Nashville born and bred, Kurt Wagner is anything but your typical country and western artist. Although loosely associated with the alternative country genre, he and his band have always been interested in all sorts of music; from post-punk, to soul and lounge, as well as developing a love affair with hip-hop and electronica. Wagner startled many when last year’s FLOTUS album revealed a love of the vocoder in treating his lugubrious, yet subtly playful, voice. It worked a treat, and confirmed yet again what a forward-thinking, experimental and adventurous artist he is.
Can you give us a Nashville weather report?
It’s about 87 degrees, cranking up to the 90s today. Muggy as well.
You’re used to it! Brighton is unusually muggy as well.
It’s nice down there. It’s a cool little town. People are nice.
How is Nashville theses days?
Buzzing away! It’s crazy. Yeah, it’s gone nuts. A lot of people have moved here, people making music.
Is that good?
I guess. I kinda liked it when there was less activity. I guess that’s kind of selfish of me though.
Your last album, FLOTUS, is a bit of a departure for you in that it features a lot of vocoder, and electronics. Can you tell me why you ventured down that road?
I guess it was a gradual and logical process, in processing my voice. I’ve been interested in electronic music for a while, and contemporary music as well. It’s accepted as a treatment of a voice now, and it features in a lot of popular music. At some point it occured to me to see what would happen if I got my hands on one.
A lot of the pop mainstream uses vocoders…
I guess the pop mainstream is what makes me alternative! I’m interested in a lot of hip-hop as well and, for me, it’s a very innovative art form. What they do is they take things they have found in popular culture, and play with it and try and make it into something that’s fun, or maybe use it in a way that wasn’t intended. I was pretty inspired by that approach. It seemed to run parallel with the way I like to do things as well.
How does a Lambchop song come about?
It varies record to record. The current process for the last few records is that I will create stuff, and present it to the band with the intent that they add their ideas to it as well. Whether it’s just me singing with a guitar, or even with FLOTUS, me creating electronic landscapes.
‘Directions to the Can’? Can you tell me about that song and its title!?
It came about as a back and forth with Ira Kaplan, who plays with Yo La Tengo. I was supposed to write something for them, and he was telling me that his record was in the proverbial ‘can’. I said, ‘Great, maybe you can give me directions to this can’. And he said, ‘Wow, that would be a great name for a song’. And I said, ‘Done!’. So, this collaboration was created.
I’m not sure many Brits would get that reference…
True, I could have ‘loo’ or something like that. But it doesn’t have the same resonance here.
Your wife features heavily on the album, via the artwork, and within the music. She’s also a politician of sorts?
She’s on the cover, and she is chairwoman of the Democratic Party for the State of Tennessee.
That sounds like a very important job?
It’s a pretty big deal. She works pretty damn hard at it.
FLOTUS has a couple of meanings – First Lady of the United States, and For Love Often Turns Us Still. Can you explain your thinking there?
Originally, I hadn’t given it a whole lot of thought other than the notion of what FLOTUS represents in people’s lives, and realising it’s a supportive role for somebody else. That seemed to be more relevant to the type of record I was trying to make, which was hopefully music that my wife would like.
For Love Often Turns Us Still is a beautiful turn of phrase…
It’s from having a long-term relationship, having been married for over 20 years. And realising that there were things you weren’t expecting. In a lot of ways it’s become better and deeper, and I really do appreciate that.
You made this record before the Presidential election. How’s it going with Trump so far?
It’s going great, man! Whad’ya mean?! Everyday you wake up and something nuts is going on. I don’t think anyone had any idea what was going to happen or where any of this was going to go. In some ways it’s compelling to follow, and in other ways it’s exhausting, and depressing as well. You guys in the UK are dealing with a different slew of problems, that are equally as concerning. It’s just difficult all around. But, at the same time, here we are talking about it, carrying on doing the things we usually do. Things are difficult, but hopefully they can’t sustain itself. I think we’re all trying to wait it out.
Only three and a half years to go!
Well, maybe! At worst!!
Politics informs this record perhaps more than any other you have made…
It’s been a bigger part of my life since my wife started her job. And in order to keep up, and stay informed… to be involved in her social life, certainly I had to up my game. I grew up in the 60s and ever since I was young man I grew up with the anti-war thing, and the civil rights thing. It’s certainly a part of who I am, and it continues to be. I just have never been overtly political as far as what I do as an artist. And I still think I wouldn’t call myself a political artist. I just reflect on what is going on in my life.
You’re featured on the new Charlatans record. How did that come about?
Tim (Burgess) and I have been friends for a while. We made a record together (Oh No I Love You) where I wrote all the words. So, when they were making this record initially I came up with some words for this song he was making with Johnny Marr. He sent this amazing track, and I just couldn’t fucking get it together. I tried many times to make something worthy, and it just wasn’t happening. So, I backed away from the vehicle, so to speak. He then came back with some words, and said would you mind just reading them, and we’ll try and use them in some way. The record had these little interludes, in-between songs. I didn’t expect much to come of it, but he ended up using some of it.
How will you be touring the UK?
I’m going to be touring as a trio format. The FLOTUS material led to the stripped down approach of what Lambchop sounds like. It’s kinda cool because we are able to re-visit some older material with that approach. Which is nice. It puts more focus on the tune and the lyrics.
What’s the plan, with regards to new material?
I’m pretty anxious to have more time to focus on that. It’s pretty frustrating at the moment, having to balance the demands of being on the road, and of course, being creative.
Any indicators of what to expect?
I’ve been listening to a lot of hip-hop, man!
You’re going to start rapping on the next album?
I don’t know about that! But I have noticed that the great hip-hop artists, such as Kendrick Lamar, are taking the use of language to a new place, that’s a little bit beyond what we think of as a simplistic, rhymey style of rapping. It’s using language in very prosaic ways. And it’s remarkable what is happening with the producion of it as well. That’s all very inspiring, and I am taking notes.