Photo: New Formalists / Courtesy of Merge Records

Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner Discusses Their New Covers EP and Pandemic Musical Life

The frontman of "the most fucked-up country band in Nashville" returns Lambchop to their roots on TRIP. Each group member picked a classic song and was bandleader for a day, resulting in a record that reveals Lambchop's core influences in striking new light.

13 November 2020

Not much has changed for Kurt Wagner since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Nashville native spent most of his time in the house, anyway — listening to music, tinkering with songs for his long-running band Lambchop, and carrying out domestic duties to make daily life easier on his wife Mary Mancini, whose elected position as Chair of the Democratic Party of Tennessee is decidedly intense this year.

“Ever since she got that job, I pretty much decided to be supportive and take care of keeping the home front together,” Wagner said. He explored this theme with trademark tenderness on Lambchop’s 2016 album, FLOTUS, marking a seismic shift in style for the band as Wagner swapped his esoteric country-western chamber pop for digital vocal processing and skittering micro-house beats. But even as the sound of the self-proclaimed “most fucked-up country band in Nashville” continued to expand, Wagner’s lyrical universe remained focused on the indoor, everyday drama of American life.

Wagner leaned into the possibilities of Lambchop’s new sound with last year’s This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You), a spiritual cousin to FLOTUS that found Wagner treading new sonic territory in a familiar environment: home. “When we clean, we make our lives better,” his vocoder voice warbles about weekend chores over a looping sample on the album’s opening track. “Some things are just that way.”

Discussing his domestic life in these days of social distance, Wagner sounds like the characters who have populated his strange, beautiful songs over the last three decades. They too could weather a quarantine without much fuss: puttering around the house and side-eyeing dirty dishes, watching the light change in the backyard while the neighbors fight next door, spinning questions like “How do you get the cups out from up there?” into symphonic swells of psychedelic melancholy.

PopMatters spoke with Wagner from his home in Nashville about life in “the new not normal”, the music getting him through, and recording other people’s songs for his band’s new EP, TRIP, out 13 November on Merge Records.

How’s pandemic life treating you?

Oh, you know — alright. Weird. [Laughs] But I guess, in a lot of ways, I’ve just continued being the sort of hermit that I was already. So it really hasn’t changed a whole lot about my day-to-day life, and that’s really where a lot of my lyrics come from anyway.

I don’t imagine it’s affecting your productivity much, then.

I’m always working on stuff. It’s one of the things that sort of keeps me glued together. I think I’m fairly productive. It’s a balance. But again, I pretty much stayed at home and worked on music anyway. So I wasn’t like many people who were unfortunately completely tied into the touring cycle. That is devastating for those artists and probably a big adjustment. They probably hadn’t spent six months at home in years, you know? I can’t imagine making that kind of transition. For me, it was sort of like, “Wow, this is sort of where I was heading anyway!” [laughs]

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Do you think there’s a future for that kind of touring cycle now?

I think it’s going to be a bit of an experiment for a while, and I think people with means will be conducting that experiment. Eventually, I think, yes, there will be live touring music. I think local music scenes will come back, in a way, but the notion of touring — which was already economically challenging — is going to be even more difficult to sustain. It was starting to get hard for bands like us, mainly because we would only do things if we could afford to do them. [laughs] Even though we would supplement tours for the losses, there was a limit to that. It was becoming very difficult to do. But making records is really the focus. It’s always been what we’ve wanted to do as a group, making records — that we can still do, and are doing.

I think the future of music is still good, especially when it comes to records. In a way, I think this has been a healthy thing for people who do make records and look at music from that point of view. I think you’ll find artists releasing two and three records a year, and I think that’s great. I don’t know if we’ll be able to keep up with it all, but I do think it’s good from a consumer’s point of view. But as far as the live element goes — which, you know, for many people is inseparable — it’s going to be a bit of an adjustment.

But I do think it will come back. I mean, in the town I’m in [Nashville], they’re desperately trying to bring it back as we speak. This week I think they’re going to start having shows at the [Grand Ole] Opry. How long that lasts really depends on stuff I don’t think anyone can control. There are just certain segments of the industry that are desperate to get something going on again. It just depends on whether or not that ends up being a sane, healthy decision. I don’t know. I won’t be going to the Opry this week. [Laughs]

I’m curious about what you’ve been listening to at home lately. What’s in your quarantine rotation?

Oh, lots of stuff. I try to spend a pretty good portion of my day trying to catch up on everything that’s going on. Everything from, like, friends’ radio shows to new releases, or stuff that somebody else I know is working on or something.

Any new releases you’re particularly excited about?

Oh man, I love that Bill Callahan record.

It’s so good.

All his records are great. He just keeps doing it.

I really liked how he released the album track by track.

As someone who loves his music, that was a nice thing for him to do. It gave you a little something to look forward to every week. It’s always nice to have something like that, especially on a Monday. It was a great idea, I thought.

Let’s talk about your new EP, TRIP. It’s a collection of cover songs, each picked by a different band member who then ran the recording session. Can you give readers the broad strokes of how and why it came together?

