Nashville is so identified with one style of music that local acts deviating from the country norm are few and far between. The unique and wonderful Lambchop, however, has veered far enough into the realm of iconoclasm that even people outside Music City tend to think its mixture of country, soul, jazz, and rock is weird. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Kurt Wagner, who is currently leading the 12-member outfit on a rare tour with Yo La Tengo, about European stardom, Curtis Mayfield, the band's great new Nixon, and the Country Music Hall Of Fame.
The Onion: You turned down a European tour to go out on the road with Yo La Tengo.
Kurt Wagner: Yeah, we were trying to put something together, like 10 days over there. But we pretty much decided that the tour with Yo La was just too great to not do.
O: Now you get to split a smaller pool of money 12 ways.
KW: We've totally thrown common sense to the wind, as far as business goes. [Laughs.]
O: Why do they like Lambchop so much in Europe? Your music is a big mix of pretty American styles.
KW: Well, I think that's what they like over there: stuff that's American. I think what they like even more is stuff that's oddly American. [Laughs.] I guess it's just interesting to them. I'm glad they like what we do, but why? I don't know. I mean, why do they like Jerry Lewis?
O: Oh, that's got to be a myth.
KW: You know, I think the Jerry Lewis thing kind of is a myth. But there are a lot of bands that are way under the radar here that seem to do just fine over there. I think they're very smart fans over there.
O: Have you ever come across a jukebox over there with Lambchop playing?
KW: Never. But I don't get out that much when I'm over there. I pretty much just spend my time in a bus.
O: It's odd that you're more popular in Europe than you are in Nashville. Have any of the curious Nashville bigwigs ever checked you out?
KW: I think they've come and checked us out a little bit. I know that [musician and powerful industry insider] Tony Brown once came to a show of ours but left shortly thereafter. Steve Earle showed up and immediately we started to suck. Everything was fine once he left again. [Laughs.] So it doesn't really do us a lot of good when they do show up.
O: Steve Earle always seems to have his ear to the ground.
KW: He does check things out. I think he's always got sort of a motive that's got to do with Steve Earle, or Steve Earle's label. But he is open to checking out what's going on, to his credit.
O: There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of non-country independent music in Nashville. Just you and Josh Rouse [who collaborated with Lambchop for an EP as "Chester"].
KW: Um, God, I don't know. There's a bunch of pretty good bands playing around Nashville, but they haven't put out records or don't have any desire to. I see these young bands all the time who are fantastic. These guys in Hissy Fit are amazing: They're like speedcore punk, one-and-a-half-minute songs, and they're fantastic. They sound great, whether in their living room or wherever, no matter how bad everything is around them.
O: Nixon seems like the apotheosis of what you've been doing lately. The last two records [Thriller and What Another Man Spills] have been beautiful, but on Nixon your sound has really gelled. It's also the only one of the three to have all original material.
KW: I think I tried to do something a little more focused. We had been doing a lot of covers, especially on the last one, which was about half covers. So it was nothing more conscious than that.
O: No grudge against East River Pipe [singer-songwriter F.M. Cornog, whose songs are covered on the previous two Lambchop discs]?
KW: Oh, not at all. I still want to do a whole record with him. That's still a dream.
O: F.M. Cornog is a great songwriter.
KW: Yeah. He doesn't get out, so I figure, "Who the hell is going to hear him in that context?" Not that I think we do it as good as he does or anything; we do it like we do it. For me, it would still be fabulous to do a whole record with him, if we could only get his butt down here. I mean, he doesn't have to play live, but he can certainly hang out in a studio other than his kitchen. [Laughs.]
O: Since your own music has been a mix of soul and country, why do you think both the country capital of the world [Nashville] and one of the soul capitals [Memphis] ended up in the same Southern state?
KW: I have no idea. I've spent a lot of time in both places. I moved to Memphis when I was 17 and lived there on and off for 10 years. I think that, in general, Nashville is just thought of as the country-music capital and all that crap, but it has a nice R&B history, too.
O: You do recommend on the back of your record that people visit the Country Music Hall Of Fame.
KW: Sure, but if you go to the Country Music Hall Of Fame, and you go to the resource center down at the bottom, you'll get to find out about all these other things that are going on.
O: Most people probably don't get past Willie Nelson's dirty sneakers in the gift shop.
KW: That's true, but the nice thing about the Hall Of Fame, as opposed to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, is that they actually have a library there. They have great resource material.
O: But they also have a bunch of Cheap Trick's guitars. There's nothing country about that band at all.
KW: Probably not. But there's nothing country about Garth Brooks and, to their credit, they hardly have anything in there about Garth Brooks at all.
O: Does Nixon mark the introduction of your falsetto?
KW: That was probably on that last record, on the Curtis Mayfield cover ["Give Me Your Love (Love Song)"]. And the Fredrick Knight song ["I've Been Lonely For So Long"], as well.
O: Do you have any idea if Mayfield ever heard your version?
KW: I have no idea, and I guess I never will.
O: That's a weird sort of coincidence. As soon as Lambchop begins to sound like Curtis Mayfield, he dies.
KW: It is kind of spooky. Hopefully, no one else will kick off that I've covered.
O: Do the other members have much of a say?
KW: Sort of. I kind of steer the boat, because I end up being the main yacker, you know? But it's not like it's a total dictatorship. It's more like a benevolent dictatorship.
O: You work to incorporate everyone into your music?
KW: Yeah. I write with these guys in mind. I try to feature the things they do specifically in each song. I say, "Okay, Deanna [Varagona], this is a song I want you to sing on; it's meant to feature you." Or Paul [Niehaus], who plays guitar... I try to write songs with him in mind.
O: Do you try to be diplomatic working with so many people?
KW: I try to give everyone in the band moments, so everyone gets them. It's like throwing a quarter into a swimming pool, with everyone diving in and trying to get it. [Laughs.]