Lambchop's Kurt Wagner on Mr. M and why its working title was Major League Bummer
"Nashville's most fucked-up country band" is back. The oft-quoted tagline of Lambchop (due at the Fox Theatre tomorrow night) sounds straight out of ringleader Kurt Wagner's lyric book: It's at once self-effacing, boastful and mischievous, and is truth-in-advertising on their latest record, Mr. M. Four years have passed since the band's last album, a time lapse Wagner refers to as "breathing room" for his songs.
To call the 54-year-old songwriter meticulous and calculating might be an understatement. Lambchop has cornered the market on baroque, literate songs that take a while to develop and perhaps longer to digest. The ensemble's records are hard to shelve in the alt-country or orchestral-rock record bins, a fact that Wagner -- an artist with a capital A -- seems fine (or unconcerned) with. "Fucked-up country," indeed.
Mr. M shows the band, which has in the past swelled to the size of a small orchestra, hitting a more pop-oriented stride. The hallmarks of Lambchop are still there: Wagner's half-spoken smoky croak, the layers of strings and keys that resemble clouds seen from an airplane window (stacked, light, clean and seemingly never-ending), and long, slow instrumental interludes. The songs, however, sound more intentional than on previous efforts (see: How I Quit Smoking) and, well, sound like the kind of work that took four years to produce.
We recently spoke with Wagner about Mr. M, professional wrestling and the importance of feeling what's right without worrying why it feels right.
Westword: The first music video, for "Gone Tomorrow," features pro wrestlers and the band playing in a locker room. What was the idea behind that?
Kurt Wagner: The only issue we had with that was, we wanted it to be Nashville. The wrestling is a big part of what goes on in Nashville. It goes on at a little hotel downtown. The whole video was shot there. It's a thing about how a lot more is going on in Nashville than what you read about. We are guys from Nashville. We grew up there. It's sort of like we were just being ourselves.
That video got me wondering how you navigate between concrete imagery and really abstract stuff, which is also evident in a lot of Lambchop's songs.
You have to allow a little bit for surprises and nice coincidences and connections to happen, but at the same time, you can do things that get you in the ballpark. It's like you're setting up a blind date with yourself and another idea, and you may hit it off. It's not completely random. It's like putting a couple people in the room and hoping they get along together.
What do you do when it doesn't work out?
You work on something else! I paint.
Do you ever view your songs like puzzles or riddles?
Sometimes. Particularly early on, things would just feel right on the page or right coming out of my mouth -- I wasn't quite sure of what I was talking about. But I knew there was a certain personal connection to what I was trying to say... I just wasn't sure of what it was. I don't think that's such an unusual thing with creative people, to settle on an idea or thing and then figure it out. There were times I wouldn't understand what I was saying until years later. But I think that because the general intent of something is honest, but may just be a little confused, maybe, or disjointed, it takes a while to make sense.
Can you think of any examples?
Sometimes it's like, not a literal example of "Oh, that's what that means." We were playing a song last night, and we hadn't intended on playing it. We were thinking about it. It's sort of an obscure song, but it definitely fit the moment of the situation. It's a song called "Magnificent Obsession" [from 1998's What Another Man Spills].
The way we were feeling, and the way the vibe was going, it made sense. We hadn't played that song in maybe, I don't know, ten, twelve years, but it just felt right. It was the right thing to do. But why, last night, and not ten or twelve years ago? I don't know. Sometimes the words become meaningful to you in those little phrases. It connects with the moment. It just becomes familiar to you.
It almost cheapens the song if you talk about it too much.
Sometimes you don't know why things feel right, but they just do. We can spend our whole lives trying to figure that out, but what's more important -- feeling right or trying to figure out why you're feeling right? [Laughs.]
The working title for Mr. M was Major League Bummer. What is the story behind that?
The record in my mind was called Mr. Met, but we weren't allowed to call it that. Apparently Major League Baseball didn't want to allow us to call it that [the New York Mets' mascot is named Mr. Met]. You could call a pair of socks that, but they weren't interested in having us use it. So that happened to be a major-league bummer, right?
You've been based in Nashville for over twenty years. Was your decision to move back, after growing up there and moving away for ten years, a career move? Did you return to be involved in the music scene there?
Oh, no. I was more concerned with being a painter and showing in galleries and participating in a vibrant art scene -- and, believe me, Nashville was not that. But I realized I could just go ahead and paint anyway, and I didn't need all that. It took me living away for ten years before I began to accept who I am, and then come back. I left Nashville when I was seventeen and couldn't wait to get out of there -- I couldn't leave fast enough. Then, coming back at 27, it's like, 'Whoa! Things are okay.' You realize there's a beauty you were never paying attention to before.
When you're writing, how much of it ends up getting really refined? Sounds like it went through multiple edits.
That's true, especially with Mr. M. When I first started, it was like spontaneous combustion, singing, playing into a tape recorder. I've gotten a long way from there. I started learning what songwriting was actually about. I started doing exercises or whatever, learning what other songwriters have done and trying it out. Like, I read about how some guy would write every day, regardless of whether or not he felt like it.
And so I began writing songs every day. I wrote a lot of shitty songs that way, but I learned from that. Now I work a totally different way. I'll spend an entire year on a song. Songs are different. For me, they can happen in a lot of different ways. To be restrictive with your rules or method or whatever shuts out a lot of possibilities. The main thing is to be open to them and be in a place where you can get it together and be open to that idea.
During these past four years, was it important to stay occupied the whole time, or relaxing? What were you doing?
I was very much involved with painting. That's all I was doing for a while. I was not in a hurry to crank songs out. It was more about trying to hold on to the idea until it was completely resolved. It was nice. I wasn't hurried in any way to come up with a completed product. I wanted things to take as long as they needed to take.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.