This is not the first album Kurt Wagner wrote. It's his thirteenth as a Lambchop, and your thirteenth potential favourite. Once every few years, another one makes it to the annual lists, others are a bit overlooked. Yet Flotus (2016) and the brand new This seem to herald a new chapter in Kurt's career. The 60-year-old Wagner stays with his time and embraces the autotune. This does not make him a musical pioneer, but he may well be the first to use it so convincingly to breathe new life into an old genre.
Written by: Daan Krahmer
Photo: Steve Gullick
Lambchop first combined 'conservative' (sweet country) and 'progressive' (autotune, modern production) for the first time in 2016. Flotus appears a week after Bon Iver's 22, A Million. Both records are bursting with unbalanced auto tune pop songs, both with a full vision of the future. Vocoders and autotune are used to create a natural, organic sound. The result is a warm and accessible album, which is also elusive and with which Kurt is far removed from the cinematic, dark brown atmosphere that characterized Lambchop in the early days. We Facetime with Kurt in Nashville, where he smokes a butt on his sunny porch.
“I don't know when I discovered the vocoder and autotune,” Kurt confesses immediately. “I am interested in music based on modern technology. I think I have a somewhat traditional, natural voice. Without editing, my voice is therefore limited to certain genres. So I went looking for new possibilities, and you have to create them yourself. Through self-study I discovered a way to solve my 'problem', and things really changed for me there. It opened up a whole world of possibilities. For me, autotune was a means of forging more of a whole. I don't really think too much when I'm making music. I don't have an audience in my head, but somewhere in the back of my mind I do keep some friends in mind. I want to impress them.”
"I don't have an audience in my head, but somewhere in the back, I do keep some friends in mind. I want to impress them.”
Kurt is a bon vivant and frequent concert goer, and so he sometimes sees others who change his view of music. “I saw the guys of Shabazz Palaces edit their voices live. I thought: what is that thing?! Vocoders are relatively cheap, especially compared to a fancy guitar. It's an easy way to make music and I'm surprised that relatively few musicians experiment with it. Shabazz Palaces discovered their own sound together, which makes them a better band live than in the studio. They are very creative in the presentation of music. That's different from indie rock. Shabazz Palaces do not use expensive equipment, that is not what their quality is in, they rely on their own abilities. You only get that when you see them perform live. In addition, they act very spontaneously and playfully. That was very refreshing and inspiring to see.”
As a hip-hop group, Shabazz Palaces is no exception in Kurt's music taste. He certainly does not hide his love for Kendrick Lamar. “He's a genius, and I don't say that often. Of course I get inspired by a genius! He has his own view on language and uses it vigorously to unite people. His production is also incredibly innovative, even radical. I am always drawn to artists who are innovative. I'm still waiting for the day when I can see him live, hahaha. I like people who have the guts to do different stuff at concerts. The other day I saw Jenny Wasner of Wye Oak play only Joni Mitchell songs. I really appreciate that.”
Last year Kurt was also involved in DJ Koze's Knock Knock. Halfway through that album, in the beautiful ‘Muddy Funster’, you can hear him singing. “Koze just asked me. Of course I wanted to work with him - he is one of my favorite musicians. For me it was a great honor. We worked on several songs and one came on record. I could not believe it. He is an absolute master… Stefan (Kozalla, the real name of DJ Koze, ed.) is intrinsically motivated for music. It really inspires him, from every period and in every possible way. In my experience, the most inspiring musicians are those who just really love music.”
And now there's This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You). The first album where he himself is on the cover. “Yes...”, long silence. “I've always thought that would be a bad idea. I still think so, but in a way it suggests that I want to strengthen the personal bond with my listener. I always want to tell something with my music. It is therefore not a party record, a record that you will share with hundreds and dance to euphoria. It's an intimate record, and that's scary too. Now I see my head in a record store for the first time. So probably the first and last time, haha.”
This year also saw the release of a strong record by William Tyler, a guitarist who played for Lambchop for a long time. A Tyler record has never been received so positively and attentively in the Netherlands. “Every William record feels like a breakthrough to me. It is an artist that must be heard. He continues to explore what music can be, but always on his own terms. It is very difficult for an artist who is strictly an instrumentalist to stand out in the music world. William looks for a rare connection to reach people. Whenever he comes to play, I go and watch. I don't know if recordings always do justice to the power of music, but his performances are fantastic."
Kurt continues to talk about William for a while. In the background, his wife Mary Mancini, an activist and elected Democrat in Nashville, laughs softly as he makes loving jokes. Tyler was part of the Lambchop family. Over the years, musicians have come and gone. “No… I don't miss him in the band. Of course I miss him too, but when people leave Lambchop to focus on other projects, I fully support that. When people have desires, I always encourage them. I want the musicians in Lambchop to be happy, but I'll leave the door open if anyone wants to come back.”
So, Lambchop as a school for talent? "Absolutely. I never want to isolate myself and stay in touch with what's going on in the music world. Because I've gotten so old, younger isn't really young anymore, haha. People in their thirties and forties are still very young. I'm not the only one who keeps renewing itself, but you're right. Most artists don't innovate. It's safe to keep making the music that made you famous. But every artist started making something at some point. Something that wasn't there yet. That is the starting point.”
Wagner recently turned sixty. A milestone. “In October, yes, but I didn't celebrate too much… A lot of times I just ignore how old I am, but now there was no escaping it! I don't know if getting older has many benefits, but hopefully you'll get better at what you do. Hopefully you will grow as a person and as a musician. As long as I am physically able to travel the world, I will continue to make music. If you keep doing what you love, there's a good chance you'll get better, but if you stop, your life will come to a standstill."
This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You) was released on City Slang. Lambchop will play in Paradiso on April 30. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.