In the middle of 2020, back when everybody was afraid to be together, my buddy Drew Christopherson and I would stay up late, texting back and forth, waiting for our friend Andrew Broder to play Wurlitzer from his basement on Instagram Live. There was a regular virtual audience for these unscheduled, late night pop up performances, always just Broder improvising some jazz piano on his Wurli, sometimes under some weird color block lighting, but it was never more than a few dozen people. The livestreaming comment section was the closest any of us would dare come to a speakeasy environment, just hanging out and shouting out usernames that we recognized, all of us watching the show together. In addition to me and Drew, one of the other more regular lurkers was Kurt Wagner, better known as Lambchop, the Nashville indie legend.
Now the fact that Wagner was a regular lurker wasn’t totally random, because a few years earlier, Drew and Broder and I had met Lambchop in person, back in 2018, in Berlin at Justin Vernon’s PEOPLE music festival. Drew was a huge Lambchop fan—he had been playing me Wagner’s albums at every opportunity for years, but he kept it together around the guy he was beginning to refer to as just “Kurt,” which was easy to do. Wagner’s presence was a wonderful sort of eminence grise at the festival, always kind of hiding under a trucker hat, always chainsmoking Winstons, always willing to bring his gentle southern drawl to conversations about books or art or politics in between the constant musical improvising going on that week at the Funkhaus, an old GDR radio production campus in East Berlin. Wagner is a humble guy, and when you get to know him, you realize that his humility isn’t a put on, that his softspokenness and his hiding-under-his-trucker-hat reticence is actually rooted in an almost paralyzing but somehow completely charming self-doubt. After the festival, we continued to keep in touch with him, and sometime before the pandemic Broder ended up playing a little piano on Lambchop’s 2021 anti-showtunes album, Showtunes.
In the summer of 2021, when we could see people in person again, Wagner came to Minneapolis to record a new Lambchop album with Broder and another Minneapolis musician who had been with us in Berlin, the producer of Poliça and Gayngs, Ryan Olson. By that point, it was clear that there was something about our Minneapolis music scene that had really captured Wagner’s imagination. That imagination has now produced, with Broder and Olson credited as co-producers, Lambchop’s sixteenth album, The Bible.
Talking to Wagner now, he’s very open with the fact that these new musical relationships in Minneapolis were crucial to him, because as he was nearing the end of Lambchop’s third decade in Nashville, Wagner felt musically isolated. Many of his old bandmates were either long gone or uninterested in touring anymore. He questioned whether making music even made economic sense. He was actually considering getting a job at the grocery store down the road. “I feel weird because I’m going to be 64, dude,” he says in between drags on a cigarette, on the phone from his home in Nashville. “What the fuck am I doing?”
The Bible is the sound of Kurt Wagner looking backwards and forwards, asking this and all the other big questions. And he’s going to be debuting the new album at the McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center, with his new cohort, Broder and Olson, conducting the group of players who will bring it all to life. Drew and I will be watching, obviously, but first, I took a couple hours to talk to my new friend about how this project came together, and how it’s different from the 15 albums that came before it.
I met you in 2018, in Berlin at Justin Vernon’s second PEOPLE happening at the Michelberger Hotel. Was that the first time you played music with Ryan Olson and Andrew Broder?
I knew a pretty good amount about Justin [Vernon’s] story at that point because I’m a huge fan of what he’s done. I ran into him on the road with his drummer Matthew [McCaughan] on one of their first big Euro tours and we hung out for a night. He was dealing with growing pains in a big band and all that stuff, and here I was, the guy who’d been dealing with it all this time. We had a lot in common already. We lost touch for a while until Berlin. I’ve always been in awe of what he did, but I didn’t know all the crew that was involved in all of that, and it just blew my mind. Everybody was so open, and giving, and generous, and nice, and very, very good at what they do, and worked hard as a motherfucker, man. You guys work hard up there, man.
So how did you actually start working with Ryan and Broder?
it just happened a little bit at a time. Because of Ryan coming down and doing the Swamp Dogg record in Nashville, I got to hang with him more. So I went up to Minneapolis just to see what was going on when Broder was doing one of his residency things at First Avenue. I would joke around and call it a fact-finding mission, but it really was. I wanted to find out more about what was happening there. I was just knocked out by how tight everybody was, and just how totally supportive of each other you were. That is not a Nashville vibe, man. It isn’t. It’s very unique.
I know you still see yourself—and you still very much are—a Nashville outsider, but you’ve been based there for so long that at this point you’re synonymous with the city.
That’s how it began. It was just a bunch of friends sitting around having fun in my basement. Just having some sort of weird criteria where it was completely open, anybody could come and hang out so long as they behaved themselves. And it was attractive to a lot of sort of misfit-y, outcast-y kind of people who come to Nashville for one reason or another and didn’t fit in. It was a place we could hang out and have fun. It just grew out of that. It didn’t even matter if people could play an instrument. It was like, “What did you play in high school?” And that’s what it became. We kept getting bigger, more and more people, and eventually, actual musicians were getting involved.
