Interview: The Meat Puppets

Andrew Perry

By Andrew Perry

on 04.19.11 in Interviews

Born at the height of hardcore punk, Meat Puppets exemplified the kind of group who, as they grew up, were not to be contained by punk’s three-chord template. They followed their first furious record on SST with a series of brittle explorations of folky, country-tinged psychedelic-rock, flying in the face of hardcore’s machismo.

The band’s story, however, is very hardcore. The trio, centered around Curt Kirkwood (vocals, guitar) and his brother, Cris (bass, vocals), gradually crept into the mainstream, suddenly achieving ultra-hipness when Kurt Cobain invited them to perform three of their songs with him on Nirvana’s legendary MTV Unplugged, shortly before his death.

But just when they seemed poised for huge commercial success, Meat Puppets quickly fell into the same druggy turmoil as Nirvana, and dissolved in disarray. Curt Kirkwood went it alone for some years, but after brother Cris emerged from a two-year prison sentence in 2006, they reunited. Since then, they have made three terrific records; the latest, Lollipop, every bit as unique, diverse and melodically enchanted as their early stuff.

With their vocal fans ranging from Howard Stern to Animal Collective, Meat Puppets are firing again. On the line from his home in Austin, Texas, Curt Kirkwood has plenty to shout about.

Lollipop is all over the map! Is this iteration of the Meat Puppets reaching out to all the different areas it can operate in?

We’ve always done that, I think. It’s nice — populism! But this is actually a little more reined in, I think — it’s not as self-indulgent instrumentally as the last couple. We kinda had to stretch our legs a bit [after the hiatus]. Cris and I hadn’t played together, so those ones were more like sound portraits, or snowglobes — putting in all the cool stuff that we want in there. This one, I stuck with arrangement and made that a priority, also so I could keep the time in check, recording-wise. Shandon [Sahm, drummer] and I live in Austin, and Cris still lives in Phoenix, so…

There’s all sorts in there — rockabilly, country, folk-rock, even reggae!

Reggae’s always been there. We used to listen to as much dub as we did punk rock, probably more. Something like [1985's] Up On The Sun, I’ve noticed, has a lot of ska and disco. We would never have been able to do straight up reggae. It owes as much to Culture Club as it does to the real Jamaican stuff, though, honestly. Who doesn’t like Culture Club?

Is it true that “Incomplete” was written in 1983?

Yeah, it’s true. I was actually in Acapulco when I wrote it, and I was hearing music drifting up from the different clubs and stuff. I was thinking, “Man I would like to write a song like that, that Elvis would do in one of his dumb movies, like Fun In Mexico, or whatever it’s called.”

You mean, Fun In Acapulco?

Yeah, of course! I’ve done a lot of that, where I’m kind of writing for that person. I’ve done it like, “Oh man, I wish Diana Ross would do this, or Willie Nelson.” This one was kinda your “Elvis, Roy Orbison — I wish.”

I’ve read that, although you’ve always written pretty much all the songs and sung them, you refuse to regard Meat Puppets as “your band,” but just ask the others to trust your intuitions?

Yeah. Early on, none of us knew anything about the music biz. Derrick [Bostrom, original drummer] lived at his mum’s house still, and Cris with my mum. I had moved away to Canada when I graduated high school, and tried to become a professional fishing guide. I had been away from home, so everybody always just deferred to me. Plus, then I had kids — twins, when I was still 24. I became the primary songwriter because I realized, “Fuck, I have to work.” The others could tell — because it’s my brother and my best buddy — I have these intuitions, “Well, this will work.” My brain kinda works that way.

Living in Arizona, what attracted you to punk rock? Was it like, “This is music for misfits — that’s us!”?

I got introduced to the Sex Pistols through people I knew who were in the Unitarian church — they had this liberal religious youth thing. I was hanging out with them, probably because they had good pot. I grew up on the West Side in Phoenix, where people listened to Ted Nugent and Deep Purple. I loved Machine Head and Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Neil Young, George Jones. Then I met Derrick and his buddies, and they were listening to all these imports — dub reggae and punk rock. I was like, “Er, I don’t get it.” The Sex Pistols sounded kinda like rock ‘n ‘roll to me. I’m like, “Yes, so? Spit, piss ‘n ‘vinegar! Yipes!” I didn’t see the beautiful side of it at first.

