Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner is making “show tunes for people who don’t like show tunes”

Watch the video for Lambchop’s new single “Fuku” and read an interview with the band’s central force, Kurt Wagner.

April 12, 2021
Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner is making “show tunes for people who don’t like show tunes” Angelina Castillo / Merge Records

Three decades into his career as the focal point of Lambchop, the unclassifiable band that has toyed with sound and shifted its aesthetic as frequently as it has allowed its lineup to be recycled, and Kurt Wagner is still animated by the idea of making his strangest music yet. “It may end up being one of those records that actually you can point to and go, ‘Hey that's where things got really wild for this artist,’” he says over the phone of Lambchop’s latest album, Showtunes. “Whether it was good or bad, people may go, ‘Yep, that's where he really went off the rails.’’

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Showtunes, due out May 21 via Merge in the U.S. and City Slang elsewhere, is certainly among Wagner’s least expected shifts in tone. It is, as its title suggests, a more theatrical record than anything Lambchop has released in the past, an attempt to explore (and subvert) a style of music that Wagner has only ever enjoyed parts of, from a distance. He stumbled on the idea while experimenting: one day in 2019 he converted his guitar tracks into MIDI piano tracks, and, having never been able to play the piano himself, suddenly found himself the master of a new domain.

With the help of Cologne-based DJ Twit One, who’d remixed the title track from Wagner’s 2016 LP Flotus, Lambchop brought in Gayngs founder Ryan Olson and Fog’s Andrew Broder to work on the songs in advance of a stage show at the Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin. But with that set cancelled because of the pandemic, Wagner and the new Lambchop set about finishing these songs without the thought of performing them live. C.J. Camerieri came in to arrange the horns and Yo La Tengo’s James McNew joined to add double bass to what had by then become, Wagner says, a collection of “show tunes for people who don't like show tunes.”

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The centerpiece of the record is “Fuku,” premiering below along with a brilliantly bizarre video directed by Doug Anderson. “I heard Kurt’s song and was absolutely in love,” Anderson says of the track. “‘Fuku’ evokes all of the things that the musical theater reaches for but is incapable of representing: the desire, longing, and impossibility of really falling in love. It reminded me of the truth in Walter Pater’s ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.’ Pure and abstract.”

“Fuku” is an outlier in the Lambchop discography and on Showtunes — across its seven minutes Wagner’s lyrics seem to decompose, a rare diversion for a songwriter who so often details scenes so vividly — but does layout the blueprint for Lambchop’s take on the genre. The piano is melancholic, the horns blare in broad fanfares but never threaten to overpower the drama of the composition as a whole, and Wagner’s voice, even at its most delicate and mournful, is as deep, warm, and grizzled as it has been forever. None of Lambchop's pained grace has vanished in these new surroundings.

Watch the video for “Fuku” above and read on for our interview with Wagner on show tunes, Showtunes, and the danger of making pandemic music in the middle of a pandemic.

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The FADER: After turning your guitar tracks into piano sounds, how quickly were you put in the mind of Cole Porter and George Gershwin?

Kurt Wagner: Almost immediately. Suddenly I realized, "Wow, this is getting close to something I've never been able to create before." It's the way the chords were, the vibe. Different contemporary artists over the years have dipped their toe into that, but they all played piano, or they had some ability on the instrument. Even though maybe Hoagy Carmichael or Tom Waits aren't the greatest pianists in the world, it was the instrument that brought their words and their song to life. And that, in itself, I've always been very fond of. To me it's very romantic.

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But in the broader sense, show tunes themselves are not necessarily my favorite thing; mainly there's a lot of bombast and various overacting, because they're mostly created for the theater or film. So that's the general idea: show tunes for people who don't like show tunes.

There's a real sense of place to all of these songs: smells and sounds, physical locations, images. There was a piece you did with Aquarium Drunkard a while ago where the writer described it as, "A level of hyper-specific mundanity creates some broadly universal experiences to crawl inside." I spoke to Madeline Kenney last year, and she talked one particular line from your song “I'm Thinking of a Number” [from OH (Ohio)]: “I won't tell you / That love is a variable thing / Like this shape on your ass that / I noticed when you walked away / From me.” She said, "Obviously, it's this moment where somebody had a stain on their ass is a specific moment, but he makes the moment bigger." I wonder if this is an intentional thing. Do you want to render these very specific spaces and moments that paradoxically allow people in, or is it like a happy accident?

It's probably a little bit of both. Allowing accidents to happen is definitely part of my life pursuit. But once you've done that, and you reflect upon it, and others reflect upon it, then there's an opportunity for things to become more significant. And maybe you don't have to spell it out, necessarily, or even articulate it in an interview. But hopefully, how you frame things and surround it [with] sound, the vibe and feel that you're in, that triggers the interpretation of it — or your response to it, or how deep you go with it.

I can't tell you precisely how I write, because I do go about things in different ways, but I do know that there are certain times where it all works. And I don't really understand that, but I do know it happens on occasion. And you have to allow for that. You just have to give it an opportunity to happen. A lot of it has to do with your circumstance of who you are and where you are at that time; how you're feeling and what's going on around you; and what information you're receiving and reflecting or trying to work with. It's like having a butterfly net that you're whisking around in the air. Occasionally, it catches something, and you try to remember it or write it down.

“Fuku” is in some sense the centerpiece of the album, but the language sort of falls apart here. For all of that hyper-specificity we were talking about, this one just sort of trips and it stops. It's baffling.

