Lambchop carves its own niche.
By Michael McCall
DECEMBER 1, 1997: Lamb isn't for everyone, says Kurt Wagner, frontman of the Nashville-based band Lambchop. There are those who can't abide the taste, partly because it is distinct and different. And yet there are those who enjoy lamb more than any other meat, largely for similar reasons. Wagner and his ever-evolving crew of 10 to 12 musicians induce the same reaction. There are those drawn to Lambchop's unsettling combination of warped whimsy and delicate longing. And there are those, Wagner says, who "just don't get it."
Recording for the highly regarded independent label Merge Records, Lambchop has largely received enthusiastic praise from the hard-to-please European press and pockets of fanatical acclaim in the United States. The band has toured Europe and gained an invitation to perform during a leg of the annual Lollapalooza tour. Their status among the cognoscenti of underground rock can be detected from the high-level artists who've invited Lambchop to share tours and concert bills; in the last couple of years, they've performed with Stereolab, Robyn Hitchcock, Yo La Tengo, Superchunk, Versus, Barbara Manning, and Magnetic Fields. Another colleague, Vic Chesnutt, has chosen Lambchop to serve as his backing band for his next major-label recording.
Just as importantly, the large band of ragtag working stiffs provides the Nashville music scene with a collective-type group that goes against the music-biz mentality so prevalent among the city's music-makers. Even at the underground level, many Nashville performers take on a careerist mentality that seems to place commercial potential and market reach beyond concerns for artistic strength and originality. Lambchop seems to devote most of its energy to creating music and letting it serve as the ticket for success.
Because of its unusual nature, the band expresses surprise at its steadily growing success. "I never expected to get as far as making a record, much less play in Spain and Berlin and Alice fucking Tully Hall [a prestigious concert venue in New York City]," Wagner says. But while Lambchop may be different, Wagner balks at the idea that the music is difficult. "I don't think any of us are out to alienate or to purposely make music that's not 'nice,' " says the Nashville native, who sings, plays acoustic guitar, and writes the bulk of the band's material. "We're striving to make beautiful music."
What Lambchop creates often is beautiful, too--but not in a conventional way. The band balances dense, entrancing melodies with feedback-fed dissonance and the occasional soul-inspired, uptempo honker to create an off-center sonic sweep that's orchestral and melancholic. On Thriller, Lambchop's third full-length CD, the group's sound coalesces in a way that is richer in tone.
Thriller finds the band moving in directions that are alternately more accessible and more experimental than ever. While the horn-driven "Your Fucking Sunny Day" and the chunky guitar riff and brassy burnishes of F.M. Cornog's "Hey, Where's Your Girl" rank among the most immediately catchy recordings in Lambchop's history, the album also features a nearly five-minute-long stretch of sculptured ambient noise that serves as the title track.
No less unconventional are Wagner's vocals. His deep, modulated whisper is often embedded within the arrangements instead of standing out in front of the tracks. And his song titles are purposefully provocative: The opening track on Thriller is called "My Face, Your Ass." The new album also includes an ode named for High Society publisher and ex-porn actress Gloria Leonard. Even the album title, named after the biggest-selling album in pop music history, delineates Lambchop's bent perspective.
Wagner's lyrics are thorny, sometimes inscrutable. While there's a romantic lilt to his voice, the lyrics take on a surreal, nonlinear quality that suggests a weary sort of longing and an arduous disgust with misplaced values. Cryptic yet compelling, the lyrics blend into the music in much the same way as Michael Stipe's enigmatic songwriting in the early days of R.E.M. The lyrics are obviously carefully wrought: Wagner employs an unusually large vocabulary and has a playfully sharp sense of linking phrases and word associations.
While the oblique lyrics and confrontational song titles come from Wagner, the band's unusual sound is fully due to the collaborative efforts of the band members. Lambchop was born from a small, regular jam session started in 1987 by Wagner, bassist Marc Trovillion, percussionist Scott Chase, and guitarist Jim Watkins. "A lot of it was just getting together and drinking beer," says Chase, who supplements the band's sound by clanging together wrenches or banging on paint cans.
Wagner, Trovillion, and Chase remain as the band's longest-standing members. Clarinetist and trumpeter Jonathan Marx (a Scene associate editor), drummer Allen Lowrey, saxophonist Deanna Varagona, steel guitarist Paul Niehaus, and organist John Delworth are veteran members. Drummer Paul Burch, guitarists Mark Nevers and Alex McManus, and trombonist Hank Tilbury are more recent additions. All of them hold down regular jobs. Each member at some point received an invitation to attend a practice session, as have many musicians who've come and gone from the lineup. "We're big on group activities," Wagner smiles, "and we like to have new people coming by. There's never any pressure one way or another to join or not join. It just seems to kind of work itself out."
Even when getting together for the interview for this article, the band went out of its way to turn it into a social gathering. McManus brought a block of dry ice and proceeded to fill the floor with wafts of white smoke. A bottle of Jack Daniel's was passed about. When Trovillion arrived late, the group jumped up to congratulate him on the arrival of his first child; he passed out Nutty Buddy bars to mark the occasion.
"The social aspect of our practices is a real important part of who we are," Wagner says. Although Lambchop's music isn't exactly anyone's idea of party music, the practices "have always been like going to a party," Lowrey says.
The loose, social spin to the practice sessions also has an artistic benefit as well. Setting up a spirit of camaraderie nurtures a friendly vibe that encourages the musicians to take chances and to participate fully in the formulation of the songs. Instead of working them out ahead of time, as most bands do, Lambchop comes up with songs through improvising during practice and, on occasion, in the middle of concerts.
Even after a song is worked up and recorded, it tends to stay fluid. Band members are encouraged to improvise or alter parts; steel guitarist Paul Niehaus, to whom other members point as having the most worked-out and consistent parts of anyone in the band, says that only on about half the songs does he play the same part each time.
That element of surprise can occasionally lead to things falling apart onstage. Any regular fan of the band has seen Wagner wryly smile and shake his head as melodies and tempos disintegrate during a performance of a particular song. But there are just as many moments of sublime glory when everything meshes together.
"You have to admit, this band is quite a monster," Wagner says. "Anybody who throws that many people onstage at once, it's going to be a nightmare sometimes, especially when you don't have a sound man or do any specific preparation. You're really throwing yourself out there and hoping it is going to be all right. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. There's always the potential for something unexpected. No matter how much you think you know what it's going to be like, it can still end up surprising you. To me, that's exciting."
While the sound has evolved in many ways, the band says its primary method of operation remains the same. "I think we've grown, but there's this thread to everything we've done that is just so dominant now that, no matter what we do, it sounds like us," Wagner says. "It may be a little more worked out now, but it still comes down to, 'Here you are, here's your instrument, and whatever you want to play is going to be what you play.' Whether it's coherent to someone else, I can't be responsible for that. But I do think we try to reach out to an audience. If anything, we could definitely be a lot more obnoxious. There's no doubt about that."
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