Alt rocker Kurt Vile, playing Allentown's Miller Symphony Hall, looks to capture evolution on new EP
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Philadelphia indie rocker Kurt Vile calls his new disc, "Back to Moon Beach," released Friday, Nov. 17, an EP.
Were it not for Vile's reputation as a non-linear, follow-your-muse musician, that would seem just wrong: The disc includes nearly an hour of music and nine songs — more than most full-length albums these days.
But in a call from his Philadelphia home to promote his show tonight as headliner for the 75th anniversary of Muhlenberg College's student radio station WMUH-FM, Vile explains the EP designation is about the timing of the disc rather than what it offers.
"Ultimately, when you put out something between albums, they’ll call it a supplemental EP," Vile said, noting that "Back to Moon Beach" comes after his first release on Verve Records — 2022's "Watch My Moves" — to which he signed after a decade on Matador Records.
"Technically, you know, it’s just a compilation of things that didn’t make my albums. But I’m constantly recording, so it’s not like so simple, like, an outtakes collection."Kurt Vile
Vile said "Back to Moon Beach" bridges the span of songs he wrote between labels, during COVID-19 lockdowns and other random recordings.
"The first recordings for this album were started back in September 2019, which is the first of, you could say, the Verve years, which was me knowing I was probably going to sign to Verve," Vile said.
“And four of the songs are from that era — before the pandemic hit. And another song, ‘Cool Water,’ was also recorded a little, a month or so, later, right before the pandemic hit.
"But other than that, it was stuff that was happening from the start of the pandemic — from handing in my last album till now, where I’m just working in my home studio, [going] into some studios along the way and friends along the way.
“But technically, you know, it’s just a compilation of things that didn’t make my albums. But I’m constantly recording, so it’s not like so simple, like, an outtakes collection."
So the disc includes "deep tracks, deep cuts, all contenders that, but for various reasons. didn’t make it onto a full length."
Journey to jazz — and his heroes
Vile's musical journey has been well documented through his releases, from his starting Philadelphia rock band The War on Drugs through his country-rock hit "Pretty Pimpin'," which in 2018 hit No. 1 on Billboard's Adult Alternative chart, and through his later psyche-pop releases.
As if to exemplify Vile's journey, the title track of "Back to Moon Beach," he said, "is in particular, sort of is my closest version to some version of spiritual jazz."
"I mean, it’s got a sort of rock 'n' roll pulse — it’s not a hundred percent free [form jazz], but under the circumstances and playing the shows, some with the Sun Ra Arkestra again, I always say the ghost of Sun Ra is right around the corner from me," he said.
Vile says he's a huge fan of Sun Ra — the influential avante-garde and highly free improvisation spiritual jazz artist whose career spanned 50 years from the 1940s to the 1990s.
Sun Ra Arkestra will open Vile's show at Miller Symphony Hall.
"I don’t live far from his house where he lived, and [his sax player] Marshall Allen still lives there," Vile said.
But plenty of other genres are represented on "Back to Moon Beach," including the aforementioned country rock on its opening track, "Another Good Year for the Roses."
The song is a reference to county music legend George Jones's "A Good Year for the Roses."
“I read George Jones’ [autobiography] ‘I Live to Tell it All.’ And then somewhere along the way, my bandmate Kyle, he told me about the song ‘Good Year for the Roses,’ and it was transforming," Vile said. "It was the most beautiful song ever.
“So the lyrics from back then, 2015 or so. But I didn’t write it down … till I got with some like-minded friends and bandmates — musician friends. … It’s just a reference to, the lyrics say, ‘By the way, everybody knows that was the greatest country song, sung by the man possessed – I meant to say ‘possessed by the devil,’ but I said ‘possessed like the devil, like myself.’
“Just being influenced by those crazier types. Like George Jones, if you read the autobiography, you know what I’m talking about. Or The Killer, you know, Jerry Lee Lewis. Infamous heroes.
"And he was my hero for a long time. I had a George Jones hanging out with the Easter Bunny on my shirt when I went on stage all the time — things like that.”
The disc also has a reference to Tom Petty, with the song "Tom Petty’s Gone (But Tell Him I Asked for Him).”
“The day Tom Petty passed, I was stuck behind a microphone, trying to do a film score that I never ended up [doing] because I was about to go on tour with Courtney Barnett, actually, back in 2017," Vile said.
“The day he passed, that was a big deal. I was strumming into the recorder and I started singing those words — ‘Tom Petty’s gone and I’m long gone/How am I ever gonna make amends with myself for never getting to talk to him?’
“You know, you can get lost in Tom Petty. What a spirit he was — true American songwriter, etc.
“I really think it’s because however you’re feeling, they enhance that mood. Like if you’re feeling down, he’d be on the radio, a song like ‘Wildflowers’ comes on or ‘Time to Move On,’ ‘Won’t Back Down,’ “Learning to Fly’ but I ain’t got wings – like, those songs hit you when you’re by yourself. They can hit you when you’re with your friends, too, but if you’re driving around and that song comes on …
“He got those songs on the actual radio. It’s not just like you’re favorite from the old days. He was often on the radio, as well. And so to speak to you like that, right through the radio wave, he was an important person.”
The disc also includes a cover of Bob Dylan's "Must Be Santa" with backing vocals by Vile's daughters.
“Last year, Spotify was doing like a Christmas comp[ilation], and they asked me," he said. "I knew I was going to put it out this year anyway — we’ve been slowly making a pretty fun music video for it.
“But I said to Spotify, 'Well, if I can do Bob Dylan’s ‘Must Be Santa,’ I’ll do it.' Bob Dylan, I love him."
'Capturing life evolving per album'
As he did on "Watch My Moves," Vile said he recorded much of the new disc's songs in his new home studio.
“['Watch My Moves'] was my first album on another label, and I just wanted to come out swinging, making my own statement with my new family," Vile said.
"And also knowing that I wanted to get back to my roots at the same time, with recording on my own as much as possible, or at least having those capabilities — like they used to do in the old days, with lo-fi equipment. Not too lo-fi, not a cassette four-track or anything, but, like digital eight-track or whatever.
“So this is me. It was a journey to get back there, to finally be able to do that in the comfort of my own universe."Kurt Vile
“So this is me. It was a journey to get back there, to finally be able to do that in the comfort of my own universe.
“The way my life is, ideally, is that you’re capturing life evolving per album. Just get it done — whatever your latest inspirations and influences are, but also real-life stuff, like getting a studio together getting your life together," Vile said with a laugh.
“Like somebody who works with tools has to have a tool shed at least, you know?"
WMUH 75th Anniversary Show, featuring Kurt Vile and The Violators, with Sun Ra Arkestra and Catatonic Suns, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, Miller Symphony Hall, 23 N. 6th St., Allentown. Tickets: $30-$45 (some areas sold out), www.millersymphonyhall.org.