I was kind of puzzled by that, too, as far as language goes. I'll say it’s probably the least successful attempt at communication or an idea. But then again, it's really simple. It's so fucking simple that I sort of liked that. What I wanted, what I got out of that, was maybe that's not necessarily the most important thing. I think this record reflects this a little bit because it has instrumentals on it: it's actually okay if you don't fucking open your mouth and fill up every space with some brilliant phrase. Sometimes it's better just to shut the fuck up and let it take over what's going on, and exist in the same way.

When I think about Broadway shows, certainly that was happening there. There would be moments where there were other things going on besides somebody orating. I have noticed recently, more folks are realizing that, in order to preserve the notion of what a record or an album is, these connectors are a way of supporting an album or a record idea or a concept.

As this whole pandemic thing has gone on, I think that people are still writing and creating music, but there's a danger — or there's a possibility — that that kind of thing is very short-lived, those kinds of emotions and feelings. I don't think it serves a song necessarily, to be just hogtied by the situation that we're in. I don't think it's going to last very well. It's been harder to write lyrically since then without it becoming affected by that. I've listened to, or read, other songwriters; it seems to have gone in two directions. Some people are really putting out interesting stuff, and other people are finding it really hard to articulate stuff the way they had before without it being a pandemic record, or a pandemic album.

I mean, I don't think this record I made is a pandemic album. And I think the content of it isn't either because it was all written prior to all of that, lyrically. Certainly musically it was getting refined or added to during this situation, but it was not inflected by that. And since then, I have been trying to write, but it's just been a lot harder to make something that I think is say as good as what Showtunes was, as far as lyrics.

But that's just me, and that's probably a few artists. But I do worry that every record that's being released in 2020 and 2021 is going to be.... Well, it's going to be viewed by the lens through which we've gone through. Which is absolutely fine. It's just that maybe that's us and our interpretation of it. I've heard records that were created during this time and they're heavy, heavy things, most of them. Which I have to think maybe had something to do with what's going on. I mean, it's not like a lot of happy shit.

You wrote these songs for Eaux Claires, to present them to an audience on stage, but really worked on them after the festival was cancelled. Do you think there would have been more directness to those songs had you ended up playing them on stage?

What's interesting about this process is that I thought in my mind one type of thing would happen when we started messing around with it. It was going to be a band, on stage, playing. What was absolutely fascinating about this “Fuku” video, Doug Anderson, he's a theater guy. He's never made a video before. But he has an aesthetic and a way he goes about making theater with actors and sets. I had nothing... I just gave him the music, he created a script and dialog and all this stuff for this, and a completely theatrical idea. A way of presenting it live. And it was great because he was coming to it from the theater, a theatrical background. That's another way of thinking about contemporary music in a different venue other than a rock club or an arena, which I find really interesting and compelling. There’s nothing cliché about it, it’s fucking bonkers. But that's the type of theater producer, director dude he is. That was nice. It wasn't just me standing by a piano with a cigarette in my hand and a cocktail, That's not 2021. It’s moving the idea into something that's a little more relevant. It's not Americana, trying to sound like old-timey stuff. Maybe it expands Americana, beyond just country stuff, into another part of Americana — which is the Great American Songbook.

You want to make this contemporary without making it so contemporary that you are bound up in pandemic music.

Well, of course. I mean, and that's a writing problem to be attended to. But it is odd, because I am compelled to write. I write letters and emails or whatever. That, to me, is also writing. It is a way of communicating an idea or a thought or feeling. And those don't seem to be that difficult, so long as you don't talk about how shitty your day was because somebody didn't wear a mask at the fucking supermarket, and you got in a fight, or whatever. You know, that's the kind of stuff that it's like everybody experiences that to some level, and it's polarizing. We shed one level of anxiety in politics for the moment, and replaced it with this whole other thing where the lines are drawn. We've lost some level of compassion and empathy for each other in the process, in some ways. I think going out in the world, which I guess I'll find out eventually, it's going to be a different place. And it may be kind of creepy.

I think it will be. But there's something really lovely about intentionally creating art that can exist outside of that. Do you think that you'll be able to listen back to Showtunes in, say, five year's time, that for you it will exist in a place outside of all this?

It does right now, and I think it will in the future. I really love what happened with this. It's a big leap into working in the world in a bigger way. I mean, everybody on this record is someone I've longed to work with in one way or another. And having the opportunity to do it, mainly because I think everybody was just stuck at home, really opened up my eyes to there being a lot of possibilities out there that maybe I didn't pursue properly because maybe I was so bogged down in all the other aspects of being a performer, and touring, and being away, and focusing on a particular body of work for a year and a half on the road. Those were things that I've always found a little distracting to actually continuing to make new things, which is what I want to do in the end.

As horrible as it's been for musicians not being able to tour and connect with people in a real, physical way, I never was worried that music itself would go away. I thought it was a great time to make recordings. And I think the evidence is already in. There is such an onslaught of music right now to hear. And a lot of it's really great. But it's almost impossible to even get your head around half of it, because there's so much. And I find myself falling behind all the time. Even with artists I really like. It's hard even to spend enough time to give it a full listen. Like the new Nick Cave and Warren Ellis record, Carnage, is fabulous, right? Normally I would spend a lot of time with that record. But there's so many other fabulous records right next to it. So do I get to listen to Carnage more than twice or three times? No, probably not, because Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders put out a fucking great record. You know what I mean?

How does it impact you as an artist though? What’s it like to make music, and to send it out into that cluster, that clutter? How do you cope with that?

I don't know, what's my choice? Is to sit on it and wait for a time that's right, when the time is... apparently never going to be right. It's just getting to be more and more of a cluster of stuff. I have resigned myself to the fact that, if anything, my music is going to become less and less successfully embraced, not because it sucks, but because people just don't have the time for an old man anymore when there's all this great young stuff. And I get that. But it's not going to stop me from making it.

Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner is making “show tunes for people who don’t like show tunes”