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FEATURE: Kurt Vile

KURT VILE

KURT Vile is no mug.

The Philadelphian singer, songwriter, producer, and purveyor of delectably laid-back indie-folk tunes has been a guest in our country a smattering of times, but he’s got his audience pretty well sussed.

“I think Australians, in general, really feel music,” he says. “It’s a record nerd, gut-level or emotional thing; maybe an obsessive thing, which is very similar to the way I am. But there’s also a ball-busting, bullshit artist type of thing they can tap into, and [they] can have a good laugh. I feel they are really serious about music but also they can just bullshit and bust balls; they’re both equal. You know how to fuck with somebody to show that you love them. I feel a lot of Australians have those kinds of humour and emotions, you know?”

The 36 year-old will tour Australia solo for the first time in February and March, leaving his band The Violators at home. Successful previous sojourns and a recent surge in popularity here mean the idea of playing venues and shows the size of Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Taronga Zoo and Golden Plains Festival doesn’t faze him.

“I’ve been to Australia enough – this will be the fourth time coming up – to feel like it won’t make a difference,” he says. “I’ll be zoning out; kind of in my comfort zone. I’m sort of comfortable over there because, I don’t know, I’m just used to it over there. With The Violators we try to mix it up with keyboards and stuff like that, but [this time] I’ll just be by myself and my acoustic. I’m sure I’ll bring a banjo. Maybe one day I’ll have more of band with more instruments than a four-piece. I like to just go out, zone out, and not try to recreate the record.”

After leaving The War on Drugs, which he founded with long-term friend Adam Granduciel, and releasing his debut record in 2008, Vile has released six solo records and a collection of EPs of top-drawer folk, rock and psychedelia, with each record marking a musical and thematic progression from the last.

“I’m usually most proud of my newest album,” he says. “But that wears off once I start working on a new record. I look back and am proud of them all, but I would say maybe most of all ‘Smoke Ring for My Halo’; all those songs have a similar melancholia in the lyrics – there was a good theme going on there. The next few records obviously had themes going on too, but there is an interesting melancholic tone to ‘Smoke Ring for My Halo’; I can go back and listen to that one. There’s something about it. I wouldn’t say I’m most proud of it, but it’s some kind of statement.”

Not keen to rest on his laurels, and despite 2015’s ‘b’lieve I’m goin down’ not having been played in Australia yet, the hard-working Vile has already started on its follow-up.

“I’ve been in and out of the studio throughout this touring cycle because I feel like the last two records, in particular, took so long out of the touring cycle,” he says. “I don’t want to just get lost in this dark, black cocoon world in the studio. So I’ve been going in and out of the studio between touring for that reason. I probably have about half of the songs for the next record in some form. I think [fans] will recognise the sound; it’s not like it’s a drastically different record, but there’s always evolution. I think there’s a steady American roots thing going on in my music, and I don’t mean that it’s going to come out like ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ or something too country, but it’ll be some kind of roots scenario. I’ve always been into country and have been getting more into it lately. I read Jerry Lee Lewis’s biography – ‘Hellfire’ by Nick Tosches and George Jones’ autobiography. Since then I’ve basically been out of control reading about nerdy music things; especially Nick Tosches. I guess I’ve been a bit obsessed since my record came out.”

With talk of music nerdiness and an obvious knowledge of music history and lineage, Vile could be assumed to be a hardcore musicologist and collector. The truth is more interesting, however.

“I prefer to not have too many obscure records,” he says. “I have old country, blues and soul records. The stuff I get into is usually popular at one time or another. These days, if I go to the record store the records I want only cost two dollars or something anyways; ‘Country’s Greatest Hits’ or something. I usually space out and don’t even know what comes out in a particular year, but my buddy Luke Roberts put out a record which was great. Heron Oblivion’s record was great. I’ve had my head in the clouds listening to a lot of old music.”

Despite constant touring and having critically-acclaimed albums on his resume, the amiable Vile keeps his feet on the ground. As recently as 2009 he was working in a brewery while recording his third album.

“The constants are my two little daughters and my wife,” he says. “We just moved to a bigger house. It’s not a mansion, although it feels like it because I’ve never had any room my whole life. We’re also keeping our little house so I can go back to my roots and record there. So my everyday life lately has been carting things between these two houses and driving around. I’m pretty comfortable driving around in general, listening to music and zoning out. I’ve also done some little side projects. I did some songs with Courtney Barnett when I was in Australia last time; I’m not sure when they’ll come out or anything. I recorded in Nashville with a bunch of legendary old dudes. I’ve been in the studio with the Violators and I’ve been getting my home studio together, so I’ve kind of got my hands on a lot of different things and it’s all coming along.”

