Category Archives: lambchop

Lambchop: “I’m sure my doctors would prefer me to become a little more prudent”

As the world around him rushes from pillar to post, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner has always been happy to keep his own pace
The promotional trailer for Lambchop’s forthcoming tour is brilliant. Black and white, with a building guitar riff, Kurt Wagner walks onto the stage of an empty hall, sits on a stool in the spotlight and lights a cigarette. He strums his guitar as the shot pans out, then tips some ash in his hand, before blowing it into the air. It’s simple, clean and lovely. For 25 years Lambchop have been making music that celebrates the beauty and complexity that lies between the grey textures of everyday life. Never forced or overegged. The video is (no doubt purposely) analogous, and it works. “Love the ambience,” posts one commenter. “Even if this is all he did on stage, I’d get a ticket for it.”

“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.

 Written for The Skinny

Lambchop – Mr M.


At this stage, it’d be mad to expect sweeping changes from a new Lambchop record, and the loungy, intricate and patient Mr. M (Mr. Metuntil a libelous baseball mascot got involved) satisfies the rule, for the most part. But in its four-year gestation period (the longest in the Nashville band’s history), Kurt Wagner has added a few, subtle strings to his bow.

Since 2008’s OH (Ohio), Wagner’s collaborated with Cortney Tidwell on the collection of country covers, KORT. And while Mr. M never comes close to a hoedown, it contains some of the most direct songs to have flown the Lambchop banner, including a straight up love song: Never My Love. Alas, the finest moments remain when Wagner is at his poetic, observant best. “The wine tasted like sunshine in a basement,” he sings on the stellar Gone Tomorrow, reminding us that while new tricks aren’t beyond all old dogs, sometimes they just aren’t as good.

Written for The Skinny

Lambchop – OH (Ohio) Album Review

Kurt Wagner and his ever-changing Nashville outfit continue to impress

Ohio: not the most inspiring of US states. This is a perfect breeding ground for Lambchop’s peculiarity-driven song writing; always seeking wonder in the mundane. In this case Ohio could be anything, anywhere. From the merits of a favourite pencil (A Hold Of You) to Sharing A Gibson With Martin Luther King Jr – a sublime hybrid of ideas, fusing an obscure dream with feelings of disillusionment – Wagner’s idiosyncratic household voyeurism rarely fails to charm. Having faced and dealt with personal tragedy, OH marks a step away from 2006’s esoteric Damaged. Kurt Wagner’s back “smoking on the patio” and has resumed centre stage. Whereas Damaged was crafted around the piano of Tony Crow, OH was written to be performed solo and reflectively, and the compositions sound stronger for it. The lilting arpeggio of Slipped, Dissolved And Loosed is the highlight of an outstanding record which preserves Lambchop’s lackadaisical blueprint, whilst sounding decidedly reinvigorated.


Video: A Hold Of You

An Interview With Lambchop

Image by Tom Sheehan


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.