Words by David C. Obenour
Kurt Wagner has continued to re-envision the music he makes as Lambchop throughout the last quarter century. Easing back from string and horn sections, the last three releases have explored a sparser and more intimate sound. Stripping things down isn’t his only change either. Taking inspiration from a Shabazz Palaces live show in Nashville, autotune is used not as a corrector for his voice, but as an instrument – accentuating tones and emotions.
For This (is what I wanted to tell you), Kurt rekindled his friendship with Bon Iver and Hiss Golden Messenger drummer (and Merge labelhead, Mac’s brother), Matthew McCaughan. The two bumped into each other at a party and started swapping files over a shared interest in analogue synthesizers. A little over a year later, a new Lambchop album emerged.
Off Shelf: The press release said you re-met Matthew McCaughan in 2017 at a birthday party for his brother and Merge label head, Mac, can you talk about how you originally had known each other?
KW: I’ve known Matthew since he was a young man, Our paths would cross from time to time. As a musician I think I was first aware of him as being in an early line up of his brother Mac’s band Portastatic. They played at my wife’s record store Lucy’s Record Shop in the 90’s. Later I would see him perform with Hiss Golden Messenger and I would run into him at various times like Mac’s wedding, where Lambchop was the house band at the reception. One of the more memorable times was an during early Bon Iver tour in the UK at the End of The Road Festival. We hung out a bit as I recall that night and that experience stuck with me, but mainly I’m just a huge fan of his work and the way his creative mind works so I’d follow from afar.
OS: What about his work with analogue synthesizers appealed to you?
KW: I’ve been interested in the modular synth thing for a while. It seemed to have a lot of potential for the type of application I was looking for. Something that could function both rhythmically as well as being musically atmospheric.
OS: When Matthew originally asked for some vocals for him to compose songs around, was there a concept for what the project might become?
KW: Not really, I had no idea what he was up to. But I was keen to hear the results. Matthew was simply wanting to explore the possibilities of the medium. He would sort of give himself assignments to see what he could learn from them.
OS: Did you ever consider releasing these songs under a different name? When did it become apparent to you and Matthew that you’d want to release it as a Lambchop album?
KW: For me after the first song we created, the title track, “This (is what I wanted to tell you”, I had hopes that it would develop into something new and exciting. It wasn’t until we had made several pieces that I began to think of it as something that could grow into a Lambchop release. I didn’t really considered releasing it as anything other than that since Lambchop is the musical vehicle for what I do as an artist.
OS: Charlie McCoy came in later in the recording of This (is what I wanted to tell you). How collaborative were his parts or did you and Matthew have a set idea on what you wanted him to play?
KW: Charlie was an friend of Jeremy Ferguson, who also produced and engineered this record. Ever since I discovered that they had a working relationship I have been trying to find a way to include his work with our own. I’m not a harmonica fan by any means but it served a more symbolic purpose in that having Charlie be a part of our music tied us into the Nashville thing that’s been part of Lambchop since it’s beginnings. We simply let Charlie be Charlie.
OS: This (is what I wanted to tell you) feels in some ways like a companion record to FLOTUS as the latest chapter for Lambchop. It’s been an amazing reinvention of your sound, do you think it’s something you’ll continue to explore?
KW: I can see why you might see it that way. For me it’s all about following my instincts and going someplace that’s both new and yet still related to what we’ve done before. I have ideas, lots of them, about what we’ll do next. Time will tell as it always seems to.
OS: Do you think that releasing an album as adventurous and as well-received as FLOTUS in 2016 broadened your idea on what a Lambchop record could sound like?
KW: Yes, of course. It’s nice to see that it was well received, I sort of recall it being a bit divisive for some people at the time of release. But as time goes on, as with most of our work, it get re-assessed in a different light and to me that makes for a validation of an expression of an idea. I try to make things that hold up overtime, sometimes it works out that way.
OS: As an artist, how important is it for you to reinvent yourself?
KW: I don’t see what I do as reinvention, but rather being open to new things and exploring the wonder of it all.
OS: Do you imagine that you and Matthew will work together on another album?
KW: Gosh, I certainly hope so!
OS: Twenty years ago, you described Lambchop as “Nashville’s most fucked up country band,” which has stuck with you to this day. Do you still think of yourself that way?
KW: Nope, and you shouldn’t either.