Kurt Wagner: The quiet American

There's a lot of them - but sometimes the alt.country ensemble Lambchop struggle to make themselves heard. Their front man, Kurt Wagner, tells Nick Hasted why
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The Independent Culture

Lambchop are America's leading underground band, secret kings of a scene too modest to be named. They have turned their backs on the bombastic MTV mainstream, turning their volume down till you can hear every creak and whisper of their sound. It's a strange brew of US pop's lost arts, from traditional country to Memphis soul, jazz and funk, resulting not in some lazy hybrid but in music that's organically their own. It's a remarkable feat for a loose Nashville collective of at least 16, who have survived almost unnoticed for a decade.

Their leader, Kurt Wagner, 45, must take much of the credit. Though Lambchop have grown into a genuine group, with Mark Nevers marshalling the ensemble's growing penchant for hushed atmospherics and strange dissonances, it is Wagner's voice - sometimes a strained falsetto, sometimes softly murmured speech - and allusive, fragmentary lyrics that give his group its troubled soul. The modesty in his music also extends to his life. He refused to leave his job as a carpenter till 2000, after the massive critical success of Lambchop's breakthrough, country-soul album, Nixon (their sixth). Their new double album, which is called Awcmon / Noyou-cmon, is the result of that freedom, as Wagner made himself write a song a day, as if still on a payroll. It's their most distinctive record yet.

Sitting in a hotel lounge in west London, Wagner is the embodiment of Lambchop's modesty and even its pin-drop ambience. When questions or answers make him uneasy - as most do - he clutches his leg for comfort, or strokes the bald head his baseball cap hides. The hiss of matches punctuates sentences, as he nervously puffs at cigarettes. He is the most profoundly embarrassed pop musician I've met. The sense of cornered intimacy he exudes suits him. Wagner has been an outsider, alone, withdrawn and self-sufficient, almost from birth.

It was in 1960, when Wagner was two, that he was taken by his liberal, Northern parents to Nashville, deep in the South. He grew up pro-civil rights and anti-war, but expressing those feelings outside the home invited beatings. So he learnt to stay inside. "I'm a kid," he remembers. "I just want to get along, and get accepted by other kids, and meet girls. But I learnt pretty early on to amuse myself. I was pretty easily amused - drawing, and making music."

Wagner left his hostile hometown in 1980, on an odyssey that unwittingly gathered together Lambchop's elements. Going to art school in Memphis in 1975, he soaked up soul, rockabilly and punk. Even country music, so repugnant when he lived amidst it, made sense from a distance. College also taught him a work ethic that he would never shake. He watched as students he thought of as geniuses fell by the wayside, while he somehow survived. "The gifted ones tended not to finish things, because they were lazy. Their gift bored them. I realised I had to work harder. I had to get things done."

At graduate school in Montana in 1980, a teacher taught him to spurn the major recording studios and galleries associated with success. Art could be simple and cheap. When a relationship's collapse drew him back full circle to his parents' home in Nashville in 1986, and a death in his family left him broken even there, he started to put what he had learnt to use. Depressed and alone, he recorded 200 songs. "I was just getting it out to start with," he remembers. "I was completely fascinated, thinking, 'What is this stuff?' But here it was, coming out all at once - Byrds music, blues, OK, next song. And literally having no idea what that next song would be, pushing 'record' on the tape, then two minutes later turning it off, not even worrying about listening back and seeing if it was good. At the end of the day, I'd play the tape. It wasn't till a lot later that I started to think about what the hell I was doing."

Wagner shared this musical gusher with local musicians without delay, and by 1993, Lambchop had been born. But it was not until Nixon, when Wagner was 42, that their brand of reticent soul fully flowered. He had taken that long not only to refine his ideas, but to believe that they were worth being heard. "I still question that, daily," he sighs. "I don't know if it's a matter of humility, or whether I really do believe that what I have to say doesn't matter. It means something to me. This is a very personal thing I do, and that goes against the very public way of saying it." He snorts hopelessly. "How do I do that and still be able to get by?"

Wagner's insistence on continuing with his Nashville day job, laying and sanding floors, even after Nixon's success, seemed equally humble. He said he wanted to keep a regular life - a rare ambition in pop. His job's knee-wrecking, lung-poisoning nature made him quit it that year, anyway.

