Prior to sitting down with Kurt Vile in an East London pub to discuss his new album, I was nervous. The songwriter brandishes his emotions uncompromisingly throughout his music, and especially so on his upcoming new album b'lieve I'm goin' down. Several times on the album he mentions that he'd rather not talk but sing, and I was worried that that might also be true when sitting down to talk face to face.

I needn't have worried; Kurt was in high spirits, energetic and lively. Throughout the interview he mentioned his headspace during the album, and it seems like he's still largely in that mindset and enjoying expressing himself through it. He was a forthcoming interviewee, speaking rapidly and energetically in bursts, before stopping to consider his next point or to giggle at a good memory. In asking him about the new songs you could see him mentally rewinding and fast forwarding through the songs, air-fingerpicking as he thought about certain parts or scanning backwards and forwards through the lyrics in his head to refresh his memory of the creation process.

He was so open and full of stories about the album's creation that in the end I abandoned any kind of pre-planned structure for the interview and decided to go through it with him track by track, allowing him to give some insight into each one. This was something he was more than happy to do, as he's evidently (and justifiably) extremely proud of his latest album and the resulting conversation gives a window into Kurt Vile's most dense and emotional album to date.

The most obvious thing to me about this album, initially, was how starkly different it seemingly is to Wakin On A Pretty Daze, which was a very sunny album, with a sun-drenched front cover, and this is more of a grey album - I've been walking around London in the rain listening to it today, and it's been perfect - what kind of reaction do you think previous fans will have on their first listen to b'lieve I'm goin down?

Well maybe the casual fan might be wondering if I'm ok, but honestly I've always sort of done the up and down melancholy versus sunshine thing. So I don't think it's that different, it's just more matured or evolved. To me it's not that surprising or different.

Do you have any particular kind of setting or mood that you recommend for fans to listen to this album in?

Honestly, no. I think that it suits all moods. I was talking to someone who was saying that if you're feeling bummed out it'll keep you bummed out - and I don't think that's a negative thing - but if you're feeling good then it'll also keep you feeling good! That's what I hope for. I think that you can listen to it anywhere.

Yeah, there are a lot of songs on it where you seem to get into the zone and you extend them out; it's really good thinking music, so I can see how it would prolong whatever mood you're in. What inspired you to put so many long instrumental passages on the album, just getting lost in it?

Yeah losing it, just losing it in the moment. It's just really feeling it in the moment in a Neil Young sort of way or a spiritual jazz sort of way. You just keep going because it feels good, the notes you're playing feel good, you just kind of nod out and go into a trance or something , it's all very in the moment.

That especially seems to be true in 'All In A Daze' where you just keep going for a long time with that fingerpicking.

Yeah it feels so good to fucking just keep going. It was funny too, it went even longer than that, which I knew I'd have to cut down. I remember I drove the mastering people crazy. My bandmate Rob - who was a big help on the record, my right-hand man - was saying 'cut it down some more, cut it down some more'. But then I was like 'it's too short now!' He was like 'Dude, you're gonna have to give people an Adderall with each download because not everybody's going to be able to pay attention to that!' [laughs]

But it just puts me in the zone, and my wife agreed, so I went back again and I put the bars back in... then I went back again and took one bar out... It was just dealing with the minutiae that somebody who's not as into it as I am will ever appreciate, but it had to go on for a little bit. For me it's like a meditative trance kind of thing, that's what I was feeling when I was playing it, so why am I all of a sudden gonna try to turn it into a Beatles song?

The production on that part is amazing, you can hear the plucking of the strings and the hum of the guitar right in your ear.

That's Rob, my bandmate Rob recorded that.

So let's go through the album. 'Pretty Pimpin' - is "pimpin'" the kind of word you use in daily life?

Well it had a good ring to it, but I knew it was funny. I wrote it pretty fast, but that line's pretty hilarious because it's almost like totally dark, it's like 'dude, get a grip', it's saying "who is this in front of me? Who is this in the mirror?" you're almost outside yourself and then you're like "who is this stupid clown?" but then it says "he was sportin' all my clothes, gotta say, pretty pimpin'!' [laughs] It's sort of like lookin gooood! [laughs] I don't say pimpin' that much - I'm sure I do say it sometimes - but it wasn't like a catchphrase. I guess now it is! It was cool too to use it, obviously it would be more associated with hip-hop traditionally, but it was cool to bring it to the indie side.

