Lambchop :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

2019 marks 25 years that Lambchop has been releasing albums. The incredible quality across that stretch is even more impressive when compared to the relative restlessness in the group’s sound and size. Their latest, This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You), is one of their finest albums yet and marks another push forward – an examination of a sound started on 2016’s FLOTUS.

This is an album that certainly contains the kind of inward reflection that comes with getting older. Wagner’s lyrics are, in spots, as quotidian as ever, but that has always been an absolute strength to his work. That level of hyper-specific mundanity creates some broadly universal experiences to crawl inside, and wading into those moments that pepper this record has the ability to send people down their own winding pathways of memory. For the third time in a dozen years, Aquarium Drunkard caught up with Wagner to discuss the new album, the symbolic use of vocal processing, breaking your own rules, casual cursing, and Nixon tattoos – or is it Nixon tattoos?

Aquarium Drunkard: Did you consider naming this record Second Person with all of the song titles – except the last one – having the word ‘you’ in them? I assume this was intentional at least.

Kurt Wagner: [laughs] Oh, yeah, it was. It sort of evolved as I went through the process of writing stuff, and it occurred to me that it might be an interesting assignment to see if I could work it into each of the titles if possible. And connect the titles in a way. Eventually it did sort of point to being an album idea. But it’s more addressing a specific person as opposed to the greater people. More of a direct communication with a person rather than the audience at large.

AD: I feel like the use of the vocal processing on this record is different. You’ve used it on previous albums, but that effect feels more in the front than it has been. In some ways, it makes it harder to hear some of the lyrics, but is there an intentional…obfuscation, I guess…in order to make a closer listening necessary?

Kurt Wagner: Well, I didn’t mean to obscure the vocal in any way. It’s more about different ways of processing voice within the course of the record. It does take a few turns, but by the time you get to the second-to-last of the ‘you’ songs, most of that processing has gone away. And hopefully there’s an arc that leads towards that stripping away. That said, I never thought that it was necessarily any more or less present. I was trying to be better at recording that. But now I wonder. [laughs]

AD: I had a friend ask me to ask you about that: why the vocal processing seems to hit a peak then slowly pull away.

Kurt Wagner: That’s definitely something I intended. Once I had these songs in this particular order, it occurred to me that there would be a way to present it so that it would hit its peak and start to peel away a bit, so that by the last song, it’s pretty bare. I look at the voice processing – on this particular record – as a way of establishing a melody and chords. I look at it as just having a little buddy to sing along. [laughs] It does things that I don’t necessarily know to do. So it does lead to me interacting with it in a way that you might another vocalist. A lot of what I’m doing is essentially just harmonizing with myself.

AD: It seems like the record is about this evolution of some sort of relationship with whomever the ‘you’ is, but also about getting older and maybe the ‘noise’ of the processing and how it hits a peak and goes away is similar to how in our own lives we hit a peak and things start to calm down in some way.

Kurt Wagner: [laughs] That’s a lot of stuff there you unpacked. Let me think about how to go about answering that.

AD: Yeah, I’m not even sure there was a question in there.

Kurt Wagner: I totally think that yes, there were kind of two intentions. One was directing ‘you,’ the listener – this is more a conversation between you and I. Within that, I was sort of reflecting upon my own experience and what I’m living through, what my friends are living through and that always seems to come out in what I’m singing about. At this point, I’ve made a lot of records and done a lot of things. So I turned 60 and by the time you get there, you tend to start to assess things overall. And also with this environment we’re all living in now, and these social dilemmas, and what kind of affect that has on you in your daily life. And all that came out in what I was singing about. That’s pretty much it. It’s really just, hopefully, a relatively intimate conversation I’m having with the listener.

AD: I love the lyrical notations of ‘ambient/environmental’ things. I think the very first song has a line “Michael Jackson is telling me that Santa Claus is coming to town,” and then “The Air Is Heavy and I Should Be Listening to You” says “the air is filled with lemon-scented displeasure / they were playing ‘The Streets of Bakersfield.'” They create these moments – like sitting in an airport bar, or somewhere where there’s music playing.

Kurt Wagner: Yeah, it gives you a little snapshot, to place you in a moment in time. When you hear that Michael Jackson line, it’s like, yeah, I guess it’s Christmas. Directly or indirectly. With the ‘lemon-scented displeasure,’ it could be an airport bar or my house after I’ve cleaned it. [laughs] And that delightful aroma that comes from that. So it’s something that I think is real or maybe another way of saying I am sitting in my chair in my house, it’s been cleaned, or I’m going to the cigarette store and they’re playing Michael Jackson and it’s Christmas. But that’s my little way of expressing a time, a place. I think that’s part of conveying things by experience.

