One senses adrenaline in Kurt Vile’s voice when he answers the phone. But the singer/guitarist isn’t busy rehearsing with his band the Violators. He’s minding his young daughters at his parents’ Philadelphia house on the eve of a birthday party.
“It’s the perfect seesaw I guess,” Vile says of balancing his priorities as both a family man and a musician touring in support of one of 2013’s best albums, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. “The hardest part is getting it together to go out again.”
His band’s getting it together now for the festival season, starting with the May 25 finale of Boston Calling’s spring rock fest at City Hall Plaza and winding back on July 26 for the Newport Folk Festival. While he regularly swaps between electric and acoustic guitars, Vile doesn’t plan to approach Newport differently.
“Bob Dylan already got through it at Newport for going electric in ’65, so I think we can pretty much do whatever we want,” says Vile, 34. “We’re going to be coming straight from opening for Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds in Philly, so that tells me I’m going to be pretty jacked and not necessarily feeling too folky.”
Not that Vile presents himself as an anthemic rocker. He’s more of a slow-burn guy, especially on Wakin on a Pretty Daze, unspooling melodic guitar jams that are laconic in tone and pace, bridging the dreamy and the dynamic around his drawled musings. Even when lengthy songs like the album’s title track, or “Goldtone,” approach the 10-minute mark, he floats through chord progressions as though time has been suspended.
“When I’m playing my music, that’s a pretty natural state, so I’m just in the zone,” Vile says. “It’s hypnotic in its own way, but you need to have these subtle changes to change the mood for a second and then go back… If you’re recording the song and you’re really feeling it, and bobbing your head, it’s awesome.”
Vile began bobbing his head as a teenager, adopting the dual influences of classic rockers like Neil Young and Tom Petty and noisy indie upstarts like Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. Yet his father, a bluegrass lover, first gave Vile a banjo at age 14. “The first stringed instrument I learned was like an open tuning, and it’s got that high drone string,” Vile says of qualities that he soon applied to guitar.
Inspiration from fingerpicking icon John Fahey also echoes through “Too Hard,” a droll tune written when Vile’s first daughter was born during a heavy touring cycle. “I’ll promise not to party too hard,” he sings, then drags the last two words in refrain before slyly adding, “It’s too hard.”
Vile got hip to Fahey during a hard period in Boston, where he lived for two years after high school. While his wife sought a master’s in poetry from Emerson, he drove a forklift at an air freight company. “That was pretty brutal,” says Vile, who at least earned enough money for musical gear. “I wasn’t going to college but people my age were, so I met some cool people, like record nerds, who would sit around and party and listen to more obscure music.”
When he and his wife returned to Philly, Vile enrolled in community college, “a direct result of the two years of working that crappy job, thinking I had to go to school.” He lasted one semester and got back on a forklift at a brewery, but his musical woodshedding in Boston had built confidence. He made lo-fi recordings with friends on home turf and met kindred spirit Adam Granduciel, helping him launch the War on Drugs while Granduciel contributed to Vile’s work.
“People would come up to me like ‘Oh, you’re the guitar player in the War on Drugs’—they still do it,” Vile says of confusion over his role in Granduciel’s band. “I was always pursuing my solo career, but we benefitted from each other.”
One last misconception to clarify: Kurt Vile isn’t a stage name, or his parents’ nod to composer Kurt Weill. “They did not know who he was at the time, so it was just a coincidence,” he says. “But I don’t think it was a coincidence… cosmically.”
Kurt Vile and the Violators play Boston Calling on May 25.