on life, music etc beyond mainstream


When I had a first glance on Kurt Wagner’s telling essay on the making of FLOTUS, the word „Mancini“ popped up, and I immediately thought of Henry Mancini, the composer of unforgettable soundtracks. After having channelled Frankie „Boy“ Sinatra into ghost town territory, after having composed a new soundtrack for a German silent movie from the 20’s, after some Curtis Mayfield falsetto highs on NIXON – why should the man who, similar to Robert Wyatt, has always been able to give well-known sources a personal touch, not get away with some Henry Mancini mood? I was wrong, Mary Mancini is the name of his wife. A politician. Democratic party. And she plays her part in the album, that’s for sure.

To be honest, I would very much prefer to get lost in a Scottish whiskey bar instead of following the ups and downs of a long-time marriage by reading canonical middle class novels by Updike or Ford (to make a long list short) that were quite obsessed with midlife-crisis-drama and long-term relationship-matters.

But there are exceptions. BLOOD ON THE TRACKS (to name a prize-winning writer), or one of the long Neil Young-songs on PSYCHEDELIC PILL – or Lambchop’s FLOTUS: though there are a few songs here (you could ad hoc call love songs), a lot of the tracks carry you away from any kind of conceptual exloration of the modus vivendi of people who know one another for half a lifetime. And the love songs, by the way, are brilliant.

FLOTUS Is a multi-layered beast, on par with Lambchop masterpieces like IS A WOMAN or DAMAGED (you, dear reader, might have other ones in mind). But here he is, Mr. Kurt Wagner, playing with „auto-tune“, doing „the two-step-hustle“, spending some time in Spain, just a few days before the release of one of the great song albums of 2016. Album of the month in MOJO, album of the month in UNCUT (December issues). So, take your time, and do yourself a favour, read – and listen!


Michael Engelbrecht: Where are you just now, Kurt, any hip-hop to be heard in the neighborhood?


Kurt Wagner: I’m in Castelion, Spain, on my off day which happens to be a bank holiday in Spain. Last night was Halloween. Not much hip-hop in this town this morning but it has yet to wake up.


Michael: To open this album with IN CARE OF 856309, is a courageous decision. A slow burner, the vocals quite deep in the mix (sometimes the deep range of your voice placed close to the bass). Words become sounds, and the listener is not forced to do semantics in the first place. An „ambient song“, kind of.


Kurt: Making this the first track on FLOTUS seemed to be the only logical place for this track to go. For this particular record I think it introduces the vocal distortions in a confident way, almost relentlessly. The flow of the words and the almost ultra wordy prose makes the case for a certain amount of drift by the listener much in the same way great dense hip hop words work. But also Dylan.


Michael: Additionally, you cannot always distinguish exactly between the real voice and the manipulated one.


Kurt: It is true that the vocal processing does balance between the more natural voice and the processed. My hope is by the end of the experience you have either accepted the notion, or turned the track off. It gives you the space to decide.


Michael: Speaking of „Auto-Tune“. What is it that attracts you here, from besides of paying attention to your hip-hopping neigbourhood, and the distorted sound of their ghettoblasters? 


Kurt: In my case, this machine enables me to to go beyond my limitations as an artist. It can suggest and infer possibilities, it can open up ideas by virtue of its design. And it happens in real time as the source is presented, it’s like a performance enhance for but the mind and the mouth.


Michael: I have big fun when reading the lyrics of JFK (“ … We must build a culture of understanding / just shy of the radio: I’m a pharmacist … „) – and simultaneously listening to the song. What has been the inspiration to a song that may have some sad undercurrents. But then, yep, the dancing groove of the second part, me oh my …


Kurt: When I was helping my parents move a few years back I was cleaning out their basement and I came across a drawing I made when I must have been 6 or so. It was a picture of JFK at a desk in the oval office with the presidential flag behind him. (the same flag that’s on the FLOTUS record cover). It now sits in my office and I see it everyday and i move it from place to place not knowing really what to do with it. I even made a crude wooden frame for it back then and signed it on the back. I must have been quite proud of it I suppose. I do remember that when I was very young we went to see the eternal flame at JFKs grave in Washington DC and that I am told I broke away from my parents and slipped under the rope that protected the area and made a break for the grave and flame. A U.S. Marine guard had to run me down and return me to my parents. The song was written while looking at and contemplating the drawing.


Michael: You often used your small orchestra as a kind of paintbox carefully chosing musical colours, so that it resulted in a kind of chamber folk, maybe with the exception of NIXON. Now starting these songs alone with some new electronic devices allowed you to build up songs from scratch, with no prefigurations by favoured or well-trusted guitar lines. But it still sounds intimate and colourful. Even when a „club feel“ enters. And the long last, most „groovy“, most electronic track of the album sounds so much more contemplative than switching on fireworks-mode.


