Music Interviews

Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner: “I was looking for something less structured, something I hadn’t done before” – Interview

On the background to new album Showtunes, converting guitar into piano sounds, continuing to embrace technology and broadening his range of collaborators

Lambchop's Kurt Wagner

Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner (Photo: Angelina Castillo)

As frontman of Lambchop for the best part of the last 30 years, Kurt Wagner has pursued a long, satisfying musical journey where developments within the band’s sound have been gradual and considered. Yet, there have also been discreet nods to different genres along the way, pleasing embellishments and expansions to their core alt-country aesthetic. New album Showtunes provides another stylistic detour of sorts, building on the fresh direction put in place on 2019’s This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You) and 2016’s FLOTUS as Wagner takes indirect inspiration from showtunes, American standards from the first half of the 20th century.

These aren’t covers or close appropriations however, but rather typically impressionistic pieces that bring together Wagner’s songwriting strengths and his broader interest in musical experimentation. Given the sense of progression that has defined Lambchop’s recent releases it feels oddly apt that when we catch up with Wagner to talk about the album, the conversation begins on a travel-related note. “I’m out here in Las Vegas visiting my in-laws at the moment. We haven’t seen them in quite a while, so we just drove on out here. It feels weird to actually travel. I haven’t been on an interstate for over a year. It feels like things are transitioning with the pandemic. Having driven across the country, it feels like we’re on the cusp of a lot of people getting out and about.”

The background to Showtunes was slightly different to other Lambchop albums. The original plan was for the songs to be performed at the Eaux Claire festival in Wisconsin, the event organised by Aaron Dessner of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Unfortunately the pandemic meant that couldn’t happen, but Wagner still pressed ahead with the album. “I had made this work and I was going to take it up there and we were going to try to figure out how to present it in a live way. Instead, we just worked remotely and I think it worked out great.”

The ‘we’ in this relates to the latest group of musicians that make up the Lambchop ensemble for this record, an extension of the ‘revolving door’ policy that has helped form the basis of the band over the years. For this record, initially, this consisted of producers Ryan Olson, Andrew Broder and Jeremy Ferguson before expanding to also welcome Cologne based DJ and former collaborator Twit One, trumpeter CJ Camerieri and Yo La Tengo’s James McNew. Does he think the songs ended up sounding different to what they would have been if the festival had gone ahead? 

“Oh yeah, I think interacting with people in the same spot certainly lends itself to a different direction. I think the exciting thing is what people you’re working with are able to bring to what I was already thinking about. Those guys are all producers in their own right, not just musicians, even James from Yo La Tengo for example, he’s made the last few Yo La records. They bring a different perspective on what making a record is all about and that’s fun and interesting. The pause that the pandemic brought has allowed me to conveniently reach out to people who would have usually been very busy, so it’s been a great chance to get new contributors.”

How much of the album was improvised as opposed to being preconceived? “I think the contributions to it were definitely more improvised and open-ended. What I presented to them was essentially a piano record, which I don’t actually play but when I figured out a way to translate from my guitar to piano that really changed how I went about writing things. I allowed a lot of space for them to do their thing. That gave set ideas about the songs, but also allowed possibilities of what else you can do with it.”

One of the big creative factors for Showtunes was Wagner converting the sounds from his guitar into piano. Was that just a result of his ongoing interest and experimentation in musical technology? “Yeah, I’m just learning more and more about what’s possible with the programmes that I’m using. That opens up new ideas and new approaches, and maybe even a new genre of stuff to explore. Most of the early showtunes by people like Hoagy Carmichael and George Gershwin were all written on piano. That instrument brings that to mind for me, and once I was deep into it I realised this is something I was never capable of doing before because of my lack of skill in playing the piano. But technology can open up things for you if you’re not too afraid of it.”

Was there any sense of deliberately trying to move away from the alt-country sound that many people would associate him with? “Well, oddly enough I think Showtunes does fit in with the Americana style, but maybe I’m just expanding that a bit.” 

“Technology can open up things for you if you’re not too afraid of it”

It’s true that there are still familiar points to Showtunes, but there’s equally lots going on under the surface. I suggest it sounds like he’s really enjoying operating with freedom and lack of restrictions when he’s making music right now. “Yeah, I was looking for something less structured, something that I hadn’t done before, but I was willing to embrace it to see where it went.” This also feels relevant to the vocals on the album. One of the biggest points of difference on last album This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You) was how he managed the vocals, and Showtunes sees him try different things again. Was it just another case of seeing what he could do differently, almost treating the voice as an instrument? 