With 2017 mere days away, February comes quickly for Kurt Vile fans.

“The Violators are playing New Year’s at the Fillmore in Philadelphia, and a couple more shows in New York and Boston,” he says. “We have one more tour around Florida late January, then that lines me up to go solo and see you guys.”

Kurt Vile plays Taronga Zoo on Friday 3rd March and QPAC on Thursday 9th March

For Scenestr

Luke O’Shea: “I have to walk my talk”

luke o'shea

WITH a sixth album, Caught Up in the Dreaming, set for a January release and a heavy touring schedule locked in, Luke O’Shea is a very busy man indeed.

While many artists in a similar position would be tinkering with songs day and night, O’Shea, however, decided this would be exactly the right time to escape the daily grind and immerse himself in the landscapes and cultures that weave their way through the rich tapestry of his music.

“I just had a really special four months with my wife and three daughters,” he says. “Mainly spending a lot of time up around the Kimberley, Ningaloo and the Coral Coast. It was a chance to steal time; a chance to remember what it’s all about and to spend time with ones I love in this magnificent backyard we have. We’re normally all so flatstick and running around like chooks.”

Like many of the best Australian singer-songwriters, O’Shea focusses on telling stories about the land and people on which the history of the country stands. His songs are at once evocative and revealing, and are influenced by the beauty and defiance of the work of artists and musicians past and present.

“I met up with so many exceptional Australians out there,” he says. “I travel so much around Australia and you do start to acknowledge the really distinct regions we have. I also start to identify the magnificent Australian artists out there, be they poets, painters, authors or songwriters. We are greatly shaped and inspired by our landscapes, and so it was great to meet mates, total strangers and people who struck me as being unique to their geography and their art; people like Warren H. Williams in Alice Springs, Tom Curtain in Katherine, Al Pigram in Broome, and Tim Winton in Exmouth. Everyone’s stories are remarkable, and they’re united in [thinking] just how magnificent this country is. Family and music are first and foremost to me, but as I get to travel around, it makes sense to share the beauty of what you see and the marvellous people you meet; that’s worthy of singing up.”

It’s safe to say it’s been an eventful twelve months for the Sydneysider. After winning three Golden Guitars at the CMMAs in January, he took part in a well-documented protest against the Whitehaven coal mine in north-western New South Wales with his father, Rick. There isn’t a single hint of regret in his voice when he relates the story of his arrest after chaining himself to a water pump.

“It was a pretty crazy time after the success with the Golden Guitars,” he says. “After the action my father and I took, 99% of the feedback was really positive. Most people understood the reasons why I was doing it. The song I won the male vocal for, ‘Sing You Up’, clearly stipulates what side of the fence we stood on when it comes to coal mining and CSG, particularly in our food-producing regions, where they’re putting the water tables at risk. I’ve never not pretended to be totally against that, so people understood my political stance when it comes to protecting our food and water in Australia. With that level of media spotlight after I was thankfully successful at Tamworth this year, it would have been the height of hypocrisy if I had not shone that spotlight on a cause that needs a lot of attention and awareness from the general population. We had to show it was warranted. Also, I have to walk my talk. I can’t have a song about the country without acting upon it. It was the right action, and the fact it was taken on land my father was born made it deeply personal.”

Long-time fans of O’Shea will recognise the theme of appreciating, and drawing inspiration from, the natural environment in his music; a subject he examines further on the new album, most notably with ‘My Country My King’.

“‘Protect food and water for our sons and daughters’ is a line from that,” he says. “I think there’s a growing concern in Australia that our leaders are selling us out. I don’t subscribe to the idea of a monarchy because we like to see in Woman’s Day and Women’s Weekly what outfit [the Queen] is wearing. It has to be far deeper; a real love, respect and vision for Australia. I’m a republican; I want Australia to stand on its own legs and I can’t understand this holding-on to old ways, so my country is my king. I know we’re going to be faced with a change of monarch soon and I can’t think of a better time to bring up the discussion of a republic again in Australia.”

When asked about finding the right level of politicisation in his music, O’Shea lets out a larrikin chuckle.