I remember I would usually try and handicap them somehow. If they were a really great guitar player, well, no, you can’t do that, you’ve got to play the organ. Do you have an organ? Find one. Or whatever. And another guy, he was just a really great blues guitar player, which I wasn’t that into. I was like, “Dude, I’ve got this lap steel here. You want to try playing that?” And now he’s a great steel guitarist. It just unlocked something. It handicapped them in a way that they didn’t just scare the shit of us with their virtuosity.
I suppose Nashville draws a lot of virtuoso musicians who want to be part of the big music machine.
They do. Like growing up here, my folks were super into classical music and had a connection with one of the guys who did all the sessions for strings on any Nashville record made in the ‘60s and ‘70s. So, we knew all these classical musicians. I studied cello and went through all that for quite a while because that was their reference point to what music was. And eventually, I just said I wanted to play guitar. I was playing cello on my lap with a slide trying to sound like Duane Allman. It’s fucking weird. But they felt sorry for me, finally got me a guitar and made me try to take lessons for a while. But the whole lessons thing just freaked me out. It was hard because they had this thing called juries, and you’d have to memorize a piece and play in front of three dudes with squeaky pencils. And you’d get graded on it. It just was too stressful for me. I freaked out one day and blanked on the music, and put the thing down and walked offstage, like, “I’m done with this shit.”
How old were you?
I was probably about 13.
Do you think there’s a lot of conservatory quitters that end up in Nashville?
Nashville attracts a variety of people with a variety of ambitions. But a lot of it really has to do with how versed you are in your instrument, and not so much the creating of music. It’s all about playing other people’s shit, whether it’s Bach or, I don’t know, country dudes, or whatever. So, when people would come through that I would meet, I really wanted to figure out what this songwriting thing was all about, so I would just go to these open mics, check out these people. And it’s just such a wide array of people and their talents. And I was always attracted to the weirdo guys, the guys that came to town who wanted to write truck-driving songs.
Like Roger Miller aficionados?
Well, this particular guy was more like C.W. McCall—real CB trucker stuff. And he thought he could just sell those songs and they would go on jukeboxes in truck stops. That was his idea of what Nashville was. He was a fun guy to hang out with—really knowledgeable about poetry and stuff. Seriously. But he was clueless about what it was. And with a straight face, he’d go into these country offices and play his trucker songs and they’d just go, “Get out of here.” Guys like that, struggling people who didn’t quite fit in. It wasn’t a lot of original type of music being created in Nashville when we started. It had nothing to do with actual art. It had to do with wanting to be famous and why aren’t we recognized for our greatness? Those are the kind of bands that were there. They were cover bands that were trying to create original material that sounded like something else. And nobody got signed. Nobody got anywhere. We just started looking outside of Nashville by accident, really. And next thing you know, we go to Europe and everybody thinks we’re wild, weird America.
So, where were the Keith Carradines? Isn’t the movie Nashville kind of real, in a way?
Yeah, all that was there. I was here when they made the movie. I saw it go down. I had a friend who cast that movie and watched Nashville fucking freak out when they queued it up here. It was a fucking nightmare.
I suppose it actually intensified the attraction for people who want to come to Nashville and become Keith Carradine—it brings that type of character into the city, right?
Very much so. That character was very much who you would see. The bus station used to be across the street from the Opry House, and these guys would get off the bus, look up at the mother church, and go, “I’m here.” And they would last a month and usually go home. Some never did, some actually found some modest success. But it was a sad story. You’d see these guys walking down the road with a guitar case having got off the bus.
Wasn’t the original Lambchop comprised of some of those types of guys who ended up in your house jamming with you?
Yeah, some of those guys were that. It was a broad swath of people. What really made this thing grow was, they had this one dive bar club that’d been around since the ‘70s in Nashville, and a lot of outsider songwriters would come and play. Out of that came this thing called “The Working Stiff Jamboree.” It was just a collection of misfit artists who did really cool shit that nobody could relate to. We fit right in.
What bar was it?
It was called Springwater Supper Club.
So, this is where you recruited players to come back to your house and jam?
This is where I met all these guys for real. Because I maybe would see a few at the proper writer’s nights, whatever, which I wasn’t participating in, I was just going and having a beer and watching the show. It was hilarious. But some of them would pop up there. I started playing with some guys right away, like lap steel, and out of that, it just grew and I finally started writing songs because nobody else was writing songs. And we needed something to play other than covers because covers, in my mind, were defeating the point. And I couldn’t play covers anyway, I was that bad a musician. I literally would only play the chords I knew in the song and skip the ones that I didn’t.
And when did you start singing?
