Kurt Wagner, the Nashville-based leader of Lambchop and prolific songwriter, opens up about his 30-year career and his collaborations with Vic Chesnutt and Morcheeba
Nashville’s Lambchop have never sounded quite like anyone else, and they’ve also never been known to repeat themselves. Over the last 30 years, they’ve combined rock with such genres as country, jazz, soul and (most recently) electronic music. The titles of some of their albums offer hints of their musical and thematic mashups: How I Quit Smoking, What Another Man Spills, Is a Woman, and Damaged.
Their line-up has been as fluid as their sound, with frontman Kurt Wagner being the sole consistent member. Wagner’s often quirky lyrics are delivered in a mellow, laid-back style and the instrumentation is generally kept subdued enough to let the quiet vocals shine through. But within this general structure, Lambchop have constantly pushed themselves in different musical directions.
The group began in 1986 under the name Posterchild and in 1992 released their first single, “An Open Fresca” / “A Moist Towlette” (split with Crop Circle Hoax). In addition to starting to build their fan base, that single attracted the attention of noise pop band Poster Children, whose lawyer sent them a cease-and-desist order over use of the name. Changing it to Lambchop, they released their full-length debut, Hope You’re Sitting Down, in 1994 (the album is also known as Jack’s Tulips).
Wagner and other members of Lambchop have also been involved in a variety of other interesting projects. The group backed Vic Chesnutt on his 1998 The Salesman and Bernadette album. HeCTA was a side project of Wagner and Lambchop bandmates Ryan Norris and Scott Martin where they experimented with electronic styles. With Kort, Wagner teamed up with Cortney Tidwell to explore the catalog of legendary independent country music label Chart Records. And in further proof that he can’t be pigeon-holed, Wagner worked with electronic/trip-hop band Morcheeba, contributing vocals to their 2002 track “What New York Couples Fight About.”
Morcheeba, “What New York Couples Fight About”:
PKM: You’ve been doing this more than 25 years now. At what point did you realize that Lambchop was becoming a long-term project?
Kurt Wagner: Well, I never really take that for granted. To some extent, it continues to surprise me that it continues. I try not to look too far in the future, and not too far in the past either. I try to stay in a year or two in either direction.
PKM: The line-up has changed quite a bit over the years; what effect do you think this has had on the band and your creative process?
Kurt Wagner: Certainly how I interact with the people I create music with has a big effect on what is created. At the same time, I try to assess the way things are and who I’m working with at the time. That certainly is fluid and can change, and I’m open to that. I hope that kind of thing continues. As you get older, the people you work with also continue to get older, and it’s interesting to see how their creative efforts sort of mature as well. It’s exciting to work with people on a long-term basis, and it’s also fun to work with people you’ve never met before.
PKM: You’ve been based in Nashville all along. Could you comment on the music scene there?
Kurt Wagner: Historically for us as a group, we’ve always looked at ourselves as being from Nashville and sort of representing whatever that was for that period of time. It seems like back when we started, Nashville was a completely different place. We’re talking about 30 years ago. We were obviously sort of acting against and at the same time embracing the things that were Nashville, and as time went on, Nashville definitely has changed and has become less genre-specific. It’s become like any other big creative city like New York or LA or something like that. And that has really happened only in the last 8 – 10 years, but at this point, it seems more cosmopolitan, but there certainly are all types of music being made here now as opposed to when we were starting out and it was really just sort of a country music industry and some garage rock.
PKM: Do you feel that change has had an effect on your own music?
Kurt Wagner: As Nashville grew more diverse I think it had little effect on what we did or who we were becoming as a group. I do think the bigger influence came within our ranks as each of the participants grew as musicians and their ideas became more pronounced in our music. Also, by mid-2000 there was so much accessibility to music outside of Nashville through the internet and from our touring that those things seems to have more of an impact on our sound.
PKM: Looking back, what were your initial influences in starting the band?