“Obviously you’re at risk of dividing your audience by having that stance, but what are they going to do, not buy another one of my CDs? They’re going to continue not buying my CDs [laughs].”

It is this clear purpose and sense of striving for a better future that drives much of what O’Shea does, but he is equally connected to the Australia of the past. It is a mixture which adds another level of depth to Caught Up in the Dreaming.

“From travelling across the country, you really feel those song lines and the connection to the place and how powerful it is,” he says. “We are so young, the European settlement on this land, and we’re only starting to understand its power and beauty. There’s good mojo in that, and if we can build that respect up for the land, then perhaps we won’t be so quick to rape and pillage it and send it off overseas. I really want to build that respect for this country, and hopefully it catches on.”

First single ‘I Will Catch You’, written and performed with Amber Lawrence, has been building excitement for the January release. The video for the track features Lawrence and Damien Thomlinson, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan; a fitting choice given the subject matter.

“Amber had just picked up the female artist of the year, and we had both been announced ambassadors for Defence Care, which is an amazing organisation set up to help returned veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. We thought we really should be doing something with it, so we whacked it down and it came out a treat. Thankfully it’s really resonated with a lot of people with its message, which is raising awareness that you’re not alone, whether you’re a farmer who’s having a hard time, a policeman or fireman or someone at any level of service who is experiencing trauma; there are people who can help.”

Despite a raft of awards, accolades and well-received albums fifteen years since his debut, O’Shea isn’t prepared to rest on his laurels or seek safety in familiar territory. Indeed, Caught Up in the Dreaming is set to throw up a few surprises.

“It’s very progressive,” he says. “There are songs that are identifiably where I’ve came from. There might be some songs there that burn a few bridges, but hopefully build a few more. That’s my journey as an artist; I want to keep pushing myself in unique ways that best sing up this land and this people.”

With a new album to promote and plenty of shows on the cards, O’Shea is looking forward to a busy few months, as he explains with another larrikin chuckle.

“It’s been fantastic; being up in Queensland touring and finishing off the mix of the album, the Sydney Country Music Festival, in Melbourne for shows with Damien Howard, then shows in New Zealand. Sometime soon I’ll probably collapse [laughs].”

CAUGHT UP IN THE DREAMING IS OUT JANUARY 2016

For Country Update

Henry Wagons: “It was good to have more hairy, loud men to aid the cause”

wagons band

IT’S 11am and Henry Wagons is getting ready to start work, even though it’s his day off.

“I’m not very good at resting,” he says. “Even now, on the coast, in my bed, I’m still talking to you.”

It’s this work ethic, coupled with a laddish charm and penchant for ragged Americana that the self-styled benevolent dictator of Wagons has made the basis of the Victorian group’s sixth record, Acid Rain and Sugar Cane.

“It’s our first one in a few years and it was incredibly fun to make,” he says. “It took a long time, but I think all of us are happy with the final result. It was long, loud and pleasurable, and I think that comes across in the record. I’m a proud father and very excited for it to get out there.”

Despite the three-year period since the band’s last record, Rumble, Shake and Tumble, Wagons says getting back with the group was just like riding the proverbial bike.

“The main core of the group all went to high school together,” he says. “They’re the people I like playing with the most. It’s like being an amoeba floating around in the plasma, drifting away from the mothership, then locking into the bacterial network again and pumping out the virus and the disease like nobody’s business. Maybe that’s a strange analogy! With the solo record [2013’s Expecting Company?] I had to make every single decision and more or less play everything as well, so I was looking forward to creating a collaborative record again. This record is more collaborative than any we’ve done before; I really leant on the guys. It was good to have more hairy, loud men to aid the cause.”

A reassessment of their approach to recording led Wagons to work out how to allow the band to play to its strengths.

