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INTERVIEW: Kurt Wagner in Spectrum Culture

[ 0 ] May 20, 2012 |


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David Harris woke up one morning and decided to run a website. His life has been a prison ever since. Not sure what to do with his Journalism degree from Penn State and his MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, hopelessly alone after leaving an editor position at Tiny Mix Tapes, David Harris started Spectrum Culture in 2008. Besides all the stuff covered on SC, David also enjoys travel, hiking and NBA basketball. He doesn’t Tweet but he just got a smartphone, so anything is possible. He also teaches Spanish to high school students in Portland. They probably hate him.

I asked Kurt Wagner if we could talk about his friend Vic Chesnutt, who committed suicide in 2009, before I started recording our discussion. To be fair, it would be somewhat cathartic for me because Chesnutt was not only an artist I loved and respected, but someone I had interviewed and talked with on the phone on a few occasions. Knowing that Wagner dedicated Mr. M, the brilliant new record by his band Lambchop, to the memory of Chesnutt, it seemed like a reasonable prelude to the discussion.

After a 30-minute phone call, Wagner discussed his new record, Major League Baseball, quiet concerts and the ghost of Chesnutt that lingers over his music. I found Wagner forthcoming, friendly and quick to laugh. Mr. M is easily on my shortlist for album of the year. I am pleased to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Kurt Wagner.

Mr. M is such an introverted record. Some music reaches out and pulls you in and some meets you halfway. However, this one forces you to come to it.

I’m not quite sure there was a plan with that. I don’t know, it just came out of the way I decided to go about making music for this record and in general. I’ve been at it so long at this point that when the time came to make the record we decided to just take our time about it and just go the way we wanted to go. There wasn’t any sort of agenda ahead of us. It was just wide open. It was kinda like give everything we had to this record. I mean literally everything and just go for it. It came the way it came. There certainly wasn’t some kind of design to draw people in or anything like that. It was just putting it all out there.

Like a lot of Lambchop albums, this record has a real lived-in sort of quality to it.

That’s probably due to us taking our time about it. We let it take as long as it took and thought about it conceptually first and having an idea both sonically and as far as the songs go and the way we went about making it. It took a lot of records to get to that point where suddenly it all comes together in a way that is pretty natural, but at the same time there was some sort of idea that the producer and engineer Mark Nevers had in mind and what I had in mind as far as the type of songs and the way I wanted to present them. We put those two things together and we were able to make this record.

The one song I keep obsessing over is “2B2.” There are certainly lyrical flourishes that I really enjoy. I’m not a lyrics person normally but the part I really love is, “I swear it looks like England/ Yeah,” and then there is that pregnant pause and then, “I think it’s England.” That really sums up the almost wistfulness in the lyricism here.

That’s something about the way I like to communicate. It’s conversational; it’s about trying to have a one-on-one conversation with somebody. Who that person is (in the song) is sort of amorphous but it’s definitely about trying to connect with somebody like the way you do in a conversation. As far as the way I sing, it’s not shouting at you, it’s not crooning to you per se. It’s much more about speaking and listening and being heard.

I also really like the last section: “It was good to talk to you while we’re cooking/ Sounds like we’re making the same the same thing.” I’m curious to know what you’re making.

Basically, what that song is about is a chronicling of events around a significant realization that I had. Upon the day of that happening, I chronicled all the events of that day. At the end of that day, I was cooking a meal and I was talking a friend of mine, Jonathan Marx, who is also part of Lambchop. We were both cooking chickpeas. I was cooking more of a Mediterranean/Italian style chickpea dish and he was cooking an Indian style chickpea dish which involves crazy powders and stuff like that. Mine was more about cooking on a hot surface which was almost like rocks or something.

It is interesting how it can come from something like that.

I think I find that is pretty much what I notice in life and stuff in general. I draw out of experiences that I have or my friends have. Those sort of little moments can end up being more profound if taken and put into a song or given a platform for greater understanding.

It’s like finding gravitas in everything and not forcing it.

