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Lambchop
an interview with Kurt Wagner by Tom Sheriff / pictures by Ben Graville

Lambchop by Ben GravilleIt has been a good year for Kurt Wagner. In utilising Richard M. Nixon, the most visibly disgraced politician in US history, as a thread throughout Lambchop's latest opus, Kurt has been showered with universal acclaim, and in Up With People, so nearly had a freak hit single. As you would expect from Kurt Wagner, a chronicler supreme of the minutiae of life's peaks and troughs, his angle on Nixon as thread was humanist. "Even a butthole like Nixon had a heart, he had a family he loved.." Nixon's memoirs candidly detail the bitter taste of failure and defeat, and the dark years in emotional exile that followed his resignation in 1974. It is these emotions that permeate Nixon, the pop record.

"Always remember others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them..."
- Richard M. Nixon

I spoke to Kurt recently from a storm-battered Brighton; he at home in Nashville. As a son of the city, and a man who actively encourages his listeners to embrace the traditional Nashville sound, I wondered if the success of Nixon had helped to ease the strained relationship he experiences with the Old School Nashville hierarchy ... ?
Well, I don't think it's made much of an impression on anyone over here really. I don't know why that could be, but we still kind of chug along 'under the radar' so to speak.

Do you think you'll always be regarded as 'outsiders'?
I think so... he continues in a resigned tone, I think in a lot of ways it's probably just because .. Because it wasn't something 'they' thought of, or part of what they do, anyway. It's just sort of like, well maybe .. They're just not that interested, I don't think, and if they had come up with something like that, well of course they would be a little more excited about it. I think the way we go about things, and everything is .. I don't know .. They just don't pay it much mind I don't think!

His explanation was punctuated with sighs and chuckles, so it seems that Kurt certainly adheres to the sentiments expressed by Nixon above. I told Kurt that me being me, this blatant snubbing of local talent would really rankle if I were in his position. He seemed resigned to the station he has in Nashville, but was there really no resentment?
I think it's a sort of a mixed blessing really, 'cause they do what they do and they have their idea about where they want to go with Country music, and we do what we do and sort of have our idea, and the fact that they haven't kind of, mixed together, is kind of good because I don't have a lot of faith in how they go about things anyway ... so for me to be ignored by them is probably a good thing.

Interestingly here, his tone was firm and his laughter just a little more nervous, but I don't think we need to read between the lines - he genuinely doesn't appear to give a damn. The sign of true success in Nashville is a billboard on Music Row, the self-proclaimed seat of Country, so I drew a line under this topic by teasingly enquiring whether Kurt expected his own billboard in the not-too-distant future;
I doubt it! I doubt it! he blurted, followed by howls of laughter.

With regard to the album, I recently read your synopsis of each track. Particularly in describing Nashville Parent, you came across like a movie director explaining a complex scene - 'cut to this, pan left then cut to that' - so have you ever regarded Lambchop songs as mini-soundtracks to a grander visual idea for the band?
Well I would never call it a 'grand' visual idea, but it is based in visual experience ... Let's just say 'experience,' where I'm sitting somewhere, or a part of something going on around me, and sort of taking note of things or trying to describe things in 'that' kind of way.

You are incredibly observant aren't you?
Well, it's something I do!

What I mean is, you seem to have a keen eye for the banal, the mundane?
Yeah, sure, sure... To me that kind of stuff is what life is kind of made of. You can put these things together, and, you know, something quite significant can come out of that. This works for me personally, but it doesn't work for everybody, you know?

Back onto the cinematic track for a moment, would you like to score a movie?
Oh yeah, I'd love to do something like that!

Is there any particular director that you would wish to team up with?
Oh my God! Er...Well there is someone that I'm kind of intrigued by right now. There's a young man from Nashville, and his name is Harmony Korine, and I like what he does. I like his approach, and I think it would be kind of challenging to work with someone like that. Oh gosh, I mean there are so many greats.

Totally missing the opportunity to find out what made Mr. Korine so intriguing, I volunteered Todd Solondz and Lars Von Trier as mouth-watering prospects for a Lambchop soundtrack;
I've heard Dancer In The Dark is am-a-zing! I've heard that the combination of music and cinema works in a new and exciting way .. ? Oh, I'd love to do a movie because then I'm not working with the limited scope of what I've got around me at any given time, but with what someone else has chosen and saved, and I think that would be really exciting.