Kurt: With the help of technology I’ve been freed up to realize a song idea in a fuller more complete and complex way. But that said it still needs the human touch to be a Lambchop record or performance. It is that intimacy that Lambchop has with the listener that is one of the cool things about this record. I feel it’s still there in the sound and the songs.


Michael: I know that many of your songs start with everyday observations. So, looking at a song like OLD MASTERS, what (the hell) has inspired it? A good example that you don’t need to have the faintest idea of anything to love a song.


Kurt: Stay hungry, my friend.


Michael: I have been listening to the whole album just about six, seven times now, and I’m very sure that this whole thing is a damned tricky beast. You are never trapped in a formula, e v e r y song has a different and distinct atmosphere. I think you like downplaying this sophisticated element by presenting yourself as a man of certain age looking at the younger generation for doing a bit of trial-and-error stuff.


Kurt: I’ve indeed been convinced that in order to move forward through a creative life one has to look to younger generations to see where things are heading. Most but not all people my age tend to settle into a place that is more about the past than the future. Partly because the future for my generation is pretty fucked in a broad sense. So let the children play so to speak and interact with their sounds and ideas. I am in no way a complete idea but rather one that is in need of learning and refining the ideas that are out there and the ones yet to be thought of.


Michael: Some lyrics seem to refer to dream activities, at least daydream activities (the scene in the laundry, the special imagery of HARBOR COUNTRY.


Kurt: Sorry, no dreams in Harbor Country.


Michael: THE WRITER is witty, funny, thoughtful, dark, everything. Shades of a self portrait? Or some musings on polarities?


Kurt: It’s a bit of both really, I was playing with the folk form of style and verse and placing it in an electro setting with horns.


Michael: Your favourite TV-series of the last years?


Kurt: „Last Week With John Oliver“, the best comedy show on current events in the USA right now. No one else comes close.


This entry was posted on Dienstag, 1. November 2016 and is filed under "Blog". You can follow any responses to this entry with RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. Michael Engelbrecht:

    ON TOUR:
    Erlangen, 5. Februar, Margrafen Theater
    Mainz, 12. Februar, Frankfurter Hof
    München, 15. Februar, Kammerspiele
    Dortmund, 17. Februar, Konzerthaus
    Berlin, 18. Februar, Heimathafen
    Hannover, 20. Februar, Capitol
    Köln, 21. Februar, Gloria
    Hamburg, 22. Februar, Elbphilharmonie
    Mannheim, 1.3, Capitol

  2. Michael Engelbrecht:

    As bullish statements of hope-you-like-our-new-direction intent go, the first track released from Lambchop’s 12th album took some beating. Kurt Wagner’s Nashville collective have long been more eclectic than the alt-country tag suggests, tackling everything from soul to lounge music, but they’ve never tried anything like The Hustle’s 18 largely instrumental minutes of chugging house beats, softly pulsing electronics, abstract woodwind and sparse flecks of piano. It’s utterly lovely, a phrase you could also usefully apply to JFK’s haze of vocodered vocals and jazzy piano, or Harbour County’s glitchy synths and echoing guitar. For an artist who’s come to electronica relatively late, Wagner seems to have an innate understanding of how to pull it into his orbit. The synths and effects never feel like the result of tentative dabbling: Flotus still sounds like Lambchop, even when it sounds nothing like they have done before. Indeed, it plays out like a counterpoint to the wracked alienation of Bon Iver’s recent Auto-Tune-heavy 22, A Million, filled with warmth, wistful nostalgia and soft, autumnal light.

    – Alex Petridis

    Keep, in mind: though it seems to be close to a running gag to compare Lambchop to Bon Iver and their different approaches to their favourite voice processing toy tool (look at the pub talk agreement of Sylvie and John for Mojo and Uncut, how many pints of lager, friends?!), you can love both records, for all the good reasons. Interesting, though, Alex, you lovely pussycat, you’re just remoxing and looping what I’ve said the day before. You’re a looper. Or, bro, does it just hang in the air? Seems so:)

    – Michael Engelbrecht

  3. Michael Engelbrecht:

    Over the course of an illustrious career that has spanned nearly three decades, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner has continuously shown himself to be an avid fan of music history, with a deep appreciation of various genres. Whether it was the wry indie rock of early albums like Thriller, the sardonic alt country of landmarks like Nixon, or the restrained gospel and soul influences of 2012’s Mr. M, Wagner has always been one to weave together disparate styles. Even so, it is jarring to witness the significant leap he’s taken on FLOTUS (an acronym of For Love Often Turns Us Still), Lambchop’s latest album that pivots sharply to Auto-Tuned, beat-driven electronica. Influenced by the 57-year-old Wagner’s newfound embrace of hip-hop, Lambchop’s 12th studio album may be his biggest leap in decades.

