LAMBCHOP Sonic reinventors

Over the course of two decades plus, enigmatic Nashville icons Lambchop have managed to sidestep easy classification like alt-country or Americana, thanks to their brave and frequent forays into uncharted musical territories. Shapeshifting one’s sound in a bid to escape lazy pigeonholing is all well and good but to be able to consistently pull it off whilst always retaining the high quality of the music is another thing altogether. And therein ultimately lies their strength and long-lasting appeal.  ZACK YUSOF spoke to bandleader and bard Kurt Wagner ahead of their first visit to Perth to talk latest record FLOTUS, sonic reinvention and hip hop. Lambchop plays Badlands Bar this Saturday, October 21.

Having artfully traversed post-rock, soul, lounge, and folk, the band’s latest album – last year’s critically acclaimed FLOTUS – saw the band positioning their lush and poetic country soul sound around electronic elements for the first time with startling results.

What was the first music you gravitated to? I was wondering where your diverse taste in music came from…

You mean way back when? Well, it’s odd. I didn’t really get round to buying records until a whole lot later, like when I was a teenager. Prior to that, I would just let my brother buy all the records. Whatever he was buying at the time, I would check out. That and my parents. My parents had a pretty broad taste in music from classical to folk, stuff like that. This is the sixties, mind you. Pretty early days for a lot of stuff. Once I started buying records around when I was 13 or 14, I would try and consume as much as I could afford. But yeah, whatever was exciting at the time, I would get into. It wasn’t like we had so much access as we do now to just about anything. Back then living in Nashville, you were filtered through a lot of different things in order just to get any music at all here in the city that wasn’t country music. But there were some outlets to get good stuff and certainly between me, my brother and all my friends, we would listen to just about anything.

Was there a particular scene or band that inspired you to have a go at playing music for yourself?

Nothing in particular. I think it was just the notion that you could actually play this music yourself. I mean, I studied classical music for quite a while prior to getting my own guitar which was something that I always wanted. But I had to go through the motions of learning classical music for a while before my parents would submit to me getting my own guitar. But once I did, everything was wide open and I just tried to emulate whatever was going on at the time which was probably, oddly enough, the kind of prog music that was going on in the early seventies.

Let’s move on to FLOTUS. I was wondering what the thinking was behind making a record like that, an album that sounds almost like electronic dance music in places. What inspired you to put your usual organic country soul thing aside and go down a beat-heavy, audio tech route?

Well, what was interesting was that I was just trying to combine those two types of ideas or things. You know, I had been had been learning a bit about electronic music and stuff so I was trying to find a somewhat organic approach to that while at the same time, incorporating the new ideas, sounds, and techniques that I was becoming familiar with.

Listening to the record again recently, what struck me was that even with all the synths, effects, beats and everything, it still sounds like a Lambchop record…

That’s right. It sounds pretty crazy on paper but when you actually hear it, it really isn’t all that scary at all. It’s actually pretty chilled (laughs).

Exactly. Also, you had already dabbled in electronic music previously with your side project HeCTA (Wagner’s electronic/dance collaboration with fellow Lambchop members Ryan Norris and Scott Martin) so was FLOTUS just a case of exploring that idea further on a bigger, more widescreen scale?

Well, it’s about me learning all these things. By making the HeCTA record, I learned a lot about the production of electronic music and then through that, I started to think about how it was connected to hip-hop and stuff like that. And just dance music in general and the history of dance music. And all of that started pointing me back to when I was younger growing up in the south listening to a lot of soul music in the sixties and seventies.

Did you have to alter or change your tried and tested songwriting methods to come up with the material for FLOTUS?

Well, because I was finding new ways to go about making and writing music through this new technology that I had learned, I was able to dabble around on my own and discover other ways of writing a song other than with just a guitar and tape recorder.

One of the things I found really interesting and cool about FLOTUS was that you wanted to make a record that your wife would like, based on the type of music she’s into. Did she like how the record turned out?

Yeah, she’s come around to it pretty well I think. I think initially she was just a bit taken aback by it, not by the music but the fact that I had been processing my voice. She liked the way my voice sounded naturally – as any good wife should! (laughs) But more than that, I always noticed that she had such an incredible, broad taste in music, particularly pop music. So through her, I would learn a lot about popular music because she would listen to the radio, listen to what was going on whereas I would tend not to be so aware and that was the type of thing that I was attempting to at least touch upon, the sounds and the content of the music that she was listening to and I wanted to make something that would hopefully pop up on her iPod.

You mentioned about treating your voice for FLOTUS. Now the autotune and vocoder thing – how did that come about? Were you experimenting to see just how much could be done with your voice? Have to say that I kinda miss your Nixon (Lambchop’s 2000 breakthrough album) falsetto. We haven’t heard it so much in recent Lambchop albums…

(Laughs) Well, with the processor, I’m actually able to bring the falsetto back. I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish that naturally. I think what happened was, making this electronic music, my voice unadorned just didn’t integrate itself into the music like the contemporary music I had been listening to. I discovered that in most contemporary music, the voices were processed to a certain extent in order for it to sorta sit in the pocket with everything else that was going on. And so I found this device (a TC-Helicon VoiceLive 2) and I was able to do it in real time, which meant it wasn’t necessarily a studio trick, but I could use it to perform with and to record with. Once I found that, I’ve just been going crazy trying to find different ways of using it.

