Tune Glue 011: Kurt Wagner (Lambchop)
An interview with singer-songwriter and Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner
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Once hailed as “Nashville’s most fucked up country band,” Lambchop has lately wandered astray. Having all but completely shed the city’s signature sound, lead vocalist and songwriter Kurt Wagner has made friends with sequencers, synthesizers, vocal processors, and MIDI grids. At this point, the only two constants across Wagner’s past three decades of work are his distinctive barroom croak (still identifiable through the AutoTune of late) and the certainty of change. Leah B. Levinson spoke with the pop experimentalist on April 17th, 2021, ahead of his recent release Showtunes (out now via Merge), an album premiering a darkly surreal orchestral sound while packing an opera’s worth of drama in a quick half-hour. The two talk about the state of the music industry, aging as an artist, embracing technology, the power of marriage, and creativity.
Leah B. Levinson: Hello?
Kurt Wagner: Hello, did you…?
This is Leah from Tone Glow. Is this Kurt?
Yeah, I saw it ring once and I thought it might’ve been you. Was that a mistake?
It must’ve not gone through. I was leaving a message there, so it must have cut off. If we continue to have problems we can figure it out.
Oh, okay. I don’t know, it rang once and I figured it was you.
Gotcha. Well, I’m glad you called back.
How’s your day going?
It’s been okay. It’s busy around here. I am lightly familiar with Tone Glow, which is good because it wasn’t like, “Wait, what is this?”
I do appreciate what writers are still trying to do considering the climate of what it is to be a writer about music these days.
Yeah, I think Joshua [Minsoo Kim]’s really done a great job with Tone Glow and it’s really cool to be a part of that.
Well, it’s good that there’s still outlets for your work. I think it’s important that it still exists. But I also appreciate good writing in general, and he seems to have done a good job keeping people active. The Substack phenomenon is pretty interesting for a lot of creative people. It’s cool.
I’ve been interested… I’d say a little over a year ago, before the pandemic, things were already starting to look pretty rough for music writing.
Oh yeah, horrible. Still kind of is (laughter).
Yeah. But the newsletter thing has led to at least some independence. I mean I would assume—I wasn’t really here for the blog era—but it feels like it’s more akin to that where it’s just nerds doing it for themselves and for each other.
Absolutely. Which is kind of essential. You have to have that passion for stuff and do it for no other reason than it being something you feel passionate about, as opposed to, “Well, it’s a job. I do kind of like music but I like a job, I’m a writer…” That’s the thing I’ve found encouraging about it. Some of the people I know who have been journalists for a long time have found themselves in a really weird place right now. And, I don’t know, it’s kind of nice that this thing exists as what it is.
Yeah, definitely. I agree. Well, I’m glad you’re familiar with Tone Glow because our interviews tend to be presented more longform, so I’m hoping you have some time, maybe like an hour.
I do. I made sure that I did and I was lucky you made it this afternoon. That gave me a chance to juggle some stuff this morning. So, yeah, I got time!
Okay, great! So, I want to talk about the new album [Showtunes], which is really gorgeous. It packs a lot into a really brief run time. It’s only about 30 minutes, but it goes big on experimentation and themes.
Yeah! I like the brevity of it myself. It could have ended up being longer, I could have waited longer to put it out because I still make stuff—I don’t stop—but it felt nice to present this idea without belaboring it for no other reason than it being a little short compared to what you might call an “LP.” I like long songs and short LPs these days (laughter).
Which… Neither of them are very viable I guess, but it’s kind of what I’m into. I just like letting songs take as long as they take to happen and exist. And, as far as ideas, as far as records, it’s very difficult for someone to have the time to spend with an hour-long release. It makes sense to try to still engage people with the notion that an album can exist as an album. Maybe they do need to be a little shorter to, I don’t know, get into someone’s day. It’s really hard to imagine someone having an hour or even 45 minutes.
