Against Music City's odds, Lambchop has anchored an indie rock scene for more than two decades | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Against Music City's odds, Lambchop has anchored an indie rock scene for more than two decades 

Models of civility: Lambchop of late

Photo by Bill Steber

Models of civility: Lambchop of late

The band in the basement doesn't disturb the street's weeknight quiet. Downstairs, all is mellow for Lambchop, getting ready for a six-week trip to Europe, their first proper tour in awhile. Kurt Wagner's long-running Nashville outfit sits in a loose circle between the underground's support beams. Wagner directs traffic from the back corner, behind a music stand. They play "I Will Drive Slowly," from 1994's I Hope You're Sitting Down. Without its horns, the song feels somehow lusher as it chimes.

On one wall is a lenticular portrait of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, likely manufactured around the time Wagner returned home to Nashville after a post-school stint in Chicago. He had plans to move to Memphis, but he started playing songs and making home recordings with friends in Nashville. The band quietly passed its 25th anniversary here last year.

While it's certainly not their only attribute, quiet has never bothered Lambchop. Given that proclivity, on a random Wednesday night in South Nashville, it's easy to forget how singular and beautiful Lambchop has been and is, both within the scopes of indie rock and their hometown but also so very far beyond both.

"And I count your fingers, you still have 10 and your sweat-er's fuzz-y a-gain-st my chin," Wagner sings tonight, each word fully enunciated. Cortney Tidwell sings along, reading the lyrics off her phone. The music swells, following its own course in some distant place beyond mournful country and a half-dozen shades of soul. In many ways, the current incarnation of Lambchop, and their new album, Mr. M, is as perfect as they've ever been.

Down to a slim six members, the group trickles out onto the porch for post-practice smokes. The topic is M.I.A.'s Super Bowl bird-flip. The conversation turns to real-life glimpses of middle fingers in public. Tony Crow remembers the time he saw the Stones in Memphis in 1979; a shirtless longhair dangling from a sound tower scaffolding had M-80s heaved at him by the crowd: "And he was just hanging there flipping them off!" Crow laughs.

Even during this second glorious alt-age, the band Lambchop remains on the outside of the mainstream, serving as a willfully odd cross-generational outfit that remains indie in the truest sense of the word "independence." They make excellent, unassuming music like no other band.

Like the hippie hanging from the speakers, Kurt Wagner and Lambchop have been flipping the bird at those around them for 25 years—lovingly, quietly and with feeling.

Roger Moutenot's recording studio, Hap Town, is not where Lambchop recorded Mr. M. It is, however, where Kurt Wagner set up a small place to work on paintings in the lounge area, a few years back, when he started painting again after a half-decade break. He'd hear young bands make records, tweak them, fret over them. His friends in Yo La Tengo came through when they were mixing an album.

"I have a corner," Wagner explains of the setup. "I was basically a doorman. People would knock. I'd let them in, and maybe they'd take a break in the lounge later. It didn't seem to bother anybody. I know that new Tennis record backwards and forwards."

One of Wagner's recent paintings hangs on his living room wall, so that his bandmates pass it en route to the basement. A large depiction of Lyndon Johnson sitting with a rural Southern family on the front porch of their house, it's reimagined slightly from a photograph taken in Rocky Mount, N.C., while Johnson toured the South by helicopter during the War on Poverty. Wagner did two square inches a day with the nib of a fountain pen; it took 11 months to make. One piece from his series of small portraits based on the Beautillion Militaire 2000, an annual gathering of black Memphis youth in the early 20th century, provided the cover of Mr. M. Both are of a piece with Lambchop's imagistic refractions of country music, gorgeous and longing haunts with a legitimate Southern accent.

Hap Town is a bright lightbulb on the secret map of Music City, where a small and unique music scene has existed for nearly two decades now, emerging from the shadows of country music in large part because of Lambchop. In 2009, Jack White moved to town, opening his record store-cum-studio/indie-label Third Man. Around the same time, a house-party circuit emerged, bringing Nashville indie rockers fully in line with flourishing DIY scenes around the country.

"I like music, and I like listening to it develop," says Wagner happily of his time at Hap Town, where he continues to embrace the slow, patient work that has long characterized Lambchop. "I read about people working on a song for a year or so. I thought, 'I work on paintings that long, why not try to spend that much time with songs?' I would allow something to be unfinished, or just sit around as words or sit around as a musical thought that eventually I'd get around to refining and completing."

