Catching Up With Lambchop's Kurt Wagner

Music Features Lambchop
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In 1998, Kurt Wagner spent several weeks on a tour of Europe by himself promoting his Nashville indie orchestra Lambchop. During that long trip, he played a Paris radio show called The White Sessions, hosted by Bernard Lenoir, whom Wagner calls “France’s John Peel.” At the show, he met Cat Power. They talked for a few minutes; she did her own session, then left. The end.

Even if there’s nothing much to report—“I’m afraid it’s not a very interesting story,” Wagner forewarns—the incident must have stuck with him, because when Merge Records reissued Lambchop’s career-making 2000 album Nixon last week, it came packaged with an EP of those White Sessions recordings, which bears the subtitle How I Met Cat Power.

Nixon established Wagner as one of the best songwriters of his generation, capable of addressing adult issues with wry graciousness and witty lyricism. It also heralded the band, whose membership famously ballooned into the double digits, as the new Nashville avant garde. These songs sound like Owen Bradley producing Curtis Mayfield singing about how having kids screws up your life.

The new reissue is the first in a series celebrating Merge’s 25th anniversary, and on that occasion Wagner talked to Paste about Lambchop’s odd songwriting process, his use of cassette loops and—oh yeah—how he met Cat Power.

Paste : Were you surprised to learn Merge was reissuing Nixon?
Kurt Wagner: It was their idea. In order to celebrate their anniversary, they picked some significant records that they had released during the course of their existence. I was honored to be the first one in the series, although I’m not sure why we were chosen. I think vinyl was part of the motivation. Initially we were just talking about putting it out on vinyl because it had never had a domestic release [in that format], which had always been frustrating to me.

Paste : Why did you choose How I Met Cat Power as the subtitle for the bonus EP?
Wagner: Merge asked if I had any other materials from that period, which was difficult because there were a lot of interesting things that I have that are just not acceptable sonically. Literally the only thing I could find was this disc, which sounds kind of okay. Honestly, it’s a little raw and there are some big mistakes in there, but it’s a document of that time, I guess. I was happy calling it the White Sessions, but for some reason Merge wanted another title. It occurred to me that Cat Power and I overlapped during the White Sessions in Paris. She did the session after I was done, and we ran into each other between the sessions. It just sounded good.

Paste : How did that go? I keep thinking someone should write a short, two-character one-act.
Wagner: It went fine. It’s lonesome when you’re out doing promotion. I was on a European promo tour for, I guess it was What Another Man Spills. I can’t remember what record she was promoting, but I was relieved to see a familiar face after weeks on the road by myself. She was an American I could have a conversation with, so that was cool. It was nice just to hang out with her a little bit while the band arrived. I remember her performance being pretty good that day as well. It was a strange venue—this gigantic space with a lot of seating around the stage and control booth off in the corner. It wasn’t like a recording studio. It was more like a performance space, but it was completely empty other than me, Cat and her band, and I guess the guy taking me around. So I had my own private little performance there.

Paste : Can you tell me about the cassette loops playing behind you? They’re an intriguing musical element, especially the one of you on “The Book I Haven’t Read.”
Wagner: That’s not me reciting. It’s a friend of mine from Memphis, a guy named Rick Ivy who was in a band with me in Memphis a long time ago called the Seafood Orchestra. I stay in touch with these people. They’re a part of my world as artists, so we exchange things all the time. At that time I was looking for various tape loops or things to accompany the songs that I was playing, and I just discovered that tape that he had sent me at some point and that became part of that performance.

Paste : I was surprised to learn that these recordings actually predate Nixon. They’re more like live demos.
Wagner: That’s what I find interesting as well. It just typifies the way we were working as a band. Lambchop was always moving forward, so that by the time a record had come out, we were already working on the next thing. But at that point, none of these songs had been addressed by the band as a whole. When I did these radio performances and knew things were going to be recorded, I would play a lot of new songs just to hear what they sounded like. It could be endless frustration for the record label. I mean, there are four new songs and one song from What Another Man Spills, which was the album I was supposed to be promoting. So I’m failing in the promotions department, but it was kind of an amusing workshop for my songs. For us it was an organic process where we would just keep working on these songs and keep working on these songs and eventually it would be time to make another record. And of course they would continue to evolve long after they were recorded.

Paste : Do you still perform these songs?
Wagner: We do. There was a time when we didn’t for a while, but we start playing more of them about five years ago. I think it was the MergeFest when we started playing them again. But there are some physical things that just can’t happen anymore. I can’t function as a falsetto singer, which is why I stopped playing some of these songs. I just wasn’t comfortable addressing them in another voice, but I’ve since gotten over that. The whole reissue thing is interesting because it’s a good time to revisit things. I’m glad to say that these songs are good enough for us to continue playing. When they were conceived, I certainly didn’t think we would be around as a band long enough to have a reissue.