Let's move on to 'I'm an Outlaw'; a lot of the songs on this album seem to be comparing an exterior persona to an interior reality that's very different. 'I'm an Outlaw' is one of the best examples of this with this cool cowboy character on the outside, but he's falling apart inside. Is that autobiographical at all?

Well it was definitely inspired by the book I was reading at the time, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, and there's all the references to Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor too. There's more than outlaws in Blood Meridian, there's also the outlaw country too. There's references to Gene Clark and Clarence White from The Byrds. You go from on the corner to alone in the crowd. It's an existential thing. Also the line "on the corner in my Walkman" is a reference to the Miles Davis album [On The Corner]. It's just about being in your head like an outlaw; you can do all these things in the psyche that nobody even knows about. You can go from Gene Clark, the first great songwriter in The Byrds, to Clarence White who was the later period greatest guitar player, in the span of two seconds. Before anybody knows what's happening, you've destroyed everything in your mind [laughs] Inside your world is imploding. It's pretty psychedelic I guess.

The banjo on that track lends itself perfectly to the outlaw vibe. Did the words come after the banjo?

At first I was just playing the banjo but I couldn't even keep up with the chords, the song kept going in my head, I knew how it was going to go. I had to come back to the banjo and fit the chords. The chords change a lot; I had to fit the chords to the melody and the delivery of the words in my head. The words kept coming and coming. I even put down the banjo and was just singing this song from my head. I just kept writing lyrics.

Have you figured out how you're going to play it live? Do you want to?

I do want to play it live, but the banjo is a toughy. Especially when it's full band because you've got to have the right pickup and proper banjo. The banjo I recorded on is really great, but I find that it's really good for solo but once you add the full band it's hard to keep in tune and everything. I might have to find the proper rock'n'roll banjo. But I definitely want to play it.

'Dust Bunnies', I can't wait to hear how this one will come out live! It seems like it's a self-indictment of your bad habits. Have you become a lot more self-conscious about that kind of thing?

I think I've always been self-conscious, but yeah it's about trying to get out of your bad habits. Smoking is the worst one of all, it's so addictive. Eventually, you get older you need to kick whatever ways you've fallen into. You might say 'never again!' but you still slip back. Cigarettes are the worst, the most addictive, the worst for you, so there's the references to the cigarettes. But it's also about inner implosion and losing your mind.

'That's Life Tho' is an interesting one. You start off with the "certified bad ass" who likes to take pills on a night out, who's that guy?

When I wrote that I was at a concert and I took a Xanax or so [laughs]. Because I was really stressed out at the time. But also it's a joke because sometimes you burn out and you can just take a medication and watch music and you feel like a badass. But it's also funny when I say it; it's a little tongue in cheek. I'm just saying there's a moment where you take it and it really does make you feel better and you can be cocky and feel good; "a certified badass".

That song goes through all of life and is overall about how somebody can fake their way through life, walk their way through life and nobody even knows it. But you know, that's life! It gets a little deeper. There's Flannery O'Connor references in the second verse, from The Violent Bear It Away. The character in that book is a whole intense kind of life. And then I had finished the lyrics when some person that we knew, this figure that everybody looked up to had died, so I put him in there too, which is the end of the song.

That song is one of the centrepieces of the album.

Yeah I think it is! I remember the record label played it to [Matador label head] Chris Lombardi and he was like 'what does this record mean? What's the story?' I was like 'it's a life record, man!' He was like 'what the hell does that even mean?' and I said 'How can I explain it to you? It's just a life record!' [Laughs] The album wasn't done at that point so maybe I wasn't fully getting it across.

'Wheelhouse' is next. You said shortly after recording it that it was your best song ever, do you still feel that way?

