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Paul Vile: The Jell-O Man’s Dilemma.

July 1, 2013

PaulVile01Text by Nikki Volpicelli. Images by Kate Harrold.

It’s a cold Monday night in April and Paul Vile is standing in his camper, crowded with piles of T-shirts, coolers, boxes of Jell-O molds and a huge bubble gum machine filled with colorful balls. There is a generator providing the vehicle with electricity and with it on, it is hard to hear much else. This includes his big brother Kurt’s new record, Wakin on a Pretty Daze, which plays from the small boombox resting on the unlit kitchenette stove.

Tonight, Paul is parked in an employee’s spot outside of a bar in Philly’s Eraserhood but he changes location on a day-to-day basis. The 28-year-old is one of five brothers raised within a 10-child household. He has since moved out of his parent’s place and bought himself this mobile home, which doubles as his office and living quarters. Paul doesn’t really need a stationary home base for what he does, which is to drive around to different music festivals throughout the country selling Jell-O shots and DIY screen-printed T-shirts.

Paul and Kurt Vile

Paul and Kurt Vile

PaulVile04Paul explains, “I started going to music festivals before Kurt started getting bigger and stuff. All of the sudden, he was playing at the festivals I was going to,”

He says the Jell-O shot thing just sort of happened after he saw a girl selling them at a festival for $1 a piece and thought it was a good business idea. So he introduced himself and started asking questions.

“She was doing a really good job,” remembers Paul. “So I said ‘How many do you think you’ve sold?’ She said she thought 200 and I was like, ‘Wow.’ I thought that was a lot.”

Little did he know where that short Q&A would lead him. He soon tried his hand at gelatin slinging during a local Dave Matthews Band concert.

“I was unloading them so quickly it was like I couldn’t make enough,” Paul says. “So then I was making upwards of 500 shots for every small show and then I stopped going to those small shows. I said, ‘Fuck this, I’m gonna try to do it big one time.’”

That’s when he decided to go outside of the local circuit, bringing 2,000 shots, 300 T-shirts and a bunch of cheap sunglasses along with him.

“I made retarded money all at once and I pretty much figured out that’s what I want to do,” he says. “Sell a shit ton of stuff for these festivals and that’s that.”

PaulVile02That was more than four years ago. Today, Paul plays a big role in the festival circuit, catering to hazed-out field partiers in need of gelatinous booze or a shirt for their back. He has employees, including Margaret McLaughlin, a 23-year-old West Chester native who Paul describes as his “main Jell-O girl.”

“I met Paul a couple years ago at the Philly Folk Festival,” McLaughlin says. “We woke up at 6 a.m. and went fishing together. At the time, he was kind of selling and since then, it’s gotten out of control(She adds, “He didn’t call me one of his Jell-O girls, did he?”)

McLaughlin also assists in production.

“We get big buckets and boil pots of water,” she says. “We do large scale Jell-O production. I’ve been kind of his administrative assistant and I kind of get his butt in gear and help him with different business matters. He doesn’t even sleep during festivals. He just sells. He doesn’t stop.”

She knows why Paul’s business has become so popular.

“He’s such a character,” says McLaughlin, “and has such a look to him that people just know him and expect him to be there.”

He’s even been granted a nickname.

“People just started calling me ‘Jell-O Man,’” Paul concedes. “The name ‘Jell-O Man’ is so stupid. It makes me sound like a fucking superhero. But it comes to your brain easily.”

PaulVile06PaulVile03Now he makes T-shirts that display his moniker, one of which is a black-and-white screen print of himself hurling Jell-O shots into the air like throwing stars and wearing what looks like a Rambo costume.

Splitting his time between all of his entrepreneurial efforts, Paul is also learning to master the piano so that he can play more with his brother and his brother’s band, The Violators, while they’re on tour. Paul had the opportunity to play keys on a few of Kurt’s songs at recent shows. He also helped out during The War On Drugs‘ New Year’s Eve show at Johnny Brenda’s by playing harmonica and making a gigantic Jell-O mosaic spelling out the group’s name. Around midnight, Paul and War on Drugs’ frontman Adam Granduciel (who initially started the group with Kurt Vile)  brought the creation onstage to tear off cups and throw them into the crowd.

Despite his success, at times Paul seems jaded with the whole festival circuit thing. Then again, he’s also one of the few who can say he’s made this kind of a living from it. A lot of artists can get burned out being on tour and playing shows every night. While Paul can occasionally be found on stage, that’s not the source of his exhaustion.

“It’s a fucked-up crunch because the momentum is going for me with this Jell-O shots thing,” he admits.  “But in terms of the big picture, it’s not like I’m in love with it.”

Aye, there’s the rub.

“It’s really fun and cool but at the same time, I’ve got Kurt over here asking me to practice really hard and learn more piano and practice more with them,” Paul explains about his dilemma. “I might blossom over there more.”

He has a hard time deciding which endeavor to fully invest in. While he built his own Jell-O empire completely on his own, working within his brother’s nationally touring kingdom wouldn’t be too bad, either.

“Every day I think, ‘Okay, am I going to put time into practicing keyboard or am I going to put time into making 300 shirts per festival and running around making Jell-O shots?’” Paul says. “It takes so much time, it’s not even funny.”

Tiny plastic Solo cups of red, green and yellow gelatin. That’s the Jell-O man’s kryptonite.

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