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The only prophets worth a shit are the reluctant ones, and so it was that right before he started working on what would become his new album, The Bible, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner found himself at the proverbial crossroads. Nearing the end of Lambchop’s third decade as a recording artist, Wagner felt musically isolated. He questioned whether continuing to make music even made sense. “I feel weird because I’m going to be 64, dude,” he says on the phone in between drags of a cigarette. “What the fuck am I doing?”
The Bible is the sound of Kurt Wagner asking big questions, like that one, and all the other ones.
Wagner has always considered himself to be a late bloomer—he was 35 when he started Lambchop all those years ago, way back in the first big funk of his life. After losing his girlfriend and his job in a brutal Chicago two-fer, he came home to Nashville and started hanging around a songwriters’ night called the Working Stiff Jamboree at the Springwater Supper Club. He would bring the afterparty home to his house. “I finally started writing songs because nobody else was,” he says. “And we needed something to play other than covers.” This was Nashville, after all, home of the country music machine—there were legions of musicians showing up here every day just to play somebody else’s songs. But Wagner’s distaste for the cover song wasn’t only due to some noble artistic integrity. “I was that bad a musician,” he laughs, a little ruefully. “I literally would only play the chords I knew in the song and skip the ones that I didn’t.”
So he would invent rules to gamify the sessions, to get this demimonde of wannabe Nashville musicians moving in a different direction. “I remember I would try to handicap them somehow,” he says. “If they were a really great guitar player, well, no, you’ve got to play the organ.” Then he would sit back and watch and listen. He found his writing voice in this observational style. “It was like journalism, in a way—just reflecting and commenting on my life, my friends’ lives, whatever.” Wagner would change some details and obscure others to disconnect his insights from the individual, to more closely approach the universal. His lyrics and his phrasing conveyed a profundity that he didn’t know he was capable of—he had found his singing voice through finding the words to sing.
He’s terminally modest, so you believe that’s what he actually feels when he says his true talent was convincing enough burnout Nashville freaks to come over to his crib long enough to create the unhinged outsider country sound that fueled those first few Lambchop records. “We represented, in my mind, the actual Nashville sound,” he says. “These are people who were born or raised here, and this is the music that’s actually coming out of Nashville.” He was seeing how far he could push this self-definition when he facetiously called it country music in his band bio. “Careful what you call yourself,” he cautions, “because people don’t actually listen to music. They’ll just read a couple lines of your bio, and the next thing you know, you’re the most fucked up country band in Nashville.”
So if that’s the power of the bio, what will they believe when Wagner tells them about The Bible, about this album that was recorded in the middle of a plague, when he was isolated from his Nashville community yet closer to his own nuclear family than he had been in a long time? It was during this time of renewed musical self-doubt that he was serving as the primary caretaker for his own father, watching his dad get COVID and then recover, and then have a stroke and recover, and then get both of his hips replaced and recover. Is this the album where Wagner confronts his own mortality because he was thinking about his dad so much? Or is this his Minneapolis album? Wait, what?
During that first year of quarantine, Wagner was up worrying in the middle of the night when he tuned into his friend from Minneapolis, Andrew Broder, playing piano on Instagram Live. A couple years prior, Wagner had met Broder and a whole gang of Minneapolis musicians, in a Berlin studio, through their mutual friend Justin Vernon. He was deeply intrigued with the entire scene these guys had going up there, maybe because the spirit of it reminded him of his original weirdo music scene in Nashville, and now he was entranced watching Broder play piano in the middle of the night on this Instagram Live. So he called him up. “Dude, I’ll get you in a studio,” he says. “You just go in there for like three or four hours and do your thing.” Broder did just that and sent him back twelve 20-minute-long pieces. And so it was that Wagner found himself in Minneapolis in the sweltering summer of 2021, in a decommissioned paint factory turned practice space, when everybody was still kind of looking at everybody else as a potential source of disease. He had entrusted himself to this piano player and his mad genius of a production partner, Ryan Olson. “Ryan and Andrew, they’re like two sides of my personality,” Wagner says. “And if you put them together as a team, they represent me.” This would be the first time Wagner let somebody else—not to mention somebody else without any sort of a connection to holy, old Nashville—produce a Lambchop record. “Yeah, and that’s joy. I feel that in what I’ve been doing all this time. It’s all about really not getting too fucking hung up being a serious fucking musician, and enjoying each other’s company. It’s a social thing that we do together. And it should be enjoyable. If it’s not—which I think it ends up being for most musicians as they spend their careers doing it—it becomes a fairly joyless fucking thing. And when I see that coming, I do not want it in my life. That’s just like, why do it if you’re not enjoying it?”
