Leaping up from the underground

Kurt Vile plays for a wider audience

Kurt Vile’s latest album, “Smoke Ring for My Halo,’’ is bringing the Philadelphia artist some attention. Kurt Vile’s latest album, “Smoke Ring for My Halo,’’ is bringing the Philadelphia artist some attention. (Shawn Brackbill)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / March 25, 2011

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Minor mishaps aside — his tour van has been in the shop, and someone stole a bag of his equipment at the South by Southwest music festival last week — Kurt Vile is having the kind of year he should have had a long time ago. Finally.

Around 2008, Vile bubbled up from Philadelphia’s underground music scene after years of lurking in the shadows. Granted, that wasn’t a bad place for him to be considering the gauzy, time-warped rock and folk he was making at home and self-releasing on handmade CD-Rs and cassettes. The heavy distortion and lo-fi production gave the impression that Vile’s songs were recorded in a cloud of opium smoke, either in 1969 or 2009.

Vile — indeed, Kurt Vile is his real name, given to him by parents who weren’t familiar with the German composer Kurt Weill — realized he could continue to be an indie darling or he could ratchet up for a wider audience. He chose the latter. “Smoke Ring for My Halo,’’ his intoxicating breakthrough album released earlier this month, has lifted the veil on Vile, which was his intention all along.

“I went for a bigger record,’’ says Vile, who opens for J Mascis at Brighton Music Hall tomorrow night. “I knew I had to say something with this record. I’ve always had at least some amount of support ever since I put out stuff that started in the underground. But this record is definitely more accessible to the masses, to different types of people than before.’’

For starters, “Smoke Ring for My Halo,’’ which Vile has described as an “epic folk record,’’ clears out the haze of his previous work for a cleaner, crisper sound that he began to explore on 2009’s “Childish Prodigy.’’ The new album, by turns introspective and psychedelic, also marked the first time Vile recorded in what he calls a “super professional, hi-fi studio,’’ as opposed to his home-recording techniques. He credits producer John Agnello — who has worked with Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., which was a selling point for Vile — with helping to showcase his talents more vividly.

“I wanted somebody in New York who’s kind of an old soul, someone who knew about old music and new music,’’ he says. “I think between me and him and the label, we talked about how we wanted to make a big mature record.’’

From the beginning, Vile, who’s 31, has teetered on the divide between old and new music. His acoustic guitar playing, a mix between fluid finger-picking and strident strumming, recalls the pioneering work of John Fahey and Bert Jansch. And nearly every review and feature compares Vile to Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Lou Reed, or even Bob Seger.

Vile takes those references in stride, admitting that all those artists have made an impression on him at some point: “It doesn’t bother me, because I’m a very influenced person and a music consumer.’’ Like any voracious music connoisseur, he studies musicians’ catalogs and collects vinyl while on tour. (The Carpenters were a recent obsession.)

As for the accusations that his initial solo albums were crudely lo-fi, he says that was as much about circumstance as intention.

“I’ve always been a musician, but that’s the way I had to do it back then for money reasons,’’ Vile says. “I did want to go into a studio. I saved up and went into a studio and recorded ‘Freeway’ [from 2008’s “Constant Hitmaker’’]. It took a while for me to get anybody to put my stuff out. Part of it is that I didn’t have the knowledge of the business side of things. I met some friends who showed me how do it organically, but even then, you have to be lucky.’’

Luck wasn’t the only factor at play when he landed on Matador Records and started counting fellow musicians (Animal Collective, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon) among his admirers. He has worked hard to get to this point, both as a solo artist and with other bands, most notably his brief stint with the War on Drugs. His prolific output suggested he was hungry for a broader fanbase; he simply hadn’t found it until recently.

“It wasn’t frustrating, except maybe just a little bit toward the tail end,’’ he says of his delayed ascent. “I thought ‘Childish Prodigy’ should have done a little better. I’ve already noticed a difference since this new record came out. I’m playing places that are small, and the room is sold out.’’

That’s something he’s getting used to — and relishing.

“I’m definitely ready because it was a slow, organic process,’’ he says. “But at the same time, it hasn’t been that slow because it’s only been three years since I put out anything. So it’s also been pretty fast.’’

James Reed can be reached at


With J Mascis

At: Brighton Music Hall, tomorrow night, 9 p.m. Tickets: $15. 800-745-3000,