We had released our previous record last year, and we’d been doing some tours for that. We had another European tour planned, and it was just looking like we were going to lose so much money that it was probably not a good idea. So, in lieu of that, I thought, “Well, everybody’s carved out the amount of space and time for doing this tour. Why don’t we just make a record instead?” That way everybody can work. It gives us something to do, and then we have a tangible object to show for it instead of zero on the tour.

It worked out well. We all hung out for a week, and it was great. It was really fun and easy. Throughout Lambchop’s existence, we’ve always sort of shared music with each other. We were always playing covers as well. Usually, one person or another would suggest a song. It’s just a fun thing to do. So this was a chance for the band not to be shackled to my particular way of song-making. It was liberating, in a way.

I thought it would be nice to give these guys an opportunity to go a little deeper, to pick a song, and then guide the session. That felt appropriate. Not only did the other members not have to really worry about producing their music or writing it or anything, but I was just straight singing. I didn’t even play guitar, which was fantastic. I really love that. I could just sit back and watch it all. Of course, I would interject my personality in my own way, just like everybody else. But it wasn’t from the point of view of a bandleader or songwriter. I was just another musician, part of the band. It was a really nice leveler. Everybody contributed in an equal fashion.

Were you surprised by any of your bandmates’ song choices?

I had no real preconceptions, to begin with. There really wasn’t any of that. Each individual had the choice of doing anything they wanted to do, whether it would be something like Stevie Wonder or the George Jones song we did [“Where the Grass Won’t Grow”], which was written by this guy named Peanutt Montgomery. It’s such a broad range of types of music, like the song [“Shirley”] by Mirrors is an obscure song that a lot of record-collecting kind of people know about, but they only put out one record: an A-side and a B-side. And it’s fantastic, but that’s just completely different from another choice like “Love Is Here (And Now You’re Gone)”, which I think reflected Tony [Crow]’s personality as much as anything, in the same way, that Mirrors’ song reflected Matt [Swanson]’s.

There’s something about what you prefer in music, which I think reflects who you are. I’m really interested in that. It was exciting, and it was so much fun. I think everybody just really had a great time doing it. That’s the other fun thing about covers — it’s a lot of fun. It frees you up from whatever it is that you normally do, to just put on another sort of outfit.

But to answer your question, I will say that Andy Stack’s choice of “Golden Lady” [by Stevie Wonder] was the biggest head-scratcher of them all.

That’s my favorite Stevie song.

I’m not saying it’s a bad song! But certainly, it’s the most recognizable, probably the most covered, of all the songs. That made it the most challenging to make it not that. [laughs]

You took it in a very different direction.

Yeah, and it took some doing. Once we sort of cracked the code and got into it, then it all sort of came together in a really great way. The whole thing represented the sort of looseness of the whole process each day — it was about preserving that, as opposed to spending weeks polishing and getting it down to, you know, some sort of perfection. I really enjoyed the imperfections and the spontaneity of it.

It just makes me smile when I listen to it. It’s just fun, you know? And even “Golden Lady” ended up being just great. And I don’t think it was necessarily how Andy envisioned it, but when he presented it, he said he wanted something sultry. And in a way, it kind of is. I was like, “Wow, I guess we managed to do that.”


Photo: Courtesy of Merge Records via Bandcamp

Why did you pick the unreleased song “Weather Blues” by James McNew [of Yo La Tengo]?

It’s a song James sent me around mid-year, and I was haunted by it. I made a solo demo of it prior to that, which we replicated in the studio. So in a way, the band had something to go by, just the way they did with any of the other songs — as opposed to it being completely unfamiliar to them. So, I think it met the criteria of what we were up to. I was glad we were able to do it.

I know it has a connection to your late mother. Is it a painful song for you?

It still chokes me up a little bit. [Her passing] was happening as I was getting the song from James. My mother’s situation was a very long, dragged out sort of decline over several years, and it was drawing to a close. I had this experience of being at her bedside, and she had stopped recognizing much of anything, but she saw me and recognized me. And she looked up at me, and she looked just like an infant, a baby — but a happy baby, you know?

I’ve always been interested in how you become more childlike as you get older, but this was like an extreme version of that. Anyway, [“Weather Blues”] triggers that whenever I hear it. It reminds me of that moment, which was sort of bittersweet.

It’s a beautiful song.

It really is.

When it comes to your own music, you’ve said you like to challenge yourself to break your own rules, to get to places you haven’t been before. 30 years in, are there still rules left to break in the Kurt Wagner rulebook?

Absolutely. Yeah! [laughs] But I mean, it’s not like I just go out looking for that. It’s more of a way to learn more. I want to be better at what I do. I want to be a better songwriter. That’s why I listen to a lot of new music because I get inspired by all these different approaches and ways of going about making music — and all these amazing people doing it. There’s plenty to learn from all that. You can get a lot of knowledge, or maybe it’s more inspiration, from a lot of older music. I listen to plenty of that as well. But there are always new things to be learned.