Strumming, banging on all manner of stuff — from organ keys to lacquer-thinner cans — blowing horns, and speak-singing colorful sound/word picture stories and moments in time, Lambchop is an informal Nashville ensemble of ten or so players. Their combination of sound is that of a southern ’70s kid’s parental record collection spinning all at once, elevated to a gorgeous harmonious convergence of oddly assorted instruments and daily soundscape: Jim Reeves, Willie & Waylon, Artie Shaw, Guy Lombardo, the next door neighbor’s White Album pouring out the kitchen window over the can opener full speed tearing into pre-dolphin-safe tuna for lunch, and the afternoon news droning on about golf scores and Vietnam and tomorrow’s weather.
Altogether, the effect is disarming in a comfortable way that not so much raises one from reality as it places one in the midst of real life where suicide, the complexities of love and longing, and working for the man are given equal attention.
Their sound befits the old bridal axiom: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue — old-school inspired original material, collaboratively rendered from Jung’s collective consciousness with a crash into the Southern wailing wall. Since 1987, Lambchop has released a handful of singles, two LPs and, this summer, the EP Hank. They’re having a good time of it, like a tail-chasing dog with no self-consciousness, and fit comfortably in their own skin, rubbing up against the bones for warmth.
What began as a “hang out with friends and play for fun” affair — “sort of like a poker night,” says Nashville native Kurt Wagner — has evolved into a regular Friday night open door policy basement rehearsal/playtime. The core lineup has remained largely the same, with bassist Marc Trovillion (one of the founding ‘Chops, along with Wagner), Allen Lowery and Scott Chase on drums/percussion (each drummer plays a part of one big kit), Deanna Varagona (now a Chicago musician with her own band) on baritone sax, organist John Delworth, Paul Niehaus on lap steel (he’s also in Paul Burch Jr.’s band), and the man for whom the latest record is named, engineer Hank Tillbury on synthesizer and glockenspiel.
Lambchop still play the Working Stiffs Jamboree at the Springwater in Nashville with some regularity. They toured Europe last spring and two summers ago played Lollapalooza’s second stage, a gig of questionable value other than “we got to meet Stereolab, who I think are the greatest,” says Wagner. They are currently in and out of the studio, learning more about that process and putting together new material.
Wagner is the undisputed bandleader, though he is reluctant to think or speak of it in those terms. “It’s more like by default. Because you end up singing and writing songs, you end up taking this sort of responsibility. …It wasn’t something I had in mind, it was just sort of like, OOPS! After the fact, it’s like, ‘oh, damn, I have to deal with this.’ Because nobody else wanted to sing, I ended up doing it. I always try to encourage people to do it, and nope — they won’t open their mouths!”
Wagner punctuates this statement, as he does many, with a big infectious raspy chuckle — think Foghorn Leghorn. Live, Wagner just shy of lazily plays his guitar from a seated position, one booted foot crossed over a knee, decked out in piped Western jacket and hat, crooning into the microphone the lyrics that distinguish the Lambchop sound.
“The Tin Chime”, a gem from Hank (recorded live picnic-style on Independence Day 1995), begins with a simple guitar-based melody that intensifies with a Philip Glass Music for Trees style horn section, almost Hawaiian lap steel and broken-time percussion. This unlikely fusion leads into Wagner’s vocals taking on a Cat Stevens vibrato you could drive a Mac truck through: “You know the tin chime in the window is muted I suppose / It’s amazing that I can think straight since you and I got old / Then the phone rang and you moved closer as we heaped upon the fire / And we dreamed of the apostles / And they’re calling you a liar.” The effect is stunning — the brilliance of sound collage and Wagner’s voice at once goofy, sexy and sublime.
“One thing that we both like to do is put instruments that you wouldn’t think would go together, together. Like trumpet and steel, which I think is really beautiful,” says Paul Burch Jr., yet another Lambchop drummer and a relatively new member. He speaks of the band as community and family: They were among his first friends when he came to Nashville a few years ago and was urged by college buddies to drop in and play. The fit was good, and Burch stayed. In addition, he has his own band, a more acoustic five- or six-piece, giving him a clear perspective on the ensemble nature of a large band.
“I’ve been really lucky, I’ve played with some great pickers since I came to Nashville,” Burch says. “But in a way, a lot of them kinda pick them selves out of a job, because they try to put their own personality into something, instead of listening to what’s already there. I think when you’re a new person in a band, you almost need to be a little invisible. You gotta have a ship captain; I mean, you definitely have to have a leader. [This] band’s a lot harder than [it] appears. … It’s a real juggling act, ’cause you’re asking musicians to have enormous trust in the songs.”