It was in that decommissioned paint factory in Minneapolis, watching a bunch of burnout freaks play their instruments, that Wagner found his way to writing The Bible. The sessions reminded him of those long-ago days at the Springwater Supper Club, when he first brought the afterparty back to his house. But maybe because he wasn’t the one making the afterparty rules this time, the music on The Bible is more unpredictable than it’s ever been on a Lambchop record. Jazz careening into country, into disco, into funk, and back to country. And he knows that he can call it whatever he wants to call it in this bio. And he trusts his own voice—that he can tie all those sounds and styles together with his own words and phrasing, whether the lyrics are observing the dire headlines of racial strife from that summer in Minneapolis, or just the graffiti outside that paint factory, or the bumper stickers out on the highway, or his own feelings about his father confronting his mortality back home, or about him doing the same on his own wherever he may be in the world. This is Lambchop’s new album—born in a new place but out of a process that he first discovered back home in Nashville, the one that helped him find his own voice in the first place. Amen. This is The Bible.
It’s a good record. But I can’t really listen to it anymore. It kind of broke my brain. It took a year, and there were a lot of times I thought it was going nowhere, a lot of botched sessions. It was all my fault, no one else’s. I was just totally unprepared. I went in with over-confidence, I went in there like ‘Yeah, I’m ready to go!’ but I was just kind of bullshitting. I went in expecting to make a fucking masterpiece, but I kept hitting a brick wall.
I was under a lot of stress because I was trying to make an anti-folk record and I was having trouble doing it. I wanted to make something deep-fried and more me-sounding. I didn’t want to be jammy acoustic guy anymore. I just wanted to make something weird and far-out that came from the heart finally. I was always trying to make something like this I guess, trying to catch up with my imagination. And I think I succeeded in that way — it’s got some weird instrumentation on there, and some surreal far-out words.
And it’s more Chicago-y sounding. Chicago sounds like a train constantly coming towards you but never arriving. That’s the sound I hear, all the time, ringing in my ears. Everybody here’s always hustling. Everybody who talks to you on the street’s always got something they’re coming at you with. It’s the sound of strangers dodging one another. And landlords knocking on doors to get rent that people don’t have. But it’s eerily quiet at night. This record is the sound of walking home late at night through Chicago in the middle of winter and being half-creeped out, scared someone’s going to punch you in the back of the head, and half in the most tranquil state you’ve been in all day, enjoying the quiet and this faint wind, and buses going by on all-night routes. That’s the sound to tune in to. That’s the sound of Chicago to me.
Chicago. More than ever I’m just finding little details about it that I love. There’s so many weird twists about it: the way that street lights look here is really peculiar, and a really bleak sense when you walk around. It looks gray, there’s not a lot of color, and I find a lot of radiance in that. And oh man it smells like diesel. And garbage cans. And in the summer when it really heats up it’s extra garbage-canny. And everything here looks like it’s about to break. It looks like it’s derelict. But that’s what I’m used to, that’s what I like. The amount of imperfection in this city is really perfect.
So I’ve fallen in love with Chicago pretty hard over the past year, despite crippling depression. I’ve realized I can’t not be in a city. I appreciate nature, I appreciate driving through nature, but you put me in a campsite for more than two days and I’ll flip the fuck out. I need to hear people outside of my window trying to buy crack. I need to be able to buy a taco at two in the morning. I need to hear the neighbors yelling really fucking loud at each other in the middle of the night. I need people. I need people really fucking bad.
