Kurt Vile Picks His 5 Pop Hit Near-Misses

Jessica Xie
Kurt Vile photographed on Sept. 14, 2018 at Transmitter Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Kurt Vile is sitting on a worn leather couch in the basement of Beggars Group's Soho office. A freshly pressed vinyl -- his own -- is on the coffee table in front of him. He only saw the packaging for his upcoming seventh solo full-length, Bottle It In, in person for the first time the night before. He flips it open to give a verbal tour, explaining where each photo was taken and why it was significant enough to include (he thinks the solo shot of himself on the inside cover is a call to The Ramones).

He's exited, in a seasoned way. Vile, 38, has already scored a No. 1 song on Billboard’s Triple A chart in 2016 with “Pretty Pimpin” and has landed three of his solo albums on the Billboard 200 and Top Rock Albums, but the Philadelphia-born psych-rocker still dreams of making the Hot 100. Ahead of his new album, out Oct. 12 on Matador, he says he wants a “hit record, for real” -- on nearly all of his albums, there has been one song he has had in mind for a pop crossover. “I think I can do it,” he says earnestly -- but he adds, with a dose of wry self-awareness, “I just got to stop jamming so much in the studio.”

Constant Hitmaker, 2008

“I called myself ‘Philly’s Constant Hitmaker,’ sort of like The Rolling Stones’ first album, England’s Newest Hit Makers. And obviously, [my songs] weren't hits. [My debut] is a collection of my best home recordings and one studio recording in the front, which definitely makes the record more exceptional. ‘Freeway’ is a pop jam -- a version of a hit in my brain -- influenced subliminally by Tom Petty.”

Smoke Ring for My Halo, 2011

“The first song I recorded was ‘Baby’s Arms,’ and that’s another style of a hit. I feel like if that came out now, it would have a bigger chance at being [one]. ‘Baby’s Arms’ is a very special song -- I wrote it in early times, before I had a record deal, before anybody was putting out my music.”

Wakin on a Pretty Daze, 2013

“I was trying to get [this record] done before my second daughter was born, and I didn't quite make that. I was in the studio when my wife was having contractions. The opening track, ‘Wakin on a Pretty Day,’ is an important song for me. It had so many parts, and I like the idea of [it as] a pop song. You know how with your favorite pop songs you keep playing them over and over again? This one you don’t have to start over as soon because it’s nine minutes long.”

b’lieve i’m goin down..., 2015

“This is the first record that didn't have a producer. We just did it ourselves. My friend John Sharkey said, ‘It’s like a mature Constant Hitmaker.’ It has the pop song [“Pretty Pimpin”] in the front. It definitely was our only real radio hit so far.”

Bottle It In, 2018

“I can’t guarantee that there’s a ‘Pretty Pimpin’ on here -- I don’t think I’ll ever write the same style of pop song. But I do want to have some kind of hit. The pop track is ‘One-Trick Ponies.’ There are a lot of verses. Maybe we can cut it down, or maybe we won’t. The four longest songs [on this album], when I wrote them, they all had pop potential, and there was part of me that wanted them to be concise. But then you’re feeling it in the studio. Part of my brain is like, ‘Cut this down,’ but there’s [another] part of me that knows better.”

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 29 issue of Billboard.