Instead of compiling a collection of songs with a personal meaning, Kurt Wagner spent hours listening to songs containing the number nine. He talks Alex Wisgard through the tracks that made his final cut and how his arbitrary choices mirror his work in Lambchop.
“My phone is going to buzz me in twenty-five minutes to tell me that I need to go to this other computer here and check into a flight.” Alongside the number nine, Wagner's flight check-in is a recurring theme of the conversation. Wagner is prepping for the third round of rehearsals in advance of touring the new Lambchop album, This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You). Technically the band’s thirteenth album, they choose to look on it as their fourteenth; to quote the album’s press release, “like all the other tallest buildings in the world, Lambchop skips No. 13.”
It’s a new way of working for the band, who are convening in North Carolina, home of their US label Merge Records and newest member Matthew McCaughan, whose analogue synth improvisations form This’s beguiling backbone. As Wagner notes, “It’s a weird way to do it, but Nashville has grown and Lambchop has evolved. It used to be that living in Nashville was a prerequisite to being in the band, but I think expanding beyond that has really enabled us to employ a lot of other great, talented people and I’m willing to give it a shot. I like the notion of getting together every week, but I’m fine with trying it this way.”
Slathered with autotune and punctuated by long ambient stretches, the album is something of a piece with its predecessor, 2016’s FLOTUS, as well as recent releases by fellow indie rock journeymen Low and Yo La Tengo (more on whom later). When I put this to Wagner, he agrees, adding that it’s simply something that comes with being in a band as long as they all have. “In order to keep us excited about making music, we have to find a way to do that. And it’s through exploring and having made enough records that you really want to start pushing what is possible sonically. That just grows over time as you continue to make more music.”
Taking new and exciting approaches to existing formats also informed the way Wagner decided to pick his nine songs. Rather than choose old favourites – “Even though things like ‘Oh, this is the song I had sex to for the first time’ is probably very interesting to people, how many times are you going to read that in the course of going back to your site?” – instead he used his selections as a way to broaden his own horizons, by focussing entirely on songs featuring the number nine. “It’s in the selection that my interest and affinity of different types of music is revealed, much in the way a DJs’ aesthetic is presented. Many are songs that neither I or probably anyone has heard or is aware of, but taken together they should get to the same place as the other approach most people take"
“I try to look at this stuff positively, in that articulating the thing that you do is both painful and very helpful in continuing to do stuff. You get a chance to take a look at what the hell you made.” He did set some parameters though: “I found a lot of stuff that was pretty predictable, like The Temptations or whatever. Which is great, those are good too! But I was trying to find something that used the number nine, rather than being part of another set of numbers, like 911 or 99 and a half.”
So, much like the sense of the unexpected that comes with each new Lambchop album, Wagner tried something entirely new, both for Nine Songs and himself. “I used it as an opportunity to discover new things, and that was fun. I just decided to take it literally and I’m surprised no one had thought of it before!”
Having said that, although Wagner’s first pick fits his self-defined limitations, it’s slightly more familiar territory for us to start on.
“What sealed the deal for me doing it this way was that our first 7” single was entitled ‘Nine’, so I thought that would be a good way to get into connecting me with this. ‘Nine’ was on one side and the oh-so memorable track ‘Moody Fucker’ was on the other side. We called it ‘Nine’ because those little “Doot doot doot’s” that go on happen nine times - I remember counting the doots to figure out how to do it when we were recording it and the last line of each verse rhymes with “nine.” I don’t think there are nine verses, at least not intentionally.
“When we put this out, I think our whole goal was just to do that in itself. We were getting together and making recordings for fun and then we discovered that we could actually press up records in our own town, about a mile from my house, so we learned how to go through all the motions to do that. It was going to be a self-released single, but in the interim, Merge decided that they wanted to put it out. Jonathan Marx, one of the guys in our group, had gone to Columbia University with Mac, who founded Merge and he was very proud to show Mac 'Hey, I’m in a band too! Here’s what we’re doing.' They liked it and wanted to do a 7” and since we were going to do it anyway, it all turned out OK.
