Interview: Kurt Wagner of Lambchop


Kurt Wagner plays Joe’s Pub tomorrow, Wednesday, October 8. Tickets are $20.

[audio-1] (MP3)
from OH (ohio)

To count the apparent and potentially problematic contradictions within Lambchop’s 20-year career would require something akin to a higher math. The group’s long-standing tag as “Nashville’s most fucked-up country band” hasn’t rung true in, maybe, ever. (Fucked-up? Maybe. Country? Not hardly). The band is nearly as anonymous stateside as they are acclaimed overseas. And at least through Christmas, Lambchop, whose membership once swelled past 20, will be represented by Kurt Wagner, a singular frontman in his signature feed-store cap with an honest and hearty laugh, alone.

The morning after a more or less impromptu Living Room show which presented a live preview of Lambchop’s today-released OH (ohio), Wagner–above the din of both jackhammers and the children’s playground just east of Washington Square’s now chain-linked-enclosed arch–provided insight into the relationship between art and songwriting, along with a figurative shrug of the shoulders regarding the comprehensive conundrum of one of the South’s most idiosyncratic bands. — Rob Trucks

The one-sheet that Merge sent out with the review copies of the new album contained a quote from you that basically said, ‘Yeah, I’m finally willing to admit that I’m Lambchop.’

[laughs] Well, I mean, I really kind of, you know, basically said that. I spent so many years trying to preserve the idea [that Lambchop was a real band and not just a vehicle for my songs] because it’s so quickly assumed that, you know, you do the interviews and whatever that’s all there is to the band, and I tried to rail against that for a long time, and this time I’m just tired of it. It’s like, ‘Whatever.’ I just want to do whatever’s necessary for people to find out about us, you know, and if that means accepting that, then fine. People can make their own decisions. I’m not going to try to guide the perception of what we are.

I’m not sure that it sounded as if you had accepted that last night. It was, ‘I’m Kurt. I play in a band called Lambchop. I am not starting a solo career.’ Have you decided yet?

[laughs] Well, God no. I mean, the reason I started doing solo stuff to begin with, prior to all of this, was I was trying to find another way to write songs. And the idea of going out, writing some songs, and playing them in front of people and watching them develop and then bringing them to the band and then working on them is something I’d never tried before, because I tried to shy away from being a solo performer. So my concept for this new record was really to do that, was to go out.

So I played like 30, 40 shows in Europe on a tour and I started writing these songs and worked on them and watched them develop and then when I came back we started working on the record. And then the band changed them and it became what the record sounds like, and the producers changed them and I stayed out of that mess too, in order to balance it out. I didn’t really get involved with the mixing and, you know, the production of the record. Whatever these producers wanted to do was fine with me. I picked them, I trusted them, I love their work. So I respected that. I tried to balance it out.

It sounds like you may still have one leg on either side of the fence, which is liable to leave your balls on some barbed wire.

[laughs] Well, I don’t know.

It’s not quite that uncomfortable yet?

I don’t know. I mean, I’m a little tired [laughs]. But other than that . . . You know, I don’t have a master plan other than trying to come up with another record. And that’s all we’ve really ever focused on is trying to think about the next record. What happens with all the business crap . . . Man, I’m pretty bad at it [laughs].

You’re a believer in different songwriting approaches. For Aw, C’mon and No, You C’mon you worked through a combination of writing a song a day and writing a silent-movie soundtrack. For Damaged, you went in almost the exact opposite direction in that you basically deconstructed 10 of your own songs before putting them back together. It sounds like the exercise du jour for Ohio was a kind of singer-songwriter approach. Then you gave those songs to the rest of the band to see how they sounded when they came back to you.

Yeah, for me it was about development, you know, trying to be a better music dude playing music. That’s the only thing on the dinner plate is me, my voice, and the guitar. And, of course, these songs. And it was all about trying to develop, like you were saying, sort of the method for this new record.

The song “Please Rise,” where you riff on the word “stand,” seems like a songwriting exercise to me.

