Of DIY & DIY: Tim Burgess & Kurt Wagner In Conversation

Tim Burgess enrolled Kurt Wagner to write the lyrics for his new solo album Oh No I Love You. Luke Turner sat them down at the Barbican and instigated a chat about music and sanding techniques

2012 has been a busy old year for Tim Burgess. The Charlatans have played a series of classic album gigs and well-received Festival appearances. His O Genesis record label is going from strength-to-strength, and his autobiography Tellin’ Stories received excellent notices in the press. Perhaps most importantly, though, he’s released the excellent "country and North Western” album Oh No I Love You, about which Wyndham Wallace waxes lyrical here. The album was written in partnership with Kurt Wagner, who Burgess had met in Manchester a decade ago when he carried his guitar to his van after a Lambchop gig, and suggested they should work together. This finally came to fruit on Oh No I Love You, with Burgess surrendering ego to allow Wagner to write lyrics for him. These the Charlatans man turned into songs, returning to Nashville to record with some of the musical legends of that city. The Quietus decided to make Burgess perform another task, and asked him to interview Wagner about music, Oh No I Love You and Nashville. While he was at it, Burgess decided to get some advice on sanding from the former handyman. The interview took place at London’s Barbican Centre on one of the first days of spring.

Tim Burgess: I like to work with people I admire. What inspires you?

Kurt Wagner: Oh man, just nice people. Friends. But really just, Y’know good experiences with my friends, my loved ones.

TB: The Barbican? With me and Luke?

KW: [laughs] Well, that’s a weird one you know, walking in here today, I was thinking – Got back to the dressing room and it’s kind of freaky actually. The first memory I had when I walked in was Mark [Linkous, Sparklehorse leader who died in 2010] was over there, Vic [Chesnutt, died 2009] was over here, there I was. That was my memory. It’s a bit of a bummer you know… what the fuck, you know, that’s the last thing I would have thought would have happened.

TB: Is it travelling around with you then?

KW: Yeah you know how it is… That’s weird, because I remember the thing with Mark, I spent a lot of time talking with him. Yeah, it’s a bit much.

TB: So…

KW: Sorry, It’s already…

Thinking about the start of Oh No I Love You, were you wary at all?

KW: I have a thing in general about us musician dudes getting lost in our own little worlds, where ‘it’s all about us man‘. It’s very easy to get lost in that, and I see it happen to people and that’s one of the reasons I wasn’t gonna end up being a musician or even calling myself one, ’cause I didn’t wanna be associating myself with that kind of dude. I think it’s very important for the people I work with and I admire, that we’re conscious that ‘no it’s not all about us, it’s about our friends’.

So I thought it was interesting relating to your work with Tim on his record, that first singer to kind of say ‘oh I’ll let you write the songs for me’ I admire Tim taking his ego out of that, you know and working with you in that way. I feel like that was quite a rare thing to happen…

KW: Yeah, it doesn’t happen a lot, although frankly anybody I collaborate with and I’ve collaborated some people other than Tim, in each case we found a way to do that and that’s why it worked out the way it has, whether it was the X-Press 2 guys or Morcheeba. It works in a natural way, because something about us, as people, not as musicians, it’s just how we get on as people. I think if you get on as a person, everything else is going to be alright.

TB: Mmm. It was the coffee this morning really…

KW: Well that’s what reminded me of it now, this is exactly what we fucking did, we met in the fucking morning for coffee and we talked about stuff. First day we just talked about our lives, second day Tim was already on it and you know we had stuff to talk about as far as what we were working on. I was the one who was dragging ass; he was cracking the shit out .

TB: I like to move fast

KW: But I tried to because we agreed that was something we needed to try to do

TB: It’s just brilliant. we had like 10 days and we really got it together. Kurt would give me three at once, or one, I’d know after a couple of days. One would come slow and three would come fast, it just balanced out.