Mr. M is unquestionably Lambchop's most sophisticated album yet. But Lambchop's recent languor and Mr. M's glacial songs seem touched with sadness. Despite the Beautillion Militaire painting, its keynote may be in its liner-notes dedication to Vic Chesnutt, the kindred spirit and close collaborator from Athens, Ga., who committed suicide in 2009. "I felt Lambchop had at least one more good record in us," Wagner was quoted in a recent press release, hinting at a fatalism that might give one serious pause.

"I said at least," Wagner clarified recently at La Hacienda, a Mexican joint near his Nashville home. "But I think we approach each record like that. You never know if you're going to get an opportunity to make another one."

Appropriately, Mr. M begins with a curse. The strings swell, and Wagner wonders aloud: "Don't know what the fuck they talk about." At least some things—this band's steadfast obstinance, for instance—never change.

Lambchop originated during after-work jams in the warehouse of the flooring company where Wagner worked after returning to Nashville from Chicago. He'd moved to Chicago after art school to pursue painting. The jams were like "poker night," Wagner said, just something to do. They weren't great at playing covers, so Wagner started writing songs.

Recently compiled onto vinyl by Grapefruit Records as Turd Goes Back, Wagner's earliest work—recorded in the mid-to-late 1980s—is miles from the sophisticated countrypolitan cool of modern-day Lambchop. With titles like "Music City Shits," the songs were unquestionably made in Nashville, by Wagner. The jams sometimes seem like perma-stoned lo-fi folk-noise, but the skyline hangs in the distance at all times—not that anyone associated with Nashville proper would even notice the band's middle finger, extended in the distance. For longtime Lambchop guitarist William Tyler, who joined more than a decade later, Turd Goes Back "reminds me of something that would be on, like, Siltbreeze," the legendarily noisy label. But the dislocation comes less from recording quality than Wagner's distinctive and idiosyncratic songwriting, each track adhering to its own set of rules.

Anybody was welcome at the warehouse practices, so the band's numbers grew. They called themselves Posterchild at first and began to play out, most often at Springwater's Working Stiff Jamboree, a laid-back alternative to Music City's competitive songwriter nights. Then—somewhat by accident—things began to happen to Kurt Wagner

First, one night around 1990, a recent Columbia graduate, Jonathan Marx, was showing a friend from college around town. The son of an English professor, Marx was bummed to have found himself back in his hometown after schoool, especially because of the lack of seeming cool music around Nashville.

"There were very few venues for cool bands," he remembered. "There was the occasional cool thing that'd come through, but the local bands here sucked. It was a point in time when the culture of the music industry really tainted the energy of the local music scene. I was always around people whose mom and dad were in the music business. It's in the air. It's ambient."

Marx brought his friend to Springwater. "I knew one of the guys because I had worked with him," Marx said of seeing Wagner and company for the first time. "They were amazing, exactly what I was hoping there would be. I went and saw them at every opportunity I could get, which was like every three weeks."

He befriended the group. At Wagner's suggestion, he dug out his sister's clarinet, learned to play it and joined the band. Marx was a close college friend with Mac McCaughan, who'd returned to his own native Chapel Hill to found Superchunk and Merge Records. Marx encouraged the band to make a 7-inch record. He sent it to McCaughan, who was initially skeptical of his old pal's new interest in making music. One cease-and-desist from the Illinois band Poster Children later, the newly dubbed Lambchop was soon a Merge recording artist.

A year or so later, Mary Mancini moved to Nashville. She'd worked for Elektra Records in New York as an A&R representative but wanted a change. In 1992, she opened a record store named Lucy's, whose back room soon became an all-ages punk venue and an important stop for touring acts, especially the kind that Jonathan Marx knew. Lambchop became the perennial opening act.

"We fell into this fluke, freak kind of thing," Wagner observed. "Even Mary couldn't quite figure out why we were showing up to open for all these different great indie bands. There were a lot of reasons why we didn't qualify as a good band, or a good candidate for a band. The attitude in Nashville among bands was that they were waiting around for a major-label record deal. Most of the local bands were almost getting shut out of these really good gigs because of this bunch of guys that really didn't know what they were doing, and I don't think that endeared us to the local scene for a while."

