Interview

Q&A: Kurt Wagner On How Hip-Hop & Audio Technology Inspired Lambchop’s FLOTUS

Brown’s Diner may not look like much, but it’s a Nashville institution. A low, gray, unassuming building with barely any windows, it sits near a busy intersection not far from Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. The dive started life in the 1930s as a roving food trolley, then set down roots in the Hillsboro Village neighborhood, where it became famous for its cheeseburgers. On a steaming-hot summer day, when the humidity turns the air into a solid mass, it’s an oasis: dark and cool, with a few regulars at the bar and a waitress named Miranda roaming from table to table with an overflowing pitcher of iced tea. The jukebox blasts an eclectic mix of tunes, from early Sheryl Crow hits to even earlier Motörhead jams, usually anything but the music that put Nashville on the map.

On this particular steaming-hot summer day, Kurt Wagner sits in a booth in the back room, near the restrooms, with the casual bearing of someone who can order “the usual.” He sports a graying soul patch under his lip and a trucker’s cap for a business called Draplin Design Co. It’s not a mid-2000s hipster affection, but a style that’s become a signature for the Lambchop frontman. He’s rarely seen without one. Wagner has just polished off a cheeseburger and is nursing a glass of tea as he discusses his band’s upcoming album, curiously titled FLOTUS, which is a reference to the First Lady Of The United States but — as with so many Lambchop titles — hints at so much more.

The band has been plumbing the vicissitudes of everyday life for decades now, setting familiar scenes of domestic life to lush arrangements that draw from easy listening, countrypolitan twang, smooth r&b, and avant garde composition. Wagner turns even the most mundane moments — walking the dog, drinking in the backyard, even taking a leak — into quietly epic songs that hint at something larger and actually beautiful just outside the lyrics. So much has been made of Lambchop’s line-up, which has at times ballooned into the double digits, that it’s easy to overlook Wagner as one of the finest and most lovingly eccentric writers working today in any medium.

In that regard FLOTUS represents a slightly ornery move: Not only does the band experiment with looped beats, but Wagner purposefully downplays his songwriting, paring his lyrics down to as few words as possible and repearing curious phrases (“take it on the chin” or “over the moon”) to see what secrets those syllables might reveal. He distorts his vocals into slivers and shimmers of sound, making them sound both familiar and alien. To an extent he didn’t write these songs so much as he unwrote them, like a mechanic disassembling an engine to see what the parts do by themselves.

At first FLOTUS may play like the strangest record Lambchop ever released, but it retains the rich, warm palette that has come to define the band over the years. It still sounds like Lambchop, indelibly and unmistakably. Between sips of tea Wagner discussed the inspirations behind this album, the risks and rewards of changing up his sound, and the endless possibilities that new technology allows.

STEREOGUM: So… FLOTUS.

WAGNER: Ha. I always try to draw from things that happen in my life, stuff that’s going on in the world or in my significant other’s world. Part of it is that over the last four or five years my wife has gotten more and more involved in politics, to the point where now she’s the chair of the Democratic Party in Tennessee. She had even run for state senate, which led to the job she has now. With that comes a whole new pile of stuff that was never a part of my life before, politics and all that. Part of the thing I wanted to do with this record was to make something she would like, based on the type of music she’s into. I think I pretty much failed miserably on that count. It does reflect her tastes, though.

And the title is an acronym for this other title I had in mind: For Love Often Turns Us Still. Meaning that, we’re still surprised at the notion of love. It doesn’t get old, which is a pretty good way of looking at how you make art. I had been going back and forth about which way to do it. I knew people would eventually shorten a long title like that and make it FLOTUS. So I decided to cut through all that. Why wait?

STEREOGUM: Did you intend this as a political album?

WAGNER: Oddly enough it’s become an interesting thing in that it’s not so much about politics. It’s about relationship that people have as husband and wife. But you do think about things happening right now, especially with Michelle Obama and what a powerful force she’s become even in just the past few weeks, just the impression she’s made on people. And you also think about what’s to come and the potentiality that Bill Clinton could be our next FLOTUS. Am I FLOTUS if my wife runs for office? It’s not about politics so much, but about the role of support you can give someone in whatever their endeavor is.

That’s how any couple operates. They’re supportive and their lives are meshed together. The operate separately and connectively with each other, and I think one feeds the other in ways that you maybe don’t really think about. Being an artist obviously it’s something I can absorb into my life more than she can in her. What she does affects what I do, but I don’t think my work affects her politics. It was a curious idea. Prior to the title, she managed to meet Obama and there’s this official photo that they take when you do that. Oh man, I would love to use that as part of the record’s artwork, but she said there’s no way. Good luck! You can try to persuade the White House to let you use it. Have fun with that. Then I thought, maybe if I just did a painting of a small section of it, that would be okay. And that’s the artwork you’ll see with the album. It’s just a picture of Obama’s hand on her shoulder.