“It was very fun, realising the notion that we could actually make records. We honestly didn’t think anyone would buy them. We’d previously put out one 7” as Posterchild and we learned that we could make it, record it, press it, get it distributed by some small little distribution place and we were surprised at the response, to be sure! We sold enough to make another one, so this was in essence, the second single, but the first officially-released one on Merge.”
“When I was first searching for these songs, I started with Spotify, typed in “nine” and I got all these things. I’d never heard of Jr. James and his Late Guitar but I was assuming it was the title of the track. It turned out later when I YouTubed it that it was the title of the record. I thought it was a fine second track to jump into this thing and, surprisingly, it was very listenable! I discovered something which I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t done this, so already this exercise was proving pretty cool.
“I was late to the Spotify world. I didn’t get it until August of last year but now whenever I want to find something that’s usually the first place I go. I’ve found it to be pretty handy, certainly as far as keeping up with new releases and stuff like that. Where was I getting my music recommendations before? Oh, you know, the press! Thank you very much!
“When the last record came out, I talked a lot about being inspired by hearing Shabazz Palaces for the first time, and that came out of a live experience. I was familiar with their work of course but seeing them live was revelatory to me. I’m always curious how the hell people translate things to a live situation. I do think the last two Lambchop records have an increasing R&B influence, because that is something I keep up with quite a bit these days. I always have, but again, I was a little challenged by my record collection! So having access to stuff so easily now definitely helps.”
“I was not familiar with this particular track by SZA, though I was familiar with the big record and work in the Top Dawg world. I love almost everything they put out, it’s good sounding music and it’s well produced. I think she’s awesome, but I did not know about this song. I think it came out about 2015, which predates any of my awareness of SZA for sure.
“It’s cool; it kind of reminds me a little bit of Tracey Thorn and I’ve been a big fan of her forever. It’s great production and it’s fun to listen to and I think Willow is Will Smith’s daughter – I’m going to go out on a limb and say so. I also like the visuals for it on YouTube – it’s just three white bars on a black screen and it represents the number three, so I thought “That’s a pretty good third track.” Sometimes artwork on YouTube is not a pretty thing to look at, and I do tend to listen and stare at whatever they present to me. Dude, I don’t know why! But half the time, it’s not that great to look at.
“Doing this was an insane exercise, because I must have spent about six or seven hours looking for songs and saving them to a playlist and then I found out that you guys only use YouTube! So I had to figure out if this stuff was available there. Hopefully people will at least listen to it a little bit while they’re reading. That’s what I did when I was looking at the feature you did with Ira from Yo La Tengo, and he picked stuff he hadn’t even listened to, just things he’d bought lately. Then again, for Ira, I think the record store is Spotify.”
“As I understand it, this might be the first single that Yo La Tengo put out as well – I know early on they did a cover of this song, and that’s how I came across it. As with a lot of Sun Ra stuff since, I got turned on to it by them. But I did find that an interesting thing as well, that Yo La Tengo’s first single was ‘Rocket #9’ and ours was ‘Nine’, that’s a nice little connection somehow too.
“I was aware of Sun Ra, don’t get me wrong. There was a member of Lambchop [bassist Marc Trovillion], who has since passed away and he was very much into him back in the 70s’. That’s how I found out about Sun Ra, but I wasn’t aware of his stuff and his catalogue as much as I grew to be after knowing Yo La Tengo. I believe all the mythology around Sun Ra too – they seem to believe it, and that’s really all that counts. Especially these days, what you believe is what you believe…
“OK, there’s the alarm on my phone, God, this is so obnoxious, I’m really sorry! Let me just click thiiiiis, and type my number iiiin…this is great, right? Aww, no TSA Pre. Poo!”
“I am very much into Aphex Twin’s music and his approach. I think he’s pretty much a master of electronic music and not afraid to go his own way, but I wasn’t familiar with this piece. I’ve known about Warp Records for quite a while and been a big fan of most of what they put out. There’s certainly a place in my brain for the type of music that Warp puts out and is presenting to people, and because my label [City Slang, the band’s European label] is out of Germany, that did not go unnoticed early on in our career.