Again, pretty much out of the fog. I lived in Chicago for a couple of years prior to moving back to Nashville.
That was after art school in Montana?
It was after grad school in Montana. I moved back to Memphis for a couple years, saved up enough money to go up to Chicago where some friends from grad school had already settled. And we built a loft and tried to get into the art scene there. And my whole life just fell apart. My girlfriend left me. My friends raised the rent on me so I couldn’t afford it. And couldn’t find a job after I quit the job I had because my bosses were racist. It was just this huge bummer. And I just started writing songs, just shouting into a tape recorder with my guitar and singing. I’d never done it.
You started singing just by yourself?
Yeah, I was just yelling into a tape recorder and trying every method of writing possible, from just reading a news article, or using random stuff. I tried everything I’d heard about as ways of putting words together. And some of it was interesting.
But you were a musician, playing in bands throughout art school, right?
Oh, yeah. I was always playing in art school bands. But I was just playing a guitar or something—badly.
So you didn’t get into this songwriting mode until you went back home and starting going to the Springwater?
Well, yeah. And that happened almost immediately. I just bumped into a friend and said, “Oh, yeah. We’re going to get together at my house.” This guy played wrenches on strings, and a lacquering can with mallets between his knees. There was this other guy who was like a genius poet. He would play these songs that sounded kind of like Joe Rainey. And there was another guy who was just like an acid casualty Woody Guthrie. And there we were, just hanging out, making noise, and we started playing at the Springwater. This thing would happen every two or three weeks. And what was good about it was I noticed almost everybody just played the same shit every couple of weeks, and I used it as an excuse to just make new shit every week. So it gave me something to work for, like an artist who has a show coming up: “I guess I better do some painting.”
What was the job in Chicago that you quit?
It was an art center that sold paint and stuff in Chicago. I did that in Memphis, as well.
So Chicago defeated you, but you had discovered something.
I couldn’t be at a lower point. Going back to Nashville, I was just going to hang for a couple of weeks and then go to Memphis. I ended up staying. Prior to that, the notion of music, because of the context I grew up in here in Nashville, I thought the music business was just the worst thing in the world someone could get into. And I found out the art world was equally just corrupt, horrible. So it was sort of like, yeah, I’m just going to do this stuff. I’m just going to do paintings, I’m not going to work with a gallery, I’m just going to have little shows at my house. And so, I started painting and working construction, and playing music for fun, as just another thing to do. I’d given up on trying to make a go of it, other than something that was a satisfying part of my life. I was completely content with that. I didn’t have any aspirations larger than making some paintings and going out and playing music every couple of weeks with friends for fun.
Were your parents supportive of your decision to go to art school? What did what did they do for a living?
My dad was a biochemist, professor at Vanderbilt, and an administrator for the VA—this long-haul academic. My mom was a housewife, pretty much.
And they moved down from Brooklyn when you were, like, two, right? Did they meet in Brooklyn?
They met in Brooklyn, married in Brooklyn, my dad was in the Navy. So, he was doing research in Washington. They moved to Washington, which is where I was born, to Nashville—he got the gig at Vanderbilt when I was about two.
So they understood your academic pursuit?
They were always, “This is fine, do it, and eventually, you’re going to have to find a way to make a living.” I was not a professional of any kind, as much as they wanted to guide me that way. I just wasn’t smart enough, or it just wasn’t me. The main thing, I was just completely content living my life as simply as possible. I can work construction. I get off at 3:00, I’ve got the whole afternoon and evening ahead of me. I’m not completely wrecked from the job. And days it rained or whatever, I had the day off and I could just do what I wanted. It was not a bad life. It didn’t make any money, I was really pretty poor, but I was content with that life because I was satisfied outside of it. It wasn’t something that took a lot of brainpower during the day.
How did you find that kind of opportunity with your academic dad? Who were your peers working construction—who gave you an entrance into that lifestyle?
I figured out the only way to get a job was to know somebody who had a job and they would tell you, “Hey, we’re looking for somebody.” And at first, it was doing trees. I was a brush handler for a tree company that would service trees. But a nice one—it wasn’t like a butcher shop. These guys were crazy hippies who were really into mushrooms and trees. I was going to be a substitute teacher, and it turned out, the day before they called me for the substitute teacher gig, these guys called, and it paid twice as much as a substitute teacher, so I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do this.” And I did it for a while and found out that they didn’t take any tax out working on a 1099 and I owed the government 500 bucks, which I did not have. So, I had to find a job that gave me a W-2. And I had another friend who turned out to be one of the founding guys of Lambchop. I had all this woodworking skill from art school, so I just started doing high-end wooden floors for rich people with him. It was a very small company, and it turned out that three out of the four guys in the company played in Lambchop—or Posterchild, as it was called at that time. And that included my boss.
Who was your boss?
