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LambchopA pall of hushed expectancy falls over the collection of freeloaders, hangers-on, journalists and those lucky enough to have a ticket for this most intimate of occasions. There is a silence here that is rare in London. Outside, a man is heard to offer his girlfriend up for a ticket. In the relatively new enclaves of Bush Hall, the hundred or so gathered people await the entrance of Lambchop, tonight stripped down to its basic constituents of Kurt Wagner, Tony Crow (piano), and producer, Mark Nevers (ambient feedback 'squelch' noises). The band come on to rapturous applause and, for the next hour, treat us to a live rundown of the new album, 'Is A Woman'. Two nights later, a couple of stores down from Bush Hall, a man will enter Nando's chicken restaurant and, after an altercation with another man over music, start shooting, injuring a waitress, chasing the man into the streets where it will all end in a crashed car and the scream of police sirens. But that is still in the future. Tonight, there will be no arguments or differences over music. Everyone gathered here sits quietly reverent as the band mosey through their songs. There are ripples of applause and whispered excitement. but There are no guns.
Earlier that day I'm sitting in a hotel lobby awaiting the members of the group. The hotel is a fake of a fake, something that I think the band will appreciate. The paneled walls and books about structural engineering, the ersatz chandeliers and surly maids. For some reason we are supposed to feel like we are in a grand hotel in another century, a bastion of the Empire - but it is now 2002 and the wood on the walls is plastic, the books are just dummies and backpackers line the halls.
Kurt Wagner, self-effacing leader of Lambchop, slumps into the armchair opposite me, a cigarette burning down slowly in his hand. Tony Crow sits to his right, looking charmingly disheveled, like a Native American Cassavetes. Ambient soundsman Mark Nevers completes the triad. We are here to talk about the slow burning follow up to 2000's acclaim-garnering and unit-shifting 'Nixon', an album that found itself nestled in record collections that had never seen a rock record let alone anything resembling country music.
Were you surprised at the unprecedented success of 'Nixon'?
an interview with Kurt Wagner, Tony Crow & Mark Nevers by Stav Sherez / pictures by Paul Heartfield
Kurt Wagner: We felt good about it at the time we made it and everything. We felt it was the best record we'd ever made, blah, blah, blah. And so, I was surprised, I didn't think it would be that big a deal, I mean, whatever... It certainly was remarkable, we went from being fairly unknown to a little less so.
The new album's very quiet, very sombre and very much of a piece. Was there any pressure on you, following the success of 'Nixon', to produce a 'Nixon II'?
KW: Obviously it crossed my mind but that's about it. We never really go about making records with that in mind anyway. What we're trying to do, basically, is make a better record or something that's interesting to us personally. So, really, it wasn't much of an issue at all. Once it's finished of course, then there's a lot of discussion about it.
On previous records the piano has always been just another cog, another small part of the Lambchop sound, yet on the new album it's the predominant instrument. How did that change of sound come about, did you write the songs with Tony's playing in mind?
KW: Yeah. I just don't play piano. I try to write things that will hopefully sound good on piano.
Tony Crow: Well, songs were presented in their entirety, you know. Kurt was singing, playing guitar and we had some discussion in pre-production about what we were going to do, how we were going to go about it - and I would play along. I was a little surprised that the piano was moved up in the forefront. I think this was an idea that they might have had, Kurt, Mark, the production team and...
KW: Whoa, we told you - you just didn't believe us.
TC: I guess I didn't. I had no idea that [The Daily Growl] was going to be the first song.
KW: I did [laughs].
TC: There's this grand secret going on.
KW: You know too much, it messes up your mind.
TC: I'm not sure if it was that or I was just oblivious to begin with.
Was the album recorded live?
KW: Yeah, the basic sound was all live, seven to eight people playing in the studio and it sounded good.
That's something that's always fascinated me about your sound. How there's this large number of musicians and yet it's all very restrained. It's only when you listen closely that you hear all these underlying textures.
KW: Yeah, between Mark and myself that's something we try to maintain. Once you get something that sounds pretty good you don't want to screw it up, or try not to, and so the idea was, from the beginning, to make a pretty quiet record. To have everybody in there somehow. And it may not even be stuff on the surface, what they do ends up blending with other sound frequencies or whatever and you don't really hear them, but it makes the tones richer.
There's a lot more implementation of, for want of a better word, ambient sounds. Is that something that you wanted to explore further?