So have any of your songs ever been directly inspired by a movie?
Not really, although going to the movies and films do sort of inspire me in general... They make me feel like doing things. I don't know why that is, but they provoke some kind of thought process that makes me sort of, y'know, want to go and write things. It's not anything direct, so like, I don't want to suddenly write something about The Third Man or something like that. It's just like I find even reading ...this is odd, but I was thinking about this yesterday ...I was reading the 'New York Times' book review, and I was thinking 'Well isn't this great; here are all these synopses about all these different ideas that people have', and in sort of a general way, it's like flipping through 30 people's minds about ideas they've had, and I think it's like really a neat way to get a general idea about approaches and ways of looking at the world.

"Nixon was having problems, and I hate to say it but I took advantage of it. I was feeling what the people were feeling"
- Soul legend Lamont Dozier, speaking of his 1973 classic Fish Ain't Bitin'

I'm sure I would be correct in stating that you have a healthy obsession with vintage soul music Yeah! Oh yeah! enthuses Kurt, his bellow underpinned by rumbling laughter. So can we expect any more covers?
Well, y'know, we do play around with that from time to time, because they are fun, and er ... well you never know!

What about other elements in your music - a few eyebrows were hoisted when Zero 7, regarded here in some circles as our equivalent of Air, remixed Up With People, so how did this seemingly unlikely collaboration come to be; did you approach them?
It came about the other way - they were curious to do something, so I said 'Well hell yeah!' I've been talking to those guys recently; they sent me over a tune and I've been kinda playing around with it a little bit.

So is there anyone else in that general area that you admire, and would perhaps like to work with one day?
I'm curious about all these Hip-Hop guys in New York, and the concept of using words, not necessarily like a Hip-Hop artist, but more like myself. I do like the things they're starting to do with beats and the music and stuff, and for me it's like another outlet for trying to use, er, a lot of words which don't ever end up with music and stuff, but I think they're kind of interesting in their work, as sort of... well, 'prose' or whatever, so I'm trying to find ways of using them in the music as well, in like layers or something. So I'm playing around with ideas like that. This is what I do in my spare time. It's kinda fun... They're experiments. I don't know if I'll ever put anything out like that, but I'm just experimenting with that kind of approach to music. For me it's abstract in how I'm working with the words. The kind of Hip-Hop I'm into is very abstract, not at all accessible .. Weird.

Are you hinting at stuff like Mike Ladd's Infesticons?
The stuff I like is ... there's this guy called RNS, there's Menace and another guy called Hasaan. They're Hip-Hop producer guys from the New York area, and they seem to be stretching out and getting into some pretty weird stuff. 'Abstract' seems to be the word I keep coming back to because, for me, it seems to have the potential to go there and still be interesting. And of course, these guys respect or have ties with the Old School Soul stuff with the kind of samples they're thinking about. So it's just another tangent, but I don't know where it's going!

You've been quoted as saying that Nixon would be the project that took Lambchop to their absolute creative limit, so Hip-Hop side-project aside, are you feeling dried up now?
(Loud laugh) Not at all! I meant really in terms of what you can do physically in a studio, or at least seeing how close to making a big budget record, a big label record, that we could get. We figured that we could do that and that's what we've done, so it's now a sort of benchmark for what we do in the future.

We went on to chat about Kurt's excitement at the fact that Nixon's acclaim will undoubtedly be reflected in 2000's polls, and also of the work of his friends Joe Pernice and Vic Chesnutt. But finally, knowing that the 'Chop's Deanna Varagona was off on an extra-curricular jaunt, I asked Kurt if his solo tour was an entity entirely detached from band activity, or just for a laugh?
Actually, I've been writing all these new kinds of songs, and I have played solo in the past on press tours and such, and it's fun, and a chance for me to take these songs out and play 'em for people, and get an idea of what people think of 'em.

Does this mean that your set will be largely new material?
It may well be, but knowing that I will be up there by myself, I'm sure that there will be other things in there as well.

"Sometimes I have succeeded, and sometimes I have failed"
- From the resignation speech of Richard M. Nixon - August 8th 1974

CWAS #7 - Spring 2001

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