KURT Vile admittedly doesn’t do many artist-on-artist interviews, but he does make the odd exception for friends and musicians he admires.
Like Melbourne artist Jess Ribeiro, who supported Kurt at his solo performance at Meeniyan Town Hall in country Victoria in 2017.
Jess wrote a song inspired by watching Kurt perform at Meeniyan called ‘We Went Walking’, an unreleased track that missed the cut for her most recent album LOVE HATE; while Kurt and Courtney Barnett brought Jess in to sing backup vocals on their collaborative 2017 album, Lotta Sea Lice.
A few hours before Kurt’s show at The Croxton in Melbourne in late-April 2019, the pair caught up over a coffee at Cam’s Cafe in Abbotsford, discussing recording tricks, the rigours of touring, dropping acid at a PJ Harvey show, and whether men have menstrual cycles.
KURT: I really like your song ‘Painkiller’ on your new album. It’s got like a double meaning, or maybe it’s just a single meaning. At first you think you need some drugs to take the pain away but then really it’s a person. [Laughs]
JESS: Well, it’s got a few meanings behind it. One of them was, when we were in the studio in New Zealand with Dave Mudie and Jade [McInally aka Jade Imagine]. Dave was telling us a story about when he was first on tour with Courtney [Barnett] and they were just starting to get really big. It was his birthday and they went go kart riding or something, and he had a crash. He told everyone, he’s like, “Oh my ribs are really sore!” They were like, “Yeah, whatever you wuss.” And then he’s like, “I think they’re broken”, and no one believed him. But he had broken his ribs and said that even playing [drums] hurt so much. Eventually he got these really strong pain killers and that kind of weaved itself into the song. It’s like this hidden joke about getting addicted to prescription drugs.
KURT: Hey, that’s easy to do. [Laughs]
JESS: Tell me about your new record [Bottle It In]. I was listening to it yesterday and I really like this space, the instrumental space in between your vocals. I don’t know if that makes sense.
KURT: Thank you. Well, I’ll tell you what I do on pretty much every song on that record. Ideally, I just do it all – I’m playing guitar and singing at the same time.
KURT: Oh, yeah. And ideally I’m playing live with the band as much as possible. Not putting the system down, but a lot of times engineers want you to just start with one thing, and then do the other thing, and then do the other thing. But next thing you know, I’m not really playing with the song anymore, I’m just like going through an exercise. For my music it’s almost just like an impression of the song but it’s not the true performance of the song. I keep it [as] live as possible. Neil Young would tell you the same thing, Bob Dylan would tell you the same thing and so would … I don’t know who else, a lot of people.
But I discovered that I’ve got to do that as much as possible because I’ll just second guess or do a million takes, it’s also the problem with live. That’s also the problem with computer recording – it’s easy to just do a bunch of takes. Like, “Try it again, try it again, try it again”, and next thing you know you’ve got a real mess. I don’t have the patience to go through it. It’s fatiguing.
JESS: That’s so weird because when I listen to the new record, I was like, “Whoa, this is so seamless.” I felt like you’d recorded all of the instrumental stuff [separately] because of the timing and the space of your vocals…
KURT: I love your new record [LOVE HATE]. Obviously it’s pretty new to me. There’s like cool, beautiful feedback and things. Are you playing that?
JESS: So on one of the tracks Jade and I did a lot of guitar feedback, but then it was really put back in the mix. It was so fun to make and to play, but it became like more of a texture or something underneath it…
KURT: There’s sort of melodic feedback going on though that I’m talking about. It’s not far back in there. It’s pretty up front.
JESS: Well, that would be this New Zealand guy called Ben Woods.
KURT: Oh, that Kiwi fella.
JESS: Yeah, the Kiwi fella. I just said to him, “I kind of want this shadow monster that like walks through the record”, and that’s all I had to tell him and then he did it! And I was like, “Yeah, that’s it!”
KURT: Is that what you really said? A shadow monster?
JESS: Yeah, I wanted this creeping shadow monster to be walking through the background of the songs because that’s how I was feeling. It was like yin yang, light and dark.
KURT: That’s beautiful because that’s life.
JESS: It’s life. Do you do lots of interviews like this?
KURT: No. Only when I want to. Only when I agree to them. I agreed to this, I’m happy to do it. We’re friends. I love your music. I loved your last record.
JESS: Oh, Kill it Yourself?
KURT: Real beautiful. I have that on vinyl. You gave it to me.
KURT: And Mick Harvey. Remember we got him to visit?
JESS: He came in to say hello and then you just got him to play.
KURT: We got to him to play bass. He was like, “I have 10 minutes”, and he played bass on the song you sing back up on [‘OuttaThe Woodwork’ from Lotta Sea Lice] … That’s when I sort of learned the Australian way. I thought you had worked it all out. I thought you’d be like, “Mick, come meet Kurt and maybe play on a track”, but it’s more like, you just brought him over and nobody told him anything. So I had to quick act.