AD: There’s a lyric that I like because it’s a very specific reference, but it could also be a meta-Lambchop reference when you talk about “the man with the Nixon tattoo.” I feel like I understand that as a reference to Roger Stone, but at the same time I envision someone with a Lambchop Nixon tattoo. [laughs]

Kurt Wagner: I found it curious that that sort of describes myself as an artist. And in a way, Nixon has become the most recognizable record I’ve created. So it’s with me. It’s tattooed on my biography. But it also – yeah, since Roger Stone seems to be in the spotlight at the moment. That was sort of mind-blowing when I realized someone did that.

AD: I don’t know if there’s a lyricist I love hearing casually curse more than you. Specifically, there’s the line that made me laugh, because I loved how perfect it is, but it’s delivered in this soft way: “It’s been a fucking lovely day.” There are times in art where I’m like ‘eh,’ and not that I’m a prude about it, but just that I don’t know if that’s the place for it. But this seemed so perfect.

Kurt Wagner: Yeah, I have a history of doing that in my writing, for better or for worse. I’ve just always approached it – it’s more natural in me. I was a construction worker. That’s how people spoke. So why write differently than you speak if you’re writing from your own point of view? That’s how I think of it. I had an English professor friend who told me once that I was being lazy by doing that, and I took that to heart over the years and I would think, ‘well, maybe I can use a different word there,’ but it will feel like something natural to say and I’ll leave it end. It does tend to preclude you from airplay and stuff like that, but I’m not even sure how important that is anymore. So that notion has definitely gone away. Especially if you listen to a lot of contemporary pop. But sometimes people will say ‘oh, why did you do that? It’s a perfectly good song and now you’ve made it so no one can hear it.’ Well.. [laughs] I don’t really think about that at the time, of course. I just let myself write as I will.

I’ve always carried certain things through every time we’ve evolved. It’s not like I completely abandon everything. I simply try to add things or subtract things to get to somewhere that’s different.

AD: The album art cover is really interesting. It looks like an ID photo you had taken.

Kurt Wagner: Yeah, it’s a passport photo I had taken about ten years ago.

AD: I feel like that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a direct picture of you on the cover of a Lambchop album.

Kurt Wagner: Oh, definitely. That’s something I pretty much swore I’d never do.

AD: So what made you do that this time?

Kurt Wagner: Uh, I guess for that very reason. [laughs] That and it sort of reinforced the sort of intimacy of what I was trying to get at. I don’t even have a fucking hat on. And that’s pretty odd too. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it in reality. It looked good on paper. But there it is. I think at some point, part of what I do is challenge myself to break my own rules in a way and try to get some place I haven’t been. So eventually everything is fair game.

AD: Well I did have to go back and look at pictures of you and be like ‘oh, no, that is him.’ Because the hat – I’ve never seen you without a hat. [laughs]

Kurt Wagner
: Yeah, no one really has except my wife and my dogs. I think that’s the point. I was hoping people wouldn’t even realize it was me because I didn’t have the hat on. It still, to me, was not entirely obvious, though it really is.

: While you were working on this record, Merge Records released a 20th anniversary edition of What a Man Spills last year. Were you very involved in that process, and was having to think about this older piece of your work while working on new stuff an interesting experience?

Kurt Wagner
: I don’t know. Reissues sort of occupy another part of my brain. We’ve gone through several at this point, so in a lot of ways, it’s another process I go through with Merge. And of course, in the process of doing that, you do take stock of what was created in the past and where you’re at now. Obviously that popped into my head in some way. It really was almost like – two different time frames. It was a pretty good while ago. And as far as what Lambchop is and how I’ve evolved, things have changed quite a bit. I find myself more receptive to the notion of going back and checking out what I did in the past more now than I did even two or three years ago. I was much more focused on what I was making or was about to make, as opposed to thinking about the past and all of that. So reissues have always been a little challenging for me at least emotionally.

AD: Do you ever find the old you influencing newer stuff in a way? Do you find bits that you’re like ‘oh, I forgot that.’

Kurt Wagner: Well, I’ve always carried certain things through every time we’ve evolved. It’s not like I completely abandon everything. I simply try to add things or subtract things to get to somewhere that’s different.

AD: The band will be playing the Merge Records 30th Anniversary shows this summer. I was fortunate enough to be at the Merge 20th anniversary show y’all did that ended up put on DVD. I was talking with some people the other day who remembered that show really fondly. One guy said ‘I was texting people about how great the show was and they were like “Lambchop? Do you mean Polvo?”‘ [laughs]

Kurt Wagner: I think all were surprised including myself. It was a pretty special moment and in a lot of ways gave us the sort of energy to move forward. I think that was a fairly significant thing. I knew after that show was over that, wow, we bought ourselves another five years or so. [laughs] I think it’s just a testament to everything sort of aligning into that moment. Prior to that, people probably knew that we existed, but they hadn’t really given us much thought in terms of being relevant.

AD: Does it in any way make you feel any pressure for the show this summer?

Kurt Wagner: Yeah, there’s always pressure. But I think this one will be pretty amazing. I’m pretty psyched about the lineup we have. I would encourage people to go. There won’t be many Lambchop shows in the U.S. and the lineup is going to be great, so come if you can. words / j neas

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