The Mistakes Make It Interesting :: A Conversation With Kurt Wagner of Lambchop

Talking to Kurt Wagner is some of the easiest talking one can do if you don’t overthink yourself. He’s a warm presence, full of praise for his fellow artists’ work and humble when delving into the machinations of his own. We sat down to discuss The Bible, the 16th album from his long-running band Lambchop. But five minutes into the conversation, we shifted from “press talk” to a rambling, laugh-filled conversation between two music people who love what they do and what they take in.

The Bible is reflective of Kurt’s ambling and amiable nature, and its approach is far more kitchen-sink when compared to the previous electronic-leaning of the excellent FLOTUS, This (is what i wanted to tell you), and Showtunes—not to mention the playful covers album TRIP. Recorded during the throes of the pandemic in a new location, Minneapolis, instead of Wagner’s home base of Nashville, it’s a celebration of expertly arranged chaos with a new collaborator in producer and pianist Andrew Broder and co-producer Ryan Olson. Gospel choirs, chamber strings, the occasional slap bass. Whether you’ve been following Lambchop’s trajectory or you’re a recent convert, it’s the logical next step for a collective of folks content to push, push, push forward. | interview and introduction by Al Riggs

Aquarium Drunkard: How has Nashville been?

Kurt Wagner: Nashville’s weird. In a way, it just blew through, the pandemic, like nothing fucking happened. Because everybody was so reliant on tourism and stuff. Being the red hell that Tennessee is, you know, it was just a magnet to people who just didn’t give a fuck. And in a lot of ways, it was so disturbing because it’s just like, “Fuck, y’all,” but now it’s just like, you wouldn’t know there’s something going on in the world. Because everybody’s just gone about shit like nothing’s happened. 

AD:  On a spectrum of empathy and apathy, everyone has it the same: just trying to figure out how to just navigate.

Kurt Wagner: Yeah! It’s like, I’m the only dude there sometimes with a mask on, and the other days, I’m not alone. You just sort of figure out a way to make your life as acceptable and safe as you can. I think that’s what it’s all about, us sort of adjusting to that is how we’re going to move forward. You just have to take care of yourself, and hope that, you know, your friends and your loved ones do as well. You can’t force anybody to not be a dickhead or blockhead about shit, you just have to sort of try to really zoom in on what is under your purview.

AD: I remember, there’s this article, an op-ed or thinkpiece, that came out around when Trump got elected. it was the whole, like,  “I don’t know how to tell you how to care about other people.”

Kurt Wagner: If they don’t care, it’s really like, you’re just talking to a fucking wall.

AD: Shame doesn’t work. Making fun of them doesn’t work. Ignoring them doesn’t work. It truly is just the worst kind of bully that just sort of gets off on being invincible.

Kurt Wagner: But I do think that it also makes us stronger. It builds better relationships with the people that you care about. And that’s a positive. You know, you were so distracted by all this other stuff. And now it’s much more about what really matters and what is important. And it’s not the things that you get out of social media, it’s not about fame or money and all that kinda crap. It’s more about just sustaining good, decent relationships with each other. And that, I think…is pretty cool! [Laughs]

AD: I can only think of a handful of people who weren’t radicalized after the past five or six years. If not that, then people have just become more empathetic aware of things like understanding bubbles when they exist, and understanding the communities that people actually live in.

Kurt Wagner: It’s a remarkable time to be alive. And we all sort of take our good when we can find it or get it. Our skin has become thicker, or you become again, more radicalized. And that’s all about who you are as a person and your personality. If you’re that type of person, we need those kinds of people that really want to speak out and do that. That’s great. And then there’s other folks where that’s not necessarily their way, you know? I mean certainly, I just find myself just drawn closer to the people that I can communicate with. And it’s the comfort that I give myself when I get up every day. I was like, “Man, it’s shitty out, but it’s kind of nice in here.”

AD: I’ve listened to The Bible about five times now. Listened to it in the car, listened to it through my phone, my computer through speakers, and headphones. Two things: it does sound best on headphones; and, I love it. I’m  fascinated by both its cohesion and also its lack of pattern.

Kurt Wagner: I’m really glad you’re kind of giving me your impressions on that. Mainly, when I talk to people, they want to know what I think. And I’m more curious about what you think. If you spend any time listening to what we’ve made since Mr. M, or whatever, my overview is the kind of thing that interests me a lot, because then it makes, it sort of reinforces that maybe I’m still okay, doing the right thing. 

AD: What I’ve really admired about Lambchop is that not only is the music growing, but the audience is growing and the community surrounding the band is growing, which means that the sound is growing.

Kurt Wagner: I think I’m pretty oblivious to that sort of view on what I do. I don’t have that sort of perspective, particularly since I’ve stopped getting out of the house as much as I used to. That’s comforting to hear. I can only do what feels right within the boundaries that I’ve set for it or open up to. Hopefully it’s OK with folks, but that’s not necessarily what drives me, how it’s accepted. It’s more about feeling good about it and I know you feel this way, as an artist yourself. It’s about feeling good about what you’re making and what you present to people. After that, it’s out of your hands.

AD: One thing I’ve always been fascinated with throughout the past few albums is your attention to small little details, weird little flourishes, weird little vocalizations that just pop up in an under and around your voice. I listen to that, and I think, “Well, why don’t I know how to do any of that.”

Kurt Wagner: You know, it is within your power to explore that.

AD: I don’t think I’m fearless enough.

Kurt Wagner: [Vocal processing] changes the way you are as a singer. It works well for a guy like me; it’s the mistakes that make it interesting. So if you’re a little out of tune or something like that, that’s when it kicks in. And that’s when it gets exciting. So you actually have to sort of ride this weird line between being on pitch and out of pitch. And it totally fucks with the way you can sing normally, but it does make you a better singer, in a way, without it. You notice “Wow, I’ve changed the way I sing now”, because I did rely on being out in order to do its thing. The stuff was designed to fix mistakes. And then the way now everyone uses it is it takes those mistakes and makes them into gold. You know, magic dust.

That’s neat. I kind of have this weird thing where I believe anyone can be an artist or anyone can be a singer or whatever. And it just sort of helps emphasize that by, saying “Yes, you can suck and get on that thing and sound great.” It has an emotiveness to it that has been overlooked by other people who just use it for whatever their purposes are, you know? And I don’t know. I mean, I think that it was just a weird time for me to kind of discover that. Justin [Vernon, of Bon Iver] was getting into that stuff at the same time, unbeknownst to me. And we were just inspired by like, hip hop and cool stuff that we’re hearing. And wouldn’t that be fun to try?

And then I’d really started digging into it. I was like, “Wow, man, you know, and thinking, when was the first time you were sort of introduced to that and stuff like that, reading a lot about the history of the processing itself. It’s fascinating. I mean, I make a reference to it on this record, that movie 2001 [A Space Odyssey] you know, where they unplug HAL and stuff…

AD: Yeah, “Daisy…Daisy”

Kurt Wagner: Yeah, yes. I can’t think of an earlier example of like, mainstream presentation, of vocal processing. But as far as something that was a huge mainstream phenomenon, 2001… that film came out in the late ’60s, it was like, “That’s fucking insane.” It just stuck with me. It was also just so emotional, watching this thing disintegrate, you know, through the sound of its voice. This is very impressive. Way, way ahead of its time.

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