Kurt Wagner trained to be a sculptor in Memphis before moving to Nashville and starting his musical project Lambchop in 1986. It’s a helpful lens to view Wagner’s work through. Like a sculpture, there is something at the center of the project. In the case of this album The Bible, it’s an idea to make a spiritual album that isn’t religious. From there, Wager tinkers around, shaping the piece. Lyrically he includes all kinds of ambient activity around to help shape the piece. And sonically, he brought the album to Minneapolis to Andrew Broader and Ryan Olsen and let them shape it. The result is characteristically Lambchop in the way that Lambchop is intentionally uncharacteristic. The album is an experimental work of earnest good will. Just like it’s namesake.
Justin Barney: So “The Bible” is a big name for an album
Kurt Wagner: It is.
JB: Why is it called “The Bible?”
KW: I mean, I’m basically a conceptualist at heart. I consider myself a visual artist, but I use all kinds of mediums. And lately it’s been music more than visual art. Anyway. So I sort of approach things from a conceptual point of view. So what that means is, I think of a concept or an idea, and then I try to realize it in whatever medium I’m making. In this case, it was music. And in this case, I had this idea. The notion that there’s spiritual music out there being made by people who are not necessarily associated with a religion of any type, but it still has the same power. You’re still moved by that. You can feel that kind of energy coming out of a singer or the piece, whatever that music is. But it’s not necessarily associated with Christianity or any of these other things.
KW: It’s secular music.
KW: And my notion was, well, why? Let’s focus in on that. Let’s zoom in on that idea, and see if I can make music of that nature. Focusing on that as opposed to it coming out sort of as a secondary part of whatever I was creating. So I went into it with that approach. And I collected my ideas around that notion.
KW: So we got around to making this record. I worked with these two producers and I didn’t tell them about this idea at first because I did not want them to immediately go there. To go to that place. Right. I wanted them to do what they did just on the virtue of what I presented to them or what we created together. About midway through, I let the cat out of the bag and of course, they stared to move the record with that in mind.
Eventually it came around to titling the thing. I struggled with calling it this becasue, well then the cat is out of the bag for everybody and I’m going to have to explain all this on the radio.
But I thought, “Well, you know, the Bible. That’s, um, it’s catchy, you know, memorable. I think this record’s probably one of the best ones I’ve made, and it needed a good title. Something that you will remember.”
And and I’m not kidding, you know? It is rooted in this concept that I just described. So it does fit.
[And, um, yeah, I mean, you know what journalist is going to pan “The Bible?”
I mean, seriously! Are they going to like, you know, going to go down hard on the Bible? That just isn’t a good look, man, you know?
JB: That is so funny. Have you read the Bible?
KW: I can’t say I’ve read it cover to cover, but over the course of my time here on Earth, I definitely checked it out. See, that’s the thing about it. There’s some great stuff in that book. And some great stories. All of that stuff is right on. It’s how it’s taken and interpreted and used and abused over the years that kind of gave it a bad vibe in my mouth. But that really has to do with how it’s been exploited.
But I do believe that stuff’s important. And I think if I’ve learned anything through the last three years of solitude that those kind of ideas are the things that we need in our lives. Or that are just good ways to live; Be a good person. Treat each other with respect. Basic decency.
We’ve all become inward and we appreciate our friends more. We love our families much more. We don’t take any of that for granted anymore because it was that was all we had for a while. And we really didn’t know if this was the end of the world.
JB: Absolutely. You said you worked with two guys on it. Who are they?
KW: So there are two producers on this record, kind of my Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis from Minneapolis. And their names are Ryan Olson and Andrew Broder. They’re both amazing producers in their own right. They do a lot of different stuff, but they only do stuff that they are 100% behind. And they are. They’re just like two sides of my personality.
So this is the first record where I didn’t have a co-producing role in it. I simply wanted them to do what they do, and I’ll try to get the hell out of the way and see what happens.
JB: I think they’re in the band Polica?
KW: Right. Ryan is. It’s a hard way to describe what he does with Polica here, but basically he’s their producer. Once Ryan produces a record, he’s not like the normal producer thing. He goes in at like almost 360. Like he’s not done when the record is manufactured or whatever. He’s in it all the way through it. He’s got a vision for the future of this music. He has a vision about how it could be presented live, what the artwork looks like, everything about it, and how to stay in the artist’s life beyond just the making of the record. Same goes for Andrew. These guys have a different sort of approach. They are 100% invested in the artist, not just the object.
That is unique.
I really responded that and that’s really been a big part of how I now look at the possibilities of making records.
JB: I’m from Wisconsin and the Bon Iver crew is up there and that’s what they are like.
KW: That’s what I learned from Justin (Bon Iver) and hanging out with all these guys.
I met Justin Vernon a zillion years ago when his first tour and stuff in the UK and we hit it off. We were both struggling with big bands and trying to figure out how to keep our sanity during that period of time. And of course I watched Justin become what he is. But up there it’s not just the crew, it’s a whole squad, a community of people in the Minneapolis slash Eau Claire Zone up there and I just sort of hit it off with all of them. Which is why this record in particular has so many of those artists involved in it in a peripheral way and absolutely in the performance ways.
JB: Let’s talk about “Little Black Boxes.” The first time that I heard that I was just smiling from ear to ear. It’s just not what I was expecting, you know?
KW: Of course not. I mean, that’s kind of what we do. I just make music. And every now and then, it’s something unexpected.
