Lambchop have been attributed the tag of “the most consistently brilliant and unique American group to emerge during the 1990s”. Kurt Wagner still can’t believe people turn up to his gigs. Finbarr Bermingham had a word with the head honcho and found out that he really is “just a dude”
A conversation with Kurt Wagner is a lot like listening to him sing. His voice wavers between a deep throaty growl and a gentle higher pitched whisper, depending on how interested he is in the question. From time to time he’ll get excited, but since undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous growth from his throat a few years back, it’s doubtful he’ll ever be able to replicate the joyous falsetto that graced Nixon and Is A Woman. Instead he just laughs straight from the gut. Wagner in 2008 seems a happier man than back in ’06, for plainly obvious reasons. I refer him to the closing track from Lambchop’s last album Damaged, The Decline Of Country & Western Civilisation, in which he seemed to have a pop at some of his more illustrious peers.
“Certainly I threw a few punches out in that direction, but I think it was more about how frustrated I was then. You know, here’s a guy who’s just got diagnosed with all these problems and one of the things that happens is that you just lash out. It’s one of the stages you go through. One of them is anger, one of them is denial, then self-pity. I was so young and I was having to deal with this shit that I didn’t think I’d have to worry about for a long time.”
Lambchop have been making music for 20 years. What started out as a hobby amongst drinking buddies in Wagner’s Nashville basement gradually gathered momentum, with the band enjoying popularity in Europe and the UK long before they’d established themselves in the States. When asked why they don’t seem to attract the same veneration at home, he is nonplussed. “I’ve yet to figure out a fucking answer!” he laughs, “Maybe then we could change things a little bit!”
Throughout the first decade of Lambchop, Wagner balanced his musical pastime with a job laying wooden floors, taking time off to play European shows on his own. It’s this background that has instilled a certain work ethic and modesty in the songwriter. “I can’t afford myself the luxury of thinking I’m worth more than I actually am. Everyday I’ve gotta look in the mirror and I’m like, ‘Come on guys!’ If I did, then I wouldn’t be me.” All the while Wagner’s words are embellished with long wheezy bursts of laughter. “I’m still amazed that people show up at all. Man, I’m just a dude doing my thing!”When it comes to his music, however, there’s a firm self-assuredness lurking beneath the modest exterior. Lambchop’s new album OH (Ohio) is one Wagner is particularly pleased with. “I don’t wanna blow my own trumpet, but it’s a good record. I’m really happy with it,” is his succinct recommendation. The title of the album stems from the air of uncertainty in the USA around the time of recording.
“Ohio is a swing state, [but] I’m not trying to be overtly political or anything, that’s just what was happening.” Wagner’s concern regards the recent surge in support for Republican nominee, John McCain. “I haven’t been there since this big shift happened. I’m walking around here wondering what the hell’s going on, I guess like you. I don’t know what I’m going back to.” He rounds the sentence off, as ever, with a trademark laugh – only this one is a little bit more nervous than the others.