Kurt Wagner on minimalist songwriting, Frank Sinatra’s abstract strings and how Lambchop’s Mr. M began in a painting studio. By Eric Waggoner
“LAMBCHOP is a band,” reads the running header on the group’s official website. But Kurt Wagner, the creative force at the center of Lambchop since 1992, is a trained visual artist and painter in addition to being a musician. And when Wagner’s longtime friend and collaborator Vic Chesnutt died from an overdose of muscle relaxants on Christmas Day 2009, it was to painting, not music, that Wagner turned for solace.
Chesnutt was one of contemporary American music’s most sui generis figures, a staggeringly gifted songwriter whose singing and performance style managed to evoke a gentle, but somehow utterly unsentimental vulnerability. At the beginning of Wagner’s forays into music more than 20 years ago, when he’d only begun passing around self-recorded cassettes, Chesnutt had kind words to say about Wagner’s musical explorations. His words, says Wagner, arrived at just the right time.
When he first encountered Chesnutt at a live show, recalls Wagner, “I was just this crazy artist kid, making these weird little tapes. (Vic) was very encouraging. What I do—the reason that I do what I do—I attribute a lot of that to my relationship with Vic. He was the one who really encouraged me to keep making music at all. That was a big deal. He was a big part of my life, and he was in the air that was all around Lambchop. When he passed away, I didn’t really know how to go about doing the music part of it anymore, because he had always been such a big part of that. It took me a while to get my head around the idea of making music without knowing that he was there.”
Wagner, who holds bachelor and graduate degrees from the Memphis Academy of Art and Montana State University, respectively, decided to set music aside for a time following Chesnutt’s death. Instead of writing songs, he went into his art studio, trading the laconic vocals and quiet lyricism of Lambchop for the wordless, physical work of painting. Intrigued by a newspaper article sent to him by a friend, he began planning and developing a series of small black-and-white portraits inspired by photographs of the Memphis chapter of the Beautillion Militaire, an African-American male debutante society.
“I looked at these pictures, and it seemed like a great idea for a project,” says Wagner. “Small portraits of these young men dressed in formal suits and hats. I started working on a series of 20 of these paintings—very small portraits, between the size of a CD and a seven-inch.”
The completed series—Beautillion Militaire 2000—was exhibited at Nashville’s Zeitgeist fine-art gallery in September and October of last year, alongside other selections from Wagner’s artwork. Seeming at once modern and antique, Beautillion Militaire 2000’s 20 faces appear to gaze at the viewer through decades of American history, their gray tones chromatically neutral, but clearly and plainly constructed. Brushstrokes and highlight effects are visible in the background behind the faces, even in the faces themselves, which look out from the surface with calm dignity.
A fan of his music might see a direct aesthetic connection between Wagner’s portrait series and his songwriting, as that same blend of reserved expression and clear vision could serve easily as a précis of the music released under the Lambchop banner since 1992. And so—perhaps naturally, though he hadn’t intended it to work this way—music slowly began returning to Wagner as his painting progressed.
“While I was working on the portrait series, I gradually started sneaking in writing songs,” says Wagner. “And somehow the music and the images started becoming connected in my mind. I started thinking they might work in tandem in some way.”
As he slowly began thinking about making music again, Wagner became interested in the idea of experimenting with open, minimally arranged performances as a base for recording new songs. Despite having sometimes explored a consciously restrained performance style (most impressively on 2002 masterwork Is A Woman), that was an approach Lambchop hadn’t tried as the starting point for a full album project, and the idea of stripping the basic tracks down to simple arrangements grew more attractive to Wagner the longer he thought about it.
While he continued painting, writing and thinking about open spaces, a conversation with band associate Mark Nevers added another element to his coalescing ideas. Nevers, who’d recently been revisiting Frank Sinatra’s songbook, had been paying a great deal of attention to the strings on those recordings. As Nevers heard them, the string arrangements often worked in an abstract, almost cross-purpose relationship to Sinatra’s vocal lines. Having produced or appeared on Lambchop’s recordings in some capacity ever since 1998’s What Another Man Spills, Nevers thought that sort of post-production approach—what he referred to as the “psycha-Sinatra” effect of arranging layered sounds in open but complex combinations—would jibe with Wagner’s songwriting aesthetic. Wagner thought so, too.
