Lambchop's Kurt Wagner

Lambchop's Kurt Wagner
The one constant about the large Nashville collective known as Lambchop is Kurt Wagner. And the one constant about Kurt Wagner is, uh, well he hasn’t found that out yet. From the Curtis Mayfield soul of Nixon and brittle country-folk of Is A Woman to the stark and dark Damaged, Wagner pulls apart genres like a dapper gentleman. With Lambchop’s recent OH (ohio), Wagner has made one of his warmest, most accessible and profound albums of his long career. But, despite the naked lounging couple on the cover, it has nothing to do with sex. Damn.

Was the cover art and title of the album conceived separately or together?
It was separately. Titles usually come kind of last for me and in this case it was a very last minute thing. The painting was by one of my old professors that I’d lost touch with over the last 20 years or so. He was the head of my graduate thesis committee and he was a pretty influential guy as far as me becoming the art dude I was, or to become. I ran into him in Barcelona when I was doing solo shows, developing material for this record. He came and saw the show and we sort of reconnected and I asked him what he’d been up to and he sent me that painting and I thought it was pretty cool. I don’t know, I think sometimes there can be a connection between people and that connection in itself is enough to link things together.

Have you heard of the movie, The Oh in Ohio?
No, I haven’t.

It’s with Parker Posey and it has to do with a woman who can’t get an orgasm…
In Ohio? [laughs]

Yeah. So I thought that was the idea to it. Apparently not.
I’m not familiar with that, but I sort of stumbled into the title Ohio partially because it was the name of the first song on the record, but it was also an idea that didn’t conjure up any kind of major connotation of any kind, but, obviously, for you, it rang some bell about Parker Posey.

Well, then, is there a theme throughout this album? A sexy theme?
[Laughs]. I don’t know about that necessarily. That would be flattering myself to think so. I wouldn’t say there’s any kind of overriding theme. Like all the records it just seems to be a collection of material based upon whatever’s going on in my many worlds.

This record does feel a little looser, upbeat and fun than the last one.
Oh, definitely.

Was that the intention, then?
It was certainly an aspiration. I don’t know if it was an intention or not. It sort of reflected a couple of years that had gone by and things were going a little better and it certainly has some sort of confidence there, but it’s a loose confidence. I think you have to be semi-confident in order to get loose.

How do the songs come together? Stop and go, or "I’m making my album now”?
Well, not really like that. Usually what I do is set some sort of little parameters about writing and I’ll go about writing for a while and then I’ll eventually bring the songs to the band in a fairly infant state and then we’ll develop them from there. I think this time I was looking for a little bit of a different approach so I was just trying to think of stuff we hadn’t really done before and one of the things that I hadn’t done is go out and play solo. So I just started writing songs that could be developed in a tour. I booked a solo tour and went with the idea that I would just develop these songs each night when I was playing them. Because of that, these songs became what they became and then I took them to the band and, of course, they had them a little further along then they’d had in the past but they were still able, I think, to contribute to the final sound of them. They were almost in a different place, or they were almost like cover songs [laughs].

Do you give the band open license to shape and change the songs?
Pretty much my modus in general about working with people is that once I work with them I sort of trust them to do what they want and I try, I try, to stay out of the way. They’re sensitive great artists who I respect so I figure they’ll do the right thing with it.

That begs the question who do you pick since Lambchop is a pretty large group?
It all happens naturally through the course of our ever-evolving longevity. We were fortunate enough to start out as a fairly large collective of people with which to draw on and then over the years it sort of gets whittled down just through the virtue of what happens in people’s lives whether its family, children or people moving out of town. Sometimes it’s just logistical elements that can inform our sound, like how many can you get on a bus?

Well, do you pick people or do they just come and work for you?
It started out basically as an open ended-thing and it was just friends getting together and telling other friends, "Hey this is fun.” It really wasn’t about musical skill or that sort of "quality,” it was more about us getting together and enjoying each others company and, of course, over the years we strove to get better and I would invite people if they wanted to come hang out and play and stuff. Never with any kind of fully stated offer of intent or anything like that. Next thing you know it’s "there’s a tour, do you want to do that?” We just take it as it comes.