“I had a very particular aesthetic and way I wanted to record the album,” he says. “I wanted to really capture the live element that we’ve got together. Studio environments can make communication difficult when you’re all wearing headphones and listening to separate mixes between separate glass panels. All too often in the studio I’ll be in a vocal booth with an acoustic guitar, I’ll finish the song and there’ll be 30 seconds of total silence where we’re all glancing at each other through our respective vacuum chambers, wondering how it went and gesturing through mime. You’ll hear a crackly producer from three metres back going ‘that was good, maybe do it one more time!’ We’ll be like ‘what the fuck’s going on here?’ So to cut a long story short, I wanted to record in an environment where we’re all in the one room. I’d kind of been listening to the Bob Dylan and The Band record The Basement Tapes, where you can really hear that they’re all recording in one room, kind of shit-faced. It’s not so much the most high-fidelity recording, à la Sting or Pink Floyd. They were there to have a good time and the actual recording is almost an afterthought. I basically ended up recording it at a place I got on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, where I have basically loaded in all the vintage gear I’ve collected over the years and set up a studio space. It sounds live, because most of the songs we are all playing together in one room. My vocals come through a PA system in the same room as where the drums are, and it creates this space that I think you can hear in the record. Instead of some elaborate setup, where you’re recording the drums with 20 microphones, the ambience actually comes through the vocal microphone, which is placed six metres away. All the instruments bleed into each other as if we’re on the stage, and it’s a very exciting way to record. I don’t think the fidelity has suffered from it at all. We recorded with a whole bunch of gear I’ve acquired over the years, inspired by Elvis’s late ’70s stage setup in Vegas, so we’ve got a lot of fun old gear.”

Despite the familiarity felt within the band, outside help was enlisted from an esteemed source.

“We were able to take our time,” Wagons says. “We weren’t spending our record advance on studio time, where the clock is ticking every day. What it meant is that we could spend money on recording with people we respect. We had Mick Harvey, the former Bad Seed; he’s done amazing production work with PJ Harvey and did the Serge Gainsbourg stuff. So, instead of spending a thousand dollars a day on some hot-shit national studio or going into Sing Sing or whatever, we were able to bring in geniuses around us; these people we really revered. It took a long time to record, but at our own leisure we’d get together and have four-day getaways. I even had a baby in the middle of the recording process, so it basically came together across six months at our own pace. We were able to just press record when it was all ready to go. The record is quite a trip, quite a journey and the songs take unexpected twists and turns a lot of the time. We were enjoying ourselves too much; we didn’t want to just shit out a three-minute song each time. Mick Harvey’s production style is to join the band, essentially, so he’d be playing drums, keys or percussion on every single song on the record. We had all this money left over to pay to get it mixed at Ocean Way Studios in Los Angeles by the guy who did Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, who have some of the most epic sounding records of recent times. I wanted a dose of that on our record, and he has made it sound incredibly full and incredibly live. It just wanted the average way of blowing your record advance; we were very considered and spent it in a way that made us have a whole lot of fun that translates onto the record. I’d do it again in the same way in a heartbeat.”

While every Wagons album release is an event in itself, the live Wagons experience is on another level.

“The album has a lot of horns and female backing vocals,” Wagons says. “For the big capital city shows, that’s going to be represented on-stage. We’re in the midst of rehearsing the new show as we speak. Because the songs are so live on the album, that energy is transferring well to the live stage. There are going to be a lot of really fun new elements to the show. As it is, I love to interact with the crowd and get amongst it, and this show is definitely going to be no different to that; it’s going to be very loud and very fun.”

ACID RAIN AND SUGAR CANE IS OUT MAY 16. WAGONS’ TOUR OF AUSTRALIA BEGINS IN ADELAIDE MAY 22.

Record review: Papa Pilko And The Binrats – Third Time Lucky (2013, EP)

Sydney septet Papa Pilko And The Binrats describe their music as wild blues and slick swingin’ country rock ‘n’ roll with horns. Add to that a uniquely Australian approach to sleazy, boozy song-writing and a charismatic frontman not afraid to make a fool of himself and you have a band that tick all the right boxes for entertainment value alone. This four-track EP is the band’s third in barely eighteen months, and sees the hard-drinkin’, bar-room brawlin’ bunch get loose and lewd over the course of a short fourteen minutes. The baritone sax gives the start of opener ‘Poor Boy’ a beat-down, depression-era feel before the full horn section kicks in and the song takes off in swinging fashion. Singer and head Binrat Cyrus ‘Papa’ Pilko must have been hitting the sarsaparilla pretty hard lately, as he’s sounding much more throatily gruff than on the band’s two previous efforts, but it all adds to the downright dirty tone of the record. “I come home at 10am and I open up the door. We start out in the bedroom and then down on the bathroom floor,” he cheekily sings on ‘Woman In Black’, and you can tell he probably means it. The only bad point about this EP is that it doesn’t quite do the band justice; you have to catch them live to fully appreciate their raucously loose act and the spectacle of Pilko acting like an amiable madman. That being said, these songs swing and roll with infectious vigour. (Independent)