Yeah, I mean it's my favourite song. It was a feat or accomplishment because it was a brand new experience to me. I wrote it before the band met me out in Joshua Tree so it was a brand new song; the lyrics were fresh, the guitar was fresh... the guitar part was inspired from having just been jamming with Tinariwen at the studio before my band arrived to record. The words came out really fast and I was encouraged to do some new material by my good buddy Farmer Dave who was playing with me - because I was falling back on old songs just to get into the groove of things. And then finally I recorded it. I was definitely nervous when I did it. We all played it live and then we listened back and it was just a moment of pure music captured. There wasn't too much thinking about it or adding things to make it just right; everybody just reacted to the lyrics and the kind of melancholy arpeggio guitar. I was definitely nervous when I was doing it, feeling really exposed and fragile or whatever. And then hearing it back was the coolest shit!

Are you surprised that you still get nervous playing new songs to people?

No, that's my personality man. I'll be really gung ho when writing these songs by myself and really stoked to go in, but then ultimately the first time playing it for people at the studio... I get really paranoid about the lyrics at first. I'm a paranoid person. And then I got cocky later, and then I get paranoid again.

The percussion on 'Wheelhouse' is incredible, it just helps the song kind of glide. Is that Stella Mozgawa?

Yeah that's Stella. She's unreal, she's the best. She's so soulful and spiritual and full of good vibes. She's my spirit animal. I feel like I have a lot of spirit animals but she's an inspiration. So is Farmer Dave.

You just kind of described the sound of the song to them and then you recorded it live?

No not even that much, really. That's why I brought in both of them, they just react. She'll try different variations usually, but on that one we all just really clicked.

'Life Like This' follows it and it has a similar kind of floating vibe; great thinking music. How did it come about?

It came about while I was recording. We recorded in Burbank at Pink Duck for a few days. That's Josh Homme's studio. I remember I played a gig in LA, that's why we thought we should book some time. Then after the gig we want to see Ariel Pink late at night, and then I stayed up super late. I was a little bit irresponsible, but I had just played a gig so I wasn't going to sleep anyway. But the next day of sessions was a total wash. I was playing with the guitar but had this phobia of keeping the guitars in tune; I just couldn't keep them in tune.

We started 'Lost My Head There' there in Joshua Tree, but then in the middle of working on it I was like 'fuck this I'm going to play piano for a bit'. So I really got my mojo going with doing the vocals and more piano and that whole outro section of 'Lost My Head There'. In fact, that whole psychosis of not being able to tune my guitar and moving over to keys is what that song 'All In A Daze' is about.

Anyway, once I had my mojo going, at the very end of the session I had this little piano jam I had just written. So we just all played live. You hear the piano in the beginning, then the drum beat, Rob played really simple bass live. Dave played some ambient keys or something. Then the session was over and it was incomplete.

Later I was compiling what I had recorded for potential inclusion on the album. And I heard that incomplete 'Lost My Head There', and I was like 'this is cool, but it's just like film music' because it was just instrumental. But then I just heard all these lyrics come into my head and I wrote them down really quickly. They were amusing and cool. The next time I was out in California I laid down the guitars and the vocals really quick. Then another we took it to Rob Schnapf and perfected it. Even though it was done in three sessions, it was still an off the cuff and inspired kind of song.

'All In A Daze' you've already mentioned a few times. Because it's a simple acoustic song it seems like a moment of clarity after the two quite busy songs preceding it. Did you plan it that way?

Yeah I was all about the sequencing on this album. Rob was like 'you're going up and down and up and down' and I was like 'I guess this record is up and down, man!'

Yeah, all your records are like that! Who's the "travelling gypsy show tornado" that you mention in that song?

Oh that's actually Stella, because she always just plays really good drums and flies through. She's just so good at playing that she leaves everybody bleeding. [Laughs] Me and everybody that's there.

The whole of this album makes such great walking music; do you often think up parts when you're walking around?

Sometimes. But usually it's just in moments between when everything is happening. In a moment of stopping playing music it can come really quick. But once things are going I get inspired, once the inertia is going with playing and being creative then it just makes more. The more you work the more these things will come when you're not even looking; inspired things.

'Stand Inside' is a really powerful song, the image of you watching your wife sleeping on the couch while you're singing so determinedly about making it as a musician, was that inspired by reality?

Yeah, I wrote that song a long time ago actually. It's a love song but it's also funny because if someone took it so literally then you'd think I was such a 70s type of man like 'don't talk to me, just listen to what I say' or whatever. No, but really it's just an in-the-moment love song that I wrote a long time ago talking about working up to living in a house one day. But in the moment you're just sitting on the couch and waiting for this stuff to happen already.

