Music People

Kurt Vile and Black Francis Reveal The Secret to Writing The Perfect "Adult Lullaby"

Kurt Vile. Photography by Lance Bangs.

As frontman of both The Pixies and Frank Black and the Catholics, Black Francis looms large in the world of alternative rock. Exploring both freaky vocal and cryptic lyricism, Francis has been creating a distinct sound for himself since The Pixies’s debut, Surfer Rosa, in 1988. Indie Rock darling Kurt Vile counts himself among Francis’s many acolytes: In both his work as lead guitarist for The War on Drugs and his storied solo career, Vile has inspired his own wave of guitar and synth rockers who look up to him as much as he does to Francis. 

Vile is hitting the road once again this summer with his latest EP, 2023's Back to Moon Beach. Ahead of the tour, Vile sits down with Black Francis to talk obsessive listening, music as medicine, and lyrics that come alive. 

Black Francis: I'm a big fan of your music, but I have to confess, I'm kind of a newbie, even though we've been crossing paths for many years. But I was obsessed. You know when you listen to something, like, a gazillion times, just in all situations, you make it the soundtrack to your whole life just to see what it does.

Kurt Vile: I love that you listen that way because this is the way I listen. My songs are made for the obsessive type, I've noticed. I grew up listening to you as a teen. I go back to that now and I get teleported. When we played that festival together in Redondo Beach and I saw that you were playing, I was like, “Oh, killer.” Our longtime bandmate collaborator, Rob Laakso, was sick for a couple of years, but he passed away the day before and when you played, it kind of healed it.

Francis: I can't imagine the state of mind that you were in. Do you like performing to the degree where your life is going kind of shitty, then you find, “Oh, I got a gig tonight,” and you finally get to the gig, and you're on the stage and doing the song, and everyone's happy, and suddenly you experience a kind of happiness? I guess because it's like, “Thank God, I got this fucking one hour and a half where I could just forget about all of that other shit,” or at least compartmentalize it to a degree, because I gotta get through this music for everybody.

Vile: We're the luckiest people in the world. Because of that gig, you have a purpose, and time can go by in between. At first I was like, “How am I gonna do this?” Then I was like, “I wouldn't trade it for the world.” Then by just hearing you open up with “Gouge Away,” I just couldn't believe it was literally the ultimate medicine.

Francis: Let's continue to talk about this medicine that you just referred to. You have this new record coming out, it's medicine. I noticed it was nine tracks, and it was full bodied and beautiful. 

Vile: It started out as an EP. The first six tracks are all previously unreleased, and it turned into a compilation because the last three tracks I previously released, there was a Wilco Comp and a Christmas single that came out last year that I sang with my daughters.  

Kurt Vile. Photography by Adam Wallacavage.

Francis: My father used to always say to me, “Chuck, do a fucking Christmas song.” I was like, “Oh my God, he actually did a Christmas song.” It's pretty fucking good, man. Do you think that there is an adult lullaby aspect to some of your music? With all that's going on—the rat race, our personal lives, the future of the planet, the crazy people running around spoiling it for everybody, take your pick—here's something about your music, your songwriting style, that's hypnotic. It becomes soothing.

Vile: I would say that's ultimately where I wanna be for the reasons you said. You do the same thing with your songs and your chords. It's really tough and awesome, but then all of a sudden it gets really pretty.

Francis: I'm gonna quote a lyric that I really liked: "Lately I’ve been flying high, then I guess I had to crash / Always did I love that line / But never did I apply it to myself 'til just then." I love that line but never did I apply it to myself till just then. Do you ever feel like you write a line or a couplet that you like and think I don't know, I didn't really know what I was talking about. And then later in life, the line becomes alive again or in this case, now you had the moment in your life that it's like, yep, clunk! That perfectly fits. I always loved that line and there it is, I never used it till just now, and I don't know, you've drawn all that attention to it. It's got some, it's got some gravitas there. 

Vile: You know, this is interesting because I do a lot in this record where I self-reference. I'm also referencing another line I always loved, which is Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” and he said, “Jackie is just speeding away. Thought she was James Dean for a day." And he says, “Then I guess she had to crash, Valium would have helped that fast.” To add to the dimension… My wife was trying to get my daughter to do some yoga pose, and she was like, “I feel like a wounded bird trying to fly,” and we always held on to that. I was like, “Oh, I'm gonna put that in a song,” so I did. She's always like, “Give me credit, make sure I get credit.” 

Francis: Listen, your new record, it hits a lot of Kurt Vile marks for someone that likes your music. I have to say, it really delivers. And I don't mean that it's more of the same. I mean to say it has a lot of what you want from a Kurt Vile recording. I love all your collaborations you've done with other people. I don't consider myself to be very well schooled in folk music: They let the words really tell the story and they're kind of almost neutral. They try to be an instrument, to convey all of those stanzas of words to tell you the story. Certainly in rock and roll but other genres of music we're told, sing it to the back of the house. We're always fucking selling it. But I recognize that some of these folk singers have this power to not do that. They say “This is the song I'm going to do, and this is how it goes,” and they sing it without all that emoting. But I feel like you must be aware of that, because you seem like you have that kind of power that I only hear in like older generation folk people.

Vile: That's a huge compliment. Through my dad, I think he was playing lots of bluegrass and old time music growing up. It's in my blood for sure.