With a little help from potheads, car stereos and tinny supermarket speakers, Kurt Wagner flips the lid and peers into the inner workings of ‘FLOTUS’, the magnificent new Lambchop album
“I don’t know what the fuck’s going on,” is the first thing that Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner says from his home in Nashville after 20 minutes of phone calls, failed Skype connections and hunting down iCloud login details.
This declaration embodies Wagner’s curious relationship with technology. He embraces it fully, none more so than on the new Lambchop album, ‘FLOTUS’, but he remains wary of it. It’s just one of many contradictions that reveal themselves while talking to Wagner.
Throughout our conversation, Wagner is twitchy, but composed. Smiling, but serious. He reaches for a cigarette, plays with it, never lights it. Everything about his personality embodies the contradiction at the heart of his Lambchop unit, which he began nigh on 30 years ago. The music he makes is impossible to define, being neither one thing nor another, but never confused. This is exemplified by the new album, which is neither rock nor electronica, neither loud nor quiet. If anything it seems to get quieter the louder you play it. It is bookended by two tracks that have the sheen of electronically-augmented lo-fi pop songs, but which last 30 minutes between them.
It is both entirely faithful to everything Lambchop have done before, while being utterly new at the same time. “I wanted it to have some sort of relationship to what Lambchop had sounded like before,” explains Wagner with a slight shrug. Like his music, as you delve deeper, more and more details reveal themselves.
“What I do, essentially, is reflect upon my experiences, and experiences of friends, and loved ones,” he explains “I’m not a fictional kind of guy, and so a sense of place and neighbourhood pretty much always figures in what I do, and it’s certainly a major part of what Lambchop is. I recognised right at the start that what we were doing was Nashville-centric, because it started with guys who grew up here.”
Nashville is more than just a home to Wagner, it is a major inspiration for a body of songs which draw heavily on his neighbourhood and local community. But it isn’t just Nashville as a city that matters to Kurt Wagner.
Some of the most significant inspiration for ‘FLOTUS’ arrived right outside his own house.
“It was parked right outside that window,” he says, gesturing toward a window in the corner of the room he’s sat in. Wagner is referring to a beaten-up car parked up on neighbour’s driveway, which had the unintended effect of switching him on to all sorts of music which, in his own inimitable way, he channelled back into the new Lambchop songs.
“I don’t think the original car moved for about seven or eight years. And there would be a series of other cars that would park there because they just broke down. They’d use them as a sort of living room, they’d just hang out. I mean, there’s marijuana plants growing out of the side of the car where they threw out their blunts.”
It was the music that the kids played in their outside “lounge” that really fired Wagner up.
“Their music tastes were pretty great. Mostly it was these mix tapes that were coming out of Atlanta and other southern cities. It was exciting, you know? I don’t even know the names of half of the styles, but everything I was hearing was fantastic. Most people would’ve just had a problem with it interrupting their lives, but it didn’t really bother me. On the holidays they had these big, all day long parties, and I used to look forward to those. Never mind the barbecue chicken and shit, they would just be blasting out fucking great music.”
What’s remarkable, in the context of the music that fired up Wagner’s creative juices, is that ‘FLOTUS’ (an abbreviation of ‘For Love Often Turns Us Still’) is so quietly rhythmic as an album. It’s as though Lambchop kept the essence of hip hop, but levelled it out into something distinctly Wagnerian.
“We’re starting to perform these songs live now. There’s this really cool thing that I’ve noticed, which is that if you treat the processing in a certain way, if you sneak up on it, or gently interact with it, these crazy cool, soulful little things start happening. It ends up becoming much more ambient and less beat-oriented.”
‘FLOTUS’ opens with the ephemeral 12-minute ‘In Care Of 8675309’, which somehow manages to sidestep its length to remain fresh and intriguing.