JESS: That’s how we work.
KURT: Yeah! And he’s like, “Oh no, I just came in to visit” I was like, “Oh cool”.
JESS: He just came in to say hello.
KURT: I noticed I had this small window and then I was like, “You want to play on this track?” And he’s like, “Sure, I’ve got.. seven minutes.”
JESS: Yes and then he did it! And he played really well!
KURT: Oh, yeah.
JESS: I didn’t know that that’s what you wanted. I thought you were just…
KURT: Oh, I mean, it wasn’t all I wanted. I wanted to meet him for sure. But I love what he did with that record of yours. It’s kind of open and orchestral and real pretty … Not too long after that when I went back to the States I saw Mick play with PJ Harvey. Have you seen him play with PJ Harvey?
JESS: Yeah, oh my god. The first time I saw him play with PJ Harvey, he invited me to go to the Primavera Festival in Barcelona. I went with him and his family and then I went back stage and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m going to meet PJ, this is going to be fucking awesome.” And then I went outside to the crowd and someone just randomly was like, “Hey man, do you want some acid?”
KURT: Oh no!
JESS: And I took it! And then I had like this massive spiritual experience watching them play.
JESS: And when they were holding their instruments it was like they were in some kind of spiritual army and their instruments were like their guns.
KURT: Whoa. Very military operation?
JESS: Yeah, and I was like, “Wow, they’re like spiritual initiates. They’re like peace warriors.” Anyway. But then I saw the show a few more times when I was sober and it was so good.
KURT: So you didn’t meet her backstage while tripping?
JESS: No, I could not bring myself to go back. They tried to call me on the phone and I wouldn’t answer. I was like way too [high].
KURT: Oh, that’s amazing.
JESS: [I’m] embarrassed now … So what else is happening? I mean, you’re touring at the moment.
"If I had to pick my favourite American superstar though, it's definitely Miley Cyrus. I think she's top of the pops."
KURT: Yeah, touring at the moment. Going good. I been on a lot of long tours in a row, like three or four. I was ready to quit by the end of the last one in the States. Not really, but kind of in my head I had an endgame in mind. But obviously we know it – this is just what we do. And it’s good to be, honestly here, in Melbourne in particular. When I was recording with Courtney, we were hanging out a lot. This is definitely like [a] second home to me. It’s like the fifth time I’ve been here. We’re here for like a week. My family’s here. It feels pretty natural. This is the reason why I keep doing what I do.
JESS: Do you think that after all of these years you kind of, it’s like a cyclic thing? Like at the end, like you said you were ready to quit. Is it like a seasonal thing? It’s like the winter, the end?
KURT: I don’t know
KURT: I think I’m getting a little older, but I’m definitely not going to quit … Yeah, the whole cycle thing, when it gets too similar. Like you make the record, it almost kills you, and then you finally turn it in and you’re like, “Alright now I can chill.” Then they’d say, “Oh, you gotta do a press tour.” And you’re like, “No!” Then you’re like, “Well, I’d better do it.” Then all of a sudden it’s intense for months going on the road, and figuring out with the band. I’ve done that cycle enough times that I know…
I think I knew on the last record that I had to make the record while I was on the road because I couldn’t stomach the idea of doing like a year or two of touring and then starting a record from scratch … Now I feel like I’m ready. When this cycle is over, I am going to take my time and…
JESS: Make something?
KURT: Make something, and I’ll still go on and off the road if I feel like it.
JESS: What’s it like having a family and touring?
KURT: I’m lucky to have both. I’m lucky to have a family that I miss and who miss me, and then you get to come home to them. Or they’re involved right now, which is awesome. But you know, music is my obsession, that’s the funny part … I feel like everybody’s been doing it for so long. It’s fun, but I’m seeing the cracks. Everybody’s looking forward to a break. How about you?
JESS: We tour Australia in July, and then hopefully we go to Europe in October. We’ve been invited to a festival there but we’ll just see. I want to start making a new album because this one took so long to get out. I recorded it two years ago with Dave and Jade. I mean, is that the usual cycle for you? How old is your record?
KURT: I don’t know. Not that old.
JESS: I just want to make some new things! But I love playing shows and I love travelling, and it’s probably different for me because I’m in a different place than you. For instance Katie [Besgrove], Courtney’s manager, said to me today “Ask Kurt what’s it like to be an American superstar!” That’s what she said.
KURT: Well. The answer is, it’s awesome. [Laughter] No, I love to play shows, too. Once I get up there I know why I do it. Especially a place like here in Melbourne, you know.
JESS: Melbourne. Yeah, you’re getting a good accent!
KURT: [Laughs] That’s weird. I’ve been here too long.
JESS: A week.