Were the rest of the band up for the whole “reinvent-the-band’s-sound” concept?

Yeah. Initially when we started recording FLOTUS and stuff, several of the guys were in HeCTA as well so we were already on board with this new approach to going about writing and making music. And then the rest of the guys responded beautifully to it as well. I do think initially when you go, “wow, here’s what it will freakin’ sound like”, there was a little bit of, you know, getting used to it I think. But ultimately, once they got involved with it, it really was like they’ve been sent any other piece of music (that) they’ve contributed to.

Did you think it would come out so well? I mean if you put it alongside your other albums,  I think FLOTUS could even be one of your most accessible albums…

Yeah, could be. I mean, We’ve done some pretty odd things in our time and probably will continue to do so. I guess it’s a bit of my nature but I’m always not trying to do that, like to be obtuse or anything like that. It’s just how things work out. I always try to be an accessible listening option for people. Maybe I just tend to explore and let ideas hang out more than other folks do.

Despite the obvious political connotations in the album title, FLOTUS is not a political album at all is it? Can you elaborate on the album’s theme? 

The record is really about the growing of a relationship. I mean, I’ve been in a relationship for almost 20 years and it’s something that I’m now reflecting on. I’ve always tried to keep that as an element of what motivates me to make things, the want and the need to be liked and loved and appreciated. I think, in this case, it may be a little more of a direct line to something in that vein. I don’t know. It’s not my nature to be so revealing on personal stuff in general and I think that’s why the meaning of that is a little hard to decipher. The general content just comes out naturally in the things I create and then at some point later on when I’ve assembled the record, I have to assess what it is (that) I’ve created. In this case, there definitely seemed to a theme that held everything together.

It’s funny that on the track JFK, you sing that “you talk too much” because on FLOTUS – unlike other Lambchop albums – there aren’t so many lyrics. You kept things pretty vague…

Yeah, that was part of the intent. I did feel that I was becoming so wordy and that might have been getting in the way of me exploring other ways of going about creating music. So for a while, I was trying not to be so wordy and then towards the end of the of the recording experience, I ended up cranking out a song that was nothing but words. But that was due to my interest and fascination with the evolution of what’s going on in hip-hop and the fact that the way they use language is so powerful and such and an onslaught of ideas that its almost, to my ears any way, almost impossible to keep up with the amount of information that they are laying out there for you. But I find it very exciting and it draws you in to continue to listen to the music because there so much there to take in that it’s almost impossible to get it all in one pass.

I understand that you studied the albums of Kanye West, Shabazz Palaces, Kendrick Lamar as well as David Bowie’s Blackstar. What did you learn from their work and methods and how did it all inform songs on FLOTUS?

I’m still learning from that stuff but at the time, what really interested me was the production of these records. It seemed to be on another level of complexity and nuance and just sheer excitement. I mean, they were doing things on their albums that to me was groundbreaking.

My favourite song from FLOTUS is the opening track, In Care Of 8675309. I was wondering why you decided to start your experimental album with one of your straightest songs. I mean, apart from the autotuned vocals, it’s pretty much a typical, organic Lambchop song…

You have to look at it in the context of how it was created. It was the last song we made for the record. In fact, I turned in the record with everything but that song and the record took a year to come out. In the meantime, we continued to move on and I continued to write and evolve. Like I said earlier, I went from anti-wordy to just this full-on onslaught of lyrical content. It was interesting that everything had sort of coalesced and gone full circle through the making of the record and suddenly here we were with a live take of the band as we were at the time. It also represented the result of all that work and it’s interesting that it ended up first on the record. The longest song on the album was The Hustle and it was the first song we made for the record so things just basically turned out that way.

How has it been playing the FLOTUS songs live?

It’s been great. It’s interesting because of the nature of that record, it sort of lends itself to a sparse lineup and that’s how we’ve sort of been approaching it for the last year. In fact, we’ve even gotten it down to a trio now which is what we are going to be taking to Australia. It’s really nice because we are also able to incorporate older material because the sound is so stripped down.

Having made FLOTUS, how will you deal with people’s expectations now that they almost expect you to kind of move the goalposts with every new record?

Well, I’m already starting to deal with it and I’m really excited about what I’ve been working on lately. It’s definitely rooted in what’s been going on but it seems like my ideas are now just being able to move forward in more interesting ways. We’ll see. It’s still really early days but I’m really excited about the progress that I’ve been making. I’ve been working with a guy in North Carolina and he has a fascination with analog synthesizers. It’s a bit of a long subject to get into but basically, he’s been creating these long soundscapes and I’ve been trying to extract melodic and harmonic information and then trying to apply my wordiness to it to try and connect to the power of language that I’m hearing in hip-hop. It’s complicated. I’m not even close to describing what I’m hearing in my head but I’m excited to get started on it when I get back from tour.

Finally, for your show in Perth, what can we expect in terms of song selection?

It will be FLOTUS centric but you’ll be surprised in that there will be some songs that pretty much span what we’ve done over the last 20 plus years. We have a lot of songs to choose from so it’s always interesting to narrow it down but we are trying to pair a couple of things that might be sympathetic with this particular set up and sound that we are creating. I think we found a pretty nice selection of stuff.