When they headed up the band The War on Drugs, Kurt Vile and Adam Granduciel were poised to carry on Philadelphia's tradition of sensational duos like Hall and Oates and Gene and Dean Ween. But Vile left shortly after the group's 2008 debut album.
Ten years, seven albums and a slew of EPs later, Kurt Vile and the Violators will roll into the Mission Ballroom on Wednesday, November 6, along with opener Dinosaur Jr. That show will be followed by a string of concerts culminating in a festival gig in Mexico alongside the likes of Billie Eilish and the Raconteurs. After that: an extended break and the celebration of Vile’s fortieth birthday with a Near Year's Eve John Prine concert followed by a family trip to Costa Rica.
“One day, it’d be cool to take a full year off,” Vile muses. “But I’m not gonna do that yet.”
Vile, who's known for being busy, used to drop albums at a frantic pace.
“It’s been every couple of years, but at one point it was more,” he says. “It’d be cool if I had a side fan-club label or something. I’m sitting on a lot of things, but I find it hard. It’s been an intense few years in general, but I’m trying to get more control of my archive, and I do have my hands dipped in various projects. The digital world fucks with my head, but I’m trying to get my basement world together and people in my crew who can help me get my archive together so I’m cranking things out of it. That’s all gonna happen in the next couple years, I would say.”
In 2017, Vile put out a critically acclaimed collaboration with Courtney Barnett, Lotta Sea Lice, which he followed in 2018 with a new LP, Bottle It In. In recent years, he also wrote and recorded with fellow Philly stronghold and guitar god Dean Ween, but they don't know when that project will be released.
“One day it definitely will. We had a real fun winter a couple winters ago," Vile says. "I hope it was just two and not three, but time really does fly, doesn’t it? I can’t wait to reconnect with [Ween], but we have four songs we did with a lot of magic in there."
Vile has also jammed with indie pioneer J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. in the studio and on stage, and says they might do it again at the Mission.
“We’ve had J up on ‘Freak Train’ and ‘Hunchback,’ and I’ve played [with Dinosaur Jr.] on various songs. My favorite song to play on with J is ‘Crumble,’ which is on the first of their reunion records. When it came out, my bandmate, Jesse, the longest-running member of the Violators — I was driving him home somewhere, and I was, like, ‘This is the greatest song; it’s like Dino never left, and I love this song.’ And at that moment, a car hit us; it, like, hit and ran. It was a pretty crazy accident. We didn’t get hurt, but it was pretty close. The car spun around and stuff. So I always tell J about the story, because I sit in and play that with them on stage as much as I can.”
Like Mascis, Vile is known for explosive electric-guitar workouts over oddball but charming lyrics. Asked how he makes gentle acoustic numbers like “Stand Inside” work at larger venues like the 3,900-capacity Mission Ballroom, Vile deadpanned, “Well, who says I’m gonna play ‘Stand Inside’ at that venue?” before breaking into laughter.
“I think songs like ‘Stand Inside’ work in a Violators set when I play it in the middle. You know, I was playing ‘Stand Inside’ when b'lieve i'm goin down... came out; that would be the song I always played in the middle, just because the set has an arc. You come out swinging, usually, and there’s all kinds of up-and-down dynamics with the band, so when you come down in the middle with a solo song...it depends on the electricity going on that day in the gig, but often the acoustic songs get really quiet and sometimes get the best reaction. It depends what the crowd’s into.”
“I don’t think that just the fact that something’s quiet necessarily will not captivate," he adds. "Honestly, it’s like my most natural state — playing acoustic, finger-picking on the couch or something. It’s easier than you think, maybe, to play that in front of 4,000 people. That’d be cool if there are actually 4,000 people there."
Vile’s Colorado following has grown with his regular returns to the state.
One reason for Vile's success is the humor in his lyrics, which evokes “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” and Blonde on Blonde passages like “See the primitive wallflower freeze/When the jellyfaced women all sneeze.”
Vile — whose most recent album included the memorable line “They knighted me yesterday/But who needs armor when I have an exoskeleton?” — considers humor paramount.
“I’m proud of that, and I’m glad that people notice and are catching on to that,” Vile said. “My pet peeve is when people are just straight-up serious in their lyrics all the time. It’s melodrama. I think [humor is] one of the important things in life, that lets you blow off steam. If you can’t be funny, I don't know…
“Humor is kind of the best emotion," he continues. "I don’t know if humor is technically an emotion, but it should be, because it’s one of the most powerful."
Before he made music full-time, Vile had several miscellaneous jobs, including one as a forklift operator. His famous sense of humor erupted when asked whether he ever internally gives thanks on stage for not driving a forklift anymore.
"Well, honestly, driving a forklift was pretty cool. My last job, I didn’t even go in to drive a forklift, but they had one, and I was clearly the best forklift driver by many miles. It's like being in a video game, except it’s real. It’s pretty awesome. It’s like Tetris combined with real life. It made me feel like a man. I'm fond of the forklift, really."
Kurt Vile plays at 8 p.m. November 6, at the Mission Ballroom, 4242 Wynkoop. Tickets are $35.75 to $95 and available at axs.com.
Hear Kurt Vile and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.