“Well, you wonder why I don’t got no drive?” Kurt Wagner asks on “FA-Q”, a “new old song” excavated by Lambchop earlier this year. He then proceeds to answer his own question: “At 55, I won’t be alive, and all that money, I put [it] inside somebody else’s wallet.”
“FA-Q” is a meandering lament against the Man. It’s not meandering in the sense that it’s especially long – at under four minutes, it’s not. But in those four minutes, the Lambchop singer strolls leisurely between subjects that include his first brush with federal income taxation, the perils of living uninsured, the inanity of the criminal justice system, and, eventually, the length of the song itself. Wagner estimates that he wrote its politely disgruntled lyrics “some time in the mid-80s”, but, for whatever reason, he never recorded them with Lambchop or its predecessor, Posterchild. “Some songs just slip through the cracks,” Wagner explained to me in early October, calling from a Nashville garage, where I interrupted the cleaning of his car. “I wrote it when I was living in Memphis. Then it just sort of drifted away.”
Almost thirty years later, Merge Records – Lambchop’s longtime home – approached Wagner about contributing to its 25th anniversary 7″ series, Or Thousands of Prizes, and the band decided it might be time to give it a formal whirl. “We had been playing the song live recently, and we wanted to see what it would sound like if we recorded it. This was an opportunity to do that,” the frontman shared between bouts of laughter. Wagner has a way of erupting in a gassed chuckles every thirty seconds or so. “And since it was such an old song, it kind of fit the idea of what Merge was trying to do with an anniversary release.”
The irony is that by the time that Lambchop did get around to releasing “FA-Q”, Wagner had already proven himself wrong: The singer turned 56 earlier this year.
The story of “FA-Q” twists slowly and unconventionally, not unlike the entirety of Lambchop’s two-decade career. And the fact that this song – one of the best things I’ve heard this year – would end up on something as arcane as a vinyl-only 7″ for only a few thousand subscribers is perfect in its own way too. “If there is a quintessential Merge band aside from Superchunk, it is Lambchop,” wrote John Cook in Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records. “Based more on friendship than ambition, and more on music than careers, Lambchop has been plugging away for two decades, making records that defy categorization.”
Fittingly, the North Carolina label would reissue two of those uncategorizable records as part of its ongoing quarter-century celebration. In January, Merge gave the expanded, deluxe treatment to Nixon, Lambchop’s grand 2000 LP – one made by a cast of 14, and perhaps the act’s most iconic statement to date. In September, it pressed career-spanning live document Live at XX Merge to vinyl for the first time. (It has already run of print.) And in between those releases, Lambchop performed the later record in a few North American spots. Early next year, it’ll do the same in Europe. Most promising for everyone, though: Wagner says the band is at work on a follow-up to 2012’s wonderful Mr. M.
What’s life like for you right now?
It seems to go in a lot of directions – all at the same time. [Laughs] It gets to be a little bit of many things over the course of a day. It just gets more and more multifaceted.
I initially hoped that I would have had a pretty quiet period of time where I could be more creative, but whenever I try to be, everything else presents itself at that exact moment and it gets diffused quite a bit.
I’m kind of a normal guy. I try to stay busy all day, and then at night, I cook dinner. [Laughs]
What are you working on?
We actually stated tracking some new Lambchop music this weekend, which has added to the many things that happen through the course of a day. It’s exciting. It’s fun to start moving towards a new record again.
In general, Lambchop is hopefully going to have time to do some creative stuff. There’s going to be some live Lambchop action in Europe in January and February, and prior to that, we just have one other show. One of the guys just had a baby, so we definitely want to let him have time with that. But we’re starting to get moving again on new recordings, which is very exciting.
Other than that, I’ve been working on this other project with Ryan [Norris] and Scott [Martin] from Lambchop. That looks like it’s coming along. Hopefully, people will get to hear it next year.
Oh, and I don’t have a manager or anything, so I end up toiling away with endless business nonsense. I guess that’s the job part of being an artist. [Laughs]
What shape are those Lambchop songs in? From your perspective, are they all written?
I spend months writing stuff before I bring it to the band. But, just recently, we came up with an idea of how to go about recording these songs, which is a little different than what we’ve done before. The hope is to make a different sound for us.
Sometimes you write a song, you present to the band, and you play it. We’ve done that a lot. So, we’re trying another method of recording, where I’m sort of invisible for a while, and the band may present the songs with a different sound and different way of going about things. In a way, I’m starting over again in terms of the lyrics. It’s about trying these songs from a different perspective. That’s how we’re starting out now.
It’s so early that I have no idea where exactly it’s going, but it’s exciting, and it feels fresh.
Is it same iteration of Lambchop that made Mr. M?
Yes. Indeed. It’s just trying to change the established ways of working. Over the course of so many years, I’ve done that on occasion in different ways, just in order to keep things fresh. We’ve made music for twenty years, you know? This is one of those times. A lot of it has do with learning new methods for this other project, and taking some of that knowledge and trying to bring it into what Lambchop does.
What has the experience of performing Nixon been like? I know that the idea of playing an album in its entirety was something that you had to warm to.
Once we actually performed it and everything, it felt really good. The road getting there was just difficult. It was a lot harder than I anticipated. I had just stayed away from the idea for a while – I guess for lots of reasons. I came around to it around the time that Merge reissued Nixon. And having one of the key founding members of Lambchop [Marc Trovillion] pass away at the time, it seemed like a nice way to remember him. Those two things were the big motivating factors.
I’ve never been the type to look back at my life. And the notion of playing that particular record was always problematic, because I don’t have a falsetto anymore. But I sort of got over that. [Laughs] I was like, “Well, I don’t have it! Hey!” And it’s fine. [Laughs]
Why did you abandon the falsetto?
The falsetto abandoned me! [Laughs] It wasn’t that great to begin with, but it just went away. I guess it was from smoking too much or something. Air just comes out whenever I attempt to do it. It was just that weird little moment in my life that’ll never happen again.
Nixon is obviously an important record for Lambchop, and so the reissue makes a lot of sense, but is there a record in the band’s catalog that you think didn’t receive the credit it was due?
That period of time starting with Nixon was fruitful for the band, and I felt like the subsequent record, Is a Woman, was a stronger record. I don’t know what that means at all, other than that I felt good about it.
When Nixon was released, people in the UK really responded to it – over all of Europe, people took a look at us. But when Is a Woman came out, it seemed like people in Germany really responded to it; whereas they weren’t all interested in Nixon. Neither of those records were an easy fit for what was happening in the United States at the time. It was mostly happening in Europe.
Those two records had this significance for us creatively and me personally. Nixon was a big technical leap for us as far as record making goes. We tried as ambitiously as possible to create a very large sound. But I was pretty proud of the sound that we ended up coming up with for Is a Woman. It seemed liked we refined some of the sonic ideas and methods of Nixon. We were much more under control and more reserved about how we played the songs. And, also, the songwriting was just really good on that record.
How has Nashville grown in your decades living there?
Well, it’s changed a lot, and most rapidly in the last five years. And it seems to be accelerating towards some new point. The change has already happened – all of a sudden, there’s more traffic, and it’s more crowded, particularly in the part of town that I live.
There are a lot of good things that come with it. A lot of the people that have been here a while are talking about the change, and I’m not sure that everyone’s all that happy about it. [Laughs] I’m trying to temper my displeasure with the fact that there are some positives. Having been here for a while, I know that at some point, it has to peak, and that’ll be that.
As far as the music community, it’s almost completely changed. It used to be a very a relatively small community outside of the commercial music business, and now it’s completely different. In a lot of ways, that’s pretty exciting and positive. There’s so much energy going on. It’s like I blinked and all of a sudden there are all of these new people who’ve moved here with their music.
After twenty years of Lambchop, has your relationship with music changed at all? Is it still the same kind of outlet for you?
It’s been pretty steady. I’ve always believed that music is a part of your life as much as all the other parts of your life. I try to give it no greater weight than other things. If you want music to be part of your life and you want to have a life outside of that, you need to balance it out, and allow other things space in your life – whether it’s family or a job or whatever. I don’t think there’s a need to sacrifice and suffer in order to continue making music. If you have a steady life, it can encourage a longer and more stable life as a musician. [Laughs]
Lots of things happen, though. I got started so late in making music that I’m starting to get an age now where there aren’t a lot of other guys my age still doing it. [Laughs] Well, there are those guys, but they’re all famous! I’m still clearly obscure, thank you. [Laughs]
One of the few shows that we’re doing coming up is with Yo La Tengo, celebrating their 30th year of making music. When they asked us to be part of the show, I was like, “Absolutely.” We weren’t really planning on doing any other shows for the rest of the year, but something like that is an important thing to recognize, particularly amongst your friends, who I count them as.
It also allows us to step away from our Nixon repertoire for one show. We might play some songs from it, but we’re thinking of that performance in a bigger way – some way that’s a tribute to Yo La Tengo’s influence or our relationship with them, as opposed to it just being a show.
And you get to be the young upstarts on the bill.
[Laughs] Relatively! Although, I’m not too bar behind them age wise – but band wise, yeah, we’ve got a few years to go.