Wagner and Mancini started dating. As Lambchop played, the songs grew wilder, the band occasionally stumbling onto anthems, like "So I Hear You're Moving," from I Hope You're Sitting Down, their proper album debut on Merge in 1994. That year, they ended up booked on a leg of Lollapalooza and toured up to New York. They made it to North Carolina, too, where they played the first edition of their label's anniversary party, Mergefest. Wagner thought they played badly, but they sounded good enough for Christof Ellinghaus to sign them to his German label, City Slang, meaning that they now had a European label to mirror Merge's efforts stateside.

Lambchop soon met Yo La Tengo, and the two bands became fast friends, especially after Yo La Tengo began to collaborate with Roger Moutenot, a New York producer who'd relocated to Nashville and declared he wouldn't produce country music. When Kurt and Mary got married, they and a dozen Lambchops piled into a pair of vans to join Yo La Tengo for a honeymoon tour up the Eastern Seaboard.

From Nashville, with love, something like indie rock.

Marky Nevers radiates the easygoing Nashville demeanor that seems emblematic of the extended Lambchop clan. Today, he eats his lunch over the covered baby grand piano that occupies the front room of his home, which doubles as the studio where Lambchop recorded Mr. M. Over the years, Nevers' home-recording projects have doubled from two-track to four-track recording, and eventually far beyond. A giant console now takes a corner just off the living room. He and his family now live upstairs.

Perhaps the first time Nashville noticed that Lambchop was maybe flipping it off was in 1998, when Nevers started to sneak them in for weekend sessions at a few downtown studios to record the album What Another Man Spills and the Vic Chesnutt collaboration, The Salesman and Bernadette. At one studio, the weekday client was Waylon Jennings, who'd kicked all his vices except for his beloved chocolate, which he'd stashed behind some boxes in the studio kitchen. Discovered by a group of more-than-likely stoned Lambchops, it was quickly devoured. Jennings was livid.

Nevers grew up in Florida in the '80s, a punk fan interested in recording. "I used to live in Myrtle Beach and didn't want to be 50 years old playing 'Margaritaville,' so I made my way here," he explained. "I went to a little tech school to learn engineering, and got an internship at Castle Recording Studio in Franklin that did lots of the big country records, mixing. Eventually, I got hired as an assistant, and I did that for a decade."

Far from being a producer's underling, Nevers was an "assistant" in the Nashville sense of the word, part of a well-established machine that churned out record after record: "It was just this huge thing, and everybody had specific jobs," he remembered.

But Nevers remained active on the local rock scene, playing in bands and co-founding his own label, Bloodsucker. When he met Lambchop, they struck him as "a sort of ragtag Grateful Dead jug band, not that they sounded like the Grateful Dead." With Nevers now behind the board, Lambchop's music gained a sudden stateliness. Though Lambchop will likely always remain synonymous with Wagner, it has constantly been a real band, with members sharing ideas; even if he rarely tours with them, Nevers remains a virtual full-time part, possessing a vital understanding of how to facilitate communication between so many players and how to mix their chaos.

"When in Nashville, visit the Country Music Hall of Fame," Lambchop began to write in their album's liner notes. If not quite a literal flip-off, one might imagine an old guard country square being puzzled by those expressing the sentiment.

Professionalism was almost inevitable for Lambchop, though, especially as musicians like piano player Tony Crow came on. His personality and smart, sensitive chops fit in with the band instantly. Still, he would jokingly flash variations of the hand signals Nashville studio musicians used to signal the changes at the other band members. In 2004, Wagner quit his day job and, for a time, began to write a song a day.

The words "writerly" and "literary" are too often applied to songwriters. While they might actually apply to Kurt Wagner, they probably both sell him short. Outsiders might call Lambchop "boring," but Wagner's songs are best heard linearly, with attention paid to every word and minute move. To that end, there has been arguably no more perfect collaborator than Marky Nevers—and, for that matter, there can be no finer explication of that relationship than Mr. M, possibly the most perfect Lambchop album.

Nevers began Mr. M with the notion of making a twisted Frank Sinatra album. Lush strings and an intimate combo take shape around Wagner's voice, which is front and present in the mix. Like Sinatra, he uses the microphone as its own instrument.

