Photography: (Vile) Shawn Brackbill; (Lang) Peter Serling
We caught up with two rock stars and a Pulitzer-winning composer to talk about what they're listening to, where they're traveling, and what they like about playing in Chicago.
Indie rock steamroller Kurt Vile, 33, shows no signs of slowing down. It began with tons of lo-fi home recordings he did in his Philadelphia home, which, in turn, led him to form critically acclaimed group The War on Drugs in 2005. In 2008, he left the group and decided to go solo. His fifth solo effort Wakin On a Pretty Daze was released this past April; he appears in Chicago at Metro on July 11.
Supposedly a Superman cartoon was one of your first lyric inspirations as a kid. What’s your best way to get songwriting inspiration nowadays?
The best way is not to think about it, it just comes out. [Facetiously] It’s a gift, you know? No, I’m just kidding. It usually just comes out of wherever I am. You can listen to music and read books but it’s not like you go “Hh, that reminds me, I’m going to be really inspired and write a song.” I just play my guitar and it comes up. Hasn’t come lately though, I think I’ve written my last song. No, yeah, I don’t know. It’ll be fine.
Do you prefer to write alone or with the band there in the room?
Well, when we’re jamming or in the studio, everyone adds their two cents. But generally speaking, the initial writing is by myself.
Was that a mental switch you made once you left The War On Drugs?
Well, I mean, The War On Drugs was the same thing, it’s just like … Adam [Granduciel] is by best friend. He would play in my Violators band, and I would play in his band, but we didn’t really sit and write songs together. It was accompaniment.
Did you experiment or try anything differently with Wakin On a Pretty Daze compared to your last albums?
We always just try to do new things. I remember I fixed all my synthesizers before this record, which I had used a lot in the past, but we got them all fixed up and are stoked to use them. I didn’t get to use them quite as much as I had liked to, but Rob [Laakso, Vile’s collaborator] brought his whole space station, he used a lot of sequencers and drum machines. Like on the “Wakin on a Pretty Day” song, I wanted to speed up and slow down, which was nerve-racking at first [because sequencers have a set tempo], it was kind of like chasing your tail around, like “what the fuck is he doing?” But the joke’s on the world, ya know? Just kidding.
Favorite music right now: Happy Mondays, Line, Danzig, ’80s or ’90s pop jams
On his nightstand: A collection of short stories by Flannery O’Connor
Favorite thing about Chicago: “Super aware music fans.”
Favorite new piece of music gear: ARP 2600 Synthesizer [played by bandmate Rob Laakso]
Summer travel plans: Playing the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona
The Missouri-born folk troubadour, 26, is a vocal shape-shifter who first made her name as a collaborator with Bonnie “Prince” Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham) and the Cairo Gang. Now she’s out on her own with a full-length album, Half Way Home, and a series of upcoming Chicago shows: She plays Pitchfork on Friday, July 19, and Lincoln Hall on August 16.
Now that you’ve broken out as a solo artist, what has changed?
I still feel like I’ve been training myself and my voice—I’ve had to force myself to sing louder and work harder for other people. And I think it’s paid off. I still feel like I have a lot to learn, but I think that experience prepared me for working with a band on my own and organizing something like that for myself. I definitely have gone through a lot of changes since the first EP [Strange Cacti, released April 2011].
Why do you think your 2012 LP, Half Way Home, landed on so many radars?
I’m not sure. I feel like there’s more going on; there’s an array of different feelings in this record. I feel like at shows people will request me to play songs from Strange Cacti quite a bit—but it wasn’t a very well-produced album, and I think not as accessible. You couldn’t hear every single thing on it. I think this album was more dry and to the point and you could hear what was going on. I think that it can be eaiser for people to listen to something more clear, but maybe I’m wrong.
Did anything change with the songwriting?
I’ve noticed a consistency within some songs, but I think my style is changing; sometimes I’ll listen to an old recording and then something from the recent album, and I’ll find chords that seem like a continuation. There’s an ongoing theme, and I’m starting to notice that now there’s more songs to step away from and listen to.
Did you have any revelations after you were done with the album and listened to it again?
I realized that the song “The Sky Opened Up” was coming from a new place. I was almost afraid to put it on the album, but putting it in with the other songs, even if it doesn’t carry on similar themes—it stands out in my mind as beginning of a different stage in my writing.