Mark Nevers: Oh yeah, we definitely felt we wanted that instead of giant instrumentation. A lot of it goes unspoken, it all starts with the songs, of course, and then what ends up on the record is what ended up working.
Lyrically, the album seems focused on how we can find comfort and solace in the little things. In small moments. Is that how you see things?
KW: Yeah. I mean, look at it like this. Say you have this sort of fictional viewpoint of a dying man who's looking back at things or someone who's really fucked up bad and is looking back and just realising, suddenly seeing things as they are, the things that are maybe a little bit more important than normal, you know what I mean? So, they're looking back as they're walking through the gas chamber and that last meal, 'oh that was okay', you know what I mean? Sort of realising that those things are important and I think that's a pretty common kind of idea, really, it's just that I go about presenting it.
I think a lot of people take that for granted.
KW: It certainly balances out the tragedy at the other end. Not that I'm saying I'm a tragic case, but I think there's a time when people just think of these things, whether because of their job or they got so screwed up, they screwed up their relationship and 'had I paid attention to XYZ', you know, or you just lived through a bad situation and you look around and everything's a little more pretty than you ever realised before.
Sounds like you're talking about leaving your job. Do you find yourself doing that more now?
KW: I try to keep that in mind. Particularly as you allow yourself the time to take a look.
The album's lyrics seem to reflect that, particularly the recurrent insect tropes. How did those come about?
KW: Taking the time to have a look, sitting out in the backyard writing. There they were, you know, crawling into my laptop or whatever. Yeah, like the natural course of events that led me to go and write out in the backyard, summertime, I was hiding from the telephone, I didn't really want to talk to anybody during the mornings. Hide out in the backyard all you hear is bugs and the neighbours and the garbageman and planes and squirrels and it just goes on and on and you know, there's scene one.
Did you prefer writing like that?
KW: I loved it. It occurred just by virtue of having quit my job and having this kind of time period in which to spend it.
I noticed that suicide is a recurrent theme throughout the album.
KW: Yeah. Something a certain friend of mine was going through. In general, these things have to do with experience, friends' experiences and so, at a certain period of time, I was working on that; wondering if this guy was going to live.
Do you find that writing helps you in these situations?
KW: Sure. It's not like therapeutic or anything. It's just something that's on your mind and trying to make sense of it, or trying to figure out what your opinion or feeling is about that particular event.
Are you happier with your life now that you've managed to devote all your time to music?
KW: I'm happy with it sure, but you can always be happier.
Do you enjoy promoting the records?
KW: I like talking to people, you know. I like meeting people and talking about it and it does help to sort of articulate what you're doing as best you can and put everything in some sort of context and that's cool and everything. The sort of marathon nature of the promotional stuff, of course not.
Earlier on in the band's career, there seemed a wilful refusal from you to take the helm even though you've always been the principal songwriter and vocalist. Yet, over the last couple of records, I sense that this has changed. Are you more comfortable with that role now?
KW: It became a necessary evil in order to keep things together, to keep things moving forward. It became more evident to me that there needs to be some sort of centre to what we're doing just by virtue of us being this sprawling affair.
Has this altered your relationship with the band?
KW: Relationships in general alter all the time and you have to make adjustments as time and circumstance requires, so it's a natural thing.
You have perhaps your biggest tour forthcoming, both in the States and over here in Europe. What kind of line-up are you going to present?
KW: Well, it starts out with three of us now, then we go back to the States and it'll be six, seven of us and then we get here and it'll turn into twelve. It grows.
You recorded the 'Chester' EP with Josh Rouse a few years ago, any more collaborations in the offing?
KW: I've been working with Morcheeba lately. Actually, those are my favourite Jim White tracks [the Morcheeba-produced ones]. Yeah, wrote a couple of songs with them, sang on one, on their new record.
Any books or writers you have to recommend?
TC: I tend to read the pulp fiction type stuff...
Like Jim Thompson?
TC: [visibly animated for the first time this morning] Oh I love that, yeah, oh God, yeah.
KW: To tell you the truth, one of the things that impressed me recently was David Berman's poetry book. I just thought that was great. I like his poetry better than his records, really. He'll love that [Laughs].
You're playing the Royal Albert Hall. How well do you do back in the States?
KW: I don't think any bands do well in America. Any band that isn't created by one of the two record labels in the world, you're probably not going to have much giant success.
CWAS #10 - Spring 2002