We spoke with Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner Wednesday, on the eve of the announcement that his longtime band Lambchop would release its life-changing/affirming/ending/reviving set from this year's XX Merge fest in Carrboro, N.C., as Live at XX Merge. Tonight, they'll see if they can repeat the magic of that night at Duke University's Reynolds Industries Theater at 8 p.m. Lambchop splits the sold-out bill with Alejandro Escovedo.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Are you playing Asheville on the way to Durham, or Asheville on your way home?
KURT WAGNER: We’re playing Charolette first, then ya’ll, then Asheville. It’s like a tour of the state of North Carolina. We’re playing state-by-state, I guess. [Laughs.]
You’re like a touring Sufjan Stevens.
You know, he took that back and admitted it was a mistake. He probably wasn’t that serious about it to begin with, and people made much more of it than he did. That’s what happens when you say something, and people don’t forget.
What’s been Lambchop’s biggest mistake in terms of saying something that sticks to you?
Calling ourselves a country band early on. We were sort of kidding, and it sort of stuck pretty hard. Then I started thinking, “Well, we kind of are.” It was partially a joke, then we started thinking about it conceptually, and thought that it was not that outlandish.
Given the chance to do it again, would you have described Lambchop as a country band early on?
At the time, we probably would have. What was funny was we didn’t even know what a one-sheet was. Mac [McCaughan] and Laura [Ballance, both of Superchunk and Merge Records] told us we had to make a one-sheet. We asked our friend Ira [Kaplan] in Yo La Tengo, “What’s this one-sheet?” and Ira said, “Believe it or not, whatever you put in there will haunt you for the rest of your life.” I don’t know exactly what prompted him to say that. I don’t know if they had a bad experience where something was misconstrued early on, and it never went away. Oddly enough, he was right.
Well, music journalists are notorious for perpetuating the half-truths they’re fed.
Once something gets out there, it just kind of sticks whether it’s accurate or not. It’s a rare person that actually checks those facts, particularly with the advent of blogs and stuff like that. [Journalists] don’t seem to have the kind of ethics they used to have. I understand all that. Whether it’s true or not, it still exists. There’s nothing you can do.
You’ve mentioned being a big fan of the Web site My Record Collection, which is a huge archive of a collection, including a lot of 78s and very old recordings. There are hundreds of niche music sites like that, chronicling everyone’s taste and making it available for download. What else have you found out there?
What I find interesting these days is that people will get together and share stuff they’ve found. It’s endless. A lot of people gravitate to the stuff they found on YouTube, and it’s pretty immediate. You hear and see things, it’s remarkable. I personally try not to spend that much free time on the Internet mainly because it really can end up devouring the reality of your life.
Is there any particular piece of music you’ve discovered that way?
The thing is that it tends to make your musical experience fleeting and immediate to that moment. Maybe for me it’s that it tends to go in and out of my brain quickly and rarely will it register later on. Usually when you see something live, it tends to leave a more lasting impression. I don’t know if it has to do with me being there physically or not. That seems to stick with me, whereas things that are virtual seem to fly in and out because it does only exist when I sit down at the computer. I don’t have an expensive iPod. I rely on seeing music live because that really does stick with you. I just saw Leonard Cohen, and that was fucking awesome.
Was that the first time you’ve seen him?
Yes. I’ve been hearing about these shows they’ve been doing for a couple of years now, since he started doing them. I just figured I would never get the chance to see him. Honestly, the ticket price was pretty insane, and I would have never personally paid that much money to go see anybody, but my wife got them [the tickets] for me for my birthday. So I went, and it was great. It was still pretty incredible. A lot of those recordings he made himself, and I truly, truly love the music. The arrangements had sort of always freaked me out.
What was your favorite moment of the show?
There were several. I liked the “Chelsea Hotel” segment. That was pretty good. The “Power of Song” segment was pretty good because it was just basically him on a Casio. It was pretty bold. I just think he’s a great songwriter. When that tribute film came out about him where everybody played his songs, it really did bring back to my mind what great songs they were. When you saw other people perform the songs and see how well they existed on their own, [that] was awesome. To see him perform [the songs] himself was awesome.
Speaking of great performances, you really turned some heads at XX Merge this year. You’ve been on Merge for a long, long time, but some people behaved as if they’ve never heard of you.
It wasn’t expected, and part of the reason people were so moved by it was that the expectations weren’t high. Even though we played in Carrboro for forever, we don’t really come to North Carolina that often. The graduating class has kind of come and gone. We still show up on occasion but we don’t come a lot. For us to come there and have that happen was pretty great.
When that’s happening, how aware are you onstage of the reaction people are having in front of you?
Maybe to a point. It was a little nuts out there. I think we’re so focused on what we’re doing that it really is more of a peripheral knowledge that sort of occurs. It wasn’t until the last song that we had any idea. Generally, we’re so focused on what we’re doing— that’s how we perform—that we’re not so aware of how it’s going over. It’s not like we were going, “Wow, this is going to be pretty wild” early on. We knew that things seemed to be going pretty well. At some point, I was just like, “Oh!” [Laughs.] For us it was a real shot in the arm. It definitely ranks among one of our favorite gigs. Those kinds of moments don’t really come by all that often.
