Lambchop are set to release their 11th studio album, Mr M, later this month (20 February). We spoke to their leader and only permanent member, Kurt Wagner about the construction of their most studio-based record ever, what keeps him inspired as an artist, the band's special show at London's Barbican on 1 March and the future of Lambchop. How the devil are you? "I'm well. I'm at home in Nashville and it's pretty mild here. You guys had snow right? None of that here. I've just been relaxing. For instance, on Sunday I spent the whole day watching sport on TV - I watched Manchester United come back against Chelsea then put on the Super Bowl. I've always been a huge soccer fan and they're starting to show more games from the UK over here which is great."
What did you make of Madonna's Super Bowl half time show? "You know, we all tried to predict what songs she'd play. Of course, I got it all wrong. She defies expectations, Madonna. That's what she does. I really enjoyed the spectacle of it."
This is your 11th studio album. What drives you on still? "I still like doing it, making things - I just love creating. Thinking things up. That we've been able to do so many records is something I'm so happy about. I don't take it for granted. Getting in the studio and recording is still something I love, that whole process is something I still deeply enjoy. I like that it's still unpredictable - sometimes I surprise myself."
Apparently your painting inspired Mr M. How did that feed into the songwriting? "Well, what happened is I was painting and writing new songs, the two things happening simultaneously. So it occurred to me to try and make them interact. They're both pretty different and kind of similar. Music is collaborative, painting is very solitary but they're both about ideas. So yeah, the idea behind the album was to kind of let the two things flow into one another - the painting and the music."
Do you still have to look for inspiration or does it come to you now? "Oh man, I don't know. Whether it's painting or music, I draw on life experiences, I suppose. The first song on the new record, for example [If Not I'll Just Die], is pretty literal. It's about when my wife had her entire family over for the period between Christmas and New Year. I mean, that's 12 adults, five kids. There was nowhere to hide but my computer so I kind of wrote this song. Was I trying to escape the in-laws? No, not at all. Maybe a bit." [laughs]
Is it the little things like this that inspire you? "I guess. I think I write songs about trivial things that maybe they reflect on a larger meaning. Not all songs can be about death, right?"
You started the painting that lead to this album to get "out of your funk" following the death of singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt. Why was he such an important artist and friend? "It wasn't an easy time for me after he passed away. His encouragement led to a lot of the things Lambchop have achieved. I met him when I was basically just shouting into microphones and recording it. He made me take things a little more seriously. It's still a tough thing for me to deal with directly. I'm not sure it'll ever really get better. You just have to figure out, how do I move on? He was a great guy."
Mr M was more of a studio creation rather than a band performance. What did you enjoy about making album in this jigsaw way? Was it hard? "Well, a big concern was preserving a the quality of the band's sound - that openness. It took a little longer than normal for us this way. It took pretty much three years. We used to work a lot quicker but, you know, we're getting older now... [laughs] This felt a lot more natural".
What's it been like preparing to tour it then? "Surprisingly easy, actually! I wasn't sure how it was going to sound. We made a decision not to tour with the strings and all that. The idea was that we relied on the strength of the songs, that they were good enough to be kept stark. But when we got together for the first time to try 'em out live, I was like, Hey, this sounds pretty good!"
You're playing London's Barbican on 1 March. What have you got planned for the show? "I'm still thinking about it. We really want to make it special. Every time you play the Barbican it's special but we want this one to be really something. So, err, I'm not sure what's in store. But it'll be great, I promise!"
You've said before that Britain has a bit of a "country fetish" and the UK was one of the first places to embrace what Lambchop was doing. Why do you think this is? "Historically, I guess there's been a reasonable amount of attention spent on folk music in Britain. I don't know, it's hard for me to say as someone who doesn't live there - I get a pretty small view of what's happening. But yeah, the UK has always been good to us."
We only seem to get certain types of country - alt-country for want of a better word. Is it strange to you to see what will fly in the UK and what won't? For example, you do well here but Taylor Swift less so... "Really? I was assuming Taylor was this crazy phenomenon everywhere. Again, it's hard for me to comment with my limited view and experience of what goes on in Britain but she's an interesting phenomenon - I'm fascinated by her. It's interesting to think that that's what country has evolved into. There's a lot of artists now in pop that are an evolution of it but perhaps beyond what you'd even recognize as country music."
In the release with Mr M, you were quoted as saying you felt Lambchop "had one more good record in us" - what does that mean? Could this be Lambchop's last album? "You know, I think there was a word missing in the way that ended up on the page - a "maybe" or "could be" or something. [laughs] It was meant to be more a description of our approach to this record - we were laying it all out on the field like an athlete, giving it our all. I'm realistic about it. I'm a relatively old fella now, I can't keep doing this forever. I'm not sure how much we've got left in us but this isn't it for us... I don't think!" Al Horner @Al_Horner
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