“I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to genre-pigeonholing in those days, we just liked music! Because we’ve been around as long as we have, obviously our tastes have evolved and grown – luckily - as time has gone on. I’ve always felt that if it’s good music, I don’t care what you call it. I never really get too nervous about how our new records get received either – I trust that people will hopefully follow along with it.
“I don’t give it a whole lot of consideration, although I think at this point it’s obvious that we are not standing still in one place. We’ll continue to evolve and grow, I’m grateful for people who continue to listen to us, and I hope it offers something to people who’ve never heard of us before. It probably would be pretty confusing if they start at this current record and work backwards, but I think, then again, it’ll be a pleasant surprise!
“We simply wanted to express ourselves, have fun, make records and do it independently as much as we could. The fact that we were assisted along the way was always appreciated, and not taken for granted, but we never anticipated it to continue as it has. We certainly didn’t start out with the notion of being musicians in 2019.”
“L.A. Noire is a video game?! I had no idea! I just thought it was a film or something. So when I read about music being composed for video games, this is what it is? I was surprised, because this sounds great - I checked out a few of the other pieces and this was right up my alley.
“I’m quite into that sound and I think one of the reasons I picked it is that the title track on the new record also references that noir sound a little bit, so throw that in there as some sort of tie-in again. Both myself and the engineer/producer we worked with, Jeremy Ferguson, are really into the Taxi Driver soundtrack and that kind of vibe, and this song certainly leant itself to that.
“It’s also interesting because the title track was the first song written for the record, with Matthew, and that was the beginning of our exploration together, experimenting and sending these pieces back and forth. That was the first one that was successful and a lot of that had to do with Jeremy’s input - he had an idea that he’d been wanting to try for years and this allowed him to do it. After writing that song I was trying to find a way to reference these particular pieces I was writing, and I thought it would be fun to try and work the word “you” into the titles of everything I was working on with Matthew.
“It was a way to keep them straight, as opposed to anything else I was working on. As the record was being put together and I was thinking about what was going on overall, I did like that notion that it did specify a “you”, as opposed to the audience in general. It led itself to being a little more of an intimate sonic relationship, if you will. To me, the “you” is whoever’s listening at any given time, so it could be you, or it could be the next guy I’m doing an interview with!
“My alarm’s going off again. ‘I know! I already did that!...’ I have a lot to learn about phones…”
“More and more, one of the great things that I’ve found about both YouTube and Spotify is that you can really find some amazing jazz stuff right off the bat. It’s something I like to listen to a lot more these days - that rings my bell. The few hours I allow myself to listen to music usually involves cooking and stuff like that, and there’s a type of sound within that genre that I’m really into right now.
“That’s the sort of thing I wanted to play around with on this new Lambchop record - making it almost like a trippy piano jazz trio or something like that. At least, that was the sound that it seemed we were making. Obviously, there’s a lot more to that, but essentially when you boil it all down, that’s what it is. This song’s not piano based – I believe it’s Jim Hall on guitar and Paul Desmond’s great. I try to look up the credits on Spotify for songs, but I still can’t fuckin’ find them. I’m poking around, I’ve heard they’re on there now, but I still can’t figure out which little dots to push.
“I was listening to the new Solange record earlier this week, I wanted to find out who’s on what and I literally had to look for it on the internet, because I couldn’t figure out where that little button was to find out who those six guys that wrote it were! But I will right click and see if that helps…”
“The Paul Desmond song had five million streams and, remarkably, I believe this song had four hits.
“There’s a couple of reasons why I chose Twinkle Bell. Firstly, the B-side of our single ‘Nine’ features a hand-cranked music box playing… oh hell, I can’t remember what the song is now, but it plays a familiar classical piece, so it sort of references that. But also when I was a kid studying cello, the very first piece I ever tried to write on the cello was inspired by that particular polonaise piece that’s referenced there. I saw the story of Chopin in a movie and I thought “Oh that’s so cool! I want to write music too!” So I tried to notate and write a short little piece on the cello. That would be my earliest foray into writing music, inspired by that particular piece, but not this particular version.