Then I went and saw Iggy Pop, with Brian James [from The Damned] playing guitar. I’d never heard The Damned, but that was the first time I’d seen someone play the guitar with that kind of abandon. Most musicians in the ’70s, albeit pretty talented and well rehearsed, were like they’d got a stick in their ass. They just wanted to be good. This was just like, you know, different. So then I wanted to hear more Damned, more Iggy Pop, and Cranked Up Really High by Slaughter & The Dogs, X-Ray Spex, The Slits. Then I got opened up to the L.A. punk scene — The Weirdos, Black Flag, Fear, The Germs. Holy shit, suddenly this is like the ’60s all over again, the new psychedelia!

Initially, Meat Puppets played ultra-fast high-pitched punk rock, with long jam breaks, and long hair!

Yeah, we always had that. I had been in a few bands prior to that — not just bedroom stuff, but actual bands. My first band, we all wore three-piece powder blue suits, and played Elton John, Barbra Streisand, lots of disco, “Walking In Rhythm” by the Blackbyrds, KC & the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees — all that disco-era stuff with the stacked shoes. Then I got fired from that band. In my next band, we played Thin Lizzy, Doobie Brothers and Kansas — hard rock. The other dudes in the band were all totally proficient, and I totally sucked still, and was struggling to learn all these complicated Kansas parts. That made me realize, “God, I hate thinking when I’m onstage. I don’t wanna have to think about anything, I don’t want this to be work, it’s supposed to be fun.”

So, the fast and furious approach arrived at the right time?

Yeah! Punk rock was, “You can suck and do this?! Good, I wanna suck! I don’t like being evaluated, good or bad!” That attitude, in a nutshell, is punk rock.

You were the fourth or fifth band on Greg Ginn from Black Flag’s label, SST — was it a chaotic operation?

We were there real early on. We were from Phoenix which is like a faraway suburb of L.A., in our minds at least. It’s 400 miles away, it’s where you’re always looking when you’re kid. Disneyland is there, Hollywood is there, the ocean. We would go over there and play, and what Black Flag saw in us was, we were way more pissed off and crazy, and played a lot faster than all the other punk-rock bands around. We weren’t even that good, we just played really fast, and were completely out of our minds.

But we weren’t typical, in that none of us were aggressive bruisers. We would play stuff from Broadway shows, and stuff that I really liked from my childhood, like The King And I, then we’d go as far out on the other limb as we could, and just really try to hurt people mentally. It’s all completely valid in the art realm, and we could see that — there’s just so much canvas here to cover, we can do anything. It’s still that way. I don’t like to repeat myself ever. So we did a screaming punk-rock record, then I just went, “I can’t do that again.” Then I heard Metallica, and I was like, “Fuck, let them do it!” But you know, they didn’t have to keep doing it.

Was country music a big influence?

We always knew about it, and had dabbled in it — we did “Tumblin ‘Tumbleweeds” on our first record. Then I was just like, “Know what, we could use this stuff to really hurt punk rockers ‘feelings.” Because I was starting to hate them. Like, “Oh yeah, freedom? As long as we don’t leave your box!” It has to be loud, fast, pissed off. It’s just like more classifications, that don’t really do you or your art any good. So, what we really need to do is not just be defiant, we have to actually hurt these people’s feelings. Let’s just do this as ass-backwards as we possibly can — like we thought Jimi Hendrix did it — get fucked up, and make a fucked-up fuckin ‘record, exactly the way you want to.

How did the new direction go down with SST themselves?

They got it. They always got it, even Black Flag. Greg Ginn and Chuck [Dukowski] and The Minutemen and Hüsker Dü were all our best buddies — and are still some of my best friends. They had to be taken seriously as punk rockers. Then you got Rollins. Then it’s, Look out! Things get real serious. Everything was drawing a lot of mosh pit stuff, but they liked it, because we could open for them, and their crowd would just spit all over us, and hate us, and they’d be good and pissed off by the time Black Flag came on.