You have to find calm in the city. You actively search for it. It’s not a la carte like it is in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. Which are beautiful, they’re one of God’s finest creations — I’m not talking shit about the Rocky Mountains. But in the city it’s like scoring drugs, you’ve got to score your tranquil situations. And that’s the sound of Chicago to me.
The songs don’t really deal with any political or personal or social issues at all. Mostly it just comes from being bummed out. And there’s not a lot of musical influences on the record. I wasn’t even listening to music when I made it. Last year was probably the least I’ve listened to music in my adult life. I mean I was listening to stuff in the van — I listened to a lot of Genesis records. I got really into Genesis. But there’s nothing else I could point to. Maybe I’d say it’s a record for coming up or coming down. It’s not an album for the middle of the day. It’s for the beginning or end of it.
I quit drugs and booze recently. I got sick of being a party animal — I don’t want to be 19-gin-and-tonics-Ryley anymore. My brain is working a little better now, but man I was just going at it pretty wildly, and then trying to make a record while I was drinking, it was kind of like torture.
We all had no idea what was going on, every song we’d be like ‘What is this record?’ Because every song sounded different. In a way this record was working with everybody that I’ve worked with for years, and it wasn’t like a Fleetwood Mac thing where everybody fell in love and divorced or anything, but a lot of times we were butting heads in the studio.
I hadn’t played any of the songs live ever, whereas with my earlier records I’d play the shit out of them live and then go into the studio when they were totally cooked up and ready to go. But these songs were all half ideas and riffs I had on my mind, so that held things up for a while.
Being meticulous and being deets-oriented is not my thing at all. I’ve never been like that. I’m kind of like go go go! Making a quick record is not hard, it’s the easiest thing the world, so working in this time frame, over a year, made me go kind of nuts and… oh, tortured artist bullshit, blah blah blah. But then last summer we started playing songs back to back and finally we started to hear a common thread running through the record.
I’m lucky enough to have some people who are playing on it who had a big part in shaping the songs and writing with me. Cooper Crain, the guy who engineered it, and played all the synthesizers. And when the flute guy, Nate Lepine came in, that was really something that made it special. The producer was this guy LeRoy Bach. I love LeRoy, he’s a really talented guy. He did the last record too.
The last record was cool but I was still figuring out what I was good at. But I’m fucking 28 years old, I’ve got to figure out a sound, figure out something that I enjoy doing. So this record is a little bit more grown up. Ol’Ryley’s just workin’ on bein’ a better Ryley.
I think more than anything the thing to take away from this record is that I appreciate what improv and jamming and that outlook on music has done for me, but I wanted rigid structure for these songs. I don’t want to expand upon them live. There’s a looseness to some of the songs I guess, but I didn’t want to rely on just hanging out on one note. It’s so straight-forward that I can see a lot of people really not liking it to be honest. But I’m so happy, I’m happy that it’s completely different and unexpected.
But I know it’s divisive. It’s hard to talk about. It’s a weird record.
Ryley Walker was in conversation with Laura Barton.
As mentioned by Ryley above, Deafman Glance is the second Ryley Walker album produced by LeRoy Bach and Walker himself. It was largely recorded at the Minbal (now JAMDEK) Studios in Chicago. Some later sessions also took place at USA Studios and in LeRoy’s kitchen. Cooper Crain (Bitchin’ Bajas, Cave) recorded and mixed the album, as well as adding his shimmering synths all over it. Ryley plays electric & acoustic guitars and was joined by long-time 6-string sparring partners, Brian J Sulpizio and Bill Mackay, who both play electric. LeRoy Bach also plays some electric guitar, whilst adding all piano and other keys. Andrew Scott Young and Matt Lux play bass – Andrew supplying some double-bass, both of them played electric. Drums / percussion are handled by Mikel Avery and Quin Kirchner. Topping off this list of notorious Chi-Town players is Nate Lepine, who added a lot of flute and a little saxophone too.