True, but then there’s not always gravitas in everything and sometimes it’s a matter of jiggling things into a position where suddenly, yeah, they do mean things. You see that in film all the time where they will focus on a certain inanimate thing but because of where it’s falling in the moment of the drama in the film it suddenly means all so much. Sometime images on their own can be very strong like, “Oh let’s put a steamship stuck in some trees in the Amazon” and that alone can create a lot of stuff around it but that’s an odd event. Sometimes it’s simple events too that can be it all.

Was that a Herzog or a Marquez reference?

I think that was Herzog (laughs).

He’s a great director.

He’s a great imagist, for sure.

I just watched his four hour series about death row.

Ah, man, I want to see that. It’s pretty heavy, I heard.

Did you see Into the Abyss?


It’s pretty different. It’s not as Herzogian where there’s no tree growing through a car. It’s pretty straightforward.

Yeah (laughs).

Speaking of natural imagery, another one of my favorite new songs is “Nice Without Mercy.” In the first verse, you have all these pastoral images, to use your word but then you’re almost surprised that you can take a photograph with a phone amongst all this stuff.

It’s just that suddenly that way of observing and looking and capturing things is accessible to so many people now. It’s suddenly as if we’ve become people who look at things differently, through a lens. Maybe it’s more for, “Oh, it’s just a picture of us friends together” in front of a bar they drank at that night or something like that, but at the same time people are suddenly looking at themselves. Everyone is a documentarian or a photographer. Not everyone, but everyone that carries a phone. Just right there, suddenly people can’t say, “Well, I can’t take pictures,” but they do. There’s a whole generation of people growing up where that’s completely part of who they are and that’s how they go about things. Whether or not they take it to another level or another purpose, who knows? The initial tool is in their hands. It’s like everyone’s gotten glasses or something.

I don’t know about you, but it freaks me the fuck out to go to a concert and watch someone watch the concert through a phone.

It’s insane. That’s right because suddenly it’s also become this filter that is wedged between the experience and it happens all the time now. The way people carry on conversations and they’re texting or working on the computer at the same time while on the phone or even at a coffee shop. They’re right in front of each other, but they’re both sitting there looking at their phones and yet they’re interacting like they normally do, but there is this other filter, this other thing that is going on at the same time. It’s changing the way we interact.

Yeah, things like Skype.

That’s another thing. We can now see each other when we talk on the phone. We could be doing that now, weird as that would have been.

That’s for sure. So, Major League Baseball did not like the title of the new record initially?

Right, it didn’t occur to me that an artist couldn’t call a work of art whatever they wanted to. I always thought he should have that sort of freedom. But apparently, the way things have developed in the last few years, it’s not so. I think it was just an act of caution on our label’s part to preempt any sort of difficulty down the road. It’s a litigious culture we now live in and I certainly didn’t want to cause any trouble for them and I certainly didn’t want to get into a big hoo-ha about it. In my mind, it’s still called Mr. Met. It’s just what we had to call it. Apparently, I can call a song anything I want, but to call a record that is a little more difficult. If we had made a pair of socks, I think we could have gotten a lawsuit for that. It’s true! (laughs)

So I can’t call my new book Mr. Giant or Mr. Twin?

Well, if the mascot for the Giants is whatever and you call it that…I thought the Mets owned it but apparently Major League Baseball owns that. And who knew until we actually asked for permission to do so.

So Mr. Met is an actual mascot?

Well, yeah. It’s the mascot for the New York Mets.

Oh, I thought it was the chicken or something.

No, dude. It’s a dude with a baseball for a head and a little ball cap carrying a bat and a glove (laughs). It sounds silly but everyone could have easily called the record that elsewhere in the world and just let Mr. Mbe for the US. I was inclined for that solution but there is this whole synergistic notion that people want these days that everything is the same everywhere. I sort of regret knuckling under. I should have kept it at two different names. It’s just not making everybody happy (laughs).

For your next series of paintings you can do the Phillie Phanatic but call it something else.

(laughs) I just run into this problem all the time. As a person that likes to appropriate things in my life in culture into what I write about, it’s almost impossible to find things that aren’t copyrighted. Or aren’t owned by something else, particularly when you’re dealing with phrases and you want to relate the idea. To me, the idea of “Mr. Met” wasn’t about baseball at all. The song isn’t about baseball. It’s got nothing to do with it. It has to do with the participle for “meet” (laughs).

So Shari Lewis didn’t give you any shit when you started out?

