Two years after their grand masterpiece and critics' favourite 'Nixon', Nashville-based musicians
collective Lambchop return with 'Is A Woman', another stunning work of equal beauty. KindaMuzik talked to
the three southern gentlemen at the heart of the new album: mainman Kurt Wagner, producer and guitarist
Mark Nevers, and pianist Tony Crow.
Publicatiedatum: 18 februari 2002
The recording process for 'Is A Woman' was different than for your previous records, and you
recorded live in the studio this time around. How easy is it for you to function as a band with this
number of members, members who are also spread out geographically?
KW "It's not easy. It has its own pluses and minuses."
MN "Rehearsals are hard."
KW "At any given time, there are only going to be a certain number of people there, as
opposed to everybody. Sometimes you find yourself playing and imagining - or having to imagine -
what these other people are going to do, which is sort of weird."
Lambchop has never been a fixed band. It's always acted more as a collective of sorts, hasn't it?
KW "Yeah. Certainly it's more additive than subtractive for the most part."
Tony, you've played with Lambchop before...
TC "A little, yeah."
This time around, you've had the chance to do some serious piano playing on the album. What is
it like for you to have your playing act as such a vital component to the group sound?
TC "Well, it was a bit scary, hearing that for the first time. I wouldn't use 'serious'
as an editorial word, really. I'd been involved on just a couple of songs, here and there, on the
two albums previous to that ['What Another Man Spills' and 'Nixon']. I hadn't done any performing,
live shows... I was happy to be included, and we connected in ways that were just as friends."
Mark, you recorded and produced 'Is A Woman'. When you get up to 15 musicians into one studio,
how do you get them in line? Do they all have their own individual parts, or is everything written
MN "Sometimes it takes some work, but they've gotten better at it. In Nashville, we
have this headphone box that has eight faders, so you can have eight different mixes. A lot of
times, these guys [Wagner and Crow] will just listen to themselves - the main dudes - and the other
guys will be beating on bongos out of time in the back room somewhere! 'We'll deal with that
later!' It can be hectic, but it's getting to where I think they understand not to keep soloing at
the same time. It's calmed down from that."
KW "Yeah, now it's like everybody's scared to."
MN "No one's playing! Kurt's parts are written out beforehand."
KW "The songs are written. I try not to get too specific about what they do. I just sort
of let them do it, and if it works, it's great. If it doesn't work, we don't use it, or it ends up
not being a regular part of what we do."
Kurt, on this album you're using falsetto as a vocal style much less than on 'Nixon'. Was that a
conscious decision on your part, or did it just fit the songs better?
KW "It was conscious. I'm trying to be a little more restrained about it and not rely
on it as some sort of effect. It's like using your fuzz pedal too much."
How important is creating a certain mood to you when you're making a record, and what was the
feel you were going for with this album?
KW "For a long time, I wasn't quite sure what it was. It was a mood, but for ourselves
to articulate it it was a lot easier to hear it and to know that that's what we want to do, as
opposed to a 'let's map it out' kind of a thing. We had certain ideas. Mark had certain ideas about
what he wanted to get on tape, and luckily they were the same kind of things that I was wanting to
have as far as kind of songs I was writing. It worked out pretty well that way, and we didn't have
to go through any big pre-production sort of meetings about how it was going to happen. The ideas
were similar, the sonic ideas and my ideas were all similar."
You had a fairly large budget to record 'Nixon', and you said that you were going for the same
quality of sound as the 'big productions', also so that reviewers couldn't critique the acoustic
quality of the record. Was that intended as a sort of 'hi-fi rebellion', as opposed to a 'lo-fi
KW "Yeah. We always try to make a better record, a better sound... It certainly was a
bit of that, I'm sure."
How do you look at that stance nowadays? Is that still what you're going for?
KW "Oh, I think it's still there."
MN "It's still expensive, yeah!"
KW "It hasn't gotten any cheaper! I think that once you get to that sound or that
point, it's difficult to go backwards. It's difficult to go backwards in a lot of ways, but in
particular that way."
MN "We also want to make other people work harder, instead of just fucking around on
their eight-tracks. Learn how to engineer."
TC "I don't think it was taking up against anything though, really."