You mentioned the perception of Lambchop as a country band. At Duke, you’re playing with Alejandro Escovedo, who’s also sometimes dismissed only as a country or a country-rock or an alt-country guy. What’s your perception of his work?
I’ve been into him since The True Believer days. That was before there was this notion of alt-country, or whatever the hell that is. I just thought they were kind of a punk band. Part of it has to do with his geography—where he hails from and where he lives and the type of a scene that comes out of a place like that [Austin, Texas]. By virtue of your geography, you can be put into genres. I think that happened to us to a certain extent, too, particularly with the lazy journalists who just see we’re from Nashville. Or like people who think if you’re from Chapel Hill, you must sound like Superchunk.
Did you ever want to leave Nashville for that reason?
Not really. That’s where we’re from. As time went on, we looked at it as a plus as opposed to a minus. I was more interested in trying to think of it as a positive.
In Nashville, which member of Lambchop do you see the most? It seems like it would be hard to socialize with everyone in such a big band.
I tend to run into the younger guys more because they tend to have a lot of other musical things that they do, and I’m very interested in whatever they do—guys like Scott [Martin] and William [Tyler]. They all tend to be very active around town, and I’m very interested in them as musicians. So I maybe see them a bit more. It’s odd because Nashville isn’t that big of a place. And we’ve been around for so long that so many band members come and go, and it’s just changed over the years. It’s like when you’re younger and you have a group of friends that you see a lot, and then later maybe they’re still around but you just don’t see them as much: It doesn’t mean that you’re not friends anymore, it’s just that you grow older. Your life moves in these different directions.
How often do you go out to see live bands?
I should do it more, and I used to do it more. If it’s convenient and if it’s at a venue in Nashville that I don’t find to be a drag, then I’ll go. To tell you the truth, I would rather go to a house party that has interesting bands than I would most of the venues in Nashville. [The venues] are just not as good of an experience. I would rather go to a really small venue. There are several alternative types of venues in Nashville, and I get excited about seeing shows outside of the traditional Nashville type of venues mainly because they are about going and watching music as opposed to being treated as a piece of meat.
Is there a pretty strong house scene in Nashville?
It comes and goes. There are several dedicated people, we amongst them, who hear about bands, and as they come through town like to make an effort to see if they can help them out. There have been some great, great bands that have been made accessible to people like that. It still goes on here. If you do that, then you realize after a while that it’s not easy. It takes thick skin because it’s fairly thankless in the end. But the experience has always been really good: It’s immediate and not about a lot of other things other than going to hear music.
Do you ever play those house gigs?
Yeah actually, we do as a band. We’ve done two or three house parties in the past year. It’s really great because they’re unannounced, and you just play and go home. Everybody has a good time. We never make any money doing it, but it’s nice to remind yourself that playing music has its own rewards.
It also has to do with being in Nashville. Nashville has kind of a reputation for not being a friendly place for live music. It’s been like that ever since I was a kid. There have been a limited number of places to go see music. It’s gotten even more limited over the years, I would say. Because of that there was always this outsider sort of situation. I like the spontaneity of [the house gig], and it just seems more down to earth. We’ll go off and play shows out of town or whatever, and that seems to be fine. I don’t know how a band can exist in Nashville with any sort of ambition and then see that through over the course of 10-15 years. I think we’re not that ambitious locally.
Speaking of ambitions, what’s Lambchop’s plan for new material?
I imagine we’ll get into something next year. Currently, there’s not much going on. In our own slow way, we’re sort of letting OH (ohio) wind down, and we’ll have to build up to another record. I’m certainly looking forward to that. But at the moment there’s nothing concrete. We’ve been doing tracks for odd tribute records and things like that. We haven’t written a lot of new Lambchop material. I’ve started painting a lot lately, and that’s slowed down the writing.
You went to school for painting, right?
Yeah, I went to grad school in sculpture and painting.
How has that been, getting back into painting?
enjoy it a lot. I’m striving to make it a daily part of my life. It is a struggle to try and balance both of those things. When the music stuff came out, I had to stop. I have to find a way to make them both coexist. It’s difficult to think about touring and painting. They cancel each other out. There aren’t enough hours in a day. It’s difficult to even to think about trying to paint while you’re traveling.
Do you paint large or small canvass?
They’re usually small because the technique I use takes for-fucking-ever. I spend a long time on a painting—6 months to a year sometimes.
What’s the technique?
Just basically black and white oil paint. I use an old-styled writing pen that has a very small point. It’s just painted on in little dabs and these little strokes. It just takes a long time. As I work at it, I’m trying to be more efficient but it still takes a long time. It is a technique I’ve been working on for a long time. What I end up doing is historical figures of note, or imagery that’s personal to friends of mine. I painted a picture of Mac McCaughan’s grandmother. If friends of mine send me a picture and I like it, I may paint that eventually. I painted my mother-in-law recently.
They’re all from photo, but it’s more than the idea of just photo representation. It goes beyond that with the way this technique works. It ends up being something else in a way too, which is nice.