Doctored Lambchop: How Kurt Wagner Learned to Love Auto-Tune | Hopscotch Music Festival | Indy Week
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Doctored Lambchop: How Kurt Wagner Learned to Love Auto-Tune 

Love turns Kurt Wagner, still

Photo by Elise Tyler

Love turns Kurt Wagner, still

The title of Lambchop's forthcoming LP, FLOTUS, repurposes the popular political acronym for the First Lady to mean For Love Turns Us Still—but it could just as well refer onomatopoetically to the floating, wafting quality of the record. Kurt Wagner, who's led the ensemble for more than twenty years, is best known for a constantly shifting approach to traditional forms like countrypolitan, soul, and indie, but on FLOTUS, he found inspiration from current trends in hip-hop by folks like Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean. It's not what people expect from Lambchop, and yet the result is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a Lambchop album through and through. From his Nashville home, Wagner elucidated his enthusiasm for an oft-maligned approach to modern pop and how it galvanized the new album.

INDY WEEK: You've always had fun with titles, like FLOTUS's "In Care of 8675309." Tommy Tutone doesn't seem like your kind of inspiration.

KURT WAGNER: Well, there's a chorus in that song which is "I got it." It's sort of a shout-out to some friends of mine, who have a band with that name in Spanish (Yo La Tengo). I write music, and a lot of it, I'm trying to communicate with people—usually subversively, but sometimes more overtly. I do think that it's nice to think of others in your work and maybe reference it sometimes.

Many of your influences are ones that rock purists love, which don't always include much hip-hop. Do you think you might lose anyone with this LP?

I really have no idea about that. I'm just responding to the world around me. For a long time, that type of music that we're talking about had been in my world, be it next door, or what my wife listens to, or what I hear when I go out on the town. It is part of the world and I'm trying to move around in it.

Somehow, singing in a processed voice is seen as almost a taboo. We accept an amplified, distorted guitar, but processed vocals are often seen as inauthentic. Were you making this LP in any way to make a case for its musicality?

I think that's something I discovered by immersing myself in it, that there is something soulful, something beautiful about what happens when you match a voice with technology. It was something that I definitely was not a fan of for a long time. I really think it took hold eventually just by virtue of it being sort of omnipresent in almost everything I was hearing outside of my own personal selections. It wasn't until I discovered the tools to do that that I started to even get a handle on what that was. I remember the advent of Auto-Tuning as a tool to tune country singers and stuff, and thinking that it was sort of evil in a way. I think that notion has been exploded many times over since the early nineties.

Since Cher's "Believe," at least.

That certainly busted it open for a lot of people in general. But it's been going on in hip-hop and stuff like that for a long time.

It's kind of like in the seventies, people would write, "There were no synthesizers used to make this album" on the record sleeve.

I even remember when that was a thing, as well. Growing up in Nashville in the sixties, there are string players who would play on all these sessions here—my family was friends with them and stuff. As the advent of synthesizers and string synthesis came about, they started losing work, and they were panicking for awhile, and they went through a sort of dry period. Of course, that's come around again completely. That's just the nature of what happens when you start to introduce new technology into art.

Is it a tricky balance to be open to influence and inspiration while avoiding the charge of appropriation?

Again, the word "tool" is an important one. I'm just trying to be myself and go about things the way I do. And allowing that into your life, you have to find a way to integrate those two things in a way that feels—it sounds weird, but—natural.

The record is bookended by your two most straightforward vocals. There's something in the cadence of "In Care Of" reminiscent of Bob Dylan's "I Threw it All Away."

Ah, not the song I would have thought. It's true that prior to that writing, I sort of absorbed myself in the Dylan bootleg collection that came out. I think it's eighteen discs, so it's everything he recorded around Blonde on Blonde and prior to that, sort of the shift from New York to Nashville—it was every take. And I listened to every take. I was fascinated watching songs develop. But at some point, I became pretty inspired by that sort of thing. There were some long-form pieces in that that struck me, and I started studying that and articles written about those songs. I let it soak in and that song just sort of came out.

In your essay that accompanies FLOTUS, you write about the new sonic pasture opened up by these new productions and sounds. What do you hear in this new sound, and why is it more innovative than previous decades?

There's sort of a recklessness and a freedom that's starting to happen, where there doesn't seem to be any template anymore. It seems like things have opened up in a way where it's very free and fun and sort of exciting and unexpected. It seems that they are now juxtaposing whatever idea comes to mind, as opposed to staying within some sort of template or format. It does seem like anything now is possible in the world of recorded music.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Doctored Lambchop"

  • For the forthcoming album FLOTUS, the Nashville songwriter turned to a whole new toolbox.


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