KURT: Put me in the pictures, that’s what I want.
JESS: Have you done any movies?
JESS: Do you think you’ll do a collaboration with Lady Gaga?
KURT: Oh, man.
JESS: You might!
KURT: I don’t know. I’m semi buddies with Lukas Nelson.
JESS: Who’s Lukas Nelson?
KURT: He’s Willie Nelson’s, one of his sons. Promise of the Real, they back up Neil Young. He worked on that movie with Lady Gaga [A Star Is Born]. He plays in the band. I think he wrote some of the songs, but I can tell it affected him. He’s got starry eyes for Lady Gaga, so I better be wary because I don’t want to be too under her spell. But I do respect her. I enjoyed A Star is Born.
If I had to pick my favourite American superstar though, it’s definitely Miley Cyrus. I think she’s top of the pops. She’s really coming into her own, but I think Lady Gaga has really sort of come into her natural own as well. I think her voice is really beautiful right now … But how about you? You’re an Australian star. What’s that like?
JESS: Well, pretty underrated.
KURT: Yeah I would say you are an underrated Australian star. But from where I’m standing, you’re just as big as the others. I have no perspective but that’s a good thing.
JESS: When do you get lots of money [as a musician]?
KURT: When do you get lots of money? Well, it’s hard over here because everything’s so expensive. If you live here I don’t know, it would take longer.
JESS: Yeah I mean, it’s so expensive to travel, to tour here, you know?
KURT: And you’re so far, you’re isolated.
JESS: We’re so far away!
KURT: But I am 39 years old pushing 40. Well, not pushing 40 because I just turned 39 more or less. I’ve been doing it, and I was doing my own music since I was a teenager, and then nobody actually put my music out until I was 28 years old. So that was over 10 years ago. And, I’m making a living now. But I’m not like, rich or anything.
JESS: How many shows would you do a year, you know? That’s my dream, when I look at how many shows you do all over.
KURT: Well, yeah. You do have to do that. You’ve got to play every show you can. Get a good manager. Somebody who raises the fees, you know. Just play as many shows as you can, for as the highest fees you can squeeze out of people. All those kinds of things are important.
JESS: Last time I heard from you we were at South By Southwest last year in Texas, and I think you helped us to borrow an amp or something. That was my first time playing at South by Southwest. How many times have you done it?
KURT: I’ve played there three or four times. But only the first couple did I have to really hustle. Any other time I came back because there was an actual paying gig or something. Then the last time I was there, it was really cool because I got to play the Luck Reunion, which is just outside of Austin. It was at Willie Nelson’s ranch.
JESS: Oh that’s right!
KURT: That was really exciting, I went on a road trip. I had finished mixing most of my album in California, my family met me in Palm Springs, and then we drove to Texas basically from there. Really scenic, awesome drives through Texas and ended at Willie Nelson’s ranch. It was a very American thing to do, I guess. But, it was pretty cool.
JESS: Did you meet him?
KURT: I met Willie once, not then, just for a second. But his sons, Promise of the Real – who also back up Neil Young – they backed me up for a couple of jams and that was a very special moment. We did ‘Pretty Pimpin’ which is my song, and then we did a song called ‘Roll On John’ by Bob Dylan … I guess it’s about John Lennon but it’s like 10 verses long. We did a cover of that. It’s cool.
JESS: Cool, sweet, nice.
KURT: Do you ever do cover songs?
JESS: That’s a good question. Sometimes. I’m really bad at remembering them. But yeah, I used to do a cover of the song ‘Kanga Roo’ by Big Star … Once I did a Bowie cover.
"I went back stage and I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm going to meet PJ [Harvey].' ...And then I went outside to the crowd and someone just randomly was like, 'Hey man, do you want some acid?'"
KURT: So only when they speak to you?
JESS: Only when they speak to me.
KURT: Yeah, I’m the same. They’re usually relatively obscure. Songs you know you can take … and nobody’s going to be doing it anytime soon, or definitely not the way you’re doing it at the time.
JESS: I used to do a cover of the Heartless Bastard’s song ‘Could Be So Happy’.
KURT: Oh! You like the Heartless Bastards?
JESS: I love the Heartless Bastards.
KURT: So do you want to tell me anything else about your new album?
JESS: About my new album?
JESS: I don’t know. I made it with Jade and Dave.
KURT: Love them both.
JESS: I don’t know, I’m really premenstrual right now so when it happens I get really foggy headed.
KURT: Me too!
JESS: Yeah, well I wanted to ask you, do you think that men have a menstrual cycle?
KURT: Yes. Man-stural.
JESS: Man-strual! You’re like a man-struating minstrel?
KURT: Yes. I woke up a little moody today. I thought it was my time.
JESS: Yeah, it’s close. It’s my time too Kurt. We must be in sync. Syncing up!