Kurt Wagner, ringleader of Lambchop, stops to chat with me for a few minutes outside his tour van. He’s in White Plains, on his way to Philly, and he has about a cigarette break’s worth of time. Thankfully, he’s as verbose and animated in conversation as he is muttering, inscrutable, and downright prickly on-record. Lambchop’s 2012 record, Mr. M, saw the Nashville band stumble back into a brief moment of spotlight-glare as they continued along their fearlessly ornery path: a Pitchfork BNM, a fresh round of critical adoration for a band already beloved by those who think about their music too long and too hard. The band, who have known each other since high school, have settled into the kind of old-chair band dynamic that becomes its own sort of character on record; Mr. M glows with it. Wager is dry and bemused when questions grow overly theoretical, prompting a nicoteine-drenched laugh. But he is unfailingly polite, funny, and accomodating, at one point pulling out a sampler from his back pocket to play through his phone.
I read recently that you didn’t start making music in earnest until you were 30. What do you think you gained from starting a band when you were 30 instead of, say, 22?
I was playing for fun in art-school bands and stuff like that, but when I actually started doing stuff as my own entity, I was probably closer to mid-30s, actually. It wasn’t like we were thinking of forming a band for any of those “band” reasons. But we were sort of getting together and playing. We’d go around calling ourselves goofy names, but it was pretty much all in our heads at that point. We’d make these goofy cassette tapes where we’d create the titles of songs when we didn’t even have the songs yet. We were making them for ourselves in our own little fantasy. We didn’t have any pretensions of actually being like a “band” that people recognized or thought about. Making music was just a fun thing to do with each other. These guys that started the Lambchop and Posterchild idea with me are guys that I knew from high school, you know? It was a great way for us all to get out of our house.
When I listen to Lambchop, I hear intensely private music, music that seems to talking to itself almost as much as to me. I feel more like I listen in on it rather than to it. Are you an intensely private person?
Not really! I’m a fairly social animal. If you want to call me an animal. But I think that the content of what we’re up to together is a little private. And that’s maybe why we end up a little inscrutable. It means something to me, and it means something to my friends. And that’s good. And if you pick up on it too—that’s gravy, you know?
Is inscrutability a thing that interests you?
Nah, dude. I don’t try to be inscrutable. I’m really trying to just be straightforward about what I do. It just comes out that way. That’s just the way friends communicate, you know? It’s like if you were at a breakfast place, and you heard friends talking in the next booth. You pick up these random-yet-interesting things, you overhear snatches of conversation. You get something out of that experience even if you may not know what the fuck they’re actually talking about. And maybe you say to someone later: “Guess what I heard today at breakfast? The guy next to me was talking about choking a chicken!” Your ears prick up.
Do you mind if I ask you one question about Vic Chesnutt? You said something in an interview you gave to Pitchfork: “He was the one who convinced me that I wasn’t crazy, and that making art and music was a thing worth pursuing.” How did that go down?
It was just the experience of hearing him play for the first time. Just something resonated in me. This guy is saying the same things. It’s like he’s reading my mail, you know? Suddenly I realized, “Yeah, these same ideas—even some phrases and subject matter, and things like that, or a way of delivery an idea—he’d been doing that. And it was the stuff that I’d been crudely attempting on my own. Prior to that, I didn’t really have an idea what the fuck I was doing or how to go about doing it.
Do you think about fashionableness a lot in your music? Your music seem interested in the idea of it, or perhaps the lack of it. You had that funny side jab in “The Decline of Country & Western Civilization” about preferring Jim Nabors to Pitchfork’s “I-Rock saviors,” and your music also invokes a lot of bygone genres. Do you think about this stuff?
I probably think about this stuff less than the people who listen to what I do. [Laughs] It’s just whatever’s going on in my or my friend’s experience, to be honest. In the case of that quote, I think I was just looking for something to rhyme with “saviors” and “neighbors.” I try to stay in touch with what goes on in the world, but in my personal life, I don’t think about it at all.
The countrypolitan stuff comes from where I’m from and what I grew up around and then realizing: “Wow, this stuff is right around the corner, and here we are, existing in the same environment.” I honestly find out a lot of stuff through the magic of the good old Internet. You don’t just find out about new stuff on the good old Internet; you find old stuff that you could never have found in any thrift store. The Internet: the biggest thrift store of all. And you can go there in your pajamas!
You grew up with a lot of classical music. Has that stayed with you in any way?
My folks made an effort that I could experience it live quite a bit, because we had a lot of performances coming through Nashville. That was really impressive to me. It was a big part of my parents’ world; they had friends that were classical musicians. I think a lot of that was because a lot of those classical musicians came from New York, and my parents were New Yorkers, being from Brooklyn. You know, when you’re in the South in the Sixties, you bond with people from New York.
It was a big part of their influence on my music and listening. They figured they would give some sort of foundation, as far as understanding music. It wasn’t to the exclusion of any type of music. They were just like any other types of parents in the Sixties; they were benevolent, you know? “Here’s some folk music. Here’s the cast record for Hair. Oh, here’s some Tom Waits music.”
What is one of your sentimental-favorite pieces of classical music from your childhood?
Chopin had this Polonaise; he had a lot of them, but I can’t remember the exact number of this one. I remember that struck me enough when I heard it that I actually started writing music. Crudely, and when I was a real young kid. But the next day I got up and started writing notes on a staff, and in my own limited way, wrote a short piece for the cello. Inspired, I think, by that Polonaise.
Interesting! How many instruments do you play, by the way?
Well. I’m willing to try to play anything. Whether I can play them: the jury remains out on that. [Laughs.] I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered any of the things I’ve touched, either. I’m limited to playing guitar and singing. I poke around at a lot of other things. Most recently, I picked up a sampler. Let me see what I got on there now. [Holds phone up to sampler, which plays pitched-up voice: “Please refrain from smoking.”] Did you hear that?
I heard something.
It’s a reminder that I can’t smoke until I get to a rest stop. [Beat.] I didn’t say I was good at it.
Lambchop play the Bell House tonight.