Do you have the final word in the songs?
Well, to some extent. Particularly with this record I certainly, with the producers. We decided to use two producers. I stayed out of their way and my final word was if they’re happy with what they’ve done and if they said "yeah” then that was good enough for me and if they said "no” then just keep working on it until you feel like you like it! [Laughs]

Was it tough to give up that control?
Well, it really wasn’t about having control to begin with. I guess it kind of became that way because somebody needed to make those final decisions, or at least I thought that was the case. But, it was more about me being fascinated with every aspect of this thing or this music thing from the conception all the way to the final artwork and record and design. I was interested in all aspects of it, like the mixing. I was really ignorant of a lot of this stuff and I wanted to learn as much as I could about it. I wanted to be part of that process to some extent. I don’t know if I was helpful or not but I certainly got a good education out of the whole thing.

In terms of your music, what comes first, lyrics or music?
Oh it could be either one. I don’t really have a set method in that way at all. It happens either way. When I first started it used to happen both at the same time, which was kind of weird [laughs]. But of course, back then it didn’t make much sense to anybody but me. Even I was trying to figure out why but part of me was going "Wow, it must mean something” and I would try to figure out if it was something that was worthy of repeating. [laughs].

Does one ever shape the other?
Oh yeah. Sure. I’ve tried as many ways as I can think of as far as ways of writing songs. I find that there are as many ways as you can try to come up with and it’s kind of fun to try and create these sort of assignments or something and then carry it through to whatever the final result is and then sort of assess it whether or not it was worthy. Sometimes it ends up being a cool approach that I’ll repeat but sometimes it’ll be a total dead end or sucks.

Thinking about the past albums, genres and styles do you find a career of constant experimentation with songwriting?
I guess it is. It’s strange to have an overview at this point but I guess that comes from being around this long. I find that interesting, particularly the fact in a way the songs still stay alive, at least, for me, in the way that you’re able to perform them live and it’s kind of nice to not necessarily repeat it the same way every time. In fact, I think it’s kind of rare that I think that happens for me. I think the band’s a little happier if I’m a little more consistent in my approach so I have to rein that in a little bit.

When playing live, do you road-test songs?
Well, that’s why I took that opportunity to do the solo thing because it’s a lot easier to develop things and road-test, as you mentioned, without having everyone else trying to follow you. [Laughs] They’re really gifted guys and I think they’re capable of doing that and certainly Lambchop, in their early days, was all about that because there were no set lists and nobody even knew what was going to go on. We just sort of got on stage, set the mood and just took it from there. And that was exciting, but it can be nerve-wracking when you’re playing the Royal Albert Hall so I’ve learned to sort of try to see it from other sides, or from their point of view. I think it’s made me a better artist because of it because I had a lot to learn.

Back to the album, the titles, like your past albums, are quite creative. Do you put a lot of thought into them or is it Mogwai-like and you just name them whatever?
I don’t know man, those guys’ titles are awesome. They speak so much to their personality as people and, having been in some tight corners with Mogwai before, I realize how totally perfect that is. It speaks of them as people. And I think that’s really honest and that’s why they work. I don’t know about my case. Titling for me, well, Nashville’s a funny place to grow up, for one, and then try to grow up and become a songwriter because there are these established methods that people work here. One of the things they do is, say, take a goofy, kitschy hook line and that’s the title of the song and then they just fill in the blanks after that. Once they get that goofy hook, you know, like "You’re dead to me now because you’re living in my soup” then they write a song about that. Unfortunately, not probably that good. But, I do that almost the opposite. I write about these things and then try to figure out the title that comes from within the making of the song and the song tells you what the title is.

Do you feel there’s a danger in being complacent when writing songs?
So long as I’m still engaged and there are things to learn and discover, I feel pretty good about hanging in there. If you lose that wonder or curiosity then problems ensue.