    While Wagner’s experimental inclinations can be traced all the way back to selections from his early catalog such as 1994’s noisy single “Two Kittens Don’t Make a Puppy”, much of the blueprint for his unorthodox approach comes from HeCTA, a band he formed last year with Lambchop members Ryan Norris and Scott Martin. Their 2015 debut, The Diet, serves as a precursor to FLOTUS’ subdued house, an homage to the American underground dance music of the ’70s. Lambchop’s once sprawling lineup has been pared back to five members, including Norris and Martin, making FLOTUS somewhat a continuation of the boundary-pushing they dabbled in with their side project.

    Over the course of FLOTUS’ 68 minutes, Lambchop alternate between downtempo, Krautrock, folk, and synthpop without losing their distinct identity. Wagner explained in an interview with Stereogum that he was drawn to explore modern hip-hop after years of hearing his neighbors playing mixtapes from their house, always one step ahead of current radio trends. Wagner started listening to artists like Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Shabazz Palaces, excited by the cutting edge production and a musical world he hadn’t paid much attention to. A key aspect was the idea of vocal distortion, the artists using Auto-Tune as an artistic tool that could extract profound depth out of unnatural sounds. Wagner used a voice processor to write and record the melodies for FLOTUS, and nearly three quarters of the record finds his voice obscured, often treating his metallic yelps and coos as another instrument rather than the sole focus.

    Wagner recedes from the forefront of much of FLOTUS, instead mixing blips and glitches together to create a synchronized harmony of plaintive electronics. He mumbles throughout, and a phrase may trail off into a muttered crooning that would make Justin Vernon proud. In turn, his lyrics have grown more poetic and quixotic from the relative minimalism he explored on Mr. M. Always one to find the beauty in the mundane and routine, Wagner may paint an image of picking up trash in his backyard on “Harbor County,” or repeatedly circle back to visions of a laundry room on “JFK”. On standout “Directions to the Can”, co-written with Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, Wagner speaks in fragments, disjointed but brought back to a recurring motif of him imploring the subject to “take it on the chin.” While the rambling lyrics are challenging to parse at times, they always come back to a recurring motif of being awed by love as a force, and appreciating the day-to-day routine that it takes to make a long relationship last.

    Wagner has taken what could easily have been an experimental curiosity and turned it into a surprising power. While some of the album’s meandering midsection may blur, it’s bookended by long, complex pieces that realize the idea’s full potential. Opener “In Care of 8675309” is a reverential odyssey where Wagner fills all of its 12 minutes with sprawling verses that reach from his early past (one line name-drops Posterchild, the name of an early incarnation of Lambchop from the late-‘80s) to taking stock in his present. A breathless masterpiece that muses on all aspects of life from religion to government, it’s a comprehensive reflection. The album ends with “The Hustle”, an 18-minute, hypnotic, mostly instrumental electronic track that is punctured by Wagner’s recollection of the joy of watching guests at a wedding he attended dancing the famous routine as if it was a secret language. With those two pieces alone, FLOTUS would be a remarkable work.

    While FLOTUS may be Wagner’s calmest collection of music to date, his foray into a new genre is far from a safe bet. Full of meditative wisdom that he adds to his genre-blurring work, FLOTUS contains a restless energy that frequently surprises. By pushing far outside of his comfort zone, he has imbued his sound with a fresh life that adds another compelling chapter to the chronicle of his rich career.

    – David Sacklahh, Consequence of Sound

    There he is again, Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver. So just let me give you my version of Bon Iver alone: the first album was nice and folkie, and the first time gastritis and a fucking cabin in the woods promoted a record to stellar dimensions. The second one weirdly coined Bon Iver Bon Iver (two cabins? Sibblings?) was by far more interesting and challenging (besides the evergreens for weddings and funerals bring stricktly reserved for his bedroom record in the hinterland). The new one, 22, A Million, is one of the most couragous, radical and controversial albums of his lifes and times. That said, radicalism in itself has never been an artistic virtue. This is about the win-win of toy sharing!

    – Michael Engelbrecht

  4. Michael Engelbrecht:

    And to enter the area of Lambchop alone again, Kurt Wagner could even make an album using the punchy one-liniers, the reflective musings of the whole awe-inspiring talk between Martina Weber and Jürgen Ploog whom some may know and remember from the roaring 20’s of the last century! The title for that great unmade album might be HIMBEERTÖRTCHEN, a lovely one, and not so close to commercial suicide as some may siggest. Just imagine the dirty stage talk of piano maestro Tony Crow when telling his own HIMBEERTÖRTCHEN story! / martina-weber-juergen-ploog …

Manafonistas | Impressum | Kontakt | Datenschutz