I think this record in particular, it’s just one unexpected track after another. And that’s one of the, I think, what makes it a great record. You never know what’s coming next.
In “Little Black Boxes” case, I mean at that point. I had gone up to Minneapolis and the notion was to start to build some tracks up there with Andrew and Ryan. So Ryan has a space up there, which is…pretty rustic..I would say it had no air conditioning and it was summer. It was like 100 degrees outside and probably about 98 inside, no windows. And it was just filled with cigarette, smoke and other types of things.
And he would every now and then, just goose a fog machine and he had these laser lights and all that and stuff would come on if something was happening that was super exciting. And in “Little Black Boxes” case it was like five guys with laptops all creating this sort of rhythmic bed. There was Andrew on a piano and that was about it. And this jam started and it went on for about, I don’t know, a couple of hours. And he kicked in a machine and the laser light. It was insane. And I was just like, “What the…?” But I knew, I knew right from the jump, man, that this song was special. I had a I had my game to get on their level of special badassery.
Well, I do want to talk about some of those background singers and on “Whatever Mortal” great background singers in there. I was wondering who that is.
We did some sessions down here at Battle Tapes in East Nashville with Jeremy. Tthere was a choir that I worked with way back in the day was recording a song called “Up With People.” And it was a guy named Derek Lee. He was the choir director of that. And so it we go back way like 2000 or something like that. And Derek Lee is like a legend in the gospel music world. He passed away shortly after the session that we did for this. Which is kind of heavy. But his imprint will live on in the gospel world, for sure. But anyway, so I hysterically and Derek had a couple of two or three singers. Oh, it was Kim, Kim and Harmony. I don’t know their last names, but that sounded good to me. And they were fine. Then we added another singer named Madison Hallman, and she’s from Minneapolis and she’s from that world and that crew that’s out there. So she sang on Police Dog and I’m pretty sure “Whatever Mortal” as well.
JB: I want to I want to talk about “That’s Music.” Lyrically, I think that that is such a fun song. Could you explain the lyrics in that song?
That’s just my standard answer to that kind of thing, because it could take a while. I mean, I’d have to have the sheet in front of me and I’ve got sources and reasons for all the things and how they fit together.
JB: How do you write lyrics?
KW: In many different ways.
Obviously collect lyrical snippets of stuff that I think of during the day. But it could be something I hear. Or it could be something. An experience, a friend or myself.
It’s definitely rooted in reality.
It’s not fiction. But the way I go about writing is pretty unusual, I think. But it’s something that’s consistent that I’ve been doing for about 30 years.
Let’s say you’re reading a book, right? And you’ll read a few paragraphs and then you kind of stare out in space and, you know, just soak in what you’ve read. Suddenly, you notice a leaf falling and a bird is pulling a worm out of the ground, and squirrel runs by. And then then you go back to the book and stuff like that. Well, that experience of including what’s happening around you while you’re writing, including that in the writing may seem kind of abstract or surreal or weird or something like that, but I look at it as legitimate. It’s legitimate to include that in the writing of a song or prose or whatever I’m working on.
Including that experience to me is sort of like, I don’t know, I don’t I don’t see a lot of writers looking at writing that way, but to me that is part of writing because it’s an experience that is happening, right? It’s real time stuff
And I will include that interspersed as I’m going through the process of writing.
I was trained as a sculptor and a painter, and I’m in grad school and etc., etc. And one of the things that I’ve always thought about as a sculptor… Sculpture is not just the object that you make. It’s not this bust. It’s all space around it. Everything around it, because your experience is in a physical, three dimensional space.
A sculpture with a hole in it. That’s that negative space. In the hole. That’s part of the sculpture. But that’s inside the sculpture, I’m talking about all the space around it. If it’s outside, that means the trees, the sky, the grass, the whole bit. If it’s in a museum, it’s the guard standing over in the corner, making sure you don’t mess with it. You know, all of that stuff. And so that, I think maybe explains a little more why I think of this way of writing, because it is about including the experience of writing in the writing.
JB: Let’s maybe let’s talk about “Police Dog Blues” for a bit. How did that song come to be?
KW: Well, that was a pretty heavy thing. When I went up there to work in Minneapolis, it was a year after George Floyd. That was a hot, hot, hot summer. And at the time, the police were still very much hands off as far as crime goes. So what was going on there was a huge crime wave and they just weren’t showing up. So it was kind of hairy up there.
And I wanted to include the experience of being there in the stuff I’m writing.
They so there was that all that going on.
The record even started while that stuff was going on. We’re doing “Showtunes” while all that stuff was happening in real time, the George Floyd thing. And it was intense. Andrew was like blocks from where that all went down. It really has a major effect on their lives and continues to as we try to make things more correct in our world.
So that so that was what was happening. And then this was my sort of way of addressing that to a point. At the time I remembered this old song, Police Dog Blues by Blind Blake. It’s a very jaunty number. Which is not what I ended up coming up with. But it is sort of a touchstone for the song and I like touchstones as far as a place to reference and start from again. Again, it’s about concept and stuff like that.
So I mean, it was definitely influenced by that. And that was the best part about it was that Andrew and Ryan had this idea that Pat Benatar was going to sing on it, and so they pitched it to her, and Pat never quite got around to listening in time for it. And it turns out Madison totally nailed it and got it and it’s a much better song for it. And so the vision, the idea that they had was even more improved. But I’m sorry, Pat.