“There’s something about the relentlessness of verbal information that you’re receiving,” muses Wagner. “It doesn’t really ever take a breath. It’s a bit like looking at the landscape when you’re moving in a vehicle. It’s continually shifting. Stuff’s going by and things are changing, but if you’re not paying attention, you don’t notice. That’s what’s happening in that song.”
Aside from its length, what grabs your attention with the opening song is the curious, watery effect that Wagner is singing through, which renders his lyrics both impenetrable and mysterious.
“That was certainly one of the things that attracted me to the effect initially,” Wagner confesses. “There’s something about the distortion that puts a barrier in front of what you’re used to hearing out of my voice.”
Voice processing is just one aspect of Wagner’s experimentation with electronics on the album. His idea was to see how he could apply technology to his craft as a songwriter and singer without feeling like his voice was just sat on top of a bed of sounds.
“There is an evolution that happens across the record as I got to grips with the technology. What you hear is me getting into the stuff I find exciting in electronic and hip hop production, the stuff that allowed me to start writing in a different way.”
And this is the central premise of ‘FLOTUS’: the sound of a man getting switched on to something new, even if he doesn’t know where it’s heading.
“All I know is that it’s propelling me forward in a way that is quite invigorating at my grand old age. I never would have thought that technology would have directed me into something like this. I’m clearly a Luddite when it comes to anything technological, and that’s one of the things I’ve been approaching with caution. You can pretty much play a guitar in a cave without any electricity. I’m quite sure that what I’m doing here is reliant on electricity, and that feels like a problem for me.”
Wagner’s approach to technology extends to considering how listeners might actually hear these songs, specifically on tiny speakers, which hardly represent these intricate songs in the right way. He has his neighbours and local community to thank for that too.
“When they were starting to use cellphones, they would just max out the volume on it, which would immediately overload whatever the hell they were playing,” he explains. “I also marvelled whenever I went to the grocery store, their stereo systems were so crappy that I had no idea what the songs I was hearing were because they were mixed in a way that was a virtue of their crappy equipment. It turned out that maybe it was The Eagles that I was hearing, but it sounded like some sort of dub thing.
“So then I started thinking further about that and how when you’re at a stop light and all you’re hearing from the car next to you is the bass rattling all of the loose metallic parts. The music is being processed by life itself. I live near a racetrack where they have concerts sometimes, and the way the wind moves the sound around in the air mixes it into something very abstract. It comes into focus and then it disappears again.
“A lot of people don’t receive the information you’re presenting to them in the way that you intended it, and you have to just accept that. It’s just not always that important for people. There are other things that they respond to in the song, maybe just this very narrow little band, and that’s fine. It doesn’t seem to stop them from enjoying it.”
Wagner isn’t concerned that his messages, however well-crafted or oblique, are being overlooked.
“I’ve never really felt the need to be understood,” he laughs. “I am never uncomfortable that people do or don’t understand what I’m saying. Half the time I’m not sure I do either. Once it’s out of my hands and into your ears, it’s not so much a concern of mine. I’m just glad if you get any remote personal emotional response or enjoyment out of it. I’m not going to impose my will beyond the information I’m just laying in front of you.
“I do think there’s sort of a danger where you almost have this Messiah complex. You get that sometimes where an artist becomes so detached from the normal world due to their celebrity. They maybe attach a little too much significance to what they’re doing, and to me, I’m just not like that. It’s not curing cancer. I never wanted to be the guy who would not be grounded in reality. It really is just music. As passionate as we can be about things, if we step back, it’s not like nuclear code or something like that.”
Wagner pauses, reaches for his cigarette again, but still doesn’t light it.
“I’m not dogmatic about it,” he shrugs. “You’re free to accept and take in information and music any way you want. If you want to play it on your computer, it’s fine. If you want to hear it on vinyl then that’s fine too.”
Not dogmatic, for sure, but insistent. Another contradiction among many at the heart of this creative soul.
‘FLOTUS’ is out on City Slang