“Sometimes I talk to journalists I’ve been talking to for ten years and they’ll ask me: ‘What’s new with Lambchop? What’s new on this record?’” Wagner laughs, as he does at every juncture, emphatic and wheezy. “But I guess every release is a current event. That’s what’s new. For me, that’s significant and we do try to move forward in little ways, which are hopefully exciting enough for people.”
Wagner views Mr M. as the most progressive album the band’s recorded for years. It comes on the coattails of Invariable Heartache, an album of country covers he recorded with Cortney Tidwell under the imaginative moniker KORT, which made him readdress his work with Lambchop. “KORT had a pretty significant affect on how I approach things,” he says. “It started out as a concept, and then all of a sudden I was having to sing these songs, which were pretty straightforward and corny. I learnt that I can become almost clichéd; that’s pretty out there for me. You can almost transcend how you go about it. It’s not necessarily what you say, but how you say it. On the record, I’m trying to sing a bit better and some of the songs are the most direct I’ve ever done. There’s a song on [Mr M] called The Good Life that’s pretty straight ahead country in progression and theme.”
For the casual listener though, the glacial-paced change from one record to the next is best noticed through a time-lapse lens. It’s the thoughtfulness and attention to detail that keeps them coming back for more, and the story behind the opening track to 2006’s stellarDamaged is part of Lambchop folklore. Wagner was commissioned to write Paperback Bible for a radio documentary about life in Middle America. The producers sent him some excerpts from a Tennessee radio show called Swap Shop – essentially a live, audio classifieds section – to turn into a song. “And I’ve got some things/That I’d like to put on out there/Like a pony cart and/an old bird bath/A kitchen sink and a rocking chair,” Wagner croons, impossibly emotively, on what equates to a startling piece of music. “Yeah, that was something I thought I’d try,” he laughs modestly.
But what of the new album? What, today, inspires a man who has previously found his muse within the sheets of the Oxford English Dictionary? “I guess that song’s about people watching,” he says when asked about Gone Tomorrow, one of the standout tracks from the new record, which sees Wagner at his lyrical best. “The studio where I wrote that particular song, they’re doing some improvements around the corner from it. There were some homeless dudes hanging around and they have those little camps. It’s on this road that’s used by people who don’t have vehicles, like these guys, to get from one part of town to the other. There’s a railroad crossing and all the time I was there, there was just an influx of people. I pretty much wrote it from that position, looking at this place from different perspectives.”
Mr M. is Mr Met, named for the past tense of ‘meet’ rather than the New York baseball team’s mascot, who must’ve been feeling particularly litigious the day he heard the album’s original title. “It’s a reference to a friend of mine,” Wagner says, his voice slowing, “who, ah. Who died recently.” He’s referring to Vic Chesnutt, the iconic modern folk singer who died from an overdose in late 2009. The pair shared a musical philosophy best summed up by an oft-quoted line Chesnutt once gave the New York News: “Other people write about the bling and the booty. I write about the pus and the gnats. To me, that’s beautiful.” Lambchop acted as his backing band for the 1998 album The Salesman and Bernadette; Wagner says it would be hard to overstate the impact Chesnutt had on his life. “Vic was part of my musical life since I started out. I wanted to make sure we remembered him.”
Collaborations like these permeate Wagner’s body of work. Lambchop can be anything from one to 12 strong, depending on where they’re playing, and this synergetic spirit, he says, has kept things fresh. “One of the things I’ve tried to do with Lambchop is to have this general kind of collective of ideas. It’s not just me, it’s everyone I work with and it’s fun to include them. It feels more like a family operation, or at least we’re connected by friendship. I love the fact that it allows me to connect with these people and luckily it still continues.”
Away from music, Wagner has built up a network of associates that he works with from time to time, too. An art graduate, he’s picked up his brushes again in recent years after almost a decade long hiatus. He created the cover for Mr M., part of a series of character-based portraits. It sits well among the band’s backlog of cover art which includes typographically wonderful Nixon by his childhood friend Wayne Wright and (OH) Ohio’s infamous nude sleeve, New Orleans Public Beating, painted by an old art professor Michael Peed, with whom he reconnected in Barcelona in the 2000s after losing touch years before.
“In general, the songs and the paintings were created at the same time,” he says, before exploding into laughter. “I wrote the songs when I should’ve been painting. I was playing hooky! Interesting, it always seems to be the least opportune moment for me when I start to think about something else.” But Wagner is non-committal when pushed for a connection between his art and his music. “I find it difficult to connect them. Maybe it’s not a good idea to try. I’ve thought about it for years, but never saw a way I thought the two could get along. Have you ever been to an art opening that had a musical performance? It’s like the worst kind of thing you could ever go to. Aw, it’s horrible man. The business side of both of those things are completely ignorant of each other. They don’t even understand what the other’s trying to do.”
How about writing a book? “I’ve thought about that, too. But I don’t know. I’ve worked on a book with a visual artist, which hasn’t been published yet. I provide the text to go with his photographs. But as far as a novel or something like that… that’s a lot of commitment. I can’t get my head round how anyone can accomplish it at all. You read a book, and maybe it takes you somewhere. But if you ever think about what went into it… it’s scary.”
All the way through the conversation, Kurt Wager is in great spirits. His laugh acts as both a prefix and suffix to most things he says, and it’s extremely contagious. The last time The Skinny spoke with him, four years ago, he was more reflective – relieved even – having then recently recovered from cancer. “It’s alright, I’m happy to report,” he says, of his health. Has it changed his lifestyle? “You would think it would. I probably could tidy up my smoking and my consumption of food and alcohol. I’m sure my doctors would prefer me to become a little more prudent. But there’s still time for that.” When it comes to Lambchop, the acquisition of moderation requires just as much patience as everything else.