STORY WRITTEN BY DUTCH GODSHALK
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At first, it’s hard to make out what Kurt Vile is saying.
Our phone connection isn’t great, with some indistinct background noise on the line, which is causing his voice to sound distant and hazy. Plus he sounds short of breath, as if he’s pacing around in circles.
Maybe he’s feeling nervous, or tired; or maybe he’s just not feeling up to doing an interview so late on a Friday afternoon. Any of which would be understandable.
After all, Vile has been touring pretty much nonstop for more than a year in support of his new record, 2015’s critically hailed “B’lieve I’m Goin Down” — and he just announced even more dates well into 2017. The guy could probably use some downtime.
That being said, the indie artist does seem to perk up a bit when I mention the obscure Randy Newman song “Pretty Boy,” which he covered for Three Lobed Recordings’ “Parallelogram” series last winter.
“You’re a Randy fan?” Vile asks, the background noise abating.
I tell him I’m a huge Randy fan, yes.
“Ah, cool,” he says. “I went into an insane Randy Newman hole. At first, (the album) ‘Sail Away’ was my favorite — it’s pretty much a masterpiece. I would burn it from vinyl and listen to it in my headphones, it’s so well recorded.”
He says his appreciation for Newman “sort of sank in on tour when I was delirious. I realized that with all his satirical lyrics and delivery, he’s just a great songwriter.”
“Pretty Boy,” the song Vile covered for “Parallelogram,” is a “diamond in the rough, a gold mine,” the artist says. It’s an echoing, synth-laden vignette about a drunken businessman heckling a so-called “tough guy from the streets.” There’s something disquieting about the song. Sardonic and seething, it whispers of violence.
“You can’t find those types of songs by being too safe and listening to the same old hipster (stuff),” Vile explains. “It’s pretty much a masterpiece, and it has this crazy noise section with these weird synths.”
Vile notes that, unlike Newman and country artist John Prine — whom he also covers on “Parallelogram” — he doesn’t really make up stories for songs. His songs amount to a more personal, if not exactly autobiographical, fiction.
“I think I often essentially sing from my perspective,” he says. “It can be psychedelic at times, or whatever, but I never really sing 100 percent in characters. … But you can make it a little weird at least, to try to sway people from figuring you out completely.”
Long-haired and appealingly weird, Kurt Vile will be spending his New’s Year Eve performing at the Fillmore Philly, bringing an end to a year he calls “crazy,” “awful” and full of “a lot of negativity.”
He says among the many hard truths to accept this year was the outcome of the presidential election: “I’m mad that my president has the same first name as my favorite duck.”
“And then all the people dying,” he adds, referring to the year’s spate of celebrity deaths. “Who went first? David Bowie. Prince. Merle Haggard. Guy Clark, who I became a fan of this year. And there are definitely others. Leonard Cohen. This has been a crazy year with all that.”
We both agree it’s been the kind of year that makes us all too aware of our own mortality.
“There’s something in the stars,” he says. “Like, the election, combined with (all) the death. Some people believe the world is constantly going on a negative and positive circle, and we’re just in a dark time right now. Hopefully it gets light again.”
With all the negative energy swirling around 2016, Vile said when he first heard about his NYE show, “I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to celebrate the New Year.’ But you gotta pick yourself back up and be there for the people you love — friends, family.” (And, presumably, fans.)
“Ultimately, when things get really ugly, for a second you think you’re not going to be able to move on,” he says. “But I guess that’s the beauty of being a fighter, you know. You just stay positive.”
IF YOU GO
What: Kurt Vile & The Violators
Where: The Fillmore Philly, 29 E. Allen St., Philadelphia.
When: Saturday, Dec. 31. Show: 8 p.m.
Tickets: General Admission: $35.
More information: www.thefillmorephilly.com.