That’s it! I live with that over my fucking head! When we started the band we were called Poster Child. There was a group called Poster Children, they were on Warner.

I think I saw them when I was a kid.

Sure, they were cool dudes. The band didn’t fucking care. It was the lawyer for Warners. We had a 7” for chrissakes, a split 7” at that. They found it somehow and we got a cease-and-desist order from Warner Brothers telling us we couldn’t use the name. Wasn’t even the same fucking word. They were Poster Children, we were Poster Child. I was like, “Fine! What are we going to do? Fight the man on that?” Then I was like, “We’ll call it R.E.N., that’s the difference between Poster Child and Poster Children.” Well, that was going to be a little bit of a fucking problem. Jeez, where does it stop? So I picked Lambchop and then, “Duh! Oops!” That’s taken! You know? What the fuck! I don’t know why I run into this all the time. I guess it’s just my bad sense of humor (laughs).

Did the state of Ohio come after you?

Not yet! (laughs)

Maybe they will give you some health insurance or something.

Oh my god, yeah. Let’s do that.

I just got health insurance back for the first time in four years and you don’t know what a privilege it is until it’s gone.

And good luck getting back. Good luck with that. It’s nuts. Even if you have it, it doesn’t mean you’re fucking out of the woods. It’s infuriating and I could just rave on it for a long time but I won’t.

Let’s talk about Lambchop and longevity. I’ve seen interviews where you talk about which records you consider your peaks and valleys. If you could make a sampler for those who have never heard Lambchop which songs would you throw on there?

The trouble is that there are so many of them at this point. Rather than point to any specific songs, there are types of songs I think we do. The first record is a real good example of the various kinds of directions or things that I think Lambchop was into or capable of doing. The things with done over the years have zoomed into various aspects of that. It was quite varied at the time, maybe in its rawness. It is a really great place to start and think about what it is that Lambchop does. It’s just so hard for me to point to any one particular song and say, “Well, that’s pretty good for that” kind of thing. So for a sampler, I don’t know. That’s a difficult thing. I notice that my wife sometimes makes collections of stuff to give to people so they can hear what we fucking sound like. Again, that’s the stuff that she likes. I think because we have these various things that we do, it tends to appeal to different people at different times for different reasons. It’s like a GPS thing that keeps moving when you’re moving around. When we do stuff in that mode, it’s like this is who we are and what we sound like. It’s hard for me to do. I don’t want to stand still or look at it in that kind of way. It’s just who we are at the moment, this is who we are now. We used to tour records but we didn’t realize you were supposed to play music from the record. We had already moved beyond that. We had made that record nine or 10 months ago by then. By then we had already made another record or playing new music. We were just moving on and didn’t realize, “Oh, you have to do that” (laughs). It took a long time to figure that out (laughs).

I’m sure there are some older songs that continue to pop up in the setlist.

Oh, absolutely. This tour has given me the opportunity to just focus on a particular sound and these quieter, more intimate songs that would maybe only get thrown into a set every now and then. Now, we’re doing a whole evening of that kind of music. That’s been fun because it allows us to do those songs that maybe we don’t get to do all the time or just so obscure that people never heard them.

How about some examples?

Oh, we’re playing songs like “Magnificent Obsession,” which is a song you might not even know and “Interrupted,” which is off What Another Man Spills. We’re playing a song we used to play for people’s birthdays that’s called “Grey Lines in Heaven.” I don’t even know if it’s actually recorded. It’s just on a tour CD. We only played it whenever a band member on tour had a birthday. We just played it for them (laughs). It’s a nice way to get out of the death and loss kind of thing and into something more… (laughs) something we kind of like about life.

You’re not touring with strings, although strings are featured on Mr. M.

No. I think that’s a little deceptive to think that’s what this record is about. I also think it’s about this sound I was talking about earlier. This sort of openness, this simplistic, almost minimalist way of treating the songs. For instance, “2B2” doesn’t have strings on it, dude. You go from one song to another on this record and yeah, you remember the strings on the first song and the next song that has it, but in between there is a song without it. You’re not left with, “Hey, that didn’t have strings on it!” You didn’t even think about it.

That’s sly, man.

Yeah, and it’s the sound that’s really going on in the songs, the arrangements, the way we produced it.

