First, get your mind out of the gutter, and then envision the dampness and stifling humidity of the American South: Nashville, Tennessee, to be exact. It is there that Kurt Wagner and his very large band create languid, lush, slow song-scapes. "I agree with you," he concurs, after admitting that he opted not to conduct this interview from his porch — figuring that the sound of birds chirping in warmer climes would only "rub it in" for this Canadian interview. "That's befitting of the place I live, here in Nashville, where it's humid and moist. In the South, our summers are long and hot and slow, and our music is a reflection of that."
Lambchop — an ensemble whose head count varies, but currently sits at 13 members — formed in 1992 as a loose collective of friends jamming on Wagner's back porch. It's hard to envision that set-up when listening to Lambchop today. Wagner's surrealist and deadpan lyrics are strewn across a decidedly odd melange of country-politan, Curtis Mayfield soul, drone, Euro cabaret and vintage Disney music. It's not exactly Friday night, let your hair down with a few beers music. Wagner disagrees: "It kind of is, for a bunch of tired, old construction workers!" he laughs, with a disarming giggle for a 41-year-old man.
With such a large band, it's not surprising that most of them are, in fact, construction workers (Wagner's specialty is wood flooring) and not full-time musicians. Their current tour opening for Yo La Tengo, promoting their fifth album for Merge, Nixon, is the lengthiest one they've ever attempted, for obvious logistical reasons, considering their high overhead and low profile. "The way we've tried to structure the band is to fit in with our normal lives," says Wagner. "It's truly an experiment for us to go out for this amount of time. In the past, we'd go to Europe for a week and that's been fine, and people find a way to make that their vacation. The idea of being able to make music at home and get together on a regular basis and make a record is what the whole band has been founded on."
The sound that this particular group of players creates is something intangible and magical, not to mention surprisingly sparse considering the numbers — and presumably egos — involved. "Everybody's pretty sensitive to what's going on and what other people are doing," says Wagner. "Of course, another part of that involves the miracles of the recording studio. But generally when we play on stage, it's a similar thing."
Such is the chemistry that Wagner doesn't bother substituting band members if someone can't make a tour. "I try to keep it that way as much as possible," he explains. "What we are is the sound that this group of people make together. I've stuck to my guns about it. There's enough people that if a couple can't make it there's room to wiggle. But if it goes below ten, it would just be different. I'd be really hesitant to call a four-piece version of ourselves Lambchop."
That doesn't mean they're a part-time band, however. Rather than touring, they pour all their efforts into recording as much as possible. "Our policy is that if anyone calls us and asks to do a seven-inch, we'll do it if we have time," he says, "for no other reason than to have as much music floating around in various places as we can, because we don't get out and about a lot. Part of the fun of making music is having it be heard, even if you can't perform it. There are lots of other outlets to get it out to people."
Part of the band's prolific nature is helped by their proclivity for cover versions, especially the songs of Merge label-mate F.M. Cornog of East River Pipe, whom they've interpreted repeatedly. Their last album, 1998's What Another Man Spills, contained five cover versions; Nixon contains none. "We do a lot of covers and we can get carried away with it. This was a concerted effort to do original material, which is how we started out playing music. It's fun to play other people's music, but it's more satisfying to play something original."
That decision might also be related to their experience playing with Vic Chesnutt, who invited them to be his backing band for his 1998 album, The Salesman and Bernadette, that he says he wrote with Lambchop in mind. The collaboration led to a short tour and network television appearances. "Since then, I've had other ideas for stuff like that," says Wagner. "We can go and spend a lot of time in those directions, and that's very enjoyable. One of the biggest moments of my life was to play with him, one of my heroes, and make a whole record with him. But at the same time, it's a distraction from what we're doing as a unit."
As a unit, Lambchop continue to develop, adding subtle changes to their trademark sound. This time out, Wagner pushes his curious voice away from a narrative deadpan into the frightening world of falsetto. It's a recurring technique throughout Nixon's song cycle, one that almost sounds shocking when Wagner shifts gears. "I don't think I'm a particularly great singer, and certainly not a great falsetto singer," he begins. "But it's another colour in the old paint box and makes it more poignant, the sound of a poor guy struggling to sing a certain way. I don't think of it as particularly pleasing."
Despite the dour nature of much of his music, you can't accuse Wagner of taking himself too seriously. This is, after all, the man who has penned such titles as "My Face Your Ass" and "Soaky In Your Pooper." So while his newfound falsetto is certainly playful, he takes it very seriously. "The whole thing fascinates me," he enthuses. "When you hear people singing that high, you just have to think, ‘Why are they doing that?' Especially men. I remember back when I was a child, I used to sing very high. Then my testicles did their thing and changed my voice, and it's been like that ever since," he continues straight-faced, as if this is somehow news. "I guess it's also a bit risky, what I'm doing. Some people get kind of angry. They think that I'm trashing this tune by doing this, but I think I'm enhancing it in a way. I push it really hard, almost to the point of being bad. But I'm really trying to sing good!"
And the significance of the album's title, Nixon? "In a way, you had to be there, in Nashville in the early ‘70s, late ‘60s," says Wagner cryptically. "I could go on for a long time about it, and in the end you'd still say, ‘I don't get it.' And that's fine. It's certainly not a title you'd forget." But what role did Richard Nixon play in the development of popular music? "Frankly, it was probably that he was such a dickhead and made the world so horrible for a while, that it forced people to create some incredible music."
"Nine"/"Moody Fucker" (Merge, 1992)
"My Cliché"/"Loretta Lung (Sunday Driver, 1994)
Sorry About The Deformed Heart (Tramatone, 1994) (split cassette with Crop Circle Hoax and Spent)
"Soaky In the Pooper"/"Two Kittens Don't Make a Puppy" (Merge, 1994)
I Hope You're Sitting Down (Merge, 1994)
"It's Impossible"/"Nonpareils & Bartlebees" (Contrast, 1994)
"Scared Out of My Shoes" (I-Sore, 1994) (split 7" w/ Spent)
"I Can Hardly Spell My Name" (Bloodsucker, 1995) (7" split with CYOD)
"You're Life As Sequel"/"Smuckers" (Mute America, 1995)
How I Quit Smoking (Merge, 1996)
Hank EP (Merge, 1996)
"Cigarettiquette"/"Playboy, The Shit" (Merge, 1997)
Thriller (Merge, 1997)
What Another Man Spills (Merge, 1998)
"Up With People" (Third Gear, 1999) (split 7" w/ Dump)
"La Distancia Desde Ella Hasta Alli"/"Que Dira Cosa Podria Ser?" (Elefant, 1999)
Nixon (Merge, 2000)
The Salesman and Bernadette (Capricorn, 1998)
Kurt Wagner/Josh Rouse
Chester EP (Slow River, 1999)