I listen to music a lot and stuff that I’m really down with, wanting to hear, I find myself going “Damn, I’ve got to go do this now.” And I don’t get to the point, which is what I want to get out of it. If someone gives me an album, I’m going to listen to the whole damn thing because then I’m going to have a better understanding of where they’re at and what they’re trying to do. There’s nothing wrong with checking out a song or something like that, absolutely. But it’s also put into this container which is meant to be absorbed as a whole thing, like the chapters in a book. You want to read the book, you don’t want to read one chapter and go, “Well maybe I'll get around to the book one day.”
That’s interesting. Hearing you say that, I’m thinking about the lyrics on the album. They have this extremely concise structure. Economical, kind of repeating lines or slightly altering a line, but it’s a lot of repetition and really trimmed down so it feels like you’re trying to get to the heart of it quickly and make your statement.
Yeah, or in some cases just deciding not to even include that and just let them exist as instrumentals was a conscious thing, using that to emphasize the fact that, yeah, there’s a lot to what I’m trying to say there and sometimes you need space for it to breathe without the inclusion of my voice. Sometimes it feels like I’m still saying it without having to say anything.
Something I’ve noticed that I think is starting to happen a little more when people are releasing records—not, maybe, on a broad scale, but I do know that it’s been happening in hip-hop for a long time—is very short interludes and things like that. Just lately, these two artists I know that I work with, they’re both creating records that are at least half instrumental and they’re not necessarily instrumental artists or anything like that, but it seems to be another way of presenting a record as a whole. It helps reinforce that to some extent.
I mean, we’ve done instrumentals before on releases, but they almost seemed like cameo appearances as opposed to anything supportive of a bigger idea. They might have been byproducts of another thing that we were working on that didn’t require lyrics. So, they’re lured from somewhere else this time, they were sourced out of something else. They were all part of the creation of this particular idea, this piece.
In the sense that they began from a similar place as the songs with lyrics?
Absolutely. They were growing at the same time as some other things I had planted and grew and developed. And they certainly could have gone that direction had I felt it was necessary, but sometimes all you need is a good title, and that’s really all it needed to fit with everything else.
I felt pretty good about the way that ended up happening. And this certainly has emboldened me to continue with that idea in newer work I’m working on as well. I don’t necessarily always think, “Well it’ll be great when I put words to it,” or something like that. Sometimes I now consider things a little more broadly.
Yeah. You mentioned rap artists using interludes or skits, that kind of thing.
Connecting that with this economy of words and pushing that towards instrumentals or an instrumental with a title. I’m curious if you’re familiar with the rapper Playboi Carti.
So I started thinking about the way he uses words and also AutoTune.
Right, that’s where I got that stuff from too, yeah (laughs).
Yeah, absolutely! Absolutely.
Yeah, so actually another writer at Tone Glow, Sunik Kim, was writing about Playboi Carti’s most recent album and saying that the way he repeats words—repeating a line and repeating a line—it feels like he’s testing it against the music in new ways. And I’m thinking about the way he uses the AutoTune with that and lets these sorts of indeterminacies from the AutoTune—which you’ve also talked about—make it new with every repetition while he’s still reiterating the point of his lyrics.
Yeah, because what it does is not totally predictable or under your control as the person manipulating it. So, if you allow it to enter its own personality with yours, then it creates an interaction between things. And that interaction is, oddly, a little unpredictable, because whatever the algorithm that makes the, let’s say AutoTune in this case, does what it does, just you being human and the inconsistency of the way you deliver something can freak it all out. Singing out of tune is what makes it kick in to do its thing. Imperfections that you present to it, it uses as an opportunity to do its thing.
And there’s all kinds of other ways that works, not just with AutoTune, but with sound in general, or any kind of sound that you would input to these things that are being created by someone, maybe for something else. A lot of people are using the modular synthesizer right now. They input information and get back stuff that they can manipulate that is completely unpredictable. The source material could be a very repetitious drumbeat, but what you get back is both interesting and still based upon what you’ve given it. It has some sort of relationship to it that’s not like combining two separate elements. One is derived from the other. And that is something that really was part of how I created Showtunes, because I don’t play piano.
But the information I gave it initially was guitar, and then it would turn it into a digital piano sound through MIDI, which I then was able to manipulate and edit and write with. Suddenly, I was presented with an instrument that was sourced from something I did. I couldn’t play piano, but I was able to through this technology.
That was how the record was written initially and I simply evaluated that result and decided that I wanted to give a bit more naturalism to it. So that’s when I added all the other naturalistic elements to it, which suddenly make it feel a little less AI and weird. Something that is deceptively natural but is actually pretty unnatural (laughs).
Yeah. So basically, you didn’t even start with songs that you wrote on guitar. I imagine you’re starting more with sketches of guitar parts.
Right, they weren’t in any way a realized song but were, say, something that I recorded on a guitar and nothing else. Just a moment or maybe longer. And then it would turn into this piano performance that was surprisingly coherent. I suddenly realized I could make chords with this, and these chords were interesting, or it decided to make this key (laughs) that it was in, which I wouldn’t have chosen.
It had this vibe to it that sounded like old-timey show music, which I had no intent in pursuing at all, but it sort of triggered a whole way of songwriting for me. So, the song name was then created by the vibe that it gave me back initially. And it was just a matter of me realizing I don’t actually have to play these guitar things and turn them into piano anymore, I could just manipulate the little bars of digital information and create chords on my own, free of that actual transferring process.
Sometimes it would just set the scene in a way, just my initial information, and then I would go with it and go beyond that. Then I would just start creating piano chords based on copying the information I initially had and rearranging it, changing it into different chords, and making it go places. Suddenly, I was kind of playing the piano but in a very rudimentary way. But the things that came out of it, the chords and the relationship between them, were driving the moment.
And so, then, that basically became a score to be rearranged for or reperformed by an ensemble, right?
Well, that was the information presented to them. I ended up creating these fairly realized songs by the point I got the other folks involved. That was gonna be a starting point for, “Okay, here are some songs that I made, but let’s try to play them.” For us to see where it went from there.
I’ve yet to have that kind of interaction with people, but the next best thing was doing it remotely because of the situation we were all in. That situation also created the availability of others to work on this stuff. They are all amazing, busy, creative people who normally would have been touring or whatever, and otherwise maybe wouldn’t have had enough time to sit down and do it. So instead it all came together fairly by virtue of the fact that we were all kind of sitting around going, “What the fuck?”
The thing had just started, and I had planned to hang with everybody in the summer, but that wasn’t happening. So, I was like, “Well, I still have this stuff and I was wanting to do stuff with you anyway and let’s just do it this way.” It turned out great, and I think in a way it was good for all of us to have things to do to continue being artists, you know?
A lot of the fruits of the pandemic labor are just now presenting themselves, and it’s unfortunate that people will itch to use that as a genre of music. To call it a “Pandemic Record” is a real bummer. I just think it’s a disservice to a lot of the music that gets created.
To some folks, it wasn’t therapeutic. It was just an opportunity to exist and continue to exist in this situation where it was really questionable what the fuck was going to happen. So, it wasn’t like some sort of therapy just to get through it. I think there are some records that were made in that time that are about that or about peoples’ self-reflection. And then there’s a few that probably aren’t. And I think those are probably because they were in the works anyway when all this kind of stuff came around. That’s the case with both records we’ve released during this time period.
Yeah, so it’s interesting that Showtunes is obviously playing on this large, orchestral sound, but it also does feel that it was created in a space away from that. With something orchestral, I think of it typically being experienced in a live space, just by the nature of all the performers and the audience—a large communal gathering.
I think it’s part of the definition of “showtunes.” This stuff was created for the theater. It was rooted in that as its function as a piece of music. Which, you know, turns out these songs had legs, a lot of them. And a lot of them for various reasons—some of them just because they were weird, kitschy, quirky little tunes. Sometimes they ended up being a pop tune or hit or something like that, but I think they were meant to support a musical production of some sort, meaning that it would be performed. Which is completely ironic because I can’t perform. I can’t play piano! (laughter).
So how can I perform them, even as a solitary artist? I’ve got a little time to figure it out I think. I’m not jumping right into the cauldron of live music again anytime soon. But I will figure something out. I’m not quite sure what that is. I love that I don’t have the pressure to have to come up with that right now. I love the fact that I’m just able to put it out in the world.
It’s sort of nice not being tied to that part of the cycle of releasing music, the way it’s been for me for almost twenty-five years. It’s part of the whole cycle of releasing a record in the way that I do. It’s understandable from a commercial point of view, but from an artist’s point of view, which is basically the only one that I pay attention to, it’s a little bit of a distraction to continually working—making something that leads into something else, which leads into something else, which becomes your life’s work. You have to put everything on pause to go out on the road and all the stuff that goes along with that. That pressure was gone and it was actually a great relief. It’s made me able to be much more productive, or at least the kind of productive I’d like to be at this point in my life. I’m not a spring chicken anymore (laughs).
Maybe I’m trying to realize where I want to be as an artist—whether it’s a musician or whatever—and focus more on that kind of content and less about all the promotional aspects of what’s involved in releasing music. It’s probably not the thing that a record label would like to hear, but it’s an interesting time for a lot of artists my age that are still doing it. They have to reconcile at some point what it is they’re going to do as they become older. How do you exist and do it in a way that doesn’t kill you potentially?
Are there any artists you’ve looked to, or people in your life, to find ways to work that out?
Sure. I mean, there are not that many of them, but someone of my generation is the Yo La Tengo guys. They’re even a bit older than me, most of em (James isn’t), and they have their approach because it’s just the type of people they are, but I know their age factors into how they go about doing what they do. And that is always informative to see how they go about what they’re doing and still manage to retain some vibrant viability as someone who makes music.
But there are very few people who hang around as long as I have. So there aren’t a lot of people you can go to. A lot of them for one reason or another aren’t doing it or they aren’t alive anymore (laughs). So the group of people you can go to who are still trying to coexist doing what it is they want and love to do and what it requires of you to do that is a very small list.
But I’ve been working with the same labels from the beginning, and I think they understand that and they can allow for that kind of thing. I don’t think that you would find that many other places, other than this special relationship we’ve developed over the course of a long time. And it just turns out both labels I work with are awesome and are still around too.
They’re still in it. And I’m really grateful for that. I think that goes hand in hand with the way I am as an artist in general, working with people I know and love and respect. Those three things—that’s big, that’ll see you through a lot of stuff other than fame or success or notoriety or these other measurements of what we think of as “popular” music. Just hanging around. Still being there. The artist that wouldn’t go away. I probably wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity other places.
Without those working relationships.
Without the relationship that you chose to stick through with each other, through various interesting moments in music history. I saw the boom, and then I saw the crash, and then I saw the sort of continuum that kind of goes into today. It’s been with the same bunch of people. It’s an interesting place to be. I recognize that as weird as it is putting out music these days—without the traditional infrastructure attached to it—those relationships really let you know who’s actually listening and appreciate that for what it is as opposed to a metric that I don’t understand, which is how many people have streamed your music, which has become a measurement for success or viability even.
(laughs). I look at mine and it’s not anywhere near what it should be in order to survive.
Yeah, and it’s also a measurement that people have written about, how it’s informed by the streaming services themselves because of who they promote and who they put on playlists and stuff.
What you have to do to play in their ballpark.
Yeah. It’s weird watching what used to be stories of “roughing it to live the artist’s life” or “putting everything into your art” turn into creative endeavors as side-hustles or part of the grind. Those old ways of being an artist aren’t even possible. It’s kind of just, struggle until you meet some shaky threshold for success.
Or worse yet, a hardcore business where you have to accumulate all these small little pieces, small little side hustles all together in order to even have it exist at all: the social media components, the aspects of touring, booking. All the young artists I know are very adept at bringing together all these various things in order to even pull off a record release. I’m sure some of the people starting out today making music will be like me one day, marveling at the fact that they were actually able to do it while wondering the whole time if each time you did it was the last time, you know?
And it’s heroic to think about it in that way but it’s also sad because it doesn’t need to be that way. You have to reconcile within yourself what you want out of this thing you call creativity. What is it that you want to get back? When are you satisfied? It’s different for everybody.
And it’s not a conducive environment for creativity, to have to view every creative step as also an economic investment.
It’s so not conducive to purity of thought and idea. It muddies the water, poisons the well! (laughter).
Definitely. Well, I have a question that kind of goes back to what we were talking about with the instrumentals and the economical use of lyrics. I came to your music when I was about twenty. When Mr. M came out.
That’s one of my favorite albums whatsoever. And so, for me—I don’t think this is regular for the typical Lambchop fan—but I viewed that as the masterpiece of that era, of all the alt-country Lambchop stuff. And it also feels like that album closed the book on that era.
So, it feels like in the albums since that time, you’ve been experimenting and moving in different directions. You’ve had four releases since Mr. M. (FLOTUS, This (is what I wanted to tell you), Trip, and Showtunes). I feel in those four there’s a gradual kind of unravelling or disappearing that you’re doing. Like, with This (is what I wanted to tell you), you’re obscuring your voice a lot more and the structures get a lot looser; and then with Trip you stepped away from the creative process largely, just having cover songs and having your bandmates choose them and lead the sessions.
And now you’re having a more compositional role again, but your voice is fading a bit into the larger fabric of the thing. I’m wondering if that all comes from somewhere for you, like a life change or a change in how you view the world.
Well I think of it more as a creative continuum thing. Over the course of as long as we’ve existed, we’ll head into one direction, reach a peak at that, and it reveals where we’re going next. And then something changes, and maybe it’s abrupt or maybe it’s not, but we reach these moments, a pinnacle of taking a particular thing we do as far as it will go in my mind, and then it’s time to see what else is out there.
I think that’s happened maybe three times through the course of our releases. The first time, leading up to the Nixon era, was a record prior to that, What Another Man Spills, which certainly was more significant since it opened a door to the idea of what Nixon should be. And then with that knowledge, seeing what else was possible, creating something that was very dissimilar but, I think, equally as important a record, Is A Woman. Those three records completed the arc.
Then we continued for a while and it rose up again at Mr. M, which became both a beginning and an end, much the way it had happened before, where we’d gone as far as we could with where we were at for a period of records. Then Mr. M both preserved everything that was cool about what we had been leading up to, but also then started to really allow other ideas to be introduced. Then it really started to happen. FLOTUS happened, then This (is what I wanted to tell you), then this record. So there’s those three records.
So, here we are again with another beginning of another arc of music that I'm making. Each time you can see this sort of thing start to pop up and dissipate within the music itself but it’s stuff that’s been around forever that is now allowed to come out.
I liked what you said about disappearing because essentially that was part of what I’ve been trying to do, just the way you described it. To essentially see that maybe I’m the obstacle in moving us forward because of the way I am in terms of what I should be to this thing. So I was experimenting with what would happen if I stepped back a little bit or masked this very dominant aspect of what people identify with the music itself in a way I thought was appropriate for the type of music we were making.
Then it came down to Showtunes, which ended up being something else entirely. Even the way it was constructed was pretty strange, there was nothing straightforward about my approach but it was exciting and it allowed for something absolutely unthinkable to happen, which was to make a piano record without being able to play a fucking piano, you know? That’s crazy!
But also realizing that there were ways to work with that and to make it feel natural again; it retained a naturalism that I didn’t think records like FLOTUS and This had. The way I was working and the way I was having to deal with lyrical information and the way I presented it, I found that for me it worked better if I included technology in the way my voice was received by others because I felt it was appropriate to the sounds we were making. So that was the reason for that as much as anything. Plus, I just like it, it was fun and unpredictable. It made me be able to sing in ways that I’m not able to, the same way the technology makes me play an instrument that I can’t play. Being open to that is important because what I get is music I would have not created had I stayed stagnant in the very limited range I have as an actual musician, you know?
And I’m the least talented person that I work with as far as actual music goes, as far as skill and ability and facility of how you do something, how you approach an instrument. So having all this technological help really was what I needed because of my own limitations; it smashed my limitations so that suddenly pretty much anything’s possible if I want it to be. Which is exciting for an elder artist to have that be possible in their lives.
Usually you’ll look at artists that have been around as long as I have and they’re just gonna keep playing the old stuff. And that’s fine. That’s an older standard of how you would gracefully age in the music business, but I don’t think that’s necessary now. I think that if you’re open to it, the next thing—you haven’t heard it yet, you don’t know what that is yet—but it’s out there, and it’s possible to go out and find it if you’re just willing to get over yourself a little bit.
I think it’s really incredible how you are using technology as an older artist. I see you using it to continue to challenge yourself and force these sorts of rebirths that you’re doing aesthetically. Hearing you talk about these records as pivot records, or death and rebirth records that cause this transformation, it’s also making me think about the band or the artist or the moniker as a cohesive unit or as a brand causing this sense of identity or this singular thread that draws through otherwise distinct things like records. And how exciting it is to be able to hold a thread like that and cause transformations around it while holding on to some form of identity at the core.
Yeah, I think that’s a good way to describe it. It’s like a throughline through everything we’ve done since the beginning. And, essentially, we never quite got our heads around the notion of what a “band” was. We got together to have fun and play music with each other and make recordings or just make objects that would represent what we are, who we are, and what we did. And we didn’t give a whole lot of thought about anything else and that was fine. People were happy enough to see us a few times and listen to the record. And the record company was happy to put out another one and we’d just figure it out.
But time goes on, and as we did that we’ve muddled through and continued to release and make things and always remained attuned to what’s going on and how these new ideas would creep into our music. Crazy weird experimental shit has been in our music all along, and it’s just whether or not you have been able to hear it. It’s in there. It just was never picked up on or pointed out as an important aspect of what we did. But I’m a conceptualist at heart, and concepts help guide you through stuff to the result of that.
It’s almost like a hypothesis and a thesis-and-a-proof kind of approach to things, but not necessarily so hardcore that you aren’t willing to accept chance and change along the way. Your concept tends to morph and maybe you recognize that and include it as opposed to abandoning the experiment and starting it again to get the “right” answer. There’s never a right answer at the end of my concepts, it’s just more of something to guide you along the way to not just be completely lost.
That’s making me think of another question I had. Not only are you continuing your musical career later in life than many artists do, but you also started pretty late. Your first release (as Posterchild) came out in 1992 when you were 32. I was curious about your outlook towards that and if music played a role in your life before that.
Oh absolutely. I just never considered it as something serious. I played music most of my life but strictly for fun. I was in some pretty crazy punk bands in the ’70s, but it was just art school bands. We got together, had fun, played some shows at places in Memphis. Basically, that was when all that sort of started in the mid-70s.
It was an exciting experience. It was always an adjunct thing I did for fun. I wanted to be a painter and an art professor. The people I played with had the same attitude where, this is fun and why shouldn’t we be able to do this even though we can’t play our instruments. It wasn’t until much later that it became evident that you were able to do it yourself.
There was a period in the ’80s where that knowledge of how to go about doing it was now available to certain people. It just grew out of that. We live in Nashville. They make actual records, produce them, a mile from my house. That was the thing about this band, that we were able to conceive, write, perform, record, produce the actual object, all within about a mile and a half of my house. That’s as far as we took it. We’d send it out, our first little split single or whatever it was and next thing you know, Lollapalooza’s blowing through town and looking for a local band, a weird local band, and somehow they found out about that record and they asked us to do it. So that’s kind of nuts.
And then the follow-up the next year they go, “Hey you wanna play a leg of Lollapalooza?” I mean out of nowhere. We were not actively pursuing anything of that sort. We sent the single to Merge just because one of the fellows in the group was friends with them and said, “Hey look I’m in a band.” And they liked it and they went, “Hey you want to put out a single?” and then, “Hey, why don’t you just put out a whole record?” And we just happened to have one because our thing was just going to make recordings for nothing in great facilities on the weekend with engineers who were bored as shit with what they normally do. It was a fun thing to do. I loved the idea of it being like a little art object with a cover that you can hang on your wall. It existed as an object. And that was the end of what we had in mind, you know? We weren’t looking at it as a career. We weren’t looking at it as a way to make a living. That wasn’t who we were. It wasn’t what we were looking for.
It’s kind of funny that the nature of the music has kind of come down to that once again. I don’t have any big expectations about what happens with this record, you know? It’s great that I’m talking to you about it. That’s fantastic. Someone’s listening, someone’s gonna read what you wrote. That’s nice. Great. And you know what, that’s enough. The fact that you have a favorable impression of it is a bonus (laughs).
I don’t have any illusions that it’s going to keep me a roof over my head. I don’t know if it will, who the fuck knows. I guess that kind of stuff’s not up to me. I mean, maybe it is, because maybe I should get off my ass and become more involved in the self-promoting, but I’ve been the worst self-promoter you’ll ever talk to. I’m just bad at it. It’s just not who I am. I don’t tell anybody what I do when I meet them as strangers because I don’t think that’s how I want to be judged in life.
I want to be judged as trying to be a good person and hopefully live a pretty decent, responsible, appropriate life without becoming an asshole or something. It’s hard. Especially because one of the big things required of you in being a musician—maybe it’s a prerequisite—is you have to have a certain amount of ego. and I’m not quite sure that I have that. I know I don’t have the goods to back it up. I have good ideas and I’m a creative person but I’m not necessarily the most talented guy, you know? I just have a certain way about it, I have ideas.
This is obviously resonating with what you were saying about your musicianship and what technology allows you to do, but that’s so obviously your skill, the reason you’re the driver behind Lambchop is that you are the idea guy and you see these larger concepts and constructs. You were talking about titles earlier, and I feel like that can be a sign that a musician is really conceptualizing their work looking at both small details and the larger picture and how it all comes together.
Yeah, I mean I’ve had some stinkers. But it became apparent to me just by the music that I listen to that half the battle in getting someone’s attention to listen to it is what it was called. It had to draw you in or make you think about it. Just even to take the next step of listening to the damn thing.
But that said, I’ve been reckless with how I title. It really is something that only later on—like the last ten years or so—that I’ve really decided I should maybe be a little less crazy about it. I mean, you’re talking to the guy who titled one of his earlier songs “I Sucked My Boss’s Dick,” and actually I didn’t even come up with that but it ended up being the title of a very short instrumental piece that lasted I think about six, seven seconds. But it was both attention-grabbing at that time, and then the payoff was very much not what you expected.
Early on I kind of knew that was a thing but I try to keep it together. It’s just sometimes too much to dwell on. It’s a big thing in country music songwriting, at least growing up here, this “getting that title and then the song writes itself” kind of thing. Yeah, it does, but most of the time it’s a rote connecting the dots and you’re not really taking it anywhere, you’ve just got a clever title: “Tear in My Beer” (laughter). I mean then you can write a whole song and there’s your hook, and there’s your whole thing. And that’s fine, a lot of great songs are made that way, I’m not putting it down. I’m just saying that it doesn’t have to be that way and for good reason. There’s a lot of other things can happen with music.
Yeah. So this is related but kind of a pivot. I really love the album title FLOTUS, which, is an album that you’ve said you made as something you thought your wife might like. And your wife was the chair of the Tennessee Democratic Committee.
Yes, she was until January of this year, she finally stepped down after six years.
So that title’s kind of like positioning you as a first lady of sorts.
Which I really love. And that kind of brings me to two last questions. One is I want to know more about your relationship to masculinity. And then the other is to borrow a question from my editor Joshua’s playbook which is: what do you love about your wife?
Ah, wow. Well those are two big things. What is my connection to my masculinity? Is that what the question was?
Yeah, I can elaborate on that a bit.
A little bit, that would be helpful.
In your work, I see you carrying yourself with this sort of stoicism but also this sort of sensitivity toward your surroundings and stuff and that has led—especially, I think, over the past decade or a little more in your work—to you constantly portraying domestic spaces and things that are typically regarded as sort of feminine in art, this focus on the domestic.
And I think there’s a real strength in that, how you balance those things and have this kind of like cool country crooner vibe that’s coming off.