So when you play “Gone Tomorrow” live, do you play the entire extended instrumental piece to it?

Yeah, we’re doing the extended piece at the end. Maybe it doesn’t go on quite as long. Again, I think it’s about a restraint thing we got going on as much as anything, which I don’t know people appreciate as much as they should (laughs). The point is that we’ve been doing it on tour without strings, except in Europe, and the feeling is the same. There’s air in the room and there’s a quietness. We’re playing really quiet, man. That is something, in of itself, that is a challenge in today’s clubs. I don’t know. It seems to work pretty well. We’re used to being assaulted, even with a quiet record in a rock club. The sound systems are geared to blast out over conversation and I’m challenging that by going, “Nah, we’re just going to play at conversation level” (laughs). People usually listen…or walk out (laughs).

Yeah, I was kind of concerned that you will be playing this record in a standing room club.

Well, who knows? Maybe I’ll throw some chairs in there if nobody shows up (laughs). Either way, we’ve played the rowdiest fucking Saturday night in Glasgow in a little rowdy rock club and you know what? Within half a song, people were quiet as shit. It was scary, man. People were freaking out and they were like that the whole night. The same thing in a drinking town like Bergen in Norway. Within half a song people were like, “Whoa, what’s going on?” I didn’t say a fucking word. People just did it on their own. There wasn’t an announcement, no signs, no enforcement. It just happened. People kinda figured it out all on their own (laughs).

When I did see you guys on the last tour, it was a really loose set with a lot of jokes.

Yeah, we still like to fuck around.

Do you challenge someone if they are making a lot of noise?

No. What we’re doing is playing about 50 minutes straight without saying a word. We just play one song after another after another. I don’t say anything. Then, after we get done playing Mr. Met, we just start fucking around and joking and all that and everyone just goes, “ah!” and it’s all great after that. We then still play quiet and they still shut up. It’s been really sweet, man, but it’s not like I say anything about it. It’s just been like this for years, watching Vic Chesnutt or watching Low. You realize that people respond to what you’re presenting when you walk out. Yeah, sometimes it doesn’t work and sometimes it can be kind of weird but I think it’s all about the intent. It’s also about how you go about it even before you go on. The kind of music you play, the level of music. You’re letting people figure it out on their own and respond to it. Maybe it’s also that now people are yearning for a time where they’re not coming home with their ears ringing even though they went to see Bon Iver or whatever. There is music there to be listened to, but it’s still pretty fucking loud I think.

I’m glad you brought up Vic Chesnutt, because that will be the final part of the interview. I’ve seen him be confrontational with the audience.

Oh yeah! That was the beautiful thing about Vic – he said exactly what was on his mind.

This record is dedicated to his memory. Is his essence in the actual songwriting?

Oh yeah, it was all in the air, it was in our lives. I wasn’t sure how I was going to go on making music after he passed away. He encouraged me to do this. He’s the guy who egged me on into it. He was always there to listen to what I made. We would basically write these records and make these messages to each other through our music we made. Knowing he’s not around to hear what you’re making and respond to it…I was making records as much knowing he would hear them and now that’s he gone, what’s happening? It took awhile to get my head around that. It was never spoken. It was never like, “I’m making a record about this.” It’s just the result of my experience in my life post-Vic. It was also to all the friends that knew him and miss him. That’s kinda what’s going on. It’s not overt. I could have easily left that off of there and nobody would have known.

I know other musicians like Lucinda Williams wrote songs about him. It’s criminal how small of a community of people know his music. Are there any songs or records by Vic that mean a lot to you?

Little and West of RomeLittle changed my life and West of Rome just cemented the idea that the things he did were just incredible.

Little has to be one of the most emotionally jarring experiences I’ve had on record.

Yeah, and then West of Rome was not just slapping it in during an afternoon but to actually show what an amazing artist he is and was yet to become. It allowed him to really be recognized as an amazing person.

I find it really hard to listen to the song “Granny” on At the Cut.

Yeah, I couldn’t even try to listen to anything until fairly recently. It was just too hard. Yeah, it took a while.

I tend to listen to songs like “Good Morning, Mr. Hard On” now than the more emotionally challenging ones.

(laughs) Yeah.



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