“Yeah, absolutely. I think what I discovered was that it’s like when you have a new toy and you really get excited about it but then after a while you still love the toy, but you realise it can still provide you with joy without having to wear it out.” The last track on the album, The Last Benedict, even features some striking quasi-operatic vocals. “One of the guys I worked with, Andrew Broder, he’s a pianist but he’s also what we call a turntablist, and he likes to contribute in that kind of way. He’s actually performing that vocal live. It seemed oddly appropriate and enhanced the mood”.

Chef’s Kiss, the first single from the album, deals with the temporal nature of life. Is there also a sense of appreciating the moment in that track, taking pleasure from something that can’t be regularly repeated? “I think it’s definitely about reflecting about stuff as I get older. All of the words on that part of the record were created pre-pandemic so it may resonate a little with where we are at now, but at that time it’s sort of just a coincidence. It’s inevitable that we as listeners take our environment into account when processing the things we listen to, it’s a completely natural thing. The lyrical aspect to the album was something that I had come up with some time ago when I was really digging in and trying to refine what I was doing as a lyricist”. 

The album also has two (excellently named) instrumental pieces, Papa Was A Rolling Stone Journalist and Impossible Meatballs. He chooses not to dwell on the names when we talk about them, instead focusing on the broader role they play on the album. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. If you’re wanting to present a record as a whole piece as opposed to individual songs, sometimes it’s nice to support it with something that’s more instrumental. Oddly enough a couple of other folks that I know that make records are doing that, they’re combining songs and instrumental pieces that support the idea of a record as a whole. I noticed really early on in hip hop records they would have these little interludes and I thought that was a great idea, particularly in the way people receive music now. When I make a record I’m thinking about presenting it as a whole, I’ve never really been good at making hit pop singles or anything like that, but I guess I tried to…” he breaks off laughing as he recalls a certain track from 20 years ago. When I suggest that he’s had his moments, it brings self-deprecating agreement of sorts. “Yeah, I had *a* moment” he laughs.

Does he find himself still influenced by other music or artists after making music for so long? “I’m inspired by a lot of the music my friends make, but also just all new music that comes out. I study it and I’m particularly interested in the production of it. It doesn’t really matter what the genre is, I’m interested in how we progress as record makers. I really enjoy things that are pushing the boundaries of what has gone before. I’ve seen that a lot in a variety of genres of music whether it’s hip hop, electronic music, experimental music or contemporary classical music.

“But then I’m also fascinated by how records were made way back in the past, for example back in the 1940s or ’50s, like on early jazz records and how they captured that. That’s like magic to me, so it’s not all just about technology, it’s also about the recording itself, and sometimes the beauty in the way something has been recorded can really enhance the experience of listening to it. It’s like the difference between a live Grateful Dead tape of some performance versus something that was created in the studio in New York. There’s just this audible difference that enhances the experience.” 

“I’m interested in how we progress as record makers. I really enjoy things that are pushing the boundaries of what has gone before”

Showtunes has a stronger jazz feel to it than most other Lambchop albums, largely due to CJ Camereiri’s brass. Had Wagner crossed paths with him before? “I’ve never met him but I’ve been a big fan of his work for some time. He released a really beautiful solo record (under the CARM name) earlier this year. In hearing that it kind of made me realise that he might be the guy to work with on this album. He’s versatile enough and I was familiar with what he did with yMusic and the Bon Iver stuff, but when I heard that solo record it really solidified the view that we’re on the same page.” (Incidentally, he’s correct about Camereiri’s debut album as CARM – a brilliantly atmospheric collection that features contributions from Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Yo La Tengo, My Brightest Diamond‘s Shara Nova and Mouse On Mars.)

As someone who has made music for decades is the latest album always your favourite or what you think of as your best? “Oh yeah, it’s always like that!” he agrees. ”It’s even more so with the new stuff I’m currently working on. That’s even better.” This seems to suggest that the prolific few years he’s just experienced are about to continue. When he finishes an album is he straight away looking forward to what he can do next? “For me, the focus is making records. That’s how it began. When we were making that first record, we didn’t realise anyone was going to listen to it. Then of course, being allowed to do another one, then another one, then another one, it ended up becoming my life. Some artists are performing artists and they live for that and make records to support that idea. In my case, I think that you would call me a recording artist who lives for that,” he laughs.

Does he ever see a scenario where these songs might be played live? “I’m considering it, for sure. I’m not sure what that’s going to be yet. There’s a lot of question marks going on right now, but I’m just excited how people are beginning to dive back into the notion of playing live music again. I’m going to take notes and sit on the sidelines just a bit longer and see how it all works out.” Until then, we have the light and shade of Showtunes, an album that shows how Kurt Wagner is continuing to move forward in interesting directions, reinventing what Lambchop stands for while exploring new sounds.

Showtunes by Lambchop is out on 21 May 2021 on City Slang. Further information can be found here.

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Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner: “I was looking for something less structured, something I hadn’t done before” – Interview
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