This article is part of our series 'Nice Song, What's It About?,' where we revisit old greats and go deep to get the stories behind them. To see the column's archive, click here.
Across his two-plus decade musical career, Lambchop's Kurt Wagner has been portrayed as the literate everyday man writing songs about everyday life. Over twelve albums, the former painter and floorer has crafted deft songs, often with subtle and ambiguous lyrics backed by lush instrumentation.
Even as he and his Nashville music collective have changed direction from alt-country to soul, to lounge music and even electronica, Wagner, in his signature trucker hat and black-rimmed glasses, has written beautiful but hard-to-figure-out songs.
No more so than on Lambchop's 1996 album How I Quit Smoking, and in particular the track "The Man Who Loved Beer". Adapted from the poem "The man who was tired of Life" from ancient Egyptian text Dispute Between a man and his Ba, lines such as "To whom can I speak today? The wrong which roams the earth" has left a lot of people wondering what it has to do with Budweiser.
We gave Kurt a call to find out more about the song.
Noisey: What is the origin of "The Man Who Loved Beer"?
Kurt Wagner: It goes back to when I was in art school and I was friends with a fellow called Dennis Charles Book. His name in the writing credit is referred to as DC Book. I called him Chuck. When I started making records Chuck would send me odd pieces of lyric content and request that I make songs from them and I'd try to oblige him when I could. In this instance he sent me most of the lyrics. He found them in an anthology of odd poetry. So I gave it a shot and chose to insert a few lines of my own and give it a different title.
Was him sending the lyrics meant to be some kind of challenge?
He had collaborated on some other songs. I guess he enjoyed the armchair quarterback position of not really having to do anything but send me stuff and watch it become a record and stuff. And it was kind of fun. I'd tend to poke fun of him as well. The title of the song "The Man Who Loves Beer" refers to something that he would say quite often, particularly in the afternoon when we'd get off after work.
You are a man who enjoys beer. Are you a fan of all these new IPAs and craft beers or are you more a Miller High Life kind of guy?
I like it all (laughs). It's been interesting to watch the evolution of it all [craft beer] because when it started out there wasn't much available for us in the US. But over time, it's become quite the opposite where there's more choices than you could possibly imagine.
And the song has nothing do with beer?
It always made a bit of odd sense to me. In a way it referred to a pretty populist opinion about beer and how it's an everyman kind of beverage.
Speaking of everyman, you have been portrayed as this everyday kind of guy. A trucker-hatted, beer-drinking painter and floorer who writes these beautiful and esoteric songs. This image has seemed to have stuck throughout your career. Were you conscious of this from the start?
Not really, I just chose to be the person that I was. Basically I was a construction worker and it's pretty much the same way I style myself today (laughs). It's nice to know that the hat has come and gone out of style as a hipster accessory.
"The Man Who Loved Beer" sounds sad and lonely but like a lot of Lambchop songs it involves a lot of people playing. What was the recording like? Were there people crammed into the studio?
At various points there would be. That particular studio is rather small and we would mange to pack as many people as we could into the space. That record enabled us to get a string section. At this point we were making g record on a record label, the first album we were just in the studio recording. We never had an intention of making a record in full, we just liked the idea of making recordings and trying to use the notion of what Nashville country music had at its disposal and trying to subvert that, I guess for our own purposes (laughs).
How did the David Byrne cover come about?
David just sent me an email telling me that he'd recorded the song and sent me a preview. He came to Nashville and performed it and I went backstage to thank him. He'd gotten one of the words wrong (laughs). I kind of corrected him and told him it should have been this and not that. But now I feel stupid. What am I doing telling David Byrne what to do? (laughs) I still regret that to this day. But he's a good man and always has been a strong supporter of what I've done as an artist.
There is also quite a bit of humour in your music
Yeah, I put that "February through December" line in the song because we'd had such a tragic year. It was a reference to some modern pop song in the middle of some ancient phrasing.
Was 1996 a good time for you?
Yeah, I was happy being a construction worker and we were in a band making records. We still weren't doing a lot of touring, usually only on our holidays but we did what we could. I'd just gotten married so yeah, things were good.
Do you continue to play the song live?
We still play it time to time. It's a great song.
Lambchop performs at the Melbourne Recital Centre Oct 18 as part of the Melbourne Festival .