KW "I write on the shittiest stupid Sony tape recorder ever made. It's the biggest piece
of crap, and I like it like that. I know what I want it to sound like in my head, to create it in a
four-track sort of situation... It's fine for certain things or what people want to do. It's just
that in my mind it's not quite satisfying enough, because now I know that the possibilities are
there to make something sound good. If we were living in the jungle, that would probably be just
MN "Yeah, since we were there and all that shit's there, we might as well use it to our
You produce other acts as well. Is that also your work ethic with, for example, Silver Jews?
MN "I do a lot as far as bringing tape machines, getting the mics, and going the extra
mile to make it as good as it can be. I was into the eight-track scene forever, and then I just got
tired of it and wanted to make stuff that sounded good."
KW "You realise that you're just sort of beating your head against the wall at some
point. You're going through all these sort of things with the limitations of what you've got in
order to make it sound good. Then you realise that you can just get a little deeper into it, and
you've saved yourself a lot of headaches in a way."
Is there ever the fear that - due to this 'glossier' production - your sound and music will
become too saccharine and over-produced?
KW "Yeah! Well, I think that's kind of the reason the way the record sounds now. We
didn't want to get to that point. You can still make things sound good without being over-produced.
You can make them under-produced, and it's more difficult in a way. That's why a record like that
Rick Rubin record with Johnny Cash works so well. Certainly Rubin can do whatever the fuck he wants.
He just chose to do it that way. Particularly the first one ['American Recordings']... But yet,
Rubin probably wouldn't have done that had he not gone through some of the other stuff that he'd
TC "Just because you're limited technically - we're talking about this
eight-track/four-track thing versus a big production - doesn't mean that you can't also be
What is the genesis of a Lambchop song? How do you kick-start the writing process, and how does
KW "It's different. I try all kinds of different crap. I can't say that it's just one
particular thing. I just use that crappy little tape recorder, and I sort of get comfortable enough
with the idea or song before I actually bring it to practice. Really, we just start playing."
So you're equipped with an antiquated tape recorder, and you write lyrics on a hi-tech laptop?
KW "Yeah! It's just for word processing. I didn't have a typewriter for a while, and
the 'Lambchop' screen glowed in the dark, so that was handy."
Do you feel more pressure when it comes to writing songs now, since you effectively gave up your
job as a floor sander before the making of 'Nixon'?
KW "I think the only pressure is the sort I give to myself personally. That's just what
I want to do. I like to write songs. So how much pressure can that be, other than the fact that they
suck or not?"
MN "The wife comes home, checks his work! 'Honey, I did write a verse!'"
KW "I pretty much have to wait until she leaves the house. I'm pretty shy about anybody
but the dogs hearing what the hell I'm doing, until I think it's worth hearing. Just because it's
such a weird process, and I've got to go through all of these weird ways of doing it..."
You've said before that you can see almost any of the songs as the last word at the end of a
sentence, paragraph, or story. How important is literature to you, lyrically speaking, and do you
also aspire to write words that will hold up on the written page?
KW "I think it's a nice thing if that is in fact the case. Sometimes that means that,
if they're sound lyrically, it doesn't always mean that they're sound as a song. I've discovered
that they're not always meant to go together. Just because they work well on a page, doesn't mean
they work well in music. One of the things that we discovered in making this record? A lot of
times - when we're putting the final tracks down - we'll do a mix with the other boys [the rest of
Lambchop], and then we'll do a mix without the boys. On 'Nixon' stuff, a lot of those tracks sounded
great without the boys, really fine. I think we found on this one that they were just totally...
boring, without it. In a way, I think that that's a good thing, because it means that they're
interconnected, and they can't really be separated as easily. It was an interesting discovery. I
don't know if that means that the record's boring or anything like that, but it certainly means
that they are co-dependent on each other."
There's the old adage that 'truth is stranger than fiction,' and I suppose that you could add
words like interesting, mystifying, and honest to that. This record is centred around themes such
as love, death, respect, emotional baggage... Is this real-life honesty what you strive for, not
just lyrically, but also in a musical term?
