Music: My Country, right or wrong

Lambchop is not your average Nashville band. For a start there are 14 of them. Also, their leader thinks Nashville product sucks. By Andy Gill.
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In the lounge bar of the Columbia hotel, the preferred London lodgings of up-and-coming bands, a scattering of young music-biz hopefuls neck their Grolsch and give each other the eye, assessing which of their peers are in town tonight.

It's a motley Sunday-night crew. One chap sports an ill-fitting bandanna on his head, as if he was an American biker.

Two young ladies of doubtless impeccable virtue sip pastel-coloured concoctions as they scan the room. A member of a band - Welsh, I believe - attempts to impress them by activating the always amusing Plastic Hopping Penis (available from all tasteless joke shops), with humiliating lack of success. It must be all too much for sadcore superstar Elliott Smith, who scurries off to the sanctuary of his room. On the bay window sofa, meanwhile, two old farts discuss the state of country music.

What, I ask Kurt Wagner, songwriter with Nashville cult combo Lambchop, is wrong with country music these days? If, indeed, anything is wrong at all - after all, the umpteen million flies who routinely settle on Garth Brooks' albums can't be wrong, surely?

"There are so many things wrong with country," replies Wagner with a don't-get-me-started sigh, "the main one being that it doesn't reflect the time we're living in. It reflects the world of commerce and the idea of formula, not the world of people living in 1998. If the guys who wrote these songs actually wrote about what was happening in their lives, they'd be writing about doing too much coke, screwing around on their wife, about their four divorces and all the alimony, and how they've screwed up their lives. And," he concludes with a smile, "country music would be much richer for it!"

The Sisyphean task of enriching and rejuvenating country music through unflinching honesty is one to which the unfeasibly large Lambchop - 14 members at last count, and rising - has dedicated itself, albeit in a quiet, un-pushy kind of way. Part of the band's unique appeal derives from Wagner's songs, odd little ditties delivered in the warm, gentle tones of an avuncular uncle, not unlike Burl Ives. Not that Wagner trades in nursery-rhymes and fairy-tales like Ives - in his songs, sometimes difficult themes and situations (death, deception, ageing, alcoholism, and a curious fascination with bodily fluids) are sketched in a few bare observations, with no attempt made to conceal the emotional heart of the matter in question, be it one of bitterness, lust or spite. Nor is there much of an attempt on Wagner's part to mediate his language to Nashville- friendly levels; indeed, few wield the Anglo-Saxon vernacular as effectively as he does on songs like "Your Fucking Sunny Day" (which for its single release, was re-worked as "Your Sucking Funny Day", with no noticeable improvement in its play list prospects).

"That's the way I talk, and it comes across that way because I don't take it out later," explains Wagner. "It's just the way I am - I really have a foul mouth! It's my personality; it's not so much about shock value, I just speak the way I speak. I live and work in the construction industry with a bunch of hard-core fucking construction guys, and you don't get by just by being grammatically correct with them; you don't want to waste time searching for the correct multi-syllabic word to get your point across, because not only does it go over their heads, they want to beat the crap out of you any way.

"I feel bad about it, because I suppose I should have the command and presence of mind to find other words to use. But what country music doesn't reflect is the fact that these singers cuss like madmen, and for them to not put that in, yet at the same time claim they are the voice of the working man or whatever, is ridiculous - it's more like the voice of the working man who's having dinner at his mother-in-law's house."

Wagner came to music by a roundabout route. Though born and raised in Nashville, as a youngster he was never that interested in the city's musical heritage. He chose instead to study sculpture, eventually spending three years in the Montana of James Crumley and Thomas McGuane for his master's degree in fine art.

"There are a lot of artists and writers up there, because it's so fucking gorgeous," he recalls. "I met [American novelist] Richard Brautigan there, when he was basically the town drunk and had just about alienated everybody who'd tried to help him. I didn't want anything from him - I just happened to be at the next bar stool along - and he was never abusive to me. They found him dead in a trailer a week after he died - he had alienated so many people that nobody found his body for days. To me, that was the epitome of sadness. But then, drinking is the state sport in Montana - everybody's in training for that!"

Wagner's art dealt in environments, installations in which all the walls of a room, and all the objects in the room, would have writings or drawings done on them. It's a style he's carried over into his songs, which probe the different levels of perception. "Lately I've been copying this thing about journalism," he explains, "about reporting, documenting, and the editing process, and the constrictions of space and time. Space and time in music are important issues - these are sculptural techniques that I learned whilst training to be a sculptor. It's very much the same deal. I just tried to apply those learnings, those teachings, into the things I do now. One way or another, I'm still talking about experience and life, and how you perceive that - and how it comes out of my twisted mind."

To help unburden his twisted mind, Wagner has gathered around him a versatile, multi-talented musical unit incorporating various horns, strings (and even a percussionist who plays spanners) alongside the usual country staples such as pedal-steel guitar. While this gives the group's recordings a remarkable depth and variety - the latest album What Another Man Spills stretches its sound to take in covers of soul classics by Curtis Mayfield and Frederick Knight, while its predecessor Thriller made subtle incursions into avant-garde noise-scaping - it renders the usual music-biz priority of touring virtually impossible, particularly since most of the band members are no longer in the first bloom of youth, and have wives and families and jobs which must take precedence in their lives.

"It's not the most practical idea, that's for sure, but we're trying to do it in a realistic way," Wagner explains. "We're all friends, a collective of people who enjoy each others' company and just like doing things together. Members join and leave, but the line-up just seems to grow - I think when we hit 20 members, we can have our own union!

"It just takes a little give and take on everybody's part. It helps that we're more adults than little kids, and that everybody has a good foundation in their lives. I don't want this thing to be a burden on anybody; I just want it to be something people can enjoy. It's not like we make any money out of it - you get a few hundred dollars for a show, split it up and it doesn't even pay for the beers for the night! That's why you only usually hear four-piece bands - but that also means that you only hear a certain type of sound, too. The reason we're kind of unique in our sound is that there's so many people making noise at the same time."

When it comes to arranging Wagner's already idiosyncratic compositions, he adopts a flexible, laissez-faire attitude, allowing his friends as much space as they need to "find" the song. "I think these guys I'm playing with are brilliant," he says. "I don't have to tell them much. They listen - that's what it's all about. It's about just starting to play, a matter of recognition, and through recognition comes familiarity, and through familiarity comes confidence, and there's your arrangement right there, so by the end of the song it's built up to this beautiful thing. I can't think of many musicians who would put up with that - it's very exciting, but it's also a risk: it can really suck." But in line with his principles of fidelity to reality, Wagner accepts that possibility with the kind of equanimity that sets Lambchop apart from any of its Nashville peers. "Sucking is part of the deal," he says, "and it's not a bad thing, necessarily."

Lambchop's latest album `What Another Man Spills' is available now on City Slang Records. They appear on October 15 at the Electric Ballroom, Camden, London