There are certain words and phrases that tend to pop up over and over in reviews of Kurt Vile's work. For his most recent album, b'lieve i'm going down, publications like Paste and Pitchfork used "slacker," "stream-of-consciousness," "tossed-off," and, most interestingly, "effortless."
It's worth noting that these terms are used to describe an album that was recorded in 10 different studios and featured songs that Vile himself says he "obsessed" over. So how does it feel to have critics and music writers constantly mentioning how ramshackle the whole thing sounds?
"It's not 'effortless' when you're listening to something over and over again and obsessing on it," Vile says. "But ideally if you're a musician, you get better skill-wise and so your music feels more natural. If you think of someone who fingerpicks guitar, it's complicated at first, but it becomes like a rhythm, and the same could be said for singing. I think the best thing is to sound effortless. That doesn't mean I wasn't in and out of the studio recording way more than we needed, and that some of that didn't go as well as other times, but there should be some level of effortlessness. It shouldn't sound forced."
But the fact is, b'lieve i'm going down is quite focused. Vile's vocals do have something of a flat, here-goes-nothing feel to them, but his dizzying fingerpicked acoustic and electric riffs are startlingly precise, the beats are loud and upfront, and the album as a whole mixes walk-of-life indie rock with alt country and Americana quite effectively. In a lot of ways, it seems like a culmination of Vile's previous records, mixing the more introspective, folky vibe of 2013's Wakin' on a Pretty Daze and 2011's ethereal Smoke Ring for My Halo with the guitar rock of his first two self-recorded releases.
In fact, b'lieve i'm going down was such an effective combination of his different styles that Vile doesn't seem to know yet where he wants to go from here. "It definitely was a cleansing record in a way," he says. "The two records I made before that one, they were great experiences. I worked with John Agnello [who's produced everyone from Alice Cooper to Rosanne Cash], and he's a professional producer who helped me crank out some songs and make concise records. They were important records to me, but after those, I knew I had to get back to my roots and try to capture these tunes the way they were when I was sitting on my couch. It just got to a point where I felt like I was in a factory."
The album was produced primarily by Vile and his bandmate Rob Laakso, and it marked a conscious effort on Vile's part to work more quickly and avoid lingering when it came to making decisions. "I was trying to get away from living in the studio for too long and listening to things over and over again, and next thing you know you're overly dissecting everything," he says. "I like the idea of going in and out fast. I'm still working on that scenario, though. I've been recording in-between tours and not listening to it right then. I've been coming back to it later. It's a constant battle, because it's easy to get obsessive. I'm trying to get back to the way it was when I was recording in my house, except I've got other people recording me. It's a very laid-back, guard fully down, human way to record."
Vile says that making himself stop fussing over minute details when he records has been difficult, because he has a tendency to miss the forest for the trees in the studio. "The music is going to come; you can't force it," he says. "But the difficult part when I've been making the last few records has been how much I get into it, and I'm not able to make decisions at the end. Some people are really good at knowing what they want right away, hearing it all, and committing. Neil Young is really good at that. I feel like some of my songs should've been finished quicker. I feel like the process of making records takes too long these days. The mixing, all those things, you spend too much time. I almost have a phobia about it now."
So where does that leave Vile as he begins to make his next album? He's not quite sure. "I'm starting from the ground up again, I feel like," he says. "Every now and then you have to change it up a little bit, and that's kind of where I'm at right now. I haven't thought of an ideal producer for my next record. I feel like I'm getting back to my organic basics. And I don't know if I'm going to get a big-name producer to help me bang it out or if I'll just have engineers helping me. In some ways, I'm the ideal producer for it. I've written a lot of stripped-down, acoustic songs, but I also have grander ideas that I wouldn't be able to pull off by myself. Maybe I'll just do a combination of all of those and see what happens."