STEREOGUM: So you based this on her musical tastes. Is she a Lambchop fan?

WAGNER: She has a different sensibility about music than I do, which is great. She likes good music, but it’s not really the stuff that I like. When we met, there really wasn’t a musical connection between us. She ran a punk rock venue and a record store, and Lambchop would play there. I don’t think she liked us as a band at all, but we kept showing up because the out-of-town bands liked us and always asked us to open for them. So there we would be again and again. Eventually she got used to us and what we did, and started to get into it, I guess, to some extent. As time went on, she kinda got on board, but she certainly has other things she likes. That’s great because it means I get exposed to a lot of music I would never listen to.

STEREOGUM: I imagine her being a fan of “Jenny/867-5309″ and “The Hustle.”

WAGNER: Probably “The Hustle.” She grew up in Long Island and that song was a big part of that. And the other one… I bet she’d like that song. I haven’t asked her. I used that as a title because of the chorus, which goes, “I got it!” Which in Spanish is…

STEREOGUM: Yo La Tengo.

WAGNER: Ding ding. You win the prize. You win a free cheeseburger. I like to send out little shout-outs. But “The Hustle” is about going to a Quaker wedding. Have you ever been to a Quaker wedding? There’s no one officiating. The bride and the groom get up there and just talk to each other, and people get up and talk about them. It’s completely free form. But it can be pretty moving. You strip away a lot of the formality, and when that’s gone, the ceremony is based on how they feel about each other. So we went to a Quaker wedding, and afterwards, at the reception, everybody was doing this dance. I thought, wow, everybody knows this move. What is this dance? What is the Hustle? I just didn’t know what the dance looked like.

STEREOGUM: It’s such a beat-heavy album that it almost sounds like dance music at times.

WAGNER: It’s been something that’s been brewing for a while now. I made a record with a couple of Lambchop guys called HeCTA. During that process I learned a lot about the technology that goes into making that kind of music. Once we finished it, we had to figure out how to perform it, so I got to learn about that aspect of it as well. It was fun, and having gotten all of that knowledge into my brain, I started trying to use it to think about other ways of songwriting. So it grew out of that, in addition to making a record that maybe my wife would respond to.

Also, we’ve lived in the same house for 20 years. The neighbors have been the same for 20 years, and I’ve watched this family grow up. They’re great about broadcasting new music, and I would hear it outside all the time, when I was on the porch or coming home or at parties. It was great music — a lot of mixtape hip-hop. I’d hear this stuff even prior to it becoming available in other places, because this family would be into it. It struck me that it might be cool to let that into the type of music that I make. This stuff wouldn’t have been in my record stack, but it’s been in my head for a while. So I started checking out a lot of contemporary hip-hop and I was fascinated by them, specifically the LA guys Kendrick and Flying Lotus. To me it’s exciting and revolutionary stuff. I put a lot of it up to not only the artistry of the artist but also the creativity of the production. So that stuff was very influential on FLOTUS.

But one piece of the puzzle was missing, and I was trying to figure out what to do with my voice. I went to see a show by these guys Shabazz Palaces, and they had these little boxes that would alter their voices in interesting ways. I was completely taken with that. So I got one and started playing around with it. Suddenly everything just fell into place. It all fit together. I rewrote the record and put it back together, writing almost exclusively on that box. I didn’t play much guitar. I did everything with just my voice. About two-thirds of the record… or maybe even more, maybe three-fourths of the record works that way, where I was finding a new way to write songs and trying to figure out who I could integrate myself into the music. I didn’t want to just slap myself into it on top of the beats or something like that. I wasn’t going to rap. But I realized that there are things you can do with technology that meshes your voice in with the beats.

STEREOGUM: So you were actually writing the songs with that vocal box?

WAGNER: Exactly. Its something called a TC-Helicon Voicelive 2. It’s a voice processor and it can record and loop things. It was designed for singer-writers to accompany themselves. The guys in Shabazz figured out all these other cool applications for it. You can distort your voice and layer it and harmonize with yourself. It’s a great tool, and I just went nuts. I thought it was just the best thing ever. It made me feel like I could try a lot of new things. I can make organ sounds with my voice. That’s pretty exciting. I’m things I couldn’t have dreamed of when I was a guy with a guitar in the closet or wherever I wrote songs.

STEREOGUM: I feel like that’s something you’ve always done, though. You’ve been manipulating your voice naturally. I’m thinking specifically of your falsetto, which you haven’t used in over a decade.

WAGNER: I lost the ability to do that a year or two after doing Nixon. I just smoked too much. I wasn’t very good at it anyway, so it wasn’t the biggest loss in the world. But suddenly the box enables me to do that again. So there it is. It just opened up whole new areas for me. Sometimes you just stumble onto something that does that. Sometimes it’s reading a really good book, and sometimes it’s finding a program on your computer. For me and the type of music that I make, the technology really hasn’t changed all that much since the ’60s. We still revere that sound today as being the gold standard of great audio. But the stuff that’s happening now is affecting music in a profound and exciting way. I really do believe that. It’s opening up the ability to integrate so many different ideas and types of music together.

