Life & Culture

Kurt Vile’s Top Five Music Biographies

In the wake of his latest album Bottle It In, the songwriter and guitarist shares his all-time favourite music bios

“Some unique soul, anybody from Neil Young to Bob Dylan to Waylon Jennings, George Jones, all these people fly so close to the sun.” Songwriter and guitarist Kurt Vile is contemplating the appeal of a particular genre: the music bio. An avid reader of the books, forget online If-You-Liked-That-You’ll-Like-This algorithms, if you’re looking for sonic non-fiction recommendations you’d do worse than ask the man himself: Vile has put together five for Another Man, before throwing in an extra for good measure.

“It’s too close to what I do,” he resolves. “I play music. You get so deep into it and you go out on the road and it’s beautiful and it’s intense but, nowadays with the internet it’s kind of cheap. Back then the people you’re reading about just lived it and lived it hard, you can tell in their playing. You can’t even fathom their lives. The peaks and valleys are really a big part of it and the way you read about their discography is like a virtual reality experience – you know all these things that were going on in their lives while listening to the music.”

Eight albums in, Vile – yes, brilliantly it is his real name – belongs to the mythic and venerable craft of American songwriting, a career musician where the stories keep coming: like Neil Young he’s in it for the long run. His latest album Bottle It In does the opposite, letting it all out – a rich, lyrical collection recorded over the last two and a half years across the US. The best place to listen to it is ‘anywhere’, but preferably with earbuds. “Ultimately you’re going to get engulfed,” he says of its detail. “You get showered in all kinds of psychedelia if you listen with headphones.” The album features guests Cass McCombs, Kim Gordon, Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa and LA harpist Mary Lattimore.

Much as, by now, you can count on Kurt to deliver, he’ll also offer up the unexpected. He’s been an answer on Jeopardy, cameoed in Portlandia as Carrie Brownstein’s roadie and even has a day dedicated to him in his native Philadelphia (August 28). Which are a few great anecdotes for his own book, when he gets around to writing it.

1. Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ’n’ Roll by Nick Tosches
2. Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll by Nick Tosches

“A couple right off the bat go hand in hand. Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ’n’ Roll goes so deep, a list of obscure country people mixed with the greats. It starts in the 30s, 40s, 50s and goes up to, I don’t know, the 70s. It’s about how rock and roll really came out of country music. Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll came out later and features people like Big Joe Turner and Amos Milburn, who wrote Down The Road A Piece which The Stones covered. Cecil Gant is a special favourite, he’s got a really crooner voice. Even people you’d never expect like Nat King Cole, you’d associate him with smooth music. This Nick Tosches, he’s smart and pretty crass at times – I can’t say enough how he’s such a great writer. I’ve read so many of his books from Dino about Dean Martin to The Nick Tosches Reader.”

3. Waylon: An Autobiography by Waylon Jennings and Lenny Kaye

“Waylon Jennings’s autobiography was written with Lenny Kaye, who’s obviously a legendary musician with Patti Smith but he’s a writer as well and I didn’t know that until recently, because I live under a rock sometimes – even though I own the Nuggets compilation (Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968). Lenny Kaye curated that, so that’s pretty amazing. This is Waylon’s story in his own words through the filter of Lenny Kaye. What an amazing dude. He’s one of my favourite musicians right now. I wish I could have seen him while he was alive. Incredible guitar player and singer; badass; maniac.”

4. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

“Man, I love her as a person and as a badass musician and I really love her in Portlandia on the TV. She’s a totally great actress but I lovingly call her a non-actress, you know, because she acts like herself, she’s very laid back. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl shows how great of a writer she is. So direct and smartly done, in the very beginning she talks about nostalgia, like listening to a nostalgic song and how it makes your insides tingle, then you show it to your friends and expect them to have the same reaction but they very rarely do. The way she broke up with the band [Sleater-Kinney] is unbelievable. Not to give away the whole book, but how she repeatedly punches herself in face, that’s basically the end of the band. [Laughs] While she had shingles nonetheless.”

5. Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

“I’m going for the godmother, Kim Gordon’s book, Girl in a Band. I think that’s a very cool and unique book for Kim to write about her life. Her growing up in the 50s and in the art world, that’s my favourite part. I know Kim and it’s interesting to get a deep insight of when I didn’t know her.”

6. Bob Dylan, The Essential Interviews by Bob Dylan, edited by Jonathan Cott

“My wife got it for me for Christmas. It goes from the beginning until the 2000s, and it’s inspiring to read the many faces and voices of Bob Dylan trying to bedazzle and confuse or sometimes be completely revealing, even if he’s going to pretend he wasn’t, you know? All those kind of things.”

Kurt Vile’s new album Bottle It In is out now via Matador Records. He tours from October 12 across Europe, the UK, Ireland and the US