KW "Yeah, yeah. That's just the way I do things. I just write from experiences, as
opposed to... non-experiences. That's just the kind of way Lambchop operates too, as far as the way
they play. I don't think anybody really plays above what they can do. It's definitely who they are,
or it challenges them in a way to almost play a little bit under what you know or play in a place
that's unfamiliar. Go ahead and do things that you don't understand. I think you tend to use natural
restraint, because you kind of don't know what the hell is going on. That's why, in a lot of ways, I
don't like to announce what it is I'm going to play before I play it. The band finds it endlessly
frustrating, because they're not prepared for what's coming up. In a way, that's a purposeful thing,
because then new things happen, or there are certain moments when people aren't playing for a
minute. You sort of find out new things about yourself, and you try new things. Rather than
saying, 'let's try something new,' you just catch people unawares a little bit. Eventually, the sort
of recognition comes in. Sometimes people don't even realise what the hell song it is. All of a
sudden, recognition kicks in, then the band kicks in, and then you've arranged a song quite
naturally, without any sort of, 'OK, we're gonna do it like this on the first verse and then this
and that on the third verse...' To me, that sort of takes the stuffing out of it, and it's a little
less alive and a little less exciting. It's easy to relax, an 'I'll figure it out eventually' sort
So you don't play the same setlist every evening then?
KW "Well, we're experimenting with that, particularly now, because I think within that
there's another thing. I don't want to exclusively keep anything out of it, but how do you go about
that and still keep that fairly interesting? There are things that bands discover by doing that that
we've never had an opportunity to do by virtue of not playing a lot. It's certainly something I
think we're going to experiment with and see what happens. I think what we'll happen is that
hopefully we'll start changing these songs more that way, in interesting ways. So, hopefully at the
end of this next four or five months, the songs we're playing will have changed. They're maybe not
as recognisable as they were. I think that they're already more interesting in a lot of ways. They
sound better already than they did when we recorded them, and that's fine with me. It's a pretty
common comment among a lot of people in the band, where they say, 'God, I wish we'd recorded it
now.' That's like a year after we've been playing it. In a way, they have a point there.
Unfortunately, I don't think that the record business works that way. We've tried to get away with
that. Even with this record, we were playing it as we were recording it. It just didn't seem to
please very many people involved in trying to sell our records, that we were not playing 'Nixon', we
were playing some weird, new stuff. And I'm going: 'What the fuck's wrong with that? I always like
it when bands play new stuff.' I feel like I'm getting a special treat or something. The record
companies go: 'Oh, it's not selling our record.' Well, darn! Is that our problem?"
Your songs are all five or six minutes long on the new album.
KW "Sorry about that!"
They take time to evolve.
KW "Yeah, and there's a definite relationship there, between that and the kind of way of
working we were just talking about. That's the way they happen."
Is that the way it works when recording the material as well? Whoever is in the studio at any
give is on the record?
KW "Well, sometimes. I'm trying to be a little judicious about how I guide this thing.
I'm trying to be not too much of a dictator. To some extent, I do have ideas, and it helps to have
a focus, especially when there was a lot of confusion making this record."
MN "People would have ideas about what guys to use on certain songs, but then people
would show up that weren't on the track. Then you're like: 'Well, fuck, we gotta mic 'em!'"
KW "That's kind of hard to do that in a diplomatic sort of way."
Your music is more complex than one could at first assume. Upon first listening, most people
probably don't hear all of the textures and background noises you employ in the music. Is the
insertion of more off-kilter and noisy soundscapes at the back of the mix a way for you to keep
things interesting, both for the listener and also for yourself?
MN "Oh yeah. Personally, as a guitar player, I've always had a problem with hitting a
chord that I recognise. I think that it comes through with all of the weird sounds too. Instead of a
sample that you've heard on a Public Enemy record..."
You described the album as 'Brian Eno meets Ray Charles.'
MN "I definitely was thinking that all along."
KW "I had those sorts of ideas too. I think Jonathan [Marx, juno and sampler] did as
well. These are the kind of sounds that we're into."
You've recently worked with Morcheeba as well. What exactly have you done with them?
KW "I wrote a couple of songs with them and sang a bit on one, and for another one I
just wrote the lyrics exclusively. It was a lot of fun."
