- Posted on Mar 7th 2011 7:31PM by Eric R. Danton
Kurt Vile has been releasing music in one form or another since he was 17, and it's sure paying off now. The Philadelphia singer-songwriter is back March 8 with 'Smoke Ring for My Halo,' his fourth album in three years, and second for indie label Matador.
All that music has gotten him name-dropped by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, led to a spot recording with J Mascis on the Dinosaur Jr. frontman's new solo CD and resulted in Vile and his band opening for Big Star at the legendary group's last-ever performance with Alex Chilton in 2009.
Not bad for a guy whose first song chronicled Lex Luthor's hair loss. With a return trip to SXSW in the offing, Vile tells Spinner about learning the banjo, his first foray into recording and, yes, his Superman-inspired song.
What do you remember about the first song you wrote?
I actually wrote a song on my banjo, which was my first stringed instrument. My dad was a bluegrass freak. I wanted a guitar, but he got me a banjo. I wrote this long, strummy instrumental. It had a lot of changes in it and I remember I didn't even sing, but I would stop in the middle and quote Lex Luthor from Superman. There's a back story in Superman. They used to be friends, but something happened with the kryptonite: this giant boulder of kryptonite fell on the ground and made all Lex Luthor's hair fall out, and he was like, "You made all my hair fall out." [Laughs] It was so ridiculous, but that was the refrain, "You made my hair fall out."
How old were you?
Oh, probably 14.
When did you realize music was your life?
Basically when I was in high school.
Was there a moment?
I was always way into it and performing, and I was into skateboarding, too. I remember I recorded a song I had just written on my buddy's brother's four-track. I was just really into it, and it was pretty easy, and I just really went for it. And then I heard it back. It blew my mind. I was like, "Well, today music beats skateboarding."
When did you start asking for a guitar?
My cousin - who's kind of like my older brother, because I didn't have an older brother -- lived down the street. He played drums and he had a band. First he tried to convince me to get a bass guitar, but I really wanted a guitar. I was probably 13 or so, and my dad was like, "I'll get you a banjo." I told my cousin, and he said, "You should get it." I think the following summer, a neighbor across the street who heard us always jamming gave us this cheap acoustic guitar.
How much did you play that banjo?
I played it all the time. I had a guy who had a music shop who gave lessons. He would try to teach me the clawhammer stuff. The first few times, I practiced that, but then I would just strum it. I was interested, obviously, in the music that kids of that age would be into, which is not bluegrass. So I stopped practicing that, and I would bring tapes in for him to teach me songs from ... stuff I was listening to at the time.
Who were you listening to?
Back then, as far as classic rock, I liked some of my dad's Beatles records and Creedence Clearwater and, like anybody else, I was listening to stuff like Smashing Pumpkins. My heroes in the indie rock world were Pavement, and I started to get into Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. The Drag City stuff. Later, I got really into the Stones -- they're my favorites these days. Lou Reed. I liked Lou Reed pretty early. Suicide, John Fahey.
Now you're tight with Sonic Youth.
That's definitely cool. That's the biggest reason I gravitated toward Matador to start with. That, and Pavement. That was like the gateway drug. I knew there was underground punk rock, but I didn't know there was this weird indie rock underground.
Catch Kurt Vile's SXSW Set on Saturday, March 19 at Auditorium Shores Stage (Lady Bird Lake) (Riverside Dr & S 1st St.) 3:30PM.
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