He now admits that it was fear, as much as anything, that made him stay. "I was pulling my own weight in the world, and that gave me the freedom to do the music I wanted to. Also, I was afraid to give my creativity too much credence. I was protecting myself from the fear of disappointment, and trying not to suddenly become dependent on unstable and fickle forces, like money and fans. There's a finite amount of time that people will find what I'm doing significant, or even slightly worth spending their money on. I try not to fool myself.

"And I want to avoid things that could start the decline, which could be anything - horrible physical disfigurement, or death. Just a tragedy of unthinkable amounts! The record business is not conducive to fostering creativity, and I've found myself neck-deep in it now, and it gives me pause," he says, with such emphasis that it's clearly much on his mind. "The more I get into it, the more I worry."

Wagner's instinct for self-dismissal is most apparent when Lambchop play live. Famously, at London's open-air Somerset House in summer 2002, birdsong was as loud as the band's massed ranks. It dramatised the impulse behind many of their underground contemporaries in the 1990s, - to reduce music to a human scale. Lamb-chop's loose, collective structure - alien to the contract-bound record industry, but shared by soulmates such as Boston's Willard Grant Conspiracy and Jon Langford, Chicago's sometime Mekon - also suggests a more social way of making sounds.

"In a situation like Somerset House, I like to hear birds sing," Wagner remembers. "That kind of thing I love. Like right now: the conversation next to us, which is in German, I believe, is part of my awareness. It's going down on tape, dude... I probably could shut that out, but I'm easily distracted by sound. It's a three-dimensional experience to me - people walking in off the street, noises in the venue, and the music going on. That's how it's been for centuries. Music is a social activity. With Lambchop, I realised at some point that as a band, in order to be able to operate at all, we had to listen to each other. Then I realised that's a way to look at things in general."

Wagner's reluctance to stand out from his surroundings even extends to discomfort at applause. "I've been very moved," he winces, "and also embarrassed, because I don't know how to react, and not appear vain. Frankly, I gave up on that a long time ago. I'm not the most attractive fella..." He looks pained when I demur. "I'm not. There's too many flaws there to consider vanity as a serious option. The public's affection does make me feel nice inside. I'm incredibly moved by anybody's attentions. It's not like I take it for granted. I'm so aware of what it takes for someone to make that decision to buy that particular record, and spend that kind of money. I'm afraid of being seen as unappreciative."

The song-a-day regime Wagner adopted last year - reinforced when he was commissioned to supply a soundtrack to FW Murnau's German silent film, Sunrise - at last integrated songwriting into routines ordinary enough for him to accept. "It started out as a helpful distraction to stop me freaking out that I wasn't working any more," he remembers. "I was still scared to allow music to be a legitimate expense of time. Writing a song a day was about accepting it as part of my life, as much as coffee in the morning, or taking a shower. Just that simple. Not any greater or less than any other part of your life." Nothing special, in other words - a pleasure anyone can have. Made like that, music came to feel "legitimate" at last.

Wagner's songs are similarly reduced in scale, the source of their concentrated potency. They ignore the grand narratives we imagine for our lives and focus on the unnoticed, fleeting emotions we're actually built from. Playing a batch before I meet Wagner, I can't even guess their subjects - all I'm left with are residual impressions of the sort of feelings to which you fall passive victim. There's no rage or release in Wagner's world: just resentment and hurt, tenderness and acceptance.

"That's a great way to describe the things I'm doing," he agrees, "distilling it down to a word, because that's really all there is to it. I'm taking a very long road, to get to those simple words. It's things that are crossing my mind, a lot of times. I'm quite content with living a fairly uninteresting life, because I've realised that those small things can be presented in such a way that they can be touching, because our lives are these things. Often when you recollect a really common moment, you recollect the place and smell and sounds as well. And maybe by describing those things, you can leave out what the moment is. You can leave out the noun. And," he adds, almost daring me to notice, "what the pronoun is, too."

So Wagner, the world's most reluctant pop star, can continue hiding in plain sight? "I'm shy about revealing my actual thoughts," he says. "So I try to make sure that, try as someone else might, they won't be able to get to the bottom of these songs. It's a way to protect myself from exposing things that are too... tender. But my personality is still changing, now I'm writing songs all the time. I tried not to let it. But it can't be helped."

'Awcmon / Noyoucmon' is out on Monday on Labels/City Slang