Once called “Nashville’s most fucked up country band” by Wilco’s Ken Coomer, Lambchop are one of the most complex and unclassifiable bands to emerge from the iconic southern town in the past twenty years. Bonded together since 1987 by their frontman, Kurt Wagner, the group has had nearly twenty members, released close to 50 recordings, and toured the world many times over. The band is a bit of a late bloomer—Kurt was 35 when Lambchops first album was recorded—but nonetheless has had as many sonic shifts and changes as their younger counterparts. They just seem a bit more comfortable doing so. Sandwiched between two gigs in one weekend to close out their recent European tour, we sat down with Kurt on the deck at KEX Hostel for a solid, chain-smoking chat.
Nice to meet you, Kurt. How are you?
Oh, fine! You know…
Your band has been around ages, but it seems like you still don’t really fit into the typical understanding of the Nashville recording scene, nor into the sort of “Pitchfork indie” world either…
Nobody knows what to do with us, really. Which is fine with me. That’s why we started recording in Nashville, because it had all these studios. We were able to go in there on weekends on the cheap and work with really great equipment and great engineers. People that were happy to do it because it wasn’t country music. That was sort of part of the idea. We were trying to be ourselves and make music that we like and use the facilities that were around there for that.
We were just like normal kids anywhere making music for ourselves, basically. It didn’t necessarily sound like country music but there was a point where I started thinking about it conceptually—what country music is—and we had all those qualities. It just didn’t sound like country music.
Does this dynamic of not quite fitting in help the longevity of a band like yours?
I think so, definitely. Even though people, I guess by necessity, need to sort of classify things in order to describe them to others. The fact is that we don’t actually fit those things. Or at least if we do it’s just one little facet, it doesn’t really describe what we do or tell the whole thing. I still have a lot of trouble describing what the hell it is we do. It’s just about playing the music that we like or that I’m drawn to or that I write about.
WORK HARD, STICK AROUND
Is it more a question of work ethic rather than concept?
Yeah, absolutely! I think it’s about just continuing to make music. Everyone’s musical tastes—well, I don’t know if this is true, but at least in my case—change a lot over the years. I’ve never been sort of singular about a particular type of music. I’ve always liked lots of different kinds of music, but at the same time I’m starting to discover music that I didn’t think so much about before, and that’s suddenly interesting. I think that’s because when you’ve been hanging around long enough you start thinking, “What was wrong with that? That sounds great!” You actually rediscover stuff. I just think you open up to other things so maybe it’s just time that that’s ringin’ the bell.
Does this openness also work its way into the stories you tell in your lyrics?
The lyrics are a funny thing because I try these different methods of writing. They’re usually centred around experience—friends’ experiences or something like that—but they’re not necessarily stories in the literary sense of a beginning, middle and end, or you have a message or something like that. The message sort of comes out by virtue of thinking about it a lot and going, ‘oh that’s what it means!’
There does seem to be a stream of consciousness to them sometimes. Are you fond of ambiguity in that way?
It’s not intentional in that sense. It’s just that if it feels right and I like it then it’s okay. Sometimes it ends up being quite evident later on; it just takes a while to sink in. So it’s not necessarily a stream of consciousness thing but I’ve tried to write like that on occasion. Other times I try to be very specific. If there were methods to doing it they would probably be something I wouldn’t want to keep repeating.
As far as writing in general, there’s no set way of doing it. It’s the same thing musically as it is with writing lyrics. You learn from it and you grow from it. At first I was very satisfied to let things be what they were, but now I’m much more the opposite. I’ll work on a song for a year in order to refine it that much. It’s not that either way is more successful than the other, it’s just what they are. They worked in their own context.
BUMPIN’ DANCE LAB
Would the term “experimental” be applicable to the way you work?
Oh, I do experiment, but more in the true notion of experimentation where there’s actually a thesis involved or a theorem, and then you try to prove that. It’s not just gettin’ high and spewing out a lot of stuff—although I used to do that as a kid. It’s more about saying, ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if I tried to work this way or if I drew information from a certain source or a concept.’
Like, I’m interested in making dance music at the moment and it’s a conceptual idea based on a 50-second comedy monologue by Buddy Hackett. Somehow that’s gonna become bumpin’ dance music. Will it come across literally? It really doesn’t matter. That’s what started the idea, then you get in the lab and you work on it a little while and see where it ends up. It may have nothing to do with that 50-second thing at the end or it might.
That actually sounds really cool. So the show tonight, how will that be compared to last night’s gig here at KEX?
That was pretty atypical for us over the last few years. We play clubs and stuff like that, but not just kinda setting up and going on. We do that in Nashville on occasion and we sort of prefer it to some sort of organised thing there, just because there are so many bars and clubs to play. We never wanted to be some sort of hometown phenomenon. Nashville’s not the kind of town that supports music in that way—it’s an industry town. It’s about music business, recording industry; it’s not about supporting musicians like… this country is! [Laughs] This whole country is very supportive of artists. Nashville is not like that.
Although there’s lots of great music now being made, it took a long time for that to happen. When we started making it, bands were convinced that you had to be signed to a record label. That was the ultimate goal. Then once you got signed to a label you could tour the world, or whatever. We did the opposite. We just made our own records for our own sake and a record label in Germany liked it and they put it out. Next thing you know, we’re playing everywhere but Nashville.
There was no DIY recording scene there at the time?
Not in Nashville. Not much. The goal was to be signed on a record label and our goal was to not. We just figured we’d put ‘em out and distribute them ourselves.
Kind of an anti-vision of the Altman film…
Well, that film was kind of an anti-vision of what was going on there at the time! When that came out, people in Nashville were appalled. They were freaked out. They thought it did not represent Nashville at all.
Great movie, though.
It’s an excellent film.
TURN IT DOWN
Would you say your show tonight will be a little more “hardcore” than last night’s?
Oh, it’s gonna be hardcore like, super quiet. Cause we play quietly. Last night was not representative of that. We tried to play quietly in there but we couldn’t hear anything! The concept I’m working on now, particularly live, is one of playing very quietly. In order to pull that off you sort of need a certain situation.
So last night was the party.
Absolutely! And it was great! We had a great time, but musically it was not what I’m trying to do at this point. I have an idea that music has become louder and louder and louder when you go to clubs or bars, and one thing is competing against the other. The louder the music is, the louder the people shout trying to have a conversation. We’re playing quietly now that people could have a conversation by whispering to each other. Whether they wanna hear what you’re doing because they care, or they just wanna party, that’s fine.
We’ve just been doing it long enough that this is the way I think I can continue making music for a while. I won’t grow hoarse, I won’t go deaf, it’s interesting and there’s a way to make it dynamic. We’re just going the inverse, a little bit, because the type of music I’m writing now is served by that. Obviously the dance music isn’t gonna be like that. I think once I’m done with that I’m gonna try to combine it with Lambchop. Who knows what the fuck that’ll sound like.
Read a review of Lambchop’s live performance here.