Are there other artists that you can see yourself working with in the future? I know you did an
EP with Josh Rouse ['Chester'].
KW "Sure. I'd like to do more stuff with Vic [Chesnutt] really."
MN "Yeah, who would like another crack at Vic? Technically, we weren't up to keeping up
with him for his 'Salesman And Bernadette' album. Now we can probably do it."
KW "Not only that, but I think that, by the time we get around to working with Vic
again, we'll be a lot better backing band. The problems that occurred - maybe not so much on the
recording, but definitely when we were performing with him live - I mean, a 15-piece band makes it
very difficult for a singer. We can steamroll over just about any singer that chooses to stand in
front of us. It happens really easily, and we did that more often than not."
Was that very different, supporting somebody else on their album, to functioning as your own band
on your own record?
KW "I think that's something that Lambchop is doing more and more, other than myself. I
tend to stay out of things like that. There's no real point in me doing that, and I'm quite
satisfied doing what I'm doing. I've never been really good playing anybody else's stuff anyway,
which is why I started writing songs to begin with. I couldn't figure out how to play
'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida', so I had to make up one."
I'll wait for that cover version.
MN "It's got to be a short one!"
KW "Well... It'll be the shortest song we've ever done! Shorter than 'I Sucked My Boss's
Mark, you also produced the last Silver Jews album, and you seem to concentrate more on the
alt.country scene in general. How do you tend to pick projects to produce?
MN "Well, they usually call me. I would like to ring up some people, but they probably
wouldn't answer the phone. It usually just comes through friends or hanging out, word-of-mouth...
Maybe one day I'll have somebody who goes out there and finds me work, because there are slow
How is it for all of you after 'Nixon', after you topped many critics' polls and achieved
something of a breakthrough commercially?
KW "Through the critics that are writing about us we're becoming a little more known. A
few more people know about what we're doing, and that's good. It's not anywhere near that we're
getting to be like Ryan Adams. He's certainly a much bigger star and certainly strives to be, I
Yes, and he also plans to put out what seems like five albums a year.
KW "Yeah, and I think that's maybe the only thing - in a way - that we have in common.
We both like to write a lot. He puts it all out, and we don't."
So there's also a lot of self-editing that you do, basically?
KW "Yeah. I'm not like Robert Pollard; I'm not like Ryan Adams. I don't have this sort
of desire to release everything. I certainly don't think that it's worth listening to."
MN "From 'Nixon' to now, in the last two-and-a-half years, we recorded almost 85 songs."
KW "Also a lot of different versions of one song."
Is there a lot of stuff that you write as well that wouldn't necessarily fit in the body of a
song? Do you write for yourself in other formats?
KW "Yeah. I don't know what to do with a lot of this stuff, and I'm trying to figure out
ways to do something with it. I don't necessarily think that it's appropriate for a song. I've been
trying to figure out: 'What do I do with this stuff?' There are some hip hop experiments I was
fucking around with, just briefly. Marky [Nevers] couldn't stand to listen to it. I just like to
dip into other forms of music and writing. I don't quite think that I'm a David Byrne, where I can
release my own volume of poetry. Eventually, when I croak, maybe there'll be a nice little book."
Do you ever write while you're out on the road?
KW "I think a lot on the road, and I've made notes from time to time, but not like Ryan
[Adams]. He's writing with the intent that people are going to listen to his stuff, and I just write
with the intent because I like writing. If I think it's OK or if it fits some sort of weird criteria
of my brain, then other people get to hear it or read it. That boy totally wants to live the life,
be the star, and all that... great. If I was 23 or however many fucking years he's got, I'd be like
that too. I totally understand him. When I studied sculpture or was painting, I was like him. I did
an insane amount of work. I was very much like him."
Are there other forms of art - you just mentioned sculpture and painting - that inspire you
creatively, aside from music?
KW "Yeah, anything that's good! I like all kinds of stuff."
KW "It doesn't really matter what it is. I like any type of expression that's good, and
it doesn't have to be any particular medium. It could be microbreweries! There's a certain art to
Meer Lambchop op KindaMuzik: http://www.kindamuzik.net/artiest/lambchop