Kurt Wagner would be the first to tell you that, until recently, finding him at home at 10.30am on a Tuesday was a rarity. He may be the singer of Lambchop and he may have released the single of the year (the gospel flavoured paean to parenthood 'Up With People'), but for over ten years Kurt Wagner has led a double life: a carpenter during the day time, a musician during his free time. He would spend the week working on people's floors in Nashville and then at weekends his bandmates - 13 at the last count - would drop by his house, drink a few beers, share a few laughs and then decamp to the basement to play music.
In the basement Wagner and the extended Lambchop family created their records, their sound shuttling between two Tennessee cities: a lavish Memphis soul and a less polished Nashville country. And it was in the basement last year that Lambchop envisioned their masterpiece album of this year, 'Nixon'. The success of this album has given Wagner the chance to concentrate on one life instead of two. 'I've given myself a little bit of a break from the floors for a while,' he sighs, sounding like a man who's had his best sleep in years. 'Things were getting pretty hectic for me in my life and I was trying to find a way to bring a little more sanity to what was going on. It was getting pretty crazy after about five years of really working two jobs and not getting a whole lot of sleep.'
Anyone who has listened to Lambchop's records over the years would have realised that Wagner had to reach this crossroads. While he says that music was never a career, only something that looked like fun, his talent and his tales of wonders in everyday life couldn't remain Lambchop fans' little secret forever. Decision time came when 'Nixon' warmed the winter months upon its release in January. It was an album which, like Mercury Rev's 'Deseters Songs' and The Flaming Lips' 'The Soft Bulletin' before it, caught many by surprise. Here was an outfit largely seen (or indeed unseen) as a cult band, releasing an album that jumped genres, reminded people why they loved music in the first place and won mainstream approval in the process.
'It has been a pretty momentous time for us,' Wagner reflects on the album's success, 'and way beyond what I thought would happen'. 'I didn't really realize we had that much in us as far as being able to sustain and promote a record. The fact that we have done what we have done is something that I am very proud of.' Pride tempered with a king size doze of humility and the opinion that his band 'plods along in its own little way'. 'We're probably still just a cult band - even in Europe,' he laughs. 'The US hasn't caught on to 'Nixon' particularly, I think it has done better than any of our other records over here, but I don't know if its anything approaching (laughs) recognition. And no, there's been no interest in us by big labels at all. Maybe they just look at us and go 'well, there are 14 people there, that's going to be a pain in the ass...' '
In interviews Wagner has spoken of the Nashville music establishment's indifference towards his band and towards emerging artists, and how the city 'didn't like to grow its own vegetables but preferred to get them ripe and send them to the store'. Surely some of the plaudits have filtered back? 'Not at all, it's the same as it has always been here. It's a different world we're in to whatever world they're in. As for the vegetables, that's true!' 'There's no plan B yet in Nashville. It's a bit of a shame because they are selling themselves short. There are a lot of great country performers out there and they don't really give them the time of day unless they can market them in a certain way. In the end they're going to look around and go 'now what do we do?'
Not that Wagner is too worried. He's lived with that hometown fickleness throughout Lambchop's life span. Right now, his mind is focussed on his next batch of songs: by the start of the New Year, Lambchop will reconvene down in his basement and begin work on the follow-up to 'Nixon'. 'I'm really excited. We worked a long time on 'Nixon' - the best part of a year - and for me it seems like it has been a long time since we've really gone at it for a record. Now I'd like to try to make a sound that's a big sound but doesn't seem that way... It's very hard for me to explain, but to try to make a band of 12 or 20 people sound like three or four.' And after success comes the pressure to go one better? 'Oh, I always feel that. It's been the case ever since I started to make records. That's one reason I get so excited about things in the future; I hope to make the album of the year for us each time.'