Once he had a new batch of songs collected, Wagner called on Lambchop’s two newest band members, Ryan Norris and Scott Martin. The trio set up a short series of rehearsals in order to learn the new material, after which they repaired to Nevers’ Beech House studio in Nashville to lay down basic tracks. Building on those spare recordings through full-band overdubs and post-production work, Lambchop assembled its first studio album in four years: an 11-track collection of songs just released via Merge Records under the title Mr. M, its artwork reprinted from Wagner’s Beautillion Militaire 2000, the music inside it written concurrently with that series, and the whole dedicated to Chesnutt.
Years ago, Lambchop was promoted by Merge as “Nashville’s most fucked-up country band,” a deliberately cheeky piece of PR shorthand that somehow took on a life of its own. (“It seems to be one of those things that just won’t go away,” Wagner sighs, good-naturedly.) But that phrase, which seems to be repeated in every item of press about the band (including this one, you’ll notice), never adequately described even one-fifth of Lambchop’s music, which draws equally and capably from soul, blues-shouts, jazz crooning, Tin Pan Alley, smooth lounge balladry and other fundamentally American art forms.
Though it’s a subdued and understated record, Mr. M touches upon all of these elements, and in that sense it’s something of a career statement for Lambchop: an amalgam of the musical forms and the deeply collaborative spirit that’s characterized the band’s work throughout 18 years, and over nearly a dozen albums. When the talk turns to how Mr. M came together, Wagner returns again and again to the subject of keeping the music fresh, looking to the talented people around you for new ideas, finding ways to keep the approach from going stale. When he speaks of that collaborative spirit, he talks about the freedom it’s allowed him to explore, and you can hear the gratitude in his voice—for the talented people around him, and for the nature of the work itself.
“That’s what’s fun about being an artist,” he says. “You step out of what you normally do, and you learn from it. When you’ve been a band as long as we have, the band is really as much an idea as anything.”
One of the musicians who’s helped Wagner step out of his comfort zone since 2005 is guitarist/keyboardist Norris, also, with drummer Martin, one-half of electronic-music duo Hands Off Cuba. After moving to Nashville in 2001, Norris met Wagner through Lambchop member William Tyler. At the time, Hands Off Cuba was more or less a bedroom project, but when Martin approached Wagner about the possibility of using some Lambchop sound files for a remixing/editing project, Wagner not only agreed, but convinced Merge to put out the Lambchop/Hands Off Cuba CoLAB EP. CoLAB joined Lambchop’s “Prepared” (later re-recorded for 2006’s Damaged) with three electronic remixes by Martin and Norris. Following CoLAB, Norris and Martin guested on Damaged, joining the group full-time for 2008’s OH (Ohio).
While minimalist in its execution, the initial process of creating Mr. M stayed true in approach to the band’s recent album work. “Before, Kurt would come in with a chord progression, and the whole band would flesh it out,” says Norris. “This time he didn’t want the songs to grow as if we’d developed them as a band. I think part of his thinking was that it’s very easy, after you’ve been playing with people for a while, to slip into a default performance style. After a while, you know how you all play together, which can lead to a kind of stagnation. I think Kurt really wanted to break the music down as far as he could, before we recorded anything … It still sounds like a ‘Lambchop’ record, but I think we came up with a new kind of sound.”
Wagner agrees, though he thinks that “new” sound might not be apparent to a casual listener. And yet, while Mr. M retains all the basic elements of Lambchop’s very recent work—Wagner’s soft, economical voice, cleanly recorded piano lines, unexpected chord progressions—the music does, in fact, go to several new places, though you have to pay close attention to tease these out. The difference on Mr. M lives in the smallest details, like the sitar line that closes out “Gone Tomorrow,” the trebly spoken-word bridge sequence in “2B2,” the cymbal-and-shaker interplay that drives “Buttons” and the nearly inaudible noise collage that opens “Nice Without Mercy.” But even this detail work, too, is consistent, since Lambchop has always been a band whose albums rewarded close and repeated listening.
“There’s a lot of space in these songs,” says Wagner says of the final product. “Every sonic frequency is represented, somewhere, but spread over the record. If every sonic frequency is used on every song, the album can sound really full. It’s like using every color on your palette in a single painting. But this record breathes.”