KW: We would meet each day for coffee and then Tim would go back to his hotel and make up more songs and I would go back to my house, which is hilarious, we weren’t even in the same fucking room… We were in roughly the same part of town, and that was about it. Tim was very focused, and I was really trying to feel my way through what it’s like to write from his mouth, to write things that he was comfortable saying. As we grew into the process Tim got more confident in the things he was writing. By the end I was like ‘Please Tim, all I can think of is a title for this one dude’.

TB: Ohhh, you’re too kind.

KW: But you know what I mean? That’s how it kind of evolved, right? Towards the end I was like fuck, I can’t do anything with this, it’s already done, I can give you a weird title, you know and…

TB: But then sometimes that’s enough, isn’t it?

KW: Exactly, yeah. On [Lambchop track] ‘The Man Who Loved Beer’, dude [Donald Charles Book] sent me all the words already, it was just like a collaborative thing that’s all good and all I did was put the title on it.

TB: It’s brilliant.

KW: And he stole the words from a fucking err, Ancient Egyptian, from the, you the same year, but BC not AD.

TB: No wonder you couldn’t improve on it too much.

KW: Exactly, right. I was like ‘no that’s pretty good’, I did add one line. I did add one fucking line, now I remember.

TB: Well the title is what brings you to it in a lot of ways.

KW: The title and we were in like, what was it February through December? We had such a tragic year, I just was fucking with you a little bit there dude. Probably the fun of writing with other people is having fun with them. And I think we had a bit of fun?

TB: Oh it was amazing, a really great experience… both sets of times, both really different. First time it was just me in a hotel and an acoustic guitar, we’d meet at JJs coffee shop, coffee in the morning, email maybe Skype a little, but not too much and then just meet the following morning and talk …

KW: It’s a real natural style songwriting. It’s like going to work , like the Nashville musicians who played on the record. We were just going to the workspace like those guys do, and then they crank out songs five days a week, they take the weekend off and go play with the kids you know, to them they’re workmen.

It’s a work ethic

KW: Yeah, wells it’s that brick-building thing or whatever, it’s, that’s natural more than anything its how they, make songs… It’s a songwriter’s heaven. I never really pursue that sort of world, I just took it somewhere else. I think it would be great to write music with real natural songwriters, I don’t know whether they’re interested in my ass.

Do you feel more accepted in Nashville now?

KW: No. I think I’m just tolerated or acknowledged, just because I don’t move in that world, I go to house parties, I hang out with kids, make cool weird music you know I don’t go to the Americano awards, I don’t do that shit, it’s just not my world, I’m fine with that, I’ve never pursued it.

TB: It’s like such a personal take on Nashville sound…

KW: It’s actually about being from Nashville, it’s not about you know, their Nashville, it’s my Nashville I grew up there, it’s my home, I’m from there, so I reflect that. The fact it’s not what people have come to understand about Nashville I think makes it all the more significant that, yeah, I’m actually a Nashville songwriter ’cause I’m from there. And you’re a Manchester songwriter…

TB: I’m North Western!

KW: Well it also has a fine tradition of songwriting, and that was something I was very excited about. It’s not in my DNA, it’s in his.

What was it you liked about the Manchester feel?

KW: It was like ‘Hey I’m writing pop music man’ I was like ‘Fucking yeah’ I’ve tried my whole life and I can’t seem to work it out, but it comes out of him like butter. That’s your DNA, that’s what you grew up with.

TB: Manchester water, I think it is.

When you were growing up was there much British culture you were aware of?

KW: I kind of was an Anglophile as a kid, mainly because we moved over here, I lived in Sheffield for a year, and I was a Wednesday fan. I was here in like ’71, ’72, amazing music happening in Great Britain, and all these great artists were dying too. I was in London when Jim Morrison died, I was coming out of the Tube and saw the headline. It was also the year Elton John’ first record came out. Lets see what else was going on… Kinks’ ‘Apeman’ was on Top of the Pops, I saw that, that was a really mainstream examples of what I was hearing. I went to see Pink Floyd, Ummagumma on tour. 75p Sheffield City Hall.

