Music interview: Kurt Wagner of Lambchop on FLOTUS, hip-hop and the pitfalls of mixing politics into songwriting

Nashville alt-country band Lambchop are still trying out new directions. Duncan Seaman spoke to frontman Kurt Wagner.

Kurt Wagner of Lambchop. Picture: Joanna Bongard

Electronically manipulated vocals might have become commonplace in the shiny world of modern pop, R&B and hip-hop but until recently they’ve rarely entered the realm of Americana.

Yet for Kurt Wagner the use of voice processing throughout FLOTUS, the latest record by his band Lambchop, is another step in the evolution of a group who have already incorporated elements of country, post-rock, soul and lounge music into their sound over the course of 11 previous full-length albums.

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“Oh, I imagine it is sonically, for sure,” the 58-year-old says with a chuckle. “It’s certainly opened up new ideas about how to go about writing songs and it does seem there’s more possibilities there for my limited vocal style.”

In other interviews Wagner has noted how FLOTUS came to be influenced by the music that surrounded him in everyday life, from his wife’s fondness for hip-hop and R&B to sounds drifting out of his neighbour’s house or what might be playing in his local grocery store.

“It’s sort of like a residue, an accumulation of what you take in, in daily life,” he explains today. “I of course choose to listen to music as well but a lot of times I’m exposed to music, particularly in Nashville, it seems to be a place where everywhere you go they have music on, it just seems like you get assaulted by the stuff here. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it’s not – it certainly exposes you to stuff that you wouldn’t normally have stumbled into. There’s a particular penchant for live music in many situations where probably you don’t necessarily needs it – like the airport.”

While making FLOTUS, Wagner purposefully chose to listen to hip-hop albums by Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West as well as the ground-breaking R&B of Frank Ocean.

“It seemed very daring and experimental and innovative,” he says approvingly. “And sophisticated – surprisingly so. I think most people don’t consider hip-hop right away as something that’s sophisticated but the more I get into it, the more I’m impressed by the sophistication of the production and how things are put together and how they make things work together and how it’s evolved.

“It really has got to a point now where a lot of the contemporary music that’s being made in hip-hop it really is quite complex and at the same time it retains a simplicity which I’m interested in. To have those things working in tandem is a very powerful thing, particularly creatively.”

Wagner freely admits to being among those who in the past had frowned upon the use of Auto-Tune. “An engineer that I worked with, Mark Nevers, he worked in the commercial country field and it was pretty much developed as a way of perfecting imperfections in a country singer’s vocal,” he recalls. What convinced him otherwise was seeing Shabazz Palaces. “They were processing the voice in real time with this little box and it just clicked with me. I went ‘Wow, you can perform in real time quite creatively and spontaneously with this tool’. The box that they were using turned out to be a processor of all kinds of sounds, not just classic Auto-Tune. When I got one of them and discovered that it did all of these things it did sort of ignite my creativity in a way I would have never gone before.”

The idea that FLOTUS’s title could be interpreted in multiple ways appealed to Wagner. First, there’s the record’s full name – For Love Often Turns Us Till; others might see it as a political acronym – First Lady of the US – or as a comment on the meditative, ‘floating’ nature of the music itself.

“I’m always very pleased when something I’ve created has multiple meanings because it means it probably has a relevance to people that I hadn’t considered,” Wagner says.

“It think that makes for good art-making. It presents itself and yet people are able to make of it what they will as opposed to something that’s completely rigid and set. I’ve always hoped that the work I make tends to have that open quality to it, sometimes more successfully than others but at least I’m trying.”

Mary Mancini, Wagner’s wife, is a political activist who is the current Chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party.

Wagner admits to treading carefully when introducing politics into his own songs. “For me personally if it really becomes too blatant a reference, then it freezes it in a period of time and loses a bit of that openness. It’s the same thing that happens if you reference a bit of pop culture that isn’t going to stand up 30 years from now. I try to be cautious about it, but certainly it influences the tone and timbre of what I’m trying to get at but I don’t have to say ‘Trump’ to get the message across as an insult.”

Lambchop play at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on August 8.