag song.
What truly sets Vile apart is the way he’s grasped the late ’70s blue-collar sound and twisted it with modernity in a way that dodges the cornball tendencies of Americana entirely and sounds new, but oddly familiar. Even when it’s subtle and soft, there’s a hint of badass, too.
And again, it’s the lyrics that seal the deal. Like Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” Vile writes lines that could register as positive upon a light listen but are actually the stuff of scathing social commentary. “Society,” of course, is one of those gems: “Society is my friend/ He makes me lie down/ In a cool bloodbath.”
Vile says Smoke Ring was intentionally mellow. He added “Puppet to the Man” and “Society” to afford the album some “balls.”
His repertoire is mostly calm sonically, but when he plays with his backing band, the Violators, there’s balls aplenty. He’ll play acoustic occasionally, but with his onstage counterparts the sound is most often fully plugged in and a lot more rock ‘n’ roll.
As Vile’s prominence elevates, capitalism has become opportunity. “Baby’s Arms,” the romantic, slow-paced opener on Smoke Ring, found its way into corporate America through a promotion with Microsoft in which an artist was paid to make the song’s video entirely on one of the company’s smartphones. Surprisingly, Vile wasn’t reluctant to accept the collaboration.
“You know, it’s funny, I thought that was the iPhone,” Vile laughs. “That’s how slightly disconnected from society I am. These are also different times. [Consider] Neil Young – he was always against that kind of thing. But he was already a millionaire talking about that, don’t put yourself in commercials, selling a million records people couldn’t steal on the Internet. These are different times.”
Vile notes he wasn’t paid, although the videographer was. He readily admits accepting money for allowing HBO’s Eastbound and Down to borrow “He’s Alright,” a lo-fi acoustic tune from his second full-length and Matador Records debut, 2009’s Childish Prodigy.
“You have to use your discretion. If McDonald’s called me up, I’d probably just ask to not know how much that check would be. That’s obviously not something respectable,” Vile laughs. “Walmart or something – it’s not a respectable commercial to be on. You would totally look like a tool.”
But what musician doesn’t want to make a living from their work? Vile’s no different. At 31, he has a wife and child to support. Vile could probably sell his work to McDonald’s or other dirty corporations for near-permanent financial security, and he’d probably never forgive himself.
To be American now – at least for Vile’s generation and younger – seems to necessitate an equilibrium that can be as satisfying as it is depressing. It’s the fight between money-making and virtue, assimilation versus independence and – most of all – trying to be a better person, but accepting you probably never will be.
“I think it’s 50/50 is what it is,” Vile says. “You enjoy [life], but you curse it. That’s the way I am anyway – sometimes. I try not to be that way.”
Photo by Shawn Brackbill.