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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.

 

In this interview Brian Eno speaks among other things (recording in Mali, his records with Karl Hyde and his sound installation in Sweden) about poverty and Unconditional Basic Income.

The basic idea is that it is hard to be creative if you have not got at least some security, and the idea of basic minimum income is to give everybody some money every week.

„Basic income is a great idea! I like the idea that it says: We believe that all people are potentially creative and they should be given the chance to express that.“ (Brian Eno)

Would it mean we got a lot of lazy crap art, or would it give the people whose main goal are not profit a chance to develop and flourish?

Both I guess, but I think what is good would still find its way. A lot of good music has been created in this music business – where the artists are not the ones necessarily getting the best parts of the economic deal.
 
 
You can read more about unconditional basic income here
 
You can listen to the interview here
 
(And as bonus track I throw in a short speech by Ursula Le Guinn here)


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