You’ve been compared to Patsy Cline. Do you agree?
I think that there’s definitely that kind of nostalgia in some of my writing. I haven’t listened to a lot of country music actually. I’ve always been a fan of the Everly Brothers and a lot of Motown music. It’s what I grew up with; I like to revisit that time.
You’ve done some Dolly Parton covers. Do you self-identify as a country artist?
I never thought about it until someone mentioned it to me once. I’ve only listened to a little Dolly. I started listening to Roger Miller and Loretta Lynn about a year and a half ago only. I was really into Townes Van Zandt, and I can see why people would say that my music is country, but I feel like not every song is like that, not every one has twang to it. Not every one has a Patsy Cline feel to it.
You recently signed to the record label Jagjaguwar. What’s the plan with them? Any upcoming recordings?
I’m working on new material but I have yet to figure out when I’m recording it, but it should be soon. We are booking some tours; I just got the band together in the past few months so we are working on parts for songs and working that out with them now.
Who’s in your band?
Joshua Jaeger [drums] and Stewart Bronaugh [bass] and Danah Olivetree [cello]. Danah came along on the West Coast tour—she’s in so many bands; I have no idea where to begin. She’s so versatile. Josh and Stewart are in a band together called Lionlamb.
How do you feel about playing Pitchfork?
You never know what it’s going to be like at shows, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the attendance. I’m looking forward to playing my first U.S. festival show in my hometown. And seeing Bjork and Joanna Newsom if I can.
What’s different about playing festival versus a more intimate indoor show?
It’s always a little strange, but it gives the artist the chance to share music with a large amount of people at once. I’ve played a lot of fests with Will [Oldham] and the Cairo Gang, and I’m comfortable with the idea at least. It can be an experience.
You’re from St. Louis but have been living in Chicago for a few years. Where do you like to hang out?
I really like the Burlington. It’s kinda small but I’m into it. I always like performing at the Hideout. I played Lincoln Hall only once but I’ll tell you after my show [Olsen plays there August 16]. I only hear good things about the sound there. My friends work at Reckless; Logan Hardware is down the street from my house so sometimes I’ll pop in there. It’s interesting because they have an arcade room, which is random. In case you get bored looking for records, you can play some pinball.
I know you’ve had a lot of success with this record – in what ways have things changed for you?
I have to plan a lot for the future constantly. That’s not something I’m used to, making plans. For performances, six months in advance. I feel I’ve been pretty blessed with the people surrounding me – the Jagjaguwar people and Bathetic Records too. They’re the reason why anybody knows what’s going on with my music. I’m really happy with the band I met—they’re into what I’m doing and willing to share their ideas with me. I wouldn’t ask for a better situation. It all happened really fast but has been really amazing so far.
Favorite Chicago hangout: The Burlington
On her iPod: Lionlamb and Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society
On her nightstand: Land at the End of the World by António Lobo Antunes
Dream collaborator: Judy Dyble (Fairport Convention)
Summer travel plans: Finding swimming holes in North Carolina
David Lang, 56, has gotten a lot of play in Chicago recently. In April, the New York–based composer and co-founder of the influential new-music collective Bang on a Can was in town to hear Eighth Blackbird perform his piece How to Pray and movements from his songs Death Speaks. Then, in May, he returned to hear the International Contemporary Ensemble premiere The Whisper Opera, the quietest piece you’ll ever hear, on a custom stage at the MCA for a mere 60 listeners. On August 26, Ravinia presents his Pulitzer-winning The Little Match Girl Passion, a work for four singers.
You’ve had a lot of success with The Little Match Girl Passion, winning the Pulitzer and getting new music’s greatest compliment, repeat performances.
Yes, it’s been performed many, many times, which is great.
Is it your most-performed piece?
I don’t think so. My most performed piece is a percussion solo from 1991 called Anvil Chorus. It’s turned into sort of a required percussion piece. It’s really embarrassing, but that’s the one that’s probably getting the most performances. It’s ubiquitous.
I actually saw that just this past winter, when David Skidmore of Third Coast Percussion performed it.
I didn’t realize this while I did it . . . I had this idea that I would describe the instruments that are used. Just describe . . . “this is what a melody instrument could be. This is what a harmony instrument could be.” So [because the instrumentation is only obliquely specified] every person’s performance is different. The performance that you heard, that guy who played it, it’s just theirs and nobody else’s.
What’s it like to win a Pulitzer?
You spend your whole life as a composer waiting for somebody to take your stuff seriously. It meant that I’m no longer the barbarian idiot drooling in the corner.
Was that really a big problem for you before? Like did people think Bang on a Can was just a lot of people banging on cans?
I think a lot of people did think that. But I have a kind of validation now that makes it possible for people to work with me and play my music. I get the benefit of the doubt that I’m not gonna mess up or waste their time or something. I’ve been really trying to push that. The Whisper Opera, I think, is a result of something like this. If people are really curious, they’re willing to let me go a little further. It should be my responsibility to go as far as I can.
If I can make people change their opinions about what music can be, that’s a fantastic thing for everybody, I hope. At least it’s more fun for me. There’s a lot of stuff I want to do. I’ll see where my curiosity will lead me.
Why do you think The Little Match Girl Passion has had such success, of all of your pieces? Do you think it sounds qualitatively different from your other work?
A lot of my [pieces] sound different from each other. When I grew up, composers were supposed to find one sound or a way that their pieces were identifiable by what they sounded like. That made a lot of sense, making yourself into a little aural commodity.
But I thought maybe the way to do it was to think about them the same way. Build them the same way, do the prep work in the same way. Some of my pieces are aggressive and fast. Some are depressing and miserable and slow. Some are boring. But they’re all made pretty much the same way, with the same thought behind them.
So much of Western music history comes from religious music written for the church. Bach, the Mozart Requiem, [and so forth]. Our Western music began because the church was our employer. [Listeners] needed music to help them find God. So there’s a way in which, because I put this thing in a pseudo-religious environment, used music that would [orient] the listener in that sort of tradition, it’s easier to hear this music than some of my other stuff. Also because I think it’s a religious message, but universal and not specific to any one religion.
Is The Little Match Girl Passion more accessible than your other work?
All of my pieces have a doorway, they all are about something; they all have a kind of narrative. But because this piece is in this environment of religious music and pseudo-medieval sounds and storytelling, there’s a way in which the building blocks are really recognizable.
Is it intended to be a religious piece?
It’s really about me investigating myself. Why do we have religion? What is the value of this? We want to be in a community of people who believe in something, because we’re terrified of dying by ourselves. Why can’t music come out and say that?
It’s really a timeless theme, even though it’s a specific fairy tale, isn’t it? Absolutely. I looked at [the true-crime murder story of] Kitty Genovese [as a potential topic for the piece], and other stories to tell. The Little Match Girl was not my first choice. I went to The New York Times and read obituaries of normal people to find somebody else who suffered. I couldn’t make those things work. They were either too specific or not well-known enough. It had to be something mythical and that was known as widely as the story of the gospels. [I realized] finally I had to find a tragic story that everyone would know.
I definitely think there’s a political message in that piece. I don’t like the kind of art that tells you what to think. But I like the idea that thinking about the art may lead you to a kind of way of changing the world that you live in. I’m very idealistic about people thinking.
What words should people use more when they talk about music?
Words that describe the emotions of things. That’s why people like music, because it makes an emotional connection, yet we don’t really talk about that that much. People in the business, in education and growing up, talk about expression and technical details.
What words should they use less?
One thing I really hate . . . I hate two things. One is the description of what you’re supposed to be listening to moment to moment. [In a hoity-toity voice] “Now the tune moves from the oboe to the cello . . .” And I really hate the pretentious intellectual. I really hate the [back to hoity-toity] “And now my series of notes changes combinatorially.” I hate jargon. I think people should talk about music like they’re normal people.
On his iPod: Bob Dylan and the New York Public Theater recording of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera with Raul Julia
On his nightstand: The Man in the Iron Mask, by Alexandre Dumas
Dream collaborator: Tony Bennett
Vices: Left-wing political blogs
Favorite city to visit: Copenhagen
Favorite Chicago hangout: the Art Institute
Summer travel plans: Rome. Going for work is “not exactly a vacation, but it’s not going to be at all horrible to be there.”
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