Chewing the Fat

Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner has often been hailed as indie rock’s answer to William Percy or James Agee–a gentle Southern soul who rhapsodizes on the sinister beauty and odd characters who pass by his porch. Born in Brooklyn but transplanted to Nashville at an early age, Wagner began developing the Lambchop collective–originally called Posterchild–in the mid 80s, precisely when the music capital of the Midsouth was in need of reinvention.  With 94’s I Hope You’re Sitting Down/Jack’s Tulips, released on Merge Records, the band debuted its trademark hybrid of countrypolitan, blues, and indie lounge.  In the subsequent two decades, Lambchop swelled in size, often comprising dozens of area musicians who contributed strings, vibes and synthesizer. But Wagner remained Lambchop’s songwriting heart, meaty pate (always crowned with a farmer’s cap) and bleating voice.  During a recent celebration of Merge’s twentieth anniversary at Carrboro, North Carolina venue Cat’s Cradle, Wagner and company electrified the audience with a rousing forty minute set of some of their most popular songs. The performance was recently released by the label as a recording and full-length video as Live at XX Merge. I recently contacted Kurt Wagner in Nashville to chew the fat about Lambchop. (PHOTO CREDIT: TOM SHEEHAN)

ERIK MORSE: Do you think your background as a Southerner is often overemphasized by critics as a way to interpret Lambchop’s music–as if every song is a Flannery O’Connor fable?

KURT WAGNER: You know, I don’t look at being a Southerner as much of a big deal. It’s just where I happen to hail from.  The things I write about could be specific to anyone’s geographic perspective.  I’m like a happy pig in shit and I find shits everywhere.
MORSE: Much of Lambchop’s music has such a painterly or cinematic atmosphere to it – complete with strings, vibes, “ambient sounds”.  How much of a role does your work in the visual arts play when arranging songs?

WAGNER: The link between visual art and my songs is something of a riddle I’ve been trying to solve all my life.  Not sure it’s as simple as you describe.  It’s got more to do with the approach, the exploration of the idea and the self and the trouble you can get into trying to figure that shit out.

MORSE: For the larger ensemble pieces, do you spend a lot of time working on the arrangement process or is it more of a spontaneous communication between musicians?

WAGNER: At first we started out spontaneous and later grew in to making arrangements that were a consensus of the many great ideas that everyone would contribute.

MORSE: Will you tell me a little about your visual art style?

WAGNER: My visual art “style” is the use of imagery that has some sort of personal connection or meaning and re-presenting it, using a basic pallet of flake white and lamp black oil paint it is applied with a dip type of ink writing pen with thousands of strokes creating a sculpted surface for what is usually a figurative image. These paintings started out quite large and now are rather small. Each piece is very labour intensive and slow to complete. They’re like fake paintings. Or rather more like sculptures of paintings.

MORSE: For those who haven’t witnessed Lambchop in person or had a chance to hear Live at XX Merge, what’s the fundamental difference between “studio” Lambchop and “live” Lambchop?

WAGNER: 40 minutes–that was the amount time we were allotted to perform at Merge XX.

Lambchop’s Live at XX Merge is available for download here.