Kurt Vile likes to weave a lot of subtle texture through his songs. It can be as simple as the squeak his fingertips make by rubbing the nylon strings on the neck of his acoustic guitar. Or it can be as other-worldly as an electric pulse from a Moog phaser tuned to echo the percussive reverb of his plucking of a guitar string. The ultimate result is a restless guitar-centric sound that can never be reduced to a single. And that makes him one of the most exciting singer-songwriters in modern American rock.
The 33-year-old Philadelphia-based musician refuses to take full credit for the sonic subtleties. He praises his co-producer (since 2010 breakthrough album, Smoke Ring for My Halo), John Agnello, as well as Violaters bandmates, guitarists Jesse Trbovich and Rob Laakso, for many inspired ideas in the recording studio. He also praises his longtime collaborator, Adam Granduciel, in his former band, War on Drugs.
"I can't take all the credit," he volunteers.
See also: Kurt Vile on Pretty Daze: "Who Lately Has Opened an Album With a Nine-Minute Song?"
Yet Vile knows what he likes and how to balance sonic décor, especially when it comes to his own music, which is subtly crafted on many levels. Take the pronounced acoustic guitar sounds that are often inadvertent side effects of the instrument, like those aforementioned fingers sliding on guitar strings.
"It's cool on an atmospheric level, on a sound-effect level, the purist level of folk, in all kinds of ways," he says. "It just all depends, but it can also sound annoying if it is not recorded right, or if it's in the wrong song. It just depends on the song."
Because of their carefully considered sonic quirks and uncommonly intimate vibe, Vile's albums translate well on vinyl, a medium that compliments the understated character of acoustic instruments. However, he speaks about records with equal parts romanticism and practicality.
"I like to listen to vinyl," he admits. "I like to listen to new vinyl. I get excited, but it's not like they sound like the old vinyls. They don't. It's just different. That's just life. It's kind of unfortunate. They just had it down, and then there's a different system, and now it's always somewhat computerized."
Vile has learned to embrace computers in his process, as his music is far from merely acoustic singer-songwriter stuff.
He recognizes the flexibility of current technology. There are moments when he captured things on Pro Tools or employed digital effects. This means the purist's notion that the analog medium of vinyl works best when the source is analog, from directly recorded studio reel tapes, does not apply.
"Most of [the songs] we started to tape," Vile explains. "When we could, we started to tape, but once in a while, if it started too technical, like if I have all these weird concepts with programming the drum machine, I can't remember right now, but sometimes, they would not end up on tape, but ultimately you start on tape and then dump it to Pro Tools when you can ... It's just a couple of songs that start as digital. We still dump the masters to tape... for the final masters."
Unlike Jack White, a known analog and vinyl purist, Vile has no pretensions when it comes to the process of recording.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"Somebody like Jack White can boast that at some point in their career, 'No! There were no computers used with this whatsoever,'" Vile offers in a stern voice. "Well, that's cool, but that's kinda hard to do. It's a luxury. Congrats."
Kurt Vile & the Violators. With Beach Fossils, VBA, and the Band In Heaven. Friday, November 1. Grand Central, 697 N. Miami Ave., Miami. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $15 plus fees via ticketfly.com. All ages. Call 305-377-2277 or visit grandcentralmiami.com.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.