Kurt Wagner has led a life in music for a couple of decades now, but one thing he had never tried was something most songwriters do after learning their first three chords: Perform solo.
“I steadfastly tried to stay away from that,” he said.
Understand the reason: This is the lead singer of Lambchop, a rotating collective of southern musicians which performs under the directive that the more musicians – from a dozen to even two dozen – the better. This isn’t uncommon in recent years in indie circles – witness the New Pornographers, Arcade Fire and Polyphonic Spree – but Lambchop pre-dates those bands, its first records tracing back to the early-mid ’90s.
For Lambchop, the comfort zone of greater numbers does not necessarily result in pop euphoria. Across ten albums, including the newest, OH (ohio) (released earlier this month on Merge), Lambchop has established a link between the Velvet Underground and Nashville Americana. Wagner’s sturdy, monochrome vocals steady his oblique narratives, while the rustic shading of the music makes them comfortably worn. The band expands and shrinks according to whatever default obsession Wagner is grappling with at the time, from soul-tinged folk to noise collage.
After years of consciously breaking traditional rock-band rules – “we didn’t quite fit into what a band was, because we had other lives,” he said – Lambchop only recently settled into a cohesive group of six players. Their ages span generations (twentysomethings all the way up to Wagner, who is shy of 50), and they are committed to remaining musically flexible. That stability also afforded Wagner an opportunity to establish a routine to write songs: He would introduce embryonic ideas and lyrics to the band, and the particular response christened the sound of the subsequent album.
Then he wanted to play by himself.
“I was thinking that one of the things I hadn’t tried was writing songs you’d want to perform singing and play guitar alone,” he said.
The songs on OH (ohio) will be somewhat familiar to European audiences who first heard them in more fractured forms one year earlier, when Wagner set off on an inaugural solo tour that brought him to large halls and theaters he had filled with his band in previous visits.
“Now it was just me and the tour manager,” he recalls. “We’d be sitting in big halls and big dressing rooms and looking at each other and going, ‘What the fuck?'”
Wanting to write songs that could stand on their own led Wagner to traditional folk music. He began searching for and downloading songs from the early 20th century for inspiration. “They sounded like little folk songs,” he said of the original material he was prepping every night or so live. “I was really trying to strip things down to this thing: ‘How do you make this thing happen between the performer and audience?’ I was writing accordingly.”
Delivering them to a live audience before he’d played them for the band afforded an opportunity. “I saw how they went under fire,” he says. “I think that pushed things to happen that maybe don’t happen when sitting in the basement.”
Lambchop is often described as representing the weirder, more conceptual side of Nashville’s storied musical lineage that has long labored in the shadow of brawny cowboys and rhinestone divas. Except now, Wagner says, the city’s musical DNA has become so one-dimensional that he doubts his eccentricities would find an artistic home if he were starting out today.
When the band began around fifteen years ago, the rise of alternative-country was creating a new demographic of music consumers. It also reflected the creative ambitions of young musicians who were eager to create alchemy between the city’s country music heritage and the more contemporary sounds that spanned the radio dial.
“When we started making music, being from Nashville meant we were looking at (music) in almost conceptual ways – breaking it down,” Wagner offers. “We were the first generation that didn’t necessarily grow up on country music. We grew up on soul music and rock on the radio. FM radio wasn’t invented. So we were definitely trying to put our ideas into that framework, to try to see what would happen if those two worlds collided. That was part of the Nashville sound…but we did it in our own crude little way.”
Adventure-seekers can still find roads less traveled in the city’s music community. But Wagner has observed that young bands on the rise are less interested in expanding their boundaries than they are in committing to the commercial expectations of Nashville’s country establishment. That transition, he says, is connected to the explosion on suburban growth in the south.
“Having grown up there, Nashville has changed like many southeast cities in the U.S. in that it sprawled out,” he observes. “When I grew up, it was quite a dinky place; even the cities were much more rural. Now it’s getting so that there’s a swelling into the next town. Everything’s turning into Atlanta.”
It is doubtful a new band schooled on rodeo radio would produce a song such as “National Talk Like A Pirate Day”, a crafty pop song from the new album peppered with sly observations. Despite Wagner’s unassuming vocal style, he makes the song sound sweet.
The song came about like many of Wagner’s do – piecing together random elements from the present moment and finding their unforeseen connection. In this case, there was a phone call from his wife telling him it was National Talk Like A Pirate Day, and then a photo of her as a young girl in pajamas on his writing table. For “Popeye”, it was two films he watched over the course of two days, and realizing that their respective locations had played into personal moments in his past and present life.
“I’m fascinated by that,” he says. “Sometimes (the connections) are pretty meaningful. And sometimes I don’t get them for years. I’ll be sitting someplace playing a song, and it’ll suddenly become incredibly meaningful.”
His deadpan singing delivers the random imagery with humor in a way that would please Woody Allen. For Wagner, who gave up his day job laying down floors eight years ago to embrace his full-time life in Lambchop, the unexpected is one of life’s pleasures.
“Songs usually leave an impression either because they’re catchy…or because they create a mood that is less pop but goes to a little more deeper place, and makes you smile or reinforces sadness,” he said. “I think that’s beautiful.”