Sure [laughs]. It’s one of the more blatant, you know, obvious . . . Here’s a thing where you basically think of a lot of usages for this thing, and then try to make it work somehow and leave some sort of impression with you.

photos of Kurt Wagner in Washington Square Park by Rob Trucks

Did the word come to you first, or the idea of trying to focus one word in particular and then “stand” came later?

I wanted to try to use one word, and then, ‘What word?’ And for some reason ‘stand’ became the word. For me there’s lots of minor, interesting reasons why I like that. I mean, I sit all the time and play and whatever. That was the starting point, sure.

You started with a Dylan cover last night, and then you played almost the entire album. You didn’t play “Popeye” but you talked about it.

Yeah, we were just running out of time.

And I don’t think you played “Ohio.”

No, that one I save for when Tony’s around [Lambchop pianist Tony Crow]. We wrote that together and musically it’s pretty hard for me on a guitar.

What does playing as a solo artist cost you other than having to cross off certain songs? It’s got to feel different. Do you feel any more naked when you’re up there by yourself even if you’ve already done this 30 or 40 times?

Oh yeah, sure. I mean, every time. I guess I look at it as an opportunity to have a sort of dialogue or a relationship with the audience, moreso than maybe within the band and then there’s an audience. It’s actually a cool opportunity. Sometimes I basically just ask if they’ve got any questions and we’ll talk. And that’s something, if I have a little bit more time, I introduce them to what I’m doing. I think it’s interesting and it’s fun and people can find out about me, I can find out about them, and it really can be a different sort of experience than this band thing, you know. So I try to bring that into it and it makes for a fun night.

Speaking of the audience . . . It seemed as if the crowd last night was about 95% male. Is that an anomaly? Or is just something I’ve never really noticed before? Lambchop, at least last night, seems to be a guy thing.

Well, last night, I don’t know if it’s particularly typical of anything. I’m not quite sure what that was. It was a fairly low-key thing, and as far as I know it was more about people being invited to come see it. I don’t think it was announced or anything. But in general it is fairly masculine-heavy. And it is something we’ve noticed, the sort of the male architect-looking crowd or whatever. I find there can be a lot of variety as well, but usually the women who are there, they’re coming because their husband wanted to come or something like that.

So are you learning that the audience mirrors the band?

[laughs] Well, that could be a possibility, I guess. [laughs] I don’t know. I don’t know why that is. I really don’t. Maybe I’m just not a very attractive person [laughs].

I mean, to be fair, I was just at my hotel and I met some women from Australia. They knew who Lambchop was, and these are three women, so I don’t know. Maybe they just don’t like going to shows. [laughs]

Last night you introduced “Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr” as about a dream you had about sharing a drink with Martin Luther King Jr. “Of Raymond” is from the point of view of a concrete Virgin Mary. “Close Up” is about a blood test. And those are nice, confined answers. Tell me about “Ohio” since nobody else is going to get that explanation from the stage.

That’s true. That’s true. One of the other ideas about kind of a method for doing this record was I came to the band and asked them . . . You know, I do work with other musicians and stuff where I’ll write and sing on their music and stuff. And I thought, ‘Well, these guys all write music, do stuff, you know, on their own or whatever,’ and solicited them for like material that maybe we could collaborate on in that way. And everybody was like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah. That’s good.’ And Tony was really the only one who gave me anything [laughs]. Everybody else never got around to it. But that was a result of that idea. He had written a song, I guess for his wife, as a Valentine’s present or something.

So what’s it about?

I don’t know. I mean, in a way, knowing that it was like a Valentine he had written to his wife, I sort of would sort of piece together these little images of what maybe his marital bliss is all about. And so I have this sort of domestic imagery in my mind and I just sort of would cherry-pick ideas from that. Whether it was: his wife makes his lunch and she puts his name on the bag; or she puts his kids’ name on the lunch bag. I don’t know. Just the morning paper, stuff like that. So it was like putting together little pieces of imagery like that and trying to find sort of a blankness of a choice of word like “Ohio” to sort of express that. Just the sort of mood without really getting into anything too mushy.

Okay, what’s the short answer for “I’m Thinking of a Number Between One and Two?”