And then this very sensitive and domestic sensibility, and just like attention to the minutiae of life. I think one of my favorite examples is the lyric on “If Not I’ll Just Die”: “How do you get the cups out from up there? If you use the ladder, just use the ladder.” It’s this tiny moment that I think is really lovely. So I guess that’s what I’m curious about.
Yeah, I’m not quite sure how masculinity features into that other than maybe I’m not your typical model of masculinity. I do think I represent something that’s a little more reality-based, based on living and trying to be in the world that I’m in, and exist there in a way that’s honorable (laughs).
Maybe it’s a good way to do that. Yeah, I don’t know, I’ve never really thought a lot about it other than I’ve always tried to just do the right thing for what was best for the others around me. I’m not saying I succeeded all the time, but I think that was the nature of who I am to some extent. So I care about other people, and I care about everyone being equal. I think that goes back to growing up as a kid in the ’60s in the South and realizing how not equal we all were. I didn’t think much about it other than I was going to go about my life making sure I did not consider myself better than anyone else, and certainly allowing for everyone else to have the same life that I have, or treated everyone as the same. We’re all just fucking people trying to fucking live, you know?
So probably that’s pretty much what all that comes from. The domestic part and stuff like that. I don’t know exactly. I think at some point it just comes from learning about making art in art school and one of the first things you do is you learn how to draw from life, whether it’s a still life or a model posing. That’s how artists have learned about art since they could hold a pencil: by looking at life and studying it, and then processing that information into something that was meaningful for others and also had some meaning to you as the creator. So that translates into me just looking around or, you know, describing a collection of moments that are based on experience or life by myself or other people that I’m close to. And then something that I was remarking upon or felt worthy of repeating. So yeah, that’s kind of that thing I think.
As far as… What’s the other one? What do I love about my wife?
Yeah, one thing you love about your wife or a general characteristic. Or if it’s not something you want on record you can also let me know that.
Well… I love… Oh wow, that’s definitely a question I would normally duck just because it probably would require a long rambling answer. But I’m trying to give you something a little more concise here.
The first thing that came to my mind is everything. Which is pretty good thing to say after being married for twenty-five-plus years. But yeah, I mean everything’s a fine thing. By everything, it doesn’t mean that everything is good or everything is not good. In a relationship and in being married, that’s the whole fucking point—that things are gonna be bad and good, but somehow you’re able to keep doing it together. And, believe it or not it, there’s actually a benefit to sticking with it that is a little hard to articulate, particularly in the press.
It is something that can’t be explained. No one can sit you down and make you believe that, believe it or not, as much as you guys feel about each other right now, you’re going to feel something even more significant and deeper if you allow life to continue on and you work your way through it.
I don’t know what your status is but I highly recommend the notion of marital union as a starting point for what we all think love is all about. It certainly helps you understand in the beginning just that it’s possible, but what’s remarkable is that it’s an ongoing work in progress. You just don’t know what’s next. But you have the benefit of an investment in time and energy and accumulation of experience that can enrich things. See, I’m starting to ramble now a little bit. So I’ll try to leave it at that. That’s why maybe it’s everything.
Yeah, I mean I think that’s really beautiful because I think often marriage is portrayed as a closing of things in this sense of a commitment and a sort of ossified state for things to take, but to view it as something you enter into which is fundamentally open to change and growth and discovery is really beautiful.
Yeah, I mean I stray away from the saying, “Oh, it’s a journey,” just because I find it to be a very poor, easy description for a lot of things. And it isn’t necessarily. It just leaves you going, “Yeah…” It’s just a cop out.
So I’m trying to find another way to articulate it but that is pretty much it. You have to allow for a whole lot of things to be okay, even bad things or traumatic things or various things that happen that occur in anybody’s arc of their lives. You have to allow both to be a part of it and realize that without that you don’t get the good stuff either. And I hope to think that I’m a patient enough person in general to recognize that. I think patience is a big part of it, just knowing that you’re basically a flawed individual like we all are and recognizing that on the reg is a good place to be overall.
That’s beautiful and I think that’s all I have for you.
Okay! That’s good. I appreciate your approach to just chatting. It’s good, it’s the way it should be.
Showtunes is out now on Merge.
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