“It’s pretty listenable, but it gets a little creepy after a while. I attribute that to this being such a faithful rendition of this piece of classical music. It was probably MIDI programmed, which explains why it sounds like it has no soul. That’s actually something we can get into about our record too – when we were collaborating on the songs, Matthew would send me these fifteen to twenty minute “performances” of stuff that he would process through his analogue synthesiser rack. They were pretty ambient, abstract things, and then I would use a program in Ableton where I was able to extract melody from it, so you can take analogue information and turn it into digital information.
“From that, I was able to establish a key and find chords that came out of this noise he was sending, so the music already had a direct connection to what he was playing. I would linger quite a while and start to edit and do a lot of things. Usually by the time I sent him something back, I wanted to make sure it was realised from my end as far as having lyrical content and some sort of edited part, to which Matthew would add more stuff. In the meantime, he’d created more of this stuff in thirty minutes of sitting around in the office or whatever, and it would take me days. It was hard to keep up!
“So that was a pretty interesting part of our writing relationship, since I was determined to use the information that I was creating into what he had already given me. And that’s something that only technology can allow people to do… as well as Twinkle Bell, whoever that is.”
“’9 hours of Rain on a Tent’ certainly sounds like it could have been a Lambchop song title and I thought it was a fine way to wrap things up.
“At first I found nine minutes of something, but then I lost the link. As I was trying to search back for it I found this and I thought ‘Well, that’s insane’ and sure enough, it is nine hours of exactly that. I have not listened to the entirety of the piece - and I certainly don’t expect anybody to do that - but I clicked around the video and it’s pretty consistent. I don’t know if it’s a loop, or how they did it, but there it is, and over five million people have looked at it, which I find insane. I hadn’t really paid attention to how many times it was viewed, but today when I was pulling all this stuff up to remember what the hell I’d picked I went from four plays to five million and I was a little surprised. I didn’t go back and check to see if that was the most listened-to thing out of everything I found, but it could well be.
“There are some people who have trouble sleeping, who’ll use white noise machines and I guess this is an extension of that sort of thing. Whether it’s to mask other noises going on wherever you are, or if it’s comforting, I honestly don’t know. I can’t imagine me doing that, but I guess there’s a need or some sort of want for that type of thing.
“It’s an interesting direction we can talk about, the role that music plays in people’s lives now and how it’s a supplement to other activity, rather than an activity in itself. And that’s because of its accessibility through the thing in your pocket, or however you stream stuff at home. More and more of that is now the normal way that people let music into their world, so they’re not just sitting at a desk staring at a stupid video thing. And in a way, with the whole notion of videos these days, I think it’s reached a point where it’s only going to be for someone who makes small, short films, or Beyoncé or Solange, with budgets who would encourage people to engage with something for the length of a song.
“I don’t see videos having much value these days, I just see it fading. Whenever it started, with MTV and stuff like that, those days are gone, and I’m starting to wonder about the value of making videos in general, even for album releases. In this case, we pretty much went at it as minimally as possible. As much as I enjoy the idea of connecting music with visuals, I wonder who really is even looking at it anymore, or how much attention is being paid to that. Music is being pushed a little bit more into the background of people’s lives in general and maybe that’s a reflection of it. Technology is taking us to those places, whether we’re aware of it or not.
“That idea of being post-artwork may have had a little bit of influence on the cover of This. I was just looking for something to represent the intimate nature that I was trying to get across, and the notion of maybe a self-portrait-y kind of reference. A passport photo was certainly one way I went about it. I had become fascinated with some Twitter thing called Our Passports or something like that, and I thought of visual things. They’re beautiful old documents, they’re very telling things and graphically they’re pretty strong, so I was using that as a way of representing, hopefully, what’s going on on the record.
“I was hoping that maybe because I wasn’t wearing a hat in the photo, people would question if it was really me! In fact, I talked to a fella the other day who wasn’t quite sure.”