Interview: Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner talks music, art and love


The Mill — Thursday, March 23 at 8 p.m.

Lambchop, the musical collective anchored in the vocals and musical genius of Kurt Wagner, will be playing their first show in Iowa City on March 23 at The Mill. The show is set to start at 8 p.m., with House and Land serving as openers. Tickets are $17 in advance and $20 at the door.

This show comes on the heels of a recently completed European tour in which the band whipped through 44 shows in 50 days before returning home. I interviewed Wagner on a cold March morning, and found his conversational voice to be as witty and engaging as the voice that emerges on his albums.

Kurt Wagner founded Lambchop in 1986, and has fronted the fluid lineup of the band since. — video still

FLOTUS [For Love Often Turns Us Still] has been heralded as a change for Lambchop in terms of integrating technology. How has incorporating the technology altered your approach to live performances?

Obviously, this is one of the interesting things about translating the record into a live performance. With a little bit of effort we integrated those sounds into what we do live. Andy Stack from Wye Oak has joined the group — he’s brought that stuff to life. With his help, we’ve been able to … perform it in a live way. We’re also doing things as a trio, with technology in the background. Overall, technology is just another instrument, another sound. We’ve been using some of it for quite awhile, since 2000. It’s just less subtle now. Simpler. At one point, eight years ago maybe, we had several people on stage playing electronic instruments and sounds. FLOTUS is deceptive: We’re presenting an open environment to people, with a lot of space, which lends itself to a smaller group performing it. It works with the older music, too. We’ve been able to weave in older songs.

What’s it do to the old songs?

I’ve been experimenting especially with my voice in the older songs. We’ve always done that as a group — songs are living things when performed, and that can reflect who you are as a person and as a group. Songs don’t need to be frozen in time in arrangement and tempo. Instead, it becomes almost like covering yourself. This is just something that a group like us, or an artist like me, has to face. You need to address songs you’ve been playing for 20 years. How do you keep them alive? How do you keep them interesting? I have to see them as I am now, rather than I did when I was 35.

Any song in particular?

I’ve found some songs from a long time ago, fairly obscure — and I’m finding that I can perform them in a completely different way. I wouldn’t have imagined processing my voice on a song I wrote in 1990. How could I have? Sometimes artists may play in a band and then play solo … But I can now see it as a song rather than a “track” frozen in time that everyone knows. Neil Young would play with Crazy Horse, then solo — but the context is different. Context is how we experience music — ear buds or theaters or cars. It can be part of how you see it as a performer — it makes music alive and open to circumstance.

That’s great — I’ve always envied how artists can play the same song the same way for 20 years, but you think about them as a person and realize that it must just drive them crazy. Other artists never play the same song twice — like Dylan. That’s fantastic, too. You’re watching art happen and unfold. It’s a treat to see something actually occur like watching a flower grow. That’s what’s cool about music as an art form. Paintings are frozen — but even then the context of seeing it in a museum versus in a living room affects how you interact with it.

How does it affect how a song comes to life?

I like to allow for everybody involved in the making and playing of the music to contribute something of themselves, not what has been “instructed.” I’m open to what they want to do — and that happens every night. If someone wants to change every day, that’s great. I want them satisfied as an artist, not a reproducer of an idea. If they’re satisfied, I will be satisfied.

The new album is entitled FLOTUS: what do you mean by the turn of love? Is it something that moves both people (us)? What do you mean by still?

It’s more like the notion of the phrase “turns one’s head” in relation to love. Someone comes into a room, and your head is turned, you focus on a person, become enamored. The notion of love is there, at least in my mind — the notion that love itself continues to surprise, if you can stick with it. It becomes a satisfying and deep, enriched experience. It isn’t stagnant. It’s a living thing that continues to grow.

Your description of love sounds a lot like how you talk about music. Can you say more?

That’s kind of the thing: They’re both part of what makes life, life. Making music and art is life, and I want it to be part of life. There’s a professor in Iowa City, David Dunlap, who helped me see this, how all art becomes part of an everyday thing. Like breakfast — art is something within us all. Dunlap actually designed our second record cover — I was in graduate school in Montana and ran into him.

University of Iowa professor David Dunlap designed the cover of Lambchop’s second album, ‘How I Quit Smoking’

It sounds pretentious to call music art — but I paint as well, and studied and trained to be an art professor, so I look at music’s relationship to art different than most people do. Musicians are called artists, but most people think of it as quite different from painters. I don’t as much.

How has your training in painting affected your approach to music?

Paint is just a medium — it’s the intellectual stuff that goes on in the creating of it, the analysis of it, the living with it, the enjoyment of it. Studying art, fine art, painting, sculpture — those ideas about how to evaluate and articulate the thing that you’re articulating. How do you talk about something that really is magic?

People have done it for hundreds of years, tried to articulate this thing that’s a key part of all of us. For me, it was helpful to see music as more than just entertainment or something to put on while you’re cooking dinner. As someone who creates it: How do you continue, how do you keep moving forward without losing inspiration? Inspiration is a huge part of any job. As a writer — you read other writing.

What inspires you non-musically?

Lots of things. Going to a museum and seeing a great show of art or painting, going to a great film that motivates me to create, or a great performance of music. It can come from politics — early on when I was writing and making stuff, I was insanely inspired by MLK and Malcolm X — it sparked me to want to make music. Not in a political way, but something about the purity and nature of someone’s belief, and how important it was to understand that. I wanted to communicate, myself, in whatever way I had. Even stuff like this can make you want to make music.

I’ve always ben interested in how records sound and how they’re produced. Kendrick Lamar, Sarah Vaughan. I analyze it, pick it apart, think through the source of its beauty and then I want to apply those ideas to the music I’m making. The production, the making of records is all I wanted to do when I started doing this — make records, hang them on the wall, know that they exist. The creating of it is still the most exciting and fun part, like creating another person.

Anything else?

Looking forward to Iowa City — only went once for an opening of one of David Dunlap’s shows and didn’t get to see much of the place. I’m excited.

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