Just the idea of trying to find someone in a club [laughs]. In a way that was my attempt at trying to be more direct in speaking to an audience I know nothing about, which is club-going people [laughs]. So it’s sort of a rare step into fiction for me.

You’ve been writing songs forever. You’ve tried it a whole bunch of different ways. But most of the time, when people write about their own dreams, it ends up being a disaster. I think “Kubla Khan” might’ve been the last time that that worked. It certainly has never worked on television.

Oh yeah. The whole dream sequence thing is totally weird.

Well, I think maybe what I was fascinated about it more than anything, I think, was the fact that when you have a dream there’s a very short amount of time that you’re able to remember the details of it. And it dissipates. The longer you’re awake the more fractured and kind of difficult it becomes to remember it. And that became more fascinating to me than the actual dream. I was like, ‘Wow. Why is that? What do I remember?’ You know, mixing in the moment of waking up and other things that actually weren’t about the dream but the experience of the dream. So, you know, if I include that into it then it becomes a little mystical, dreamy thing.

It does seem like that prime-idea state, the time of day when the best ideas come, happens either right after you get up or right before you go to bed. “Sharing A Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr” would certainly qualify, it seems, but does that hold true for you as a general rule?

Really it’s mostly in the morning for me, and sometimes working on a song will continue throughout the whole day, or maybe late afternoon I’ll start one. When I was younger and stuff I would write any time, a lot of times late at night, but I’m more of a morning guy now. For some reason I’m a lot fresher in the morning and there’s a lot more possibility. Of course, if you wake up, every day has full of potential and possibility. So I like that approach. It seems to work pretty good for me.

Is there a song other than “Martin Luther King” where the genesis, the trigger of the song came to you within those first 30 minutes of the day while you’re searching the counter for the coffee cup?

I mean, I think there’s some where I’ve literally talked about the coffee cup, but I can’t offhand remember, you know. I mean, that’s something I do a lot, is include the experience of writing what’s going on while I’m writing the song into the idea of writing the song. I’ll enter it into it. It makes things confusing, but in some sort of roundabout way it makes sense to me because it’s still dealing with the place in whatever you’re writing in addition to whatever your idea is about writing. So I just let it come on in there and if I’m writing a line about something else and my wife calls on the phone telling me it’s National Talk Like A Pirate Day, I go, ‘Oh, okay.’ And suddenly that leads to me thinking about my wife. Then next thing I know I’m looking at a picture of her, and she’s in her pajamas, she’s got a record player. You know, there’s a hockey game in the little picture and I start describing the picture. So the song started out as some sort of folk song, you know, and then next thing you know it becomes something else, but it was all because of what happened in the process of writing it: the phone rang.

You introduced a song last night as being about pencils (“A Hold of You”).

Right. When really it was more about communication and, in my mind, short of mud and sticks, pencils are probably one of the earliest, you know, culprits [laughs].

That’s a very unique approach to writing lyrics.

It makes it confusing [laughs].

Was this a conscious approach from the time you started writing songs?

Well, I mean, honestly, you know, when I started writing songs I had no idea. I just knew that I wanted to try to do it. I started going about it in a way which made sense to me, and I think it came out of the fact that I was more of a painter. And that’s what I gleaned from art school, was sort of how you can incorporate your life and your art. They become the same thing. They’re part of the same experience. And it’s not anything super high-brow or super glorious. It’s something everybody’s got the potential in them to do. And it’s simple. It’s really just about being part of your experience, part of your daily life, and it came out of that. And so obviously that sort of idea sort of drifted into how I started to write songs. And it was also about coming from Nashville and growing up around songwriters and it seemed like they were full of sort of rules, and they sort of had these formulas and structures and ways that had to be. And for me, the natural way is not trying to accept that and try to find something else.

There are great songwriters in Nashville. Don’t get me wrong. But at the time, you know, when I was really young and I moved away and I got into painting, it was because of that. At the time it just seemed like kind of shallow. There wasn’t anything really to hold you about the song unless it was the melody. It certainly wasn’t the lyrical content. It was always kind of corny and catchy and not very deep [laughs].