The piano part on 'Stand Inside' seems kind of free form...

Yeah it was free form. It's like jazz influenced I guess but without the theory and skills, but still tapping into that. Any time I do something it's not like I overthink it; it's just reacting in the moment. I did several takes of it, but I always end up just keeping the one take because I like to just react in the moment.

'Bad Omens' is your first instrumental song for a while, how did that come around?

I had high hopes for that song. The part of the song that it fades out on I had for years and years, I think I wrote that just out of high school even. There's an early version that I recorded with Adam [Granduciel] before The War On Drugs or anything, in like 2003. I was definitely thinking about the piano a lot and wanting to play piano on this record, so I would go back to this kind of movement. I thought it would be some kind of segway moment, which it turned out to be. What really ensured that it would be on the record is that Rob recorded it really well, and then Peter Katis came in and mixed it so good, he was such a huge fan. And my wife Susan really loved it.

Why did you call it 'Bad Omens'? It sounds quite light...

I called it 'Bad Omens' because I was gonna turn it into a song and I had some lyrics, and I guess the punch-line-slash-chorus was "feeling bad omens," but I never got around to that so I just called it 'Bad Omens'. It doesn't sound like bad omens, but I guess that's always good to make somebody think that sometimes bad omens are bittersweet, I dunno [laughs].

On 'Kidding Around' you seem more frustrated than ever.

I think that I was struggling in my head during that song. It was like a struggling mental point or something. But also I was riffing off the ideas of the lyrics. I had bigger hopes for that song; during the riff that I start with and the refrains in the backing vocals I thought it would be bigger and lusher, but it definitely came off more psychedelic. But I was just riffing off the lyrcis, I liked 'em; "walk along the straight and narrow, in between your eyes comes an arrow... blood all over the house you live in, it's all an illusion!" I dunno I think I was just inspired because the lyrics are sort of dark and I was feelin' it [laughs].

And then you finish with 'Wild Imagination' which ties the whole album back together and finshes with the phrase "just give it some time" repeated over and over - I feel like you're telling the listener to give the album some time, which I know is not really what it's about but...

No it's not about that but I see... It's just about missing people, family and friends. It's another one that came around really quickly.

Have you had a chance to play any of these songs live with the band yet?

We have tried. I played with my band and it was pretty much a disaster. Then we've done some promo with Stella and that went pretty well, honestly. We have to rehearse again with the band, but it'll come together.

Have you thought about how you're going to mix them in with the old songs in the set?

I haven't really thought about it. I mostly want to play the new record and then just fill it in with whatever; that's where my head's at. But because we don't have them down that's frustrating to me because I honestly don't want to fall back on all the old songs, because I'm not really there right now - not that I won't play them. One old song I love to play is 'Gold Tone' because we really have a cool version that's really spiritual and soulful and I play electric guitar. That's like a meditative live song; it's my favourite song to play live we have right now.

But right now the new record is where I'm at, although we're not quite there yet with the band. But we're gonna rehearse a bunch.

Will you get to play piano?

I would like to. I'll probably try to get a Wurlitzer and crank it through the amp, rather than get a NORD - which are fine, everybody plays them. But I wish there could be a small upright piano on the stage although it's not practical... maybe if things start going well it won't be an issue.

You've got the big date at The Roundhouse booked for next year...

Yeah that's true, maybe I'll arrange a piano for that one! [laughs]

I'm sure 'Pretty Pimpin'' must be going down well live already.

Yeah well we did 'Pretty Pimpin'' in a bunch of live sessions for Spotify and such with Stella, who plays on it, which was cool. It was a little raw. It was tough for me live because I naturally don't want to sing it the same way, but then there are those harmonies, which are crucial to the song, but they're not that easy to figure out live.

Again if it were my dream world I'd have a bunch of multi-instrumentalists who would have to be the ones to deal with singing and harmonies and being in key with each other, then I could just sort of Bob Dylan it [laughs]. I could just sing in any way I want while the people in the back are nailing the harmonies... I can't be responsible for that [laughs].


Kurt Vile's forthcoming new album, b'lieve i'm goin down..., is out on September 25th.