Kurt Wagner: I’m not really sure. I think we were just driven by the social aspect of getting together and making music. Historically, most of the bands playing around Nashville were cover bands for the most part or they were sort of rock bands looking for a record contract. There really wasn’t much else going on. We were trying to do something that was original to ourselves and fun to play. It was much more of a social thing, and we didn’t play cover songs. We created our own music and that just fed in upon itself, and as people became more interested in what we did, we continued to do it.
PKM: You’ve often changed your sound quite a bit from album to album. Do you feel like you’ve consciously tried to re-invent your sound?
Kurt Wagner: It’s sort of a broad curiosity about music in general and the wonder of creating something that is new to you and exciting to try to perform and play.
I try not to look too far in the future, and not too far in the past either. I try to stay in a year or two in either direction.
PKM: With a large catalog of music, what determines what will be part of a live set?
Kurt Wagner: Several things, really. It has to do with the context of where we’re playing. If it’s a festival or a concert hall, or if it’s a rock club or house party, that affects a lot about what we draw upon to play. It’s also about what’s for dinner, or what we’re into at the moment. That is hopefully considered in what we perform at any given time. If we’re working on a lot of new music, it always makes sense to me to try to perform that, as opposed to not playing it until it’s all figured out. Performing sometimes can be helpful in the figuring out of it.
PKM: Do you find yourselves re-interpreting older material through the lens of what you’ve done with more recent music?
Kurt Wagner: We’ve been doing a bit of that lately. There’s a song called ‘Decline of Country and Western Music Civilization’ and it’s somehow become topically relevant, for some reason I decided that we should start playing it again.
“Decline of Country and Western Music Civilization” from Lambchop’s Damaged album:
Kurt Wagner: We started using things like we’d used on FLOTUS [the most recent Lambchop album, released in 2016] and completely reworked it. So, it’s essentially the same song, but its sonic components are all very much of what we’re doing now. It’s a lot of fun, and I think we’ve done that to 2 or 3 other songs. It makes sense with the way we’re touring, and we still want to present some of the older material but in a way that is how we are today as opposed to who we were 20 years ago.
PKM: Since you’ve incorporated many different styles within the music of Lambchop, what made you do the HeCTA side project?
Kurt Wagner: It just seemed like at the time … there were a couple of other people in the band who were definitely focusing a lot on electronic music and I was interested in it as well. It just seemed like a chance to learn new things and to explore different ways of writing and working with these new technologies. We were interested in seeing what would happen when we followed our common interests in electronic music and letting each of our individual musical strengths interact to create something entirely collaborative. Lambchop music is more about being supportive to the songs and ideas I create. HeCTA was much more about what would happen when we wrote together as a group.
PKM: What was the experience like?
Kurt Wagner: Oh, there was a lot of learning involved. I’m pretty technologically challenged myself, but the other two fellas, Ryan Norris and Scott Martin, were a lot better equipped and had a lot more familiarity with that type of technology and what is required to make the sounds. I just wanted to learn about it, and see what it would do, see what I could contribute to it from what I do. It was a way to see what would happen and we were pretty thrilled with the result.
PKM: And that paved the way for FLOTUS?
Kurt Wagner: Particularly having gone through that process, I learned a lot about technology and in particular taking what we were doing in the studio and figuring out a way to perform it live. It meant learning new software programs and stuff like that, which opened up the possibility of writing in a different type of way.
PKM: Is utilizing electronics in this way something you’re continuing with?
Kurt Wagner: I’m still figuring all that out, but it certainly has enabled me to write with what I’ve learned in mind, and certainly, I’ll draw upon that in future Lambchop stuff. I’m still discovering stuff, so it’s really hard to say how it’s going to turn out. I’m sort of in the middle of it all now and I like to leave a lot of stuff open.
PKM: How did you come to work with Morcheeba?