"I'm just working with what I'm given," Wagner insists. His voice has lowered and grown fuller over the years, perhaps as the product of singing more, perhaps because of the cigarettes or from years of inhaling saw dust at the old day job. "I love the human voice and the way it sounds, and I think I'm a little challenged in that department, so I try to study the other things that make singers interesting and learn from that."

Nevers laughs: "We never got it close to Frank. But it was just somewhere we were trying to go. I played certain songs for people. My brother thought it sounded like Fantasia. Somebody else said it sounded like Coltrane."

The latter might not be a bad comparison, actually. Wagner's songwriting operates with a freedom that might make his closest antecedents the spaz-art bursts of the Minutemen, except slow and patient. Wagner's lyrics lately have also bordered on cosmic aphorisms. "It's not how much you make, it's what you earn," he proclaims with Dylanesque precision on "Kind Of."

With Wagner's voice prominent in the ear, each song on Mr. M somehow becomes more than a song, unique and tactile, like a painting, or an object that can't be so easily classified by any of these words. "It's the kind of day you never wake up from," he sings at one point. "A summer's day has come to mind in autumn."

On the last syllable, one can hear the "n" in Wagner's mouth, almost silently rolling back on the pronounced "m." An ordinary word is new and again full of possibility.

When lost in Nashville, a visitor might stop to study a phone or a road map, only to look up and notice that he's in the parking lot of somewhere significant, like, say, the headquarters of BMI. If the country music industry defines the Nashville landscape, then the guitarist William Tyler is as natural an outcropping of the country-and-western-blessed earth as one could imagine.

"My dad was a country songwriter," remembers Tyler, quite coincidentally cooking lambchops for his girlfriend in his southwest Nashville kitchen. "Him and my mom co-owned a publishing company that also worked with other writers that were a little more in the rock world. When I was young, I was hanging out at my parents' parties with older musicians and getting a lot of energy, if not exactly wisdom."

Out of high school, Tyler's rock band, Lifeboy, got signed to a major label: "You couldn't even say you were a rock band from Nashville and have people take you seriously," he says. "You had to explain you weren't a country band." They broke up before they could release an album. Tyler contemplated college.

That's when the quintessential young Nashville musician had one of the quintessential Nashville experiences, the local equivalent of joining the circus or hitchhiking to Haight-Ashbury: He became a member of Lambchop.

Eclectic and anarchistic, the ranks of Lambchop had shifted as the band crept ahead. Tyler was a local teenager who'd become a fan and trekked to see them at Mergefest in Chapel Hill in 1999. He roadied for the weekend and crashed in one of the band's hotel rooms. Not long thereafter, he ran into Kurt somewhere.

"Can you play organ?" Wagner asked him.

"Yeah," Tyler told him.

"Do you have an organ?"

"No."

"That's OK. We can get you an organ," Wagner said. "Would you like to join us on tour in Europe for two weeks? There's no money in it, but it'll be fun."

"Are you asking me to be in Lambchop?" Tyler asked.

In retrospect, Wagner shrugs: "I was aware of his talents. I'd been to see his bands. But he was just a great guy."

Tyler joined the band on a European tour opening for Yo La Tengo, playing a borrowed Ace Tone. He was 19. The band had gained a substantial following overseas, thanks to City Slang. Though City Slang had built them an audience in Europe, even a profitable tour didn't add up to very much when distributed evenly among the 12 musicians. "When we got back from the tour, Jonathan [Marx] came over to my house with a handful of paper money in, like, 10 different currencies, and it added up to around 50 U.S. dollars. I had to bring it down to my bank. 'Oh, you don't exchange Austrian shillings? Right.'"

Lambchop teetered on the edge of fame. There were network television appearances. They wound up on the David Byrne-curated Sessions at West 54th with Chesnutt. A few years later, when Byrne showed up to play with Yo La Tengo during their Hanukkah shows, he surprised the covers-happy Lambchop pals when he suggested they try Wagner's "The Man Who Loved Beer," which Byrne recorded for his 2004 album, Grown Backwards.

Back then, Wagner's basement was full, the band swelling to a dozen and a half members during the '90s alt-rock landslide. Horn players and auxiliary percussionists fit themselves in under the stairs.

Tyler switched to his native instrument, becoming a third chair guitarist in a band that already included Paul Niehaus, Alex McManus and sometimes Nevers himself. When Niehaus left for full-time duty in Calexico, "out of necessity, I started trying to imitate Paul's sound with the steel and the Steve Cropper soul stuff that wasn't there anymore.

