Monday, February 20, 2012
Kurt Wagner of Lambchop Chats Up "Mr. M"
This week, the Nashville-based ensemble Lambchop returns with their 11th studio album, Mr. M (via Merge Records).
Kurt Wagner, the primary songwriter and leader of the group, was gracious enough to take some time out his busy schedule to briefly discuss the creation of the new Lambchop record, as well as provide some insights as to where his own creative identities, as both a visual artist and a songwriter, coalesce. He is a man of many talents.
As a complete work, Mr. M pairs each song with a painting by Mr. Wagner in the album's packaging. As an experience, Mr. M offers the songwriter's deeply personal lyrics, the band's gracefully orchestral arrangements, and rich, textural images composed by Wagner's own hands.
As songs and images come together as one, Kurt Wagner and his partners deliver a masterfully-fused work that is a true standout in the Lambchop discography. But don't take my word for it, go ahead and give Mr. M a listen and read all about it from the man himself:
Hi Kurt. Thanks very much for taking the time to discuss the new Lambchop album, Mr. M.
Can you discuss the very early stages and inspiration for developing the concept of the record, and how/ when you got started on writing the material?
Kurt Wagner: This record began about 3 years ago, largely by not making any music at all for a while. In fact, I was just painting, pictures then. Prior to that, I had been fairly productive recording releasing 10 or so full releases in about 15 or so years. I had painted as a rule most of my adult life and music put an an end to that for about 8 years. Then, I realized that it was time to paint again.
Then slowly, over that course of time, I found myself tinkering with the idea of making songs again, but with the understanding that I would try to find a way to make both activities coexist. Somehow, much later, I found out that maybe they could even interact, which is what I am attempting to do with this release.
Please describe your songwriting process for Mr. M, both lyrically and writing the musical arrangements?
Kurt: Simply put, I was writing very slowly for this record. I was in no hurry and I wanted to see what might happen if I allowed myself the luxury of time. Lyrically, things came from the same well as ever: my experiences, my friends' experiences, and the odd observations that occur when you really don't want them too.
The musical arrangements came together over time as well. I would make little demos, and then share them with my friends and band mates, and then ignore them once I started to work with our producer/engineer Mark Nevers. He had his own sonic ideas that he wanted to try with our songs, and he tried to accommodate his with the ones that I had. His notion of a deconstructed freaky sound of the Sinatra era...
For me, everything is in flux and flows and all is up for refinement and change as things lead into each other. It's part of the fun for me to let things take their own course and allow them to take on a life of their own.
Was this consistent or different for Mr. M compared to your previous work?
Kurt: All records for us have had the differences in approach and conception. I'm afraid there is a bit too many to mention here. The closest we came to this before was on a record called Is a Woman and another record called Nixon.
It was almost like we combined the knowledge of those records and made something new again from them. It was also an approach that we haven't tried in quite some time, so it was good to go back into the lab again and try out some new experiments, only this time with the benefit of years of research, so to speak.
How collaborative was the processes among all band members collectively?
Kurt: For this record, not very on the songwriting side of it all, although I've tried in the past. But we did collaborate quite a bit on the arrangement side, as we do have to play these things together.
Can you briefly describe the strong suits of each band member, and what you feel their greatest contributions are to the band, and specifically to this new album?
Kurt: Here's a rundown of the band and each of their contributions:
Tony Crow: piano. He has a unique and complex understanding of what is musical and appropriate for any given song, and at the same time he has a spontaneity that can be counted on in a pinch. He also possesses a knowledge and analytical respect for composition and decomposition.
Ryan Norris: organ, moog and guitar, electronic contructs. Ryan brings a youthful perspective and skill and dedication beyond his years. For this record, his contribution was greater than ever before in his support of the initial ideas and his understanding the subtleties of those. He has the ability to understand my notions in a deep and personal way.
Scott Martin: drums, electronic contructs. Another strong voice of a young prodigy, his command and natural feel is extremely rare and influential on each part of the process, or this record. He steers the boat and keeps it afloat. He also has yet to even come close to the potential that awaits him. He's very exciting to work with.
Matt Swanson: bass. He has an amazing way of getting inside a song and constructing bass parts that are complex and moving. It's always a wonder to see a song change as he finds his way into the mix.
Jonathan Marx: electronic contructs. It was important in this record to bring Jonathan back into the process to have his influence felt and suggested. He can add just the right coloring sometimes to make things click just so. He also gets what the idea of Lambchop is and can be, and you should all know that he's one of the founders.
William Tyler: guitar. This didn't really turn out to be Will's record this time. He was away promoting his own solo record for most of its inception, so one could say his biggest contribution was his absence. That said, he is still there on several songs, but his work on the album is much more a part of the texture rather than the tenor.
What was most surprising and/ or challenging for this album?
Kurt: I'm always "surprised" by the results of our endeavors. The most challenging thing other than financial issues was the going back to the constructive approach and trying to maintain a certain openness to the sound as we continued to add to it and not overwhelm it.
Kurt: I think the way we approach the material live/ post recording is the very natural and intuitive. Mainly because in the end, that's the way we are as a band, and it's really one of the things that
I love about this group.
The album was originally called Mr. Met. Can you discuss the original title, it's significance, and why it was altered?
Kurt: Yes, you are correct, the record was called Mr. Met and for it's sins it was changed. To me it will always be called Mr. Met, but Major League Baseball felt differently. So we, in order to accommodate their largess and power, refer to it now as Mr. M.
What can I say? I don't want to put the record company I work with in a position of trying to defend my right to call anything I make anything I see fit. That would be silly and expensive. Oh well, I chalk that one up for big bad business.
What were some of your biggest sources of inspiration for the record?
Kurt: There a lot of things that go into what I do. I draw upon my life's experiences and those of my friends. Much of it is private, but the emotions that these conjure up are ones we all can share, should we spend a little time listening. Life, loss, love, and smoking etc.
Can you discuss the paintings and artwork for the new album?
Kurt: Basically what I tried to do for this record is to try to draw a connection between the paintings I was working on at the time, and the songs I was making for this record. The fact that I was able to work on these two parts of my artistic thing was interesting to me. I wanted to explore what might happen if they were presented together.
I have a lot of questions yet to be answered here but it is thrilling for me to think that maybe it's what I've needed to do all along. Provide just a bit more substance to drawn from in order to appreciate the singular elements more.
I am curious to hear about some of your own visual art influences. Can you discuss some of your biggest influences and favorite artists?
Kurt: Painting influences for me are many, but to name a few, I'd say: Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Malcome Morley, Micheal Peed, David Dunlap,Jonathan Borofsky, and Raymond Petibone.
Their biggest influence on my work is their sense of truth, and their dedication to how the notion of idea, art, and life are connected, and are in essence one in the same.
In addition to painting and music, what other creative processes do you enjoy?
Kurt: I'd say the doing of absolutely nothing, or cooking.