Lambchop have dramatically broadened the palette of country music, introducing elements of everything from jazz and electronica to the stock sound of their native Nashville. Here, Kurt Wagner, the core presence in this fluctuating collective, surveys his achievements. “We’re still just trying to get better at this,” he explains. Words: Andrew Mueller. Originally published in Uncut’s November 2008 issue (Take 138).
I Hope You’re Sitting Down/Jack’s Tulips
Merge/City Slang, 1994
Sprawling debut album, following a near-decade of idle noodling among friends. At once country enough to betray the Nashville heritage, and un-country (clarinets, saxophones, etc) sufficiently to demonstrate Lambchop’s obdurate weirdness. “Soaky In The Pooper” is the first of many Wagner contributions to the pantheon of great song titles.
Kurt Wagner: Nashville always seemed a world that we weren’t part of, or even considered being part of. But it dawned on us that there were all these resources right here in our town.
We’d been getting together since around ’86 or ’87, and just playing, though love of music kind of outweighed ability. Then we had the notion of making a seven-inch, and that was fun, and people heard it, and seemed interested. Mac [McCaughan] at Merge asked us to make a seven-inch for him, and he liked that, and he said, “Well, go ahead and make a record.” We’d already started doing recordings with friends, who had studios – we’d go in there and basically try and cram as much down as we could, thinking maybe we could make more seven-inches. At this point, I was mostly interested in recording because – being, as I was, a visual artist at the time – it was another way of ending up with an object at the end of our efforts.
There was so much music we were trying to put out that it was essentially two records, and that’s why it ended up with two titles. We’d done all this recording without quite realising that we were making a record. So we put it all out there. What’s nice about it is that most of those songs came from a particular bunch of sessions, so they have some sort of cohesiveness.
How I Quit Smoking
Merge/City Slang, 1995
Second album. Contrarily enough, Lambchop suddenly sound more Nashville than any Nashville band has for decades, revisiting and revivifying the string-lashed Countrypolitan sound of the great 1970s Billy Sherrill productions. However, a stringently orthodox Lambchop album wouldn’t be a Lambchop album: they don’t spare the clarinets and cornets here, either.
Wagner: We didn’t quite feel like a proper band yet – we hadn’t really done any touring – but we were taking the idea of recording more seriously. And I started thinking more about that, and how we related to Nashville, and I think that record reflects that recognition. We talked amongst ourselves and realised, well, we are in this place, and it has this heritage, and we have those elements in place – they just don’t sound like the other things being created here. But we can use that template, and pervert it, or subvert it, into something we want to do.
And we realised that this sound was really cool, even if it was thought a bit cheesy at that time. The more we got into it, the more we were knocked out by it, thinking, wow, this was going on right here while we were teenagers. It really started to have an effect on what we were trying to do conceptually. It had never occurred to us before – you thought of something, like wanting strings, and here in Nashville there’s someone who can provide that, and is willing to do it, because they’re so bored with what they’re doing the rest of the time. And you’d meet people who’d played on all these famous records – like the Nashville String Machine, who we worked with later – and I felt so privileged that they were willing to take a chance on something as odd as us.