TB: So how did you get hold of records from Britain when you were back home?

KW: I bought my first record in Sheffield actually. Yeah it was Band of Gypsies – we would go to the shop and buy some records. In fact that shop’s still there…

TB: Not Rocky’s?

KW: Yeah.

TM: It’s Record Store Day soon… stuff like that needs to be mentioned.

KW: I’d get my records from my brother. When I would go to school, kids would bring in records. I remember when ‘Imagine’ came out, dudes were carrying their records round at school. I remember there were greasy-looking skinheads and I couldn’t understand… ‘what are you guys angry about?’ I had long hair so obviously they were thinking I was a hippy and I was a fucking Yank. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I was terrified. I’d never seen guys with shaved heads and boots you know

TB: People used to walk around with like their fists clenched all the time didn’t they like…

KW: And it was a little bit freaky, I would walk home from school and they would be like ‘You gotta be careful where you walk and [scared impression] ‘Ooooooh noo’.

TB: Were you inspired by punk music?

KW: Oh yeah, yeah I mean I was in Memphis when all that was going on…

TB: OK so is it after Sheffield, it was Memphis, and then Nashville… then Memphis then Nashville…

KW: Well Sheffield, came back to Nashville, finished my high school shit, I got out of high school a year early, moved to Memphis and that was ’76, so that’s when shit was starting to filter in through the United States and Memphis had this crazy punk connection with NYC ’cause of Alex Chilton’s thing. So it was this back and forth between New York and Memphis. Sex Pistols came to Memphis and all that… I have my famous story about that but I won’t repeat it…I could have been there, I stayed home and finished my project. They’ll be back is what I said.

TB: That’s a better story, that’s a great story. I got to stand outside, erm a Smiths gig in Stoke-on-Trent. I never managed to get inside.

TB: I’ve been doing a lot of sanding for the Nik Colk Void record on O Genesis, and the paper seems to wear down quite quick on my Black and Decker mounts, do you have any advice?

KW: Well first of all, when you’re sanding this material there’s a certain type of paper you should use, its more open and doesn’t clog as much as say paper that you use for wood.

TB: That’s a great answer. Thanks. You did floors, right? Do you see instruments as being similar to tools? Are there parallels with floors and songs?

KW: Um, as far as instruments and tools go, no I see instruments as women. I started playing the cello, something you hold between your knees so… it went on from there, I still look at them that way.

TB: I love the way Arthur Russell plays the cello so beautifully.

KW: Well I don’t know how beautifully I was playing it but… I try. What was the, follow-up question?

TB: Are there parallels to floors and songs?

KW: I don’t think so, but I must say that doing work allows you to think. It’s so repetitive and it’s so physical and essentially not cerebral, that your mind starts to think about stuff. I discovered that a lot of times I would think about stuff during the day and then when I got done with work I would go home and do that. Sometimes I would just write things down on chunks of wood, bring the chunks of wood home… and have a little pile of them.

TB: I used to clean floors and I used to dream about what records I was gonna get, and that used to get me through the mundane everyday stuff. Now, to actually allow ideas to come into my head I walk and I walk until something just enters my mind and that’s an idea, and I can only kind of get that without listening to other people’s music. How did it work with my songs?

KW: You were in your world I was in mine, so I was obviously doing lots of things, wandering around the house, feeding the dogs, having to do laundry or whatever the fuck. They’re maybe not as physical as the stuff you were talking about, but still its like you’re playing hooky from the thing you should be doing. That was kinda happening when I was painting, you know, after a while I was painting seriously every day, for six hours, whatever the fuck I could squeeze in…

TB: Songs sneak in…

KW: …they fucking started to sneak in, and I was like checking to see if, you know, the guy that insured the studio was gonna show up cause I was sneaking around playing guitars, ‘oooooh’, if he would catch me, and go ‘uhhhhhhhh’…

TB: …I love that…

KW: …Playing hooky…

Tim Burgess’ Oh No I Love You is out now

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