Kurt Wagner: I met the brothers Godfrey (Ross and Paul) at our very first Lambchop show in London back in the early-mid 90’s. They were children really, young and wild-eyed sweethearts. As I recall, they came to most of our London shows and a few others during those early years. I didn’t realize that they were Morcheeba until a few years later when Wyndham Wallace, who ran the City Slang Label in the UK, introduced us. Then somewhat out of the blue they sent me a couple of tracks to write some lyrics to, for Skye [Edwards] to sing. They seemed to like what they were hearing and as it worked out I happened to be in London (doing God knows what) and they had me over to do some singing with Skye. This was both great and intimidating. Skye has a classic voice and can really make words glow. They included those songs on their record Charango and I did a few cameo appearances on stage, both in London and New York. It was so fun and easy and terrifying as I certainly was not used to the level of performance, venues, or crowds. They were so very supportive of what I did as an artist and their faith and encouragement has always been something that stays with me as the years have gone by.
PKM: Another side project you were involved with was Kort – could you explain a bit about that?
Kurt Wagner: Kort came about through a mutual love of a particular type of country music. We had all been working together in Lambchop at the time but during that time I became aware of Cortney Tidwell’s musical heritage and thought it might be fun to explore that. Through her grandfather, we were allowed access to the entire Chart Records catalogue and we thought there was something there that we could interpret through a new perspective. This, in general, has been one of my concerns being an artist who grew up in Nashville. Representing our differences from the past through a perception of the legacy that surrounds us.
“Picking Wild Mountain Berries” – Kurt Wagner and Cortney Tidwell, KORT:
PKM: Lambchop worked with Vic Chesnutt on his The Salesman and Bernadette album – what was that experience like?
Kurt Wagner: Oh, it was amazing. It was a really great experience. At the time for both of us it was a very welcomed idea. Vic had this idea to make a record with us, and we of course had been familiar with what he was doing and had played shows with him. It gave us an opportunity to really see what we could do to help each other musically. Vic created this idea and wrote the songs specifically for that instrumentation and for these people, and it really was a fairly effortless situation. We concocted a way of recording where we’d record on the weekends and Vic would come up from Athens. We’d have 2 or 3 songs we were working on, and on the first day, we would record in a constructive type of approach, where each part would be put on and layered onto each other. We would do each song that way, so it was more like a construction type of recording. And then on the second day, we performed those live. So we’d have two different versions of the songs to choose from at the end of each weekend. It was great. Sometimes we’d choose the live version and sometimes we’d choose the constructed version.
Kurt Wagner and Lambchop, with Vic Chesnutt, on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, performing “Until the Led” with a full ensemble:
PKM: Of the many changes that have occurred within the music industry since you started, which do you think have affected you most as an artist?
Kurt Wagner: I think one of the things that strikes me the most, and it’s not necessarily the advent of technology, it’s just that there are so many people making music now. So many bands, so much music out there, it’s almost overwhelming. It’s remarkable. It’s almost like watching the population explode or something like that. I think that’s great, but also at the same time, you think back on your musical choices even in the 80s compared to now. It’s just exponentially different. There’s so much more to absorb. You only have so much time to devote to it. There’s great music but it’s hard to keep up with, it’s just astounding. It brings up as many questions as there are answers as far as how you survive in that kind of situation as an artist.
PKM: How do you personally deal with this?
Kurt Wagner: I’m trying to keep on doing it. I don’t really know how else to do it. I’m not quite sure that I’m very good at it comparatively speaking as far as being ambitious. I just simply want to continue to create, to make records and hopefully there will be somebody who will listen to them. I’ve certainly given up on aspirations at becoming successful at it [laughs] in the sense of being a band who makes a lot of money and is well known. I’m happy with what we’ve accomplished, and I try to keep on going.
PKM: What is the current status of Lambchop?
Kurt Wagner: We’re just now beginning to record new material, and I plan on focusing on that through the summer. Hopefully after that, we’ll start up the process of releasing another record. For the prior record, we did a lot of touring. We’ll still do some shows from time to time but mostly the focus is on making new music.
Kurt Wagner performs two Bob Dylan songs on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert program: