Midway through our phone conversation, the sound of a mournful train whistle interrupts Kurt Wagner. It's easy to imagine Wagner on his cordless phone, sitting on the porch of his Nashville home, smoking a cigarette and taking in the ambience of his hometown: Music City, USA. In fact, it's his voice, raspy from years of smoking and dust inhalation (his former day gig was as a floor sander) that binds the instrumental collages created by his band, Lambchop. The group's latest disc, Is A Woman (their sixth Merge Records full-length), exudes a laconic melancholy, with Wagner's voice matching--then surpassing--Leonard Cohen's for sheer emotional depth.
It was only a short while ago that Wagner was able to quit said day job and focus on music. "To be honest, the only reason I stopped was the physical aspect. I was wearing out. I ended up doing music by default, really. It was nice that the job was able to sustain me as long as it did."
With anywhere from 12 to 20 members revolving in and out of the group's lineup, it raises the question of how such a large crew can make any money. "That's the fun part of it," quips Wagner. "We really don't. That's why it's important that people have jobs and try to make their jobs and their lives co-exist with what we do musically."
Yet and still, it's certain that managing their tours has to be a nightmare of sorts. When asked how he manages to get 20 people to show up for rehearsals and shows, Wagner simply responds, "You just have to be patient. It is logistically challenging. Any time you have a really large group of people getting together, if you're patient about it, it usually works out."
Lambchop has been around for a decade, but it wasn't until the release of Nixon that the critics finally came a courtin'. Described by some as "an alt-country Pet Sounds," Nixon hyped the band enough for them to develop a serious fan base in Britain, Europe and parts of the states. In fact, the band found itself selling out tours overseas yet unable to draw a decent crowd in their hometown.
"Believe it or not, I don't think that's such an odd thing," says Wagner, "particularly with bands from Nashville. It's really due to the fact that we're not that great at promoting what we do." But when asked how his band's recent success has affected him, Wagner demurs.
"I'm still waiting for success to come to me, frankly, so you'll have to ask me that question when it actually happens. Critical acclaim doesn't necessarily translate into financial independence," he says. "I honestly couldn't tell you how I'm managing to stay afloat. It's not the way that it appears to most people. The reality of it is that it's a very humble but satisfying lifestyle."
When pressed on the subject of technology in the music world, Wagner expresses both frustration and fascination with its applications. "We've tried some cool new recording stuff, but we usually tend to go back to the old stuff because often it just doesn't sound as good." (Sometimes good old-fashioned tape just sounds better, much like the difference between the organic feel of celluloid versus the more accurate but let soulful appearance of digital video.) As regards file sharing, he proves to care not one whit about lost royalties.
"Frankly, I think it's a great way for people to hear what you're doing. There's no difference from when cassette tapes were invented and you could copy pretty much anything you wanted," he says. "It is going to change the nature of the business. But you really can't fight these inevitable changes, you've just got to find a way to adapt like a lizard does in the desert."
Is A Woman is a meandering symphony of mellow sounds, so wonderfully layered that the different strata of the songs become an organic whole. Longtime fans will find that there's nothing "alt-country" about this record in the least. And as for such labels, Wagner shrugs them off. "People are going to think what they want to think about what you do. It'd be better if they just called it music, but that would be awfully confusing, wouldn't it," he says.
As Lambchop's orchestrator, Wagner is definitely the head of the octopus, but each tentacle has their input. But he admits that he "definitely" has a beginning and ending in mind, and "an idea of how I want things to go." Of course, even with Wagner at the helm, with so many collaborators "surprises and changes always pop up." In the studio, even with the size of the band, the focus never gets lost.
"We just do what we do and everyone looks for a way to contribute his or her sound to the song," Wagner says of their sessions. "There's no, 'It's gotta be like this' kinda stuff. It just sort of happens."
And it's this refusal to become an unyielding tyrant that will, in the end, make Wagner a success. So maybe he won't build that four-bedroom dream house or pimp around the Opry or drive a Lexus SUV, but you have to figure that even with millions in the bank, it simply just wouldn't be Wagner's style. Regardless of Lambchop's future, you'll most likely be able to find Kurt on his porch, surrounded by his dogs and enjoying the serenade from the 6:15 p.m. train bound for Memphis.