Kurt Wagner: An appeal to the country

Kurt Wagner of Lambchop never liked the limelight. So why did he end up as the front man? Well, no one else would sing his songs, he tells Fiona Sturges
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It was just 18 months ago, after seven years as the singer and driving force behind the Nashville-based band Lambchop, that Kurt Wagner finally gave up the day job. Even after their last LP Nixon, an astonishing album which topped the critic's end-of- year polls and brought the band to the attention of an audience who until then had thought alt.country was a hardcore wing of the Ramblers' Association, Wagner still regarded his musical endeavours as an indulgence, something to be pursued outside of working hours. In the end it was his failing health rather than musical ambition that made him stop laying and sanding floors.

"I certainly didn't give up the job to become a rock star," he chuckles over a lunch-time beer in London's Gloucester Road. "I was becoming physically incapable of doing it. Granted, I was spending more and more time making music. But my knees, back and lungs were all messed up. I knew I didn't have a whole lot longer at the job anyhow."

Now Wagner devotes nearly all his waking hours to his music. On occasion he misses the order of a proper working day. But despite having the space and time to concentrate on his songwriting, he now finds that his time is filled with the more mundane aspects of being in a band – organising tours, setting up rehearsals, that sort of thing.

"A lot of the duties of running the band were split between myself and Jonathan [Marx], but now his job has got more demanding. Since he became managing editor of his paper, now I've become more like the managing editor of Lambchop. It's going to take a bit of adjustment."

Touring has always been an arduous business for Lambchop. At the last count the band numbered 15, a sprawling assemblage incorporating horns, strings, pedal steel and even a spanner-playing percussionist, alongside the usual rock staples – drums, bass, guitar. Just organising rehearsals in their home town required immense patience, as the various musicians had to be rounded up out of their working hours. If a rehearsal took weeks of preparation, going on the road was pure hell. Something had to give.

"We're at a transition now where we're not dependent on going out as such a large line-up," says Wagner. "In order to make ourselves accessible to more people and play more music, we've had to find a way to be able to go out in smaller numbers. The result was a scaling-down of the sound. I want to give people in the band the freedom to have their own lives and not sacrifice their quality of life for the music."

It would be fair to say, then, that Lambchop's new album is as much a response to practical difficulties as musical inspiration. With its sparse arrangements and understated tone, Is A Woman heralds a dramatic change of direction after the elaborate orchestration of its predecessor, Nixon. It might not touch you the first time you hear it, or even the second or the third, but eventually it will. Not one for grand rock'n'roll themes, the album has the singer once again installed on his back porch, pondering the minutiae of life with a combination of melancholy and mischief. It's an exquisitely hushed record, full of sweet melodies that seep into your consciousness without you even noticing.

"Not everybody in the band was sure where I was heading with it at first," Wagner reflects. "Some of them are with other bands as well as having jobs. They would go away for weeks at a time, and when they came back it was as if they had missed a few class assignments. But I think they know me well enough to know that I wouldn't have gone in a straight line with this."

Wagner requisitioned the services of a local pianist, Tony Conrad, who had briefly contributed to the band's two previous albums. Through the making of the record, the two of them pared down the Lambchop sound until almost all that was left was the sound of Kurt's voice and a piano.

In a trucker's cap bearing an animal-feed logo and worn-out jeans, the singer is about as far removed from conventional notions of a musician as it's possible to get. His voice is the same Wagnerian croak that you hear on record – deep, husky tones that are sometimes so quiet that they barely register on my tape recorder. He is so self-effacing that you worry about his survival in such a cut-throat industry. But then he's managed to get by over the last seven years and, as he points out, the difference between him and the majority of artists making records is his singular lack of ambition.

During the Sixties Nashville was, as Wagner puts it, "a very closed-minded, redneck town. It's not like that at all any more, but as a child I always felt on the outside of things. I spent a lot of time trying not to get beat up." He rejected the local heritage of commercial country music and instead went to art school, studying painting and sculpture in Memphis. This was followed by graduate school in Montana, where he spent three years before moving on "out of sheer boredom". The next stop was Chicago where, for a while at least, life ticked over nicely. Wagner got a job in an art store and even sold a few of his paintings on the side. But then his girlfriend left him, he lost his job – "my boss was a racist" – and was thrown out of his apartment. It was at this point, in 1986, that he started writing songs.

"I don't know why to this day," he ponders. "I was totally into music and jammed with friends from time to time, but I had always looked at it as a social thing, not a way to live your life."

With nothing else to do, he went back to Nashville, got a job laying floors and formed a band with a couple of old school friends, Marc Trovillion and Jim Watkins. Initially, they were called Posterchild. But over the years the band grew, and by 1993 they had re-named themselves Lambchop. The following year saw the release of their debut album, the curious but compelling I Hope You're Sitting Down.

One of the founding principles of Lambchop was its flexible, open-door policy. They were less a band than a random collective engaged in a life-long rehearsal. Seven albums on, Wagner still describes the experience of making music as "overwhelming". Though Lambchop are ignored at home – "we're the Nashville underclass" – they've developed a sizeable reputation in Europe. In the UK in particular, Lambchop are celebrated as pioneers of alt.country, a nebulous genre that describes almost any band in America with a pedal-steel guitar and an attitude. Wagner himself embraced the term in the past; now he is reassessing his position.

"I suppose it was to do with geography. I felt that we had as much right to call ourselves country as the next guy living where we do. I truly believed that. I think we met the criteria of country, we just didn't sound country." And now?

"I don't want to limit our possibilities that way, by saying what we're like and what we're always going to be like. I don't want to see it all laid out and know that we're going to sound like the Rolling Stones for the rest of our careers. Why do that to yourself?"

More than country, it is soul music that has been crucial to Lambchop's sound in the last five years. What Another Man Spills (1998) contained sumptuous covers of soul classics by Curtis Mayfield and Frederick Knight. OnNixon, Wagner's voice attained a raw falsetto that even he didn't know was possible. Is A Woman has him reverting to his world-weary, semi-spoken style.

"I never had myself down as a singer," he says, smiling to himself. "I'd always played in the background as much as possible. But then I started writing songs and no one else in the band would sing them. I could probably use a bit of proper training. I guess I'm just trying to do the best I can with what I got."

'Is a Woman' is out on 18 Feb (City Slang). Lambchop tour in May