His name was Bill Killebrew. He was just sort of an outsider guy. He was really into Johnny Marr, and weird tunings, and stuff like that. This approach was so unexpected and interesting. It was just brilliant. But he was also super shy—he would always perform with his back to the audience. And he didn’t want to go on tour because he had this company to run. We were starting to stand out and at some point he goes, “How long do you think this is going to last?” I said, “I don’t know. About five years?” And I was serious. I was like, yeah, I honestly have no faith in the music industry at all. This is a total anomaly, just a weird freak thing. I never thought what we made was particularly going to be accepted by a lot of people. I still wonder if it is.
I think a lot of people love you because of your lyrics. The music continually evolves, but the poetry is a throughline. It was interesting listening to all of your records, back-to-back-to-back. In the beginning, it’s kind of like this insane country rock kind of sound. It sounds very much of the era: mid-90s, punk rock country.
Rock kind of scene.
But I really fell in love with 2002’s Is A Woman. 2000’s Nixon is really cool, and 98’s What Another Man Spills has this really lush, kind of like Burt Bacharach thing going on, and I really liked it musically, but it all came together for me with Is A Woman. It’s so sparse. And I think the lyrics probably were cool on the first few albums, but I could actually concentrate on them on Is A Woman.
That was a big one, yeah.
It sounded like maybe on the first few albums, it’s not even about your voice as much. How long did it take for you to trust it, to really lean into the croon?
For me, after the Nixon thing, that’s kind of when the band sort of blew up in Europe and stuff.
And you’re in your early forties when Nixon comes out, right?
I was a late bloomer. I think the whole thing started when I was about 35. So, I was usually an older person in general, particularly in the indie scene that was starting around then, in the late ‘80s. I was a good 10 years older than most of the people in it at that time and it was fine. It just turned out that’s what it was. It seemed like you asked me something more interesting than that answer.
I’m wondering how you got to be comfortable with a voice that you’re obviously kind of burying in the mix in the first few albums.
It gets buried, anyway, live, as the band became 14 people. I ended up having to shout all the time. Even in a recording situation when I was able to hear what I was doing, live, it was a whole other thing. And eventually, it was this thing you couldn’t tame. We would get louder and louder, and it would be harder to sing over. And so, using the same number of musicians, maybe even more on Is A Woman, it was just about trying to dial in a way to not have to shout. And because of that, other things emerged. And I said, “Man, I’ve got to come through with songs, or think about songwriting as a thing, because now you can hear what I’m saying.” And also, the notion of the piano entered at that point and never really left.
Who was the piano player on Is A Woman?
Tony Crow. And he remained the piano player up until Broder.
But before you shared your demos them with the band, maybe you’d be writing to your own guitar?
Yeah. At that point, with the notion that piano was the main thing. Tony played a little bit on Nixon, but I sort of tricked him. I was like, “We’re going to make this other record,” he didn’t realize that I really wanted [Is a Woman] to be a piano-centric record. He would take what I had written and recorded, and his playing just blew everybody’s mind. And then I would back the guitar shit away in order to highlight his playing. And it sort of changed the whole way we went about making music.
What did you find the most success with by the time Is A Woman came around? Did you have a technique?
Not really. To this day, I still flop around on ways of going about writing. I think settling on one thing has never been as interesting as trying new things. And try as I might to actually write proper songs and stuff they always ended up being sort of wrong. It’s been very difficult. I’ve got to say, I think working with Andrew and Ryan has really been a big change for me as a writer, because of what they added to the songwriting. For the first time, all the songs are co-written with somebody else.
Let’s talk about how that happened with these two Minneapolis guys, 16 albums in. And though it sounds like maybe it’s been a constantly revolving door of people through those first 15 albums, most of those people were geographically connected to you.
Absolutely. And that was part of the Southern, Nashville thing, as well.
Right, because it started with these Nashville outcasts, and you felt like a Nashville outcast yourself, and you brought together this band of misfit toys in your own house.
We were all local. In my mind, we actually represented the Nashville sound. These are people who were born and raised here, for the most part, or near to it, and this is the music that’s coming out of Nashville. And of course, nobody would recognize it as such until I facetiously said we were a country band in our first bio, just to see if anybody was listening. I figured if they actually listened, they would obviously say, “That’s not a country band,” but it’s stuck.
The thing about the whole term “country,” it’s like, country music can involve strings, it can include the most urbane Burt Bacharach style arrangements, or sound completely pop, as lavish as anything going on anywhere else in the music industry, but it’s not country unless it involves cowboy hats, which aren’t even from Nashville.
Yeah, it’s all superficial shit. It really never addressed the geographic thing about Nashville. Because Nashville was just this dinky, little, racist Southern town that basically made Bibles and shit. And there was this music industry that started to grow here, for a huge number of reasons. It was an industry town so people would come here to record. There wasn’t a lot of clubs. It wasn’t like Austin, or something—never a live music town, really. And it’s only the last few years it’s kind of become like that, now. But in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, I couldn’t wait to get out of here. It was so oppressive for a kid growing up here, with hair down to his waist just seeing the the problems that went on in the South, and the Civil Rights movement and all that stuff. Nashville was not a friendly place.
And you came back in the late ‘80s and you find this group of weirdo musicians that are actually maybe not from-from Nashville but are shaped and molded by the disappointment that happens when you have naïve aspirations for musical success there. And I would say, at the risk of vastly generalizing, your point of view, or at least your tonal sensibility, throughout a lot of your records is a world weary spin on relationships, life, and your disappointment with all of the above.
It was all observational. It was all basically like journalism, in a way. I was just reflecting and commenting on my life, on my friends’ lives, whatever, and then trying to veil it in a way so that it wasn’t specific to any one person or whatever, but just broader observations. And to me, anything was possible, whether it was just watching a bird pull a worm out of the ground or whatever. That could end up being something that could be interesting, or beautiful, or expressive of a bigger thought.
And then, your voice, which is very sensitive and full of wisdom but it doesn’t have a huge amount of range. It does have an emotional dynamism and a vulnerability that I think a lot of lonely, disaffected, or weird people are drawn to.
I agree, yeah.
And you begin heavily modulating your voice with electronics with 2016’s FLOTUS. And while your voice remains central to the project, and you seem to see yourself as a leader of a merry band of outsiders, you insist on always being one of the guys. You seem reticent to put yourself and your voice out in front of Lambchop too much.
It was very hard. I spent a long time resisting that fact. The labels always wanted to focus on me, and people just want to do that, to have a front man. And I ended up being that guy even though I did not, one, think that I deserved it, and two, I didn’t feel that was what my role was. So, I really pushed against it for a long time. And I finally have accepted it only in the last couple of records. I think, It’s still a collective because I’ve found this new collective to be a part of. But for a while there, I was doing some searching because it was shrinking. Thirty years, there’s a lot of things that happen in people’s lives. People got older, got married, got jobs, died, all kinds of stuff. And the economics of the whole thing—I don’t know how the fuck we pulled that shit off early on. It was insane. But in Europe, they found a way to make it happen, and that was enough for us for a long, long time. Because we all had jobs. We were like, “Yeah, that was fun. Let’s go back to work.” There were many times I’d get off a plane and go right back to grinding the floor the next morning.
After which record did you quit working as a carpenter?
It was Nixon. All of a sudden, we’re playing huge gigs, giant fucking places. And I would go home and hit the floors the next day. I remember playing the Royal Festival Hall and coming home to sucking dust for eight hours the next day. Get off the plane, and I’m down there. And that was fine. It kept me grounded. Even when I quit, I thought I’d do something else in about six months. But stuff kept coming and I kept going for it.
So, if you look at the evolution of Lambchop, it expands out of the Springwater Supper Club, becomes professionalized around Nixon in 2000, and then you impose some aesthetic limits on Is A Woman, then it continues to expand, until sometime in the 2010s, it begins to contract.
It’s really is a great arc of the music industry and what it went through at that time. If you look at it like that, from the peak of what indie rock was, I got in on it right as it was all beginning, and then there’s CDs, and all these other changes in the way music and records are sold. And as everything kind of shifted away from that into what we know now, that is when the economics of what we were trying to do, at least as far as a band, became a lot more challenging. It took 10 years of slow fucking decline where everything just started shrinking and the only thing I was left with was my fucking crazy ideas and a few people with whom to hang.
And that went down around FLOTUS?
FLOTUS was probably our last big bandy kind of record, I guess.
But it also has this aesthetic shift where you find the Helicon, and the music sounds so sparse, again. It’s reminiscent of Is A Woman, the austerity of it. Because Mr. M sounds like a big band record.
Yes, Mr. M was the last record that was like that. Mark Nevers had reached this pinnacle of what he wanted to do with Lambchop. He started bringing strings back in and all kinds of stuff like that. And then, after Mr. M and before FLOTUS there was definitely a break. I’d been making these other records outside of Lambchop. I met this woman, Cortney Tidwell, a child of a country music family, and her granddad had a weird record label, Chart Records. And she gave me a hard drive with 700 songs on it, and we recorded them as faithfully as we could, as the band K.O.R.T. It’s a real solid country record called Invariable Heartache. After that, I made a record called HeCTA, stoned-out techno music, with two of the other guys who were totally into that kind of electronic music. But I had a problem with how my voice sounded. But once I found the Helicon angle, that’s when you got FLOTUS.
FLOTUS was also when you started working with Bon Iver’s drummer, Matt McCaughan.
Yeah, simply out of a random conversation we had at his brother’s 50th birthday. We were hanging out and neither of us were into hanging with everybody, so we just ended up hanging around, talking about beats and stuff like that, and then he started sending me things. And it opened me up to another way of going about working, and it allowed him to do stuff other than just be a drummer.
And he was also seeing the possibilities of vocal modulation with Justin Vernon right around that time, with 22, A Million.
I hadn’t really thought about that, but yeah, I guess that was going on around then, too. Both those records kind of came out around the same time and I was like, “Wow.”
And then you meet these guys from Minneapolis through Justin at PEOPLE in Berlin in 2018.
When I met Ryan, I thought he was out of his fucking mind.
He probably was.
He got me to crawl through the rafters in some bombed out fucking facility in East Berlin. I was all up for it, but the schlep up there was crazy. Anyway, I just couldn’t believe that he was serious.
This was at the Funkhaus?
I was outside, he handed me a mic, I had to run from stage all the way around the outside of that building to where the Porta-Johns were. I was singing outside of the building, looking through the window at the band and the bartenders. I was just yelling into the mic. And because I was outside, he was able to jack my voice up to these insane levels that you can’t get if you’re on stage or anywhere near any of that. It was this crazy concept and it worked. Anyway, I was just knocked out by all of that. And he was telling me his crazy plans for Swamp Dogg, and then he makes it happen years later. Ryan and Andrew, they’re like two sides of my personality. You put them together as a team, and they represent me.
You told me earlier that you’ve never had co-producers on an album before. That implies a level of trust, right?
I had to step back and see what the fuck would happen. Because prior to that, usually it was the engineers who want to call themselves the producer. Early on, I had a real thing about just what is that? What does that mean on a record when it says “producer?” I was like, “Isn’t it just the band and an engineer?” I really didn’t understand what that was about and how that fit into what we did. And I stayed away from it all those years. And sure, Mark Nevers eventually convinced me that, yes, he was producing the record, but I’ll be damned it was going to be just him as the sole producer. Because I do think, as good as he is about a lot of things, it’s the ideas I bring to it, seeing them through—all the way to the artwork on the cover for crying out loud.
So it’s about creative control?
It’s a vision thing. In a way, both Andrew and Ryan have their vision for this shit. It wasn’t necessarily articulated amongst us, but eventually, as we worked together, yeah, it became more and more apparent. But from the beginning, I was like, “No, I want you all to produce this record and do what you want. I’ll try to stay the fuck out of the way.” And I pretty much did. And I think it’s all the better for it.
How does it go from just hanging out to, let’s make music together, or let’s make an album together? Or does it start out with simply let’s make a song?
Well, it started with Showtunes where I had these songs that were already kind of done. But I was making a fake piano with a guitar, and then changing it into a piano. And it sounded okay, but it was kind of dinky, or whatever. And I’d been working with Andrew on something else, and I asked if he wanted to just play piano on these songs. And he did. And that led into Ryan suggesting getting CJ Camerieri involved. And once that was done, I thought that was pretty cool. But I was curious about where we could go from there. And so, I was like, “I’ll go to Minneapolis and see more about what it is, how they go about working and stuff,” and then I knew the two of them together could be like a Jam and Lewis kind of thing: A production team that could work to make this thing that wasn’t strictly a Ryan record, not strictly what Andrew does, but a combination.
So how did you start?
It started really weird, dude. I was in the desert in Vegas, visiting my in-laws. Arrived as soon as the pandemic opened up enough for us to go visit them. And prior to that, Andrew was doing these solo piano sets on Instagram or whatever.
Yeah, during the pandemic, me and my friend Drew would always stay up late and text each other, “All right, when is he going to go on?”
Same here. I was right there, in Nashville, waiting. So, he would do these things and they were fucking amazing. But they were usually at his house, just on his Wurlitzer or whatever. Then, one day, he was dinking around in a real recording studio doing something else, and there was a real piano there, so he had a quick little post of him playing an actual piano, and it sounded fucking amazing. I was like, “Dude, I’ll get you in a studio, you just go in there for like three or four hours and do your thing.” So, he sent me twelve 20- to 30-minute-long pieces, very much like those things, but they were well-recorded, they sounded beautiful. And my idea was to edit them together into songs. And I started doing that. And some of those are still on this record, but we started with that. And I created a handful of that stuff, and that’s when I came up in the summer and we were going to work on those and then try some other stuff. Then, Ryan just left the door open and suddenly all these dudes are in this place, you’re showing up, we’re all just hanging out every night, and they’re jamming out, and he said, “I want to have 30 songs to work on,” and sure enough, he came up with 30 things for me to work on. So, I went back to Nashville and I realized I had to up my game. So I locked myself in this tracking studio that was vacant for the month, and I worked every day like a nut, like 9:00 to 5:00: go in there, fucking see if I can get my game up enough to match some of the shit that they had given me. And the combination of that stuff became The Bible.
And this is unusual for you, the way that you were writing, right? You were writing over experimental tracks that Ryan, and Andrew, and yourself had put together up here in Minneapolis.
Right. And I’d edit them or use them as is, just how they went down. Some of the stuff that they had added to that I brought up from the Andrew jams. So, it was a nice variety of approaches and songs, really. But yeah, it’s just another way of writing. I don’t always write words first then the music, or music first, then the words. It’s whatever the song feels like it’s going to be, I go with it. But it was exciting. When I left there, it was fucking nuts, man. I was so thrilled and it was so fucking hot, man. Oh my God.
That was when I saw you, right? In the middle of the summer of 2021? We’re upstairs in the middle of the night at that paint factory on the North side, and it’s super steamy, and you’re surrounded by all these Midwestern musical ghouls.
Yeah, it was right when it was fucking 90 at night and shit. I was just watching and I would just nod and go, “Yeah, I can jam to that.” I wasn’t going to jump in and participate like a lot of musicians probably would have. Again, I’m a solitary guy. Give me some time alone. I’m a little bashful about just being a freak. I’m not a natural fucking great musician like all these guys that hang out there are. I was just like, “Goddamn, I ain’t going to open my fucking mouth, man.” Ryan was trying to get me to do it, but I was resisting. And I wish I was more like that. Maybe I can be like that now that I kind of know what I’m getting into. But it’s more about, I just want to sculpt shit. It’s a rock in my hand and I just want to fucking make it into something.
So why is this The Bible?
I had this overarching idea for this record to begin with, which I didn’t want to share with Ryan and Andrew early on. I just wanted to see what they did without my weird, I don’t know, framework or concept. I sort of fucked up in a way because I did let the cat out of the bag about midway through, and they ran with it. I’m not a religious person. I’m whatever you want to call it, a secular humanist or whatever, but I don’t believe in religion per se. But I do believe that there’s a spirituality to a lot of people. You don’t have to be religious to be a spiritual person, right? You just don’t have to. And a lot of the artists that I like have a sort of sense of soul, of spirituality, that is in what they do. And they’re not necessarily religious. Anyway, I was just wanting to have that as some sort of umbrella in which to create the lyrical content of the stuff. It doesn’t really come across super obvious until we called it The Bible.
Right, and you see the superscript numbers in the liner notes.
Yeah, stuff like that. And it was interesting. When I was there, I was staying with Justin. And I was talking to him about it. He was one of the guys that sort of made me notice that. I find what he does to be super spiritual shit. And so, we were talking a little bit about that idea that there should be an acceptance, or a way of recognizing spirituality without it being overtly religious. And that was my thesis.
When you say secular humanist, are you saying there’s a connection between us that we can’t perceive as human beings?
Right. I believe that some kind of God thing is happening. I just am extremely anti-organized religion—anything that involves money. If there’s money involved in any way, no, it ain’t religion to me—it’s some other fucking racket. I do believe in a lot of what religion teaches us about being a good person and all that kind of stuff. And that’s important shit. I just can’t hang with all the centuries of fucking horrible shit that religion has brought upon us.
That might be the human part though.
Yeah, for sure. A long time ago, back in high school, we were talking about it and a friend said he was a secular humanist and he tried to explain to me. And I was like, “Well, that kind of works for me.” In the South, the second question you get asked after “Who are your parents?” is “What religion are you?” They’re not shy about it.
And you don’t go to any church down there?
No. I mean, as a kid my parents were Catholic and Jewish, so they were banished from either end of that, or not into it, and they raised me Unitarian.
Okay, so your last record was showtunes for people who don’t like musicals, and this one is a spiritual record for people who don’t like church.
Right. So, it’s taking back some of these sort of unflattering connotations, or examples of music. Or stuff I can get behind as opposed to stuff I find repugnant. I’m not a big showtunes guy at all, but there was a certain element to that as far as the type of songwriting that’s involved that I still aspire to because I do think it’s masterful. I’m just flopping around in my own way, trying to get there and represent it in the best way I can with my abilities. I think once Ryan and Andrew got the notion that it was kind of about that, it did start to creep more and more into the production a little bit. But in a way, that kind of helped at that point. It was balancing out the two types of things that are going on this record, the way it jumps back and forth between the type of songs that are happening. There’s definitely a thread of—I don’t know what it is, if it’s Episcopal or whatever, or Methodist, you know what I mean, some type of bland, white religion.
It sounds like a person meditating on his entire life, right? There’s not as many lonely love songs on this Lambchop record, there’s more of you thinking about your lost youth. Singing about where you’re at right now. It’s the popcorn on your shoes at a ballgame. It’s not like scenes from a marriage, it’s scenes from a guy looking back on his life.
A lot of it had to do with my parents. My dad’s 92 and my mom passed away three or four years ago. He’s pretty much been on his own. And I pretty much have to take care of him. During the creation of this record, I think he had a couple of hips replaced, he had COVID, he had a stroke, all this stuff. And so, there’s a lot of caregiving going on and a lot of time spent with him. Suddenly, he’s free of the relationship he had all his life with his wife, and here he is just being that old dude. It was very touching to me. It definitely soaked in a lot to what was happening. I’d get a call from him while I was writing this stuff because he had COVID. But I also was taking lyrical content from just my experience of being up in Minneapolis. There’s little quotes and snippets of stuff that are directly related to the experience of being up there working with these guys.
Yeah, there’s a line like, “It’s cloudy forever,” that’s the graffiti that’s over by Ryan’s place. I forgot what the story was, but it wasn’t pretty. It was like a remembrance, I think. But it was something that would pop up, or like I was looking at a Grateful Dead bumper sticker in traffic there, and that’s the first line of that song: a bear and the puppy dancing, roses and a crown. I do try to interweave stuff that’s happening right at the moment that I’m writing. That’s always been a thing I do. And it often makes people go, “I don’t know what he’s talking about.” But for me, it’s so cool I can incorporate the experience of what’s going on while you’re actually writing. You do it when you go report a sports story or whatever, that’s what you do. And it’s so cool. It’s just more fragmented and less articulated than the way a normal journalist would work or something, but I do believe in letting in what’s happening right then.
That summer was so gnarly. We were just coming out of COVID isolation, and the music scene was reckoning with George Floyd and #metoo simultaneously. And everybody was fighting over a pipeline being built up north. And there was a long drought.
Ryan was telling me stories that would just end my mind. It was relentless. And the vibe that was there when I was there was that hot summer vibe, man, where people were getting jacked on corners all the time. It was not a friendly, happy scene. And it made an impression on me. It certainly came out in some of the things that I started going at in these songs, maybe more overt than I usually would have done it. There’s some pretty overt references to stuff, like Tommie Smith and shit like that. Because that’s what I remembered growing up watching. It was stirring up a lot of shit in me, man. And again, that’s also part of y’all’s world.
I think the Minneapolis that you experienced might be similar to the side of Nashville you’re familiar with: you are dealing with the misfits. And here you are working with two of the biggest misfits I know, Ryan Olson and Andrew Broder.
But they temper each other out in a way. Because when they’re working together, they have to allow each other the space to do that. So it tempers out some of Ryan’s maximalism, and it helps Andrew to get more into realizing a production role in stuff.
When you said there are two sides of your personality, like some kind of schizophrenic analogy, what part of your personality is Ryan’s, and what part of your personality is Broder’s?
Broder is a much more grounded, sensible, thoughtful, sensitive person—not that Ryan isn’t. Actually, Ryan is a very sensitive dude. Ryan’s very outspoken about his ideas and beliefs and the things that he does, and also, I don’t know. When I listen to anything he’s making, I can see a picture of Ryan and this smile, almost bliss, that comes across his face when shit is fucking happening.
There’s this absolute, pure fucking joy of the moment. Just sort of wild and reckless. He comes across a little tough and hard, and whatever, but he’s not at all. There’s a part of me that’s like that. I’m just nowhere near the level of intellect that this fucker has when it comes to technology and stuff. And he is not swayed by it, at all. If shit is not working, he figures out how to make it work. Or, even better, he figures out a way it hasn’t worked, yet, and then tries to go there. I mean, it’s remarkable. So, there’s this genius thing going on that I don’t possess, but I certainly have a lot of crazy ideas, I just never have been able to realize it without some kind of help.
Yeah, and he has a lot of energy—he keeps it light, he keeps it funny, he keeps it entertaining.
Yeah, and that’s joy. And I get that. I feel that in what I’ve been doing all this time. It’s all about 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 ends up being the case 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. Why do it if you’re not enjoying it?
And Ryan’s in his mid-forties, a time when a lot of people do lose some of their joy.
It’s like, damn, that’s where your life starts staring you in the fucking face. I feel weird because I’m going to be 64, dude. What the fuck am I doing? I’m doing it. It’s almost like my life has gone back to almost being a construction worker. In fact, I really should get a fucking job. I’m not really skilled enough to do anything, but I might have to. And I’m still going to crank out records. I’ve already broken it to the label: “I’m not doing a lot of touring, y’all, because I’m old.” And it’s lose-lose right now. It’s not going to get any better. I’m watching all my friends go out and tour and lose money. It’s a destroyer of the middle class of music right now. It’s going to be like the haves and have nots. And it’s due to the circumstances that we’re living in, but it was coming prior to that, and I saw it, and I was just like, you know what? I can waste valuable resources on airlines, hotels, gas, and all that shit, going into debt, which I’ve been doing pretty successfully for the last 10 years, or I can just focus on making records, and that’s what I’m trying to do. But I don’t know. Art is hard, dude. It’s not going to make you a living. I need to be thinking about retirement.