This article is from 2006.
Miles Fielder chats to Kurt Wager about why Lambchop are far more than just alt.country as they head for T on the Fringe.
‘You get together and have a good time, and see what kind of racket you make,’ Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner says with a gravelly laugh. Wagner, who looks like a garage mechanic wearing Buddy Holly specs and sounds like Tom Waits’ younger brother, is recalling his teenage years growing up in his adopted home of Nashville, Tennessee, a music town where there was no shortage of folk to jam with. ‘When you’re growing up in Nashville,’ Wagner says, ‘a lot of people are playing music for one reason or another. It was very light-hearted and not particularly studied.’
Wagner’s comments on his youthful approach to music making hold true today with his muso-favourite collective that’s often and somewhat reductively labelled as alt.county. Indeed, Wagner might equally be talking about how he and the band put together the new album, Damaged, Lambchop’s eighth studio recording in 12 years (nine if you count the double disc Aw C’mon/No, You C’mon as two records).
Damaged is already being touted by music critics as the band’s best album yet, which is saying something given their discography already contains two sublime records: 2000’s Nixon and 2002’s Is A Woman. Damaged may not reach the giddy musical heights of those masterpieces, but it is singer/songwriter Wagner’s most overtly personal record to date.
‘That’s just where I ended up going when I was writing the thing,’ says Wagner, talking about the subject in an elliptical manner that matches the enigmatic nature of his song lyrics. ‘I realised I was dealing with very personal stuff. I’m always thinking about interjecting personal things in what I write, but I usually do it in an observational way. In this case, maybe I looked inward first. It is kind of direct for me, or as direct as I’ll ever be,’ he laughs.
Wagner recently got over a nasty cancer scare. ‘It was a pretty tough year for me,’ he says, ‘but a lot of friends seemed to be having a hard time, too. The world seems to be . . . It’s a tough time to be around,’ he says with another throaty laugh. ‘I pretty much stayed in my room, to write the record. When I initially start writing it’s a solitary sort of endeavour. I get an idea and then the band gets together and we start arranging my thoughts.’
This is how Lambchop have always worked, and with a rolling collective of anything between seven and 20 members. Wagner and co have been credited with creating the New Nashville Sound. But billing it as alt.country doesn’t do justice to Lambchop’s experiments with the Detroit Motown (on Nixon), stripped down sound (Is A Woman) and orchestrations and film scoring (Aw C’mon/No, You C’mon, which includes tracks composed for their score to FW Murnau’s silent movie classic Sunrise, performed live at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall last year), even electronica (in the form of interludes between tracks on the latest album).
That latest innovation comes courtesy of Hand Off Cuba, an outfit composed of three musicians including Lambchop regular guitarist William Tyler. ‘So it was natural that we would eventually create things together,’ says Wagner. ‘I’m always looking for a new way of augmenting what it is that we sound like. It’s something that’s continuing to grow as we (Lambchop and HOC) start to perform live together; I can see that taking on an even more refined shape.’
There are two music scenes in Nashville: mainstream and alternative. The former operates in the classic session style (or as Tyler puts it, ‘Peanuts on the floor and everybody’s trying to be like Steve Earl’) and is epitomised by that hoary old venue The Grand Ole Opry. The latter is wildly eclectic, shot through with the spirit of independence and operates on the margins of the city’s music industry. Wagner, famous for penning his lyrics on his front porch, and the Lambchop collective, which is as likely to record songs in a basement as a studio, belong to alternative Nashville.
‘We’re from Nashville; we grew up there,’ says Wagner (who rather cheekily named a singles collection released earlier this year The Decline of the Country and Western Civilisation). ‘It informs the way Lambchop is. But we’re not bolstered by the commercial infrastructure. We operate unto ourselves. We’re not answering to labels. We’re making music essentially for ourselves.’
That’d be getting together and making a racket, then.
Lambchop play T on the Fringe at the Liquid Room, 0870 1690100, 5 Aug, 7pm, £17.50.