On the phone from his home in Nashville, Tennessee, Kurt Wagner sounds nothing like Kurt Wagner, the songwriter, singer and founder of the elusive and influential alternative country collective Lambchop. He's clear, logical, modest and careful. He describes the band's music as "information" and says that he writes chiefly from his own experience.
Nothing is quite as sensible when you slip into Lambchop's shadow world of moaning woodwinds, horns and steel guitars; double and triple acoustic guitars; and imperceptible feedback. Clouds of strings and cryptic lyrical connections slowly form out of a fog bank of country melodies, dimly projected on the parchment of Wagner's subterranean intonations. If there is a Lambchopness murmuring through its two-decades-long career, it's an atmosphere of emotional and cognitive dissonance. Nothing makes sense in Lambchop country. Travelers there can never be sure what they're hearing or experiencing; they come away only with an intimation of having shared a dream with strangers.
If Lambchop has been, as its label, Merge, claims, "Nashville's most fucked-up country band," it's just as well to say the group is among alternative rock's most fucked-up collectives. The ensemble has included dozens of musicians, among them renowned producer Mark Nevers; saxophonist and singer Deanna Varagona; Calexico steel guitarist Paul Niehaus; and drummer and now solo country artist Paul Burch. Led by Wagner's deeply personal visions, the group has always played a kind of country music and a kind of experimental rock, but only as a way to make purely atmospheric statements. Lambchop has rarely toured the United States, and the band's St. Louis show is its first in a decade.
"Lambchop has been a fairly unwieldy notion to tour," Wagner says. "In the U.S., it's difficult financially. We're trying to find a way to shrink down the band and play other cities besides New York and LA. This time around, we've broken it into different segments."
If you're still wondering who or what Lambchop is, Wagner has no clear answer. "We've evolved slowly from record to record, yet there are elements that are new and elements that continue on. But there's a consistency in the way people play the songs. That's what Lambchop is. The players are very respectful; they pay attention to what each song requires. That's one thing that's consistent. They allow that nutty thing I've created to exist and sit in a place that's comforted by the rest of the arrangements. We've been known as a fairly quiet band, though we have our moments when we're not."
Starting with 1994's I Hope You're Sitting Down and 1996's How I Quit Smoking, Wagner and his carousel of musicians sketched out a morbid, comic and lush space for Americana, a space that sounded nothing like alternative-country peers Uncle Tupelo or the Jayhawks. There is almost no punk or blues in the sound; the approach is orchestral and expansive, with Wagner conducting the arrangements through absurd but haunting interior monologues. He phrases each line like a man shipwrecked on a barren, undiscovered island.
"I've never thought of myself as a singer," Wagner admits. "I became one by default, because no one else wanted to sing. I have limited abilities, so I keep trying, trying to get better at it. It sounds better in my head than it does in reality. Most people feel that way."
Lambchop's most recent album, last year's OH (ohio), is its most evocative and most purely melodic disc, a collection of love songs and dream songs that pushes Wagner's word-association games past the point of simple play.
"My folks had given me a dictionary that included phrases and sentences that had usage of particular words," he says. "They were attributed to everybody from Shakespeare to Susan Sontag to Disraeli. I thought it would be interesting if I could collect those phrases and put them in a song. I would then add lines of my own. Someone once said I could sing the dictionary and make it work. So I thought I'd actually try that. Then again, singing is a pretty loose term when it comes to the way I project."
The album's centerpiece is "Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr.," a nimble, trotting tune, with bright, dewy electric and acoustic guitars echoed by piano, and lines about losing faith in the spring and finding hope in the freedom of imagination and dreams.
"That song was one of the few times I've drawn on a dream when writing," Wagner explains. "A lot of writers have done that, so I shied away from it. I've always been envious of people who keep dream journals. But dreams are difficult to remember. They dissipate and fracture as you wake up. You don't have long to remember them. That song is about the difficulty of remembering a dream, how it all gets muddled."
OH (ohio) ends with "I Believe," a song written and recorded by Don Williams, a smooth and nuanced singer who has never resisted sentimentality. In Lambchop's hands, the familiar song becomes a mysterious reverie — beautiful, gossamer and strange, but utterly free of irony.
"I totally underestimated Don Williams and the power of his music," Wagner says. "At the time, it was totally uncool to be into that kind of music. It took quite a while to come back to it. When Lambchop was starting out, we were aware of this sound coming out of Nashville, but we wanted to subvert and pervert it and have it reflect more where we were coming from.
"Now there's something about it that relates to what we're trying to do. I wanted to make sure [our version] was devoid of irony, that it was a sincere approach to playing this song. I'm not sure we could have done that five years ago. That might be perplexing to someone hearing it. They know we're not fooling around here."