Are there painters whose work has helped influence the direction of your songwriting? Any whose work would seem kind of against the rules, open, willing to take risks?

Well, I mean, I don’t know. I mean, painting has its own set of rules and its own sort of traditions and things that people react against. I think what happened to me was I was fortunate enough to study with some people in Montana, and their approach, their way of going about this art thing made a lot of sense to me. And one of the guys is the guy [Michael Peed] who did this painting [the cover art of OH (Ohio)]. He was like an old professor of mine in Montana. And another friend of his was this fellow named David Dunlap. He has these notebooks, these little pocket notebooks that he carries with him everywhere. He’s originally from New York. And his work stems out of this sort of daily process of recording thoughts and ideas and information and them becoming recurring themes. And the notebooks themselves become a starting point for whatever the visual result is. You know, a brilliant sort of approach, but in a way very humble and just sort of a natural, no big deal kind of a thing. And Michael has a similar sensibility. He also had a sense of humor and a playfulness and a sort of naiveness. It wasn’t that he was necessarily a great technician or anything like that, but there were all these other aspects of it that you would respond to that were powerful. And I appreciated that because I never considered myself particularly gifted when it comes to either visual art or music. I mean, I’m not that great a musician. I’m not that great a painter. But I do like to think and I try to work hard and sometimes I think those two things can sort of balance out my shortcomings.

The cover art that you’ve chosen can be seen as some kind of self-contained marital bliss. But there’s a world of shit going on outside. Maybe we should be thankful for what we’ve got and not worry about more than what’s going on in our little world.

That’s one way of looking at it.

Is that in any way analogous with what you’re attempting as a songwriter?

Yeah, sure. I just think life’s, you know, complicated, and it’s kind of funny in a way and I think that’s reflected in the sort of work I end up doing, you know. It ends up being kind of complicated, and kind of funny.

But is there a particular draw to the cover art’s painting that can be expressed in words?

For me there’s a blankness to it, that if you get past that a little bit there’s a lot more going on than just its blatant power of nudity, you know. There’s something touching. There’s something funny. There’s something disturbing. And the fact that they kind of work together in some sort of duality . . . Just by virtue of having two things placed together there’s going to be relationships that happen. And that’s something very basic in what I do. I may pick two completely unrelated things and then be fascinated by the way we perceive things. And we try to make sense of stuff if they’re placed in a framework of some kind, whether song or a painting, and you want to make sense of it, or you want to try to draw some relationship. That’s how our brains work and it’s something I was fascinated with, you know, in the making of any kind of creative thing. It’s perception and stuff.

Are you still painting?

I started again about six months ago. And the reason I stopped, in about 2000 the music thing just took over and I got too busy and it was frustrating. I missed it dearly. And then about six or so months I literally started painting again exactly where I let off. There was a painting that I had just started drawing out a figure and I literally picked up on that line and started drawing and finished the painting and started on another one.

And you’re smiling broadly, so I’m assuming this is adding greatly to the quality of your life.

Oh, man. It’s the best, yeah.

You’re about to turn 50. I read an article a few months ago that made the argument that regardless of race, creed, color, gender, religious preference, sexual preference, geographical location, that people in their 40s are more depressed than anybody else in the world.

I can buy that. Yeah.

How were your 40s? And how are you approaching the big 5-0?

40s were pretty good up to a point, and then I started noticing I was falling apart physically, so yeah, that got a little hairy there. And getting through that kind of makes me realize, ‘Well, there’s probably more shit to come.’ You know, it’s nice to know that you can kind of get through stuff, so that’s comforting in a way. But, you know, I don’t know. Maybe 50 will be great. I don’t know.

Is it just another number or is it more than that to you?

For me, I have to kind of keep it that kind of perspective where it’s really just, ‘Yeah another day, you know,’ and try not to be so focused on, I don’t know, a ticking clock or something like that. It’s just like everyday’s great if you can make it that way or if it turns out. If it didn’t, that’s cool. There’s always another one, so I just have to keep it in that sort thing rather than try to expand it out . . .

Like, ‘What am I going to do in the next decade?’

Yeah, yeah. It’s too overwhelming.