Indie-rock pals Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile pair up for St. Paul concert
They sort of dress and look alike. Theyve played a lot of the same clubs and festivals, including Rock the Garden and First Avenue in Minneapolis. Musically, they share a similar knack for writing quirkily humored or subtly dramatic, semi-psychedelic and vaguely twangy rock songs with a laid-back, slackerish vibe.
Still, few observers would have pegged Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile as likely collaborators, her being a 29-year-old Australian and him being a 37-year-old Philadelphian, each with their own prospering careers.
The pairs new album, Lotta Sea Lice see the aforementioned quirkiness has become one of this years pleasant-surprise records, a richly lyrical and lushly textured record that finds the two indie-rock darlings cohesively playing off each other without losing their own unique appeal.
Just casual friends from the touring circuit, Barnett and Vile paired up after Vile approached her with songs he said he had written with her in mind. They followed through on the impulse by recording the full album in Barnetts homeland this past winter and spring with an all-star cast of Aussie players.
Now theyre pairing up again for a monthlong U.S. tour coming to the Palace Theatre on Wednesday, with a rotating backing band that includes Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, Stella Mozgawa of Warpaint and Viles Violators bandmate Rob Laakso.
Both of the singer/songwriter/guitarists got on the phone with us last week before a tour stop in Portland, Ore. Based on how often they had to apologize for short fits of laughing, it sure sounded like the trek is going well.
Q: One of the main reasons people seem to like this record is it sounds like you had a blast making it. How fun was it?
Barnett: It was a good vibe, very laid-back and just a good time.
Vile: Between me and Courtney goofing around a lot, all the other people involved were a humble and amazing cast, people like Mick Turner and Jim White [both of the Dirty Three]. Everybody was Australian but me, by the way, which probably helped. All positive people, no curmudgeons.
Q: What was the connection between you two going into this that made you confident you would work well together?
Vile: I wanted it to work after I met Courtney and got more and more into her music. Her and her band were reachable. Were sort of contemporaries. It was like this balance of friendship and being star-struck, good people and really good music. I knew it would work out as long as Courtney was into it.
Barnett: I was into it because I had seen him play a bunch, and then we started to become friends. And the more we hung out, I realized we shared an eccentric sense of humor and had a lot of the same general interests and outlook.
Q: Courtney, I read that you were suffering from writers block a bit for your next record. Did this help unblock you?
Barnett: A little bit, yeah. I always try to immerse myself in different projects: I play guitar for Jen Cloher and run a record label at home, and do some [visual] art along the way all of that to keep my mind in different areas.
When I try to focus too much on one thing, I get a little bit like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. So this was an unexpected and amazing project that has really inspired me, and Im sure that will help me look at stuff from a different angle.
Vile: Me, too. I mean, it was fun, but after my second time to Australia I burned the [tracks] wed done, and I just couldnt believe it. It was like, Did we just make an album?
Q: Theres a rich tradition of men and women duetting in country music, and this record does sound a bit twangy here and there. Did you have old country duet partners in mind?
Vile: Ive been obsessed with country music, but Im still surprised that people are saying this sounds country. I do like the idea of all those classic country duets, because theyre very musical. Those kinds of duets, though, everybody has to be able to harmonize and really know how to play. We can do that, but were not nearly as slick as a lot of that type of music. Were not going on the Grand Ole Opry. [Both singers laughed.]
But I do like the idea of channeling George Jones and Tammy Wynette. I read both their biographies and they were both admirable and insane. Courtney is, you know, not insane. And Im no George Jones, but Id like to be, and I am a little nuts. [Another big laugh.]
Q: What was the thinking behind each of you singing one of each others songs for the record, and why these songs?
Barnett: We thought it would be fun to interpret one by the other, especially given that our voices are obviously very different. Having a different voice like that can sometimes turn a song totally upside down. For Peeping Tomboy, I just connected with that song the first time I heard it.
Vile: Outta the Woodwork was basically my favorite song from Courtneys first album, which she gave me on vinyl. I was on tour at the time, so I didnt hear it until a month or so later. It was a double-EP 12-inch, and it would just float into the one side. I really thought this one was like a deep cut. I didnt know it was Track 1. I assumed it was like Side 3.
Its a beautiful song. I thought of doing it more with accordion and pretty piano, and I still hope to do a version like that someday, but what I did just came out that way in sort of a subtle Alice Cooper rock n roll mold.
Q: Youve each followed a similarly trajectory here in Minneapolis, both playing First Avenue and Rock the Garden. Any standout memories from those dates?
Barnett: Ive always had a really good time there. Rock the Garden was a really great setup. I wanted to get in and look at the galleries, but I just didnt have time.
Vile: I love playing there. ZVEX [guitar gear company ZVEX Effects] is there. I need them to tell me how to work one of my pedals, actually.
When youre coming from the East Coast like I usually am, Minneapolis is sort of the last outpost before you have this crazy long drive to Seattle or wherever, so its a bit daunting. This time, folks are in for a real treat, because were just going to fly over from Seattle. So it should be a much better show. [Laughs.]
Q: Is this just a one-time thing, or is it the start of a beautiful friendship with long-term implications?
Vile: Its definitely a beautiful friendship now. The collaboration part will come if and when Courtney has time again. Itll never be any pressure. I do genuinely wish we had done more [recording] straightaway, so Id be eager to do more.
This is also fun because usually when you put a record out you think, Oh [bleep], Im going to be working behind this for two years. This is great because its this great record we both love, but its just one tour, and thatll be it.
Barnett: Im sure well do more one day. But yeah, mostly its this beautiful friendship, and out of that Im sure more cool stuff will happen.
Chris Riemenschneider 612-673-4658