It’s almost breaking down genres, because now you can float between genres with the aid of technology. Would Grandmaster Flash ever have envisioned integrating freeform jazz into the type of music he was making? Well, actually, yeah he probably would have. Would country music have allowed its artists to fix their vocal tunings 40 or 50 years ago? But that’s absolutely a part of what mainstream country hits are about. There it is: voice processing, big and loud and proud. I think it’s exciting. It’s made things sound different. Country music has been vocoding people since the decades. It was created for that purpose — to make sure Reba got it right. But now artists are going to this extreme, where they’re letting it show. And it’s coming from everywhere. It’s coming from American Idol. It’s coming from hip-hop. It’s crazy. That stuff is now folding back into what we hear and what’s acceptable.

STEREOGUM: At this point it bothers me when people try to hide it and pretend that’s their real singing voice. I think that Cher song, “Believe,” was the moment when artists started using it as a part of the song.

WAGNER: I remember being freaked out about Auto-Tune. I thought it was terrible. When I started hearing it in contemporary pop music, I thought, how could they do that? They have such great voices! Oops. After a while. I realized it’s a moving, soulful, expressive tool. The soulfulness is what struck me the most. This stuff can be soulful. A machine in its imperfections can be soulful, and that’s the stuff I like — when it’s fucked up. A voice cracking at a poignant moment in a song… that really gets you when you’re hearing it in a performance. It’s the same thing with this stuff: When it’s not working quite right, it can be deeply soulful. It can be moving. I can’t get enough of that. It’s new information for me. And yet, it’s tapping into solid emotion. I never gave machines credit for that. I don’t think it’s an easy thing to do, because the machine wants to be perfect. Everything wants to be just right. I’m discovering that I have to spend a lot of time working with it so that it comes naturally as part of what we do, ‘cause it’s not of the body. I had to really work with it and get comfortable, but I’m confident it can get across an emotional response and impress a feeling on people. After a while, you don’t even hear it anymore. You’re just hearing the person.

STEREOGUM: On FLOTUS your voice does more than just deliver lyrics. At times it becomes an instrument delivering pure sound.

WAGNER: I got excited about that for a while. I can’t really say I was anti-word, but I was trying to find a way to be less wordy. Believe it or not, on Mr. M I was trying to keep it simple, just to see what would happen if I became less verbose. That isn’t carried out throughout the entire record, but you can see attempts of that on FLOTUS. There will be times when you’ll think, he’s only saying about five words. Well, why not? I think every now and then for myself as a creative person, I need to take stock of what I do and think about what I can do to change that and do something different. Or is that it? Do I only have that one thing? There’s that old saying about an artist having only one or two good ideas in his life and is doomed to repeat them. I reject that notion. I think I have maybe five.

At my age or at this point in the lifespan of my musical output or whatever you call that, most people I know who have been doing this as long as I have have resigned themselves to doing reissues and playing the hits and living in the past. I don’t have any hits, but even if I did, I don’t think I’d be ready to go there. That’s not what’s engaging for me. For better or worse, I’m trying to find new stuff. It might not always be great, but at least it’ll be pure of intent.

STEREOGUM: Do you know how you’ll tour this record?

WAGNER: I’m working on that now. Some of it is trickier than others. I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself to re-create everything on the record. I think I can present it in a natural way. But live music for us at this point is constrained by economics, so I have to be realistic about what my live ambitions are. Sure, it’d be great to have it present one way, but that might not be realistic. I’ve been experimenting with everything from playing the music by myself to playing with a trio. By next year when we actually tour for the record, I think we’ll have something pretty cool in place. I’m also trying to find a way to integrate what we’ve done in the past into what this is. Oddly enough I find a lot of the stuff on Mr. M seems to work well side by side with some of this stuff. I didn’t expect that.

STEREOGUM: It definitely seems like it might introduce an element of risk into the performances.

WAGNER: I read an interesting interview with these Shabazz guys, and they were talking about how they would go out there and let it hang out a little more. They were letting a lot of spontaneity enter into their performance, even though they’re using beats and samples and processors. There’s all this regimented information, and yet they go at it in a way that’s open and loose. It’s not as scripted as you might thing. That’s something I felt was an important part of what me made for this record — the live drums. We weren’t just using programmed beats. There were live musicians playing, not just the musicians I created with my mouth. I’m basically trying to find a way to be influenced by everything I hear in hip-hop without faking it or trying to rap or whatever. They’re being themselves, and I want be myself.

STEREOGUM: What does your wife think of the record?

WAGNER: I think she likes some of it. She did say something like, I just like the way you sound as you are. Which is just so Billy Joel. Maybe people will feel that way, too. But I think there’s enough of me in there. I’m really singing my ass off.

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FLOTUS is out 11/4 via Merge. Pre-order it here.