When Kurt Vile performs in Oklahoma City, concertgoers will have a chance to hear his songs in their ultimate form, whatever that means in that moment.
“I think the purest way you can play music is live,” Vile said. “In the studio, there’s plenty of trickery, but if you try to follow the style of, like, the best Neil Young records, he realized at an early age that playing live with people bouncing off of each other in real time, that’s where you get the true organic sound. So you apply that as much as you can to the recordings, which are kind of domino effect inspired by playing live concerts, and then you’ve got the record and then you get back on the road. Everything kind of bounces off of the other thing, really, in an ideal world.”
Vile, scheduled to play with his band the Violators Dec. 5 at The Jones Assembly, 901 W. Sheridan Ave., released Bottle It In, his seventh solo album, in October. The musician and guitarist said he discovered a better method for capturing live energy on a studio album while recording Bottle’s predecessor, 2015’s B’lieve I’m Goin Down...
“Before B’lieve I’m Goin Down..., we had a few rehearsals beforehand,” Vile said, “but it’s almost like it’s better to just go in and while you’re sitting there learn the songs. Usually the earliest versions of it are kind of the purest versions, unless you’re doing some kind of power-pop thing. The magic is in the moment in learning it and stuff before people get tired of it and go through the motions.”
Eventually, to really recreate the experience for the listeners at home, he might have to record live in the studio with an audience.
“But then there’s this other thing with the live show where things reach epic proportions,” Vile said. “So maybe sometime down the line, we could be on the road and book a studio that’s, like, a big live tavern or something and just rock the hell out with new material.”
The cover art for Bottle It In, which features Vile curling his lip Elvis Presley-style in a Planet Fitness T-shirt, came together in an appropriately spontaneous and off-the-cuff way, but only after Vile was afraid the right moment had passed.
“Because I was a little nervous we didn’t capture a candid, in-the-studio shot, but one of [producer] Rob Schnapf’s interns who’s from near where I’m from, we’re very similar, her name’s Mimi Raver, she was taking photos at one of the sessions, hanging out … and I said, ‘You should have Mimi come over tomorrow and take some shots,’ but I forgot she was coming, so then I wore that Planet Fitness shirt that I stole from my brother. I’ve never been to Planet Fitness in my life, but people laugh at it. … We went around the block once, and I was really thinking we wouldn’t get it, and I was like, ‘Aw, shit! I got this Planet Fitness shirt, this low-key outfit,’ but all those things worked themselves out. It’s kind of like the recording thing we were talking about, capturing something with your guard down. It’s often what you’re looking for when you aren’t thinking about it all, when you think it’s not happening or something.”
Schnapf also produced “Pretty Pimpin,” Vile’s best-known song and the opening track from his breakthrough B’lieve, which topped Billboard’s Adult Alternative chart in 2015.
"'Pretty Pimpin’, once it was done, for sure, I knew it sounded like some kind of pop hit,” Vile said. “I did. I never had a radio hit, so I didn’t get my hopes up because I didn’t know what having a hit song maybe on an indie label, quote-unquote, what that would really equal on the real charts, and even so it was a hit and it is still a hit but it’s not like it was number one on the pop charts or something insane, but it was still number one on certain charts. But I like the idea of having a pop hit somehow.”
He might want another chart-topper, but Vile, who titled his solo debut album Constant Hitmaker following his departure from The War on Drugs, said he knows better than to try to intentionally record a “Pretty Pimpin’” part two.
“I’ve discovered that I just can’t force anything,” Vile said. “If something like that’s going to happen again, it’s going to come to me pretty easily. Just one moment when I’m inspired, I’ll have a song and then another level of that is it’s got to be captured in the studio in a certain way so that it will go off or whatever. So it’s best to not force it because then it certainly won’t come if it’s contrived. If you’re just living your life, I know something will happen again, but it’s never going to be exactly the same.”
Recording 2017’s Lotta Sea Lice with Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett gave Vile new insight in how to better capture these moments without second-guessing his instincts.
“I really like working with Courtney because she’s not quite 10 years younger than me, so she has young energy,” Vile said. “She’s 31 and I’m 38, so she was a little fresher, but she would go in and out of her head the same way I do. And I love her voice. Whenever either one of us was in doubt, we’d just tell the other one we loved what they were doing, and it just made things happen really quick.”
Living in the moment can be difficult, especially with the constant intrusions of modern technology. Bottle’s “Mutinies” laments “Small computer in my hand explodin’ / I think things were way easier with a regular telephone.” While technology can simplify the recording process, it can also create distance between performers and their music.
“Ultimately, you’re trying to use the digital tools but treat it like tape, but it’s really a constant battle,” Vile said. “It’s hard to make records the old way, as straight-up music caught on tape. It makes more sense to use the digital tools. … It’s convenient to have a phone. It helps you to get around. It helps you find things easily, and all those things. I’m not against that. Same with Pro Tools technology. It’s the easiest way to go. It’s harder to get the analog thing. You’ve got to really know what you’re doing, but it’s easy with both of those to get carried away and strip everything of its detail and homogenize and overuse everything, so it’s a constant push and pull, I guess, to keep it all in check.”
Tickets are $26-$51, and Los Angeles singer-songwriter Jessica Pratt is scheduled to open. Visit thejonesassembly.com.