At first glance, several of the song titles on Mr. M seem to suggest a gloomy undertone: “If Not I’ll Just Die,” “The Good Life (Is Wasted),” “Never My Love.” But upon deeper listening, the album frequently displays one of Wagner’s most distinctive lyrical strengths: the ability to see past heartache into a kind of calm acceptance of both the awful and the lovely parts of everyday experience. That subtlety of vision is everywhere apparent on the album; though here, as always, that acceptance is often driven by Wagner’s surrealist humor: “Grandpa’s coughing in the kitchen/But the strings sound good/Maybe add some flutes.” (And speaking of deadpan humor: The album’s working title was Mr. Met, until questions arose regarding a possible copyright conflict with the New York Mets’ identically named mascot. For a short time thereafter, the band privately referred to the unfinished record as Major League Bummer.)
The stripped-down writing and recording process on Mr. M may have grown from Lambchop’s last European tour, on which the group followed the recent trend of bands playing full albums live by running through the entirety of Is A Woman onstage each night. “I call what we do ‘threading the needle,’” says Norris. “When we played Is A Woman live, it was unbelievable. There’s such economy in that music. I mean, we had amplifiers and PAs and shit, and when people would move, or make noise in the crowd, or if you bumped into something, it was as loud as anything we were playing. If you made a mistake, it was very obvious. You really had to listen to what everyone else was doing, and be really tuned into it. It’s very taxing to perform that way. It’s very intense.”
That intensity, Norris thinks, has honed his skills as both a musician and an ensemble member: “Scott and I both feel like we’ve grown incredibly from having to play this way. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Kurt; he’s got this thing down where he can write heartbreaking stuff, and it sounds like he’s only talking about banal subjects, but his humor is always there. His voice, that kind of precise writing, really resonates with me. I really respect him on a professional level. In a career where you’re constantly surrounded by chaos and crazy people—and Kurt’s a quirky dude, he’s an artist himself—he’s also very grounded. I look up to the guy a lot. He’s such a good bandleader. He’s not really one to tell people what to play. And that’s a pretty incredible talent, to be able to see people play and pull them into the fold and know it’s going to work in a certain way, that it’s going to change the sound, but the important elements are going to remain consistent. There’s an energy to Lambchop that goes beyond the music, that makes the band really familial.”
Though it’s a frequently used term in describing bands with Lambchop’s staying power, “familial” seems the right word to describe the lineup on Mr. M. In addition to young musicians like Norris and Martin, the album’s credits also list Jonathan Marx, who was a member of Lambchop in its earliest incarnation, as well as Cortney Tidwell, daughter of 1970s country chanteuse Connie Eaton, whose grandfather ran the venerable Chart Records country label (and with whom Wagner released a “duets” collection of Chart singles covers in 2010, called Invariable Heartache).
For his part, Wagner sees the talent in younger musicians like Norris and Martin in much the same way, perhaps, that Chesnutt first saw the talent in him. “Scott and Ryan are both really dedicated people who work with music they love,” he says admiringly. “There’s been this real change in Nashville recently; it’s an interesting place, in that it’s a music industry town. Historically, this was a town where people came to make records, not to stick around. It was never like an Athens or a Seattle or an Austin, a place where people went to see live music. But now there’s a vibrant music scene that works outside of what the ‘industry’ part of Nashville is. There was always a little of that, to some extent, but it used to be this really weird circumstance that there were no bands who came from here. When I was growing up, it was Jason & The Scorchers, and that was about it. I truly think that’s different now. When guys Ryan and Scott’s age began coming to Nashville to live, that’s when I first started noticing there were lots of people making music that didn’t sound like it came from Nashville, and yet it did: Kings Of Leon, Black Keys, Paramore, you can go on and on. These are nationally recognized bands, but they’re calling Nashville home now.
“Lambchop happened ‘outside’ of Nashville, too,” he continues. “We’re still kind of under the radar as a band for the most part. But maybe that’s been for the better, because we’ve been able to do things freely, as we saw fit. It’s like being married for a long time. It gets richer and deeper. It’s not what it was when you first fell in love, but it becomes something stronger and more amazing. You can’t anticipate that, and you can’t describe it to anyone. Either it’ll happen or it won’t. Lambchop was something I always hoped was going to be a long-term concern, at least in the sense of making records. And it seems like our approach has served us well. I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve been able to make music for as long as we have.”
“Gone Tomorrow” (download):