Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner: “They treated me like I was Elvis”

The Nashville collective's leader takes us through Lambchop's complete work

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Damaged
Merge/City Slang, 2006
After a collaboration with Hands Off Cuba and a collection of off-cuts (2005’s The Decline Of Country & Western Civilisation, Part II), Wagner channels a couple of severe health scares into one of Lambchop’s finest, more serene and sumptuous than ever. Contains the instant classic “Paperback Bible”.

Wagner: The title was partly a nod to the Black Flag album of the same name, but certainly it addressed the fact that I went through two very serious incidents with my health, around the time I was finishing writing that record. I had a thing with my jaw, which came out of nowhere. I chipped a tooth on a pistachio nut, went to the dentist, and they said, “Wow, half your lower jaw is gone.” It’s very rare, what they called an aggressive bone-eating cyst. Some of my jaw had to be replaced with some of my hip. I had to learn to walk again. As soon as I got over that, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. But they caught the cancer early, and they’re pretty confident. Less so about the jaw thing, which could recur.

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“Paperback Bible” came from a radio show here. They had an idea to work with songwriters who would create songs based around sounds they’d collected that told stories. I took the idea literally, and used the quotes that they were using in the story, and wove them into the song. I think I’m still surprised by the songs I write because of that openness. I tend not to drift. I think Damaged is an example of me drifting into more of the personal, but up to that point I was using that technique as a pretty good buffer against anything too personal. I just find that – being from Nashville, again – that area is pretty well worn-out.

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OH (Ohio)
Merge/City Slang, 2008
New album plays off the contrasting styles of long-time producer Mark Nevers and a newcomer – former Yo La Tengo and Sleater Kinney producer Roger Moutenot. The gloriously named “National Talk Like A Pirate Day” marks an all-too-rare foray into the upbeat and up-tempo.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAy46SJGUQI

Wagner: It’s probably my fault we don’t do that more often. Maybe I should try standing up and not sitting down so much. I think the band would excel at more up-tempo stuff, and that’s something I really should take to heart.

As a title, Ohio is right up there with Nixon. It has no direct relationship, other than being the title of the lead track, and that seems to work for other bands. But that says something about the nature of what we’ve been talking about. By virtue of making a relationship, there will be a relationship, and by virtue of being thinking people we’ll come up with some kind of relationship eventually, whether it’s true or not. Maybe it’s something yet to be discovered, and I like that idea – it’s the way I’ve operated creatively for a long time.

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The songs grew out of the solo tour I eventually did agree to do, yeah, so this is another shift in how things are evolving. Stripping everything down like that forced me as a performer, and as a musician, to try to become a little bit better at what I do. So that cat is sort of out of the bag now, and while I’m not sure where it’s going, we sure got a fine record out of it. The band itself are distilled down to about a seven-piece as a regular working entity.

I tried not to present it to Mark and Roger as a competition. I had the idea that we’d do one set of sessions, then another, but then they kind of melted together. I didn’t know what the results would be, and thought it might be a bit of a crazy idea, but as long as they couldn’t overhear what the other was doing, that would be fine. Until the day when I had to make a decision. We got through it just fine, though.

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