"When I started playing guitar in bands," Tyler remembered, "I didn't have any interest in lead guitar, but then I had to make up for a lot of lost time, especially because everybody in the band was 10 or 15 years older than me, and really good."

But he fit right in, refining an elegant style perfect for Lambchop's gradually maturing vibe, and quickly became a masterful guitarist, building a vocabulary based on past and future Nashville. By way of Marky Nevers, he started doing session work for others. When David Berman briefly convened a real-life touring version of the Silver Jews, Tyler was on board. He began making his own solo guitar recordings, first as the Paper Hats and then under his own name, mixing acoustic guitar and psychedelic noise. He's just returned from a short tour with the young Nashville songwriter Caitlin Rose, whose 2010 debut, Own Side Now, was picked up for national distribution by Dave Matthews' ATO and marks her as one of the city's powerful young voices.

Tyler isn't the only member of Lambchop in whom Nashville is deeply embedded. Long-tenured Lambchop bassist Matt Swanson was a DJ on Vanderbilt's WRVU throughout the '80s; Swanson also plays with the silver-voiced Dave Cloud (another longtime WRVU staple), whose band the Psychotic Night Auditors would play in Nashville parking garages and other places with publicly accessible electrical outlets until they sensed they were about to get caught. Besides a show that got them banned from Springwater, they were barely heard. Cortney Tidwell, singing with Lambchop this spring, is—like Tyler—the product of a country family. In 2010, she and Wagner recorded Invariable Heartache, a duets album originally released on Chart Records, run by Tidwell's grandfather.

Like his bandmates, Tyler remains acutely aware of the strange and evocative world behind the aisles of obscurely arranged C&W vinyl at Lawrence's, on Broadway, a few doors down from Ernest Tubb's, an ancient-seeming shop both he and Jonathan Marx bring up.

"Having places like that added this whole layer of mystery and magic to living here," Marx says. "Especially when you get into learning about the music, and suddenly you have a weird evocation of a time and a place you never paid attention to. 'Oh, yeah, that building I passed on the street, all these things happened there.'"

Says Yo La Tengo's James McNew, who has recorded a half-dozen albums in Nashville beginning in 1995, "They know their hometown backwards and forwards and were able to show us amazing stuff, really amazing restaurants." One favorite spot is Prince's Hot Chicken, later immortalized in a trio of Yo La Tengo songs. The Hoboken group often stayed with the Wagners or Jonathan Marx while recording. Says McNew, "It was like we had 16 new friends."

Times have changed in Nashville. Vanderbilt sold off WRVU last June to a classical station, and what had been an outlet for local freethinkers ranging from Dave Cloud to Kurt Wagner's wife, Mary, suddenly disappeared. Vic Chesnutt is gone, not coming back, and—give or take recordings—time slips into the past at an indomitable rate. The London Guardian recently ran a trend piece about hot new bands from Nashville, including Jeff the Brotherhood and Be Your Own Pet. Lambchop wasn't mentioned once.

Wagner speaks admiringly of Caitlin Rose, though, and optimistically about the city's outlook and acceptance. "I think it's taken 'til her generation of people from Nashville to actually accept and adopt that for themselves, the notion of being country artists without being a Country Artist, the whole thing, for indie kids to just do that on their own. It took a long time for that to happen."

Lambchop helped make that happen. And here they still are, occupying the present with total benevolence.

"There are missionaries on a beachhead," Wagner sings, double-tracked, on "2B2," "up on our television screen." As the song's chords and mood change and drop, he sings, "And I swear, it looks like England. Yeah, I think it's—" another drop, and a new, mysterious hollow in the night. "England."

Somewhere between sacrilege and sacrosanctity, Wagner has compared the spareness of this record to the Louvin Brothers: "And the dogs they bark at no one," he sings during the same song, "to be two."

This is music from a quiet street, the place where most people live. This might be what's going on near your front door, with the dogs yapping at no one, with Lambchop practicing down the stairs.

It might be quiet for a while. At least one can still hold onto the dream of packing it all in, moving to Nashville, finding the street and joining Lambchop in the basement.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Nashville baseline."

Correction (April 11, 2012): The legendarily noisy label referenced is Siltbreeze (not Stiltbreeze).

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