They figured it out, too, though — like, “This is funny, you guys came in like a punk rock thing, but you’re so not,” so it was part of actually the growing ethos that that label had. The Minutemen were doing it. We just tried to take the jock, macho element out of our thing, initially. What I saw with punk rock, especially in L.A., it was becoming like an athletic event for people to slamdance to. So it was like, let’s just play stuff that’ll put these people to sleep. That’s when people were going [aggrieved dullard's voice], “Pink Floyd! Neil Young! Grateful Dead!” I was like, “Yeah, I like that stuff!”

You recorded Up On The Sun in three days flat. You wouldn’t have believed at the time that you’d be playing it in full at a festival in 2011, at the behest of one of the world’s coolest bands, ATP curators Animal Collective

I would’ve said no! We hardly ever played it live that much. I see why we didn’t. There’s a lot of guitar parts on it, and it’s very artsy, it needs to be examined. Once again: more thought than I like to put into something when I’m onstage. I don’t know: God bless Animal Collective, I don’t know ‘em, I don’t know what their motivation is here, probably self-indulgence — they just wanna sit there and drink beers and hear Up On The Sun played live.

Your late-’80s albums were all so different. In the meantime, your peers, such as Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, were getting major-label deals. Were you missing out because labels didn’t know what they’d get from you?

That’s exactly right. We went in to see Gary Gersh [famously artist-friendly A&R exec at Geffen], in ’85, ’86. He was like, “I love you, I have all your albums, I just don’t know how to sell you. I went and saw Gene Loves Jezebel, saw the twins, I signed them on the spot.” [Major labels] think people are so goddamn stupid, right, they have to be force-fed? I don’t buy it. They definitely know what they like, and they can figure it out for themselves. I know what I like, which is a lot of different crap, so I miss out on a fad or two, here and there. “Oh, whoops, you’re not quite punk rock!” “Hey, that’s not Americana!” Well, I don’t know. My only excuse is primarily, I think success and all that stuff is overrated. I always thought that, and I later found it to be true.

When you finally signed to London Records, you made one great record with Dwight Yoakam‘s guitarist producing. Did the game change after that, once Nirvana broke the American post-hardcore underground into the mainstream?

The first London record didn’t go over that well. But one of the radio dudes at Universal believed in us. He said, “You just give me that thing…I don’t even know what that would be.” They came up with this idea, “Why don’t you guys do some of your old classics acoustically, like ‘Plateau, ‘and ‘Oh Me ‘[from Meat Puppets II], and ‘Up On The Sun’?” So we went to Memphis to do that, with Paul Leary [from Butthole Surfers] producing. So then we do this electric song, “Backwater,” and they go, “That’s it, that’s the ticket.” Then we do the thing with Nirvana, and everybody loves us for a while, we have a hit song, and then they start going, “So, the next step — more successful!”

The “thing with Nirvana” is probably the thing most people in the world know Meat Puppets for. Cobain was a genuine fan, who reputedly said, “Meat Puppets gave me a completely different attitude toward music”…

Honestly, I think he related to us as people. I think they just were peculiar small-town folks, like us. Listen to the two bands, they’re not that much alike, but there’s a craftsmanship to it which is like, This is our own, this is our slant on this, lucky us that we came up with a cool slant, and it’s fun to do and it works and it’s beautiful.

What do you remember of Unplugged itself?

It was really fun. We rehearsed for a week over in New Jersey, so we were spending all day long doing these songs. They were a lot like us, doing it kinda half-assed. Then when time came for the show, it was another thing that was kinda like us: “OK, now we’re on the spot, we can do this. Because who’s to say how it’s supposed to be done?” It was an amazing show. There was no re-takes. What you see there is, like, the show. I can remember as clear as if it was yesterday, standing there listening to them do “All Apologies” or “Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam.” It gave me the shivers.

After all that, was it the pressure for “more successful” that made the band fall apart circa ’96?

It was drug use. It was a bad vibe. The suicide [i.e. Cobain's], the whole thing. Everybody’s like, “Oh my God, there’s junkies everywhere.” We’d grown up around that. There’s shitloads of junkies in Phoenix, but we’d always avoided it. I think finally having the liberty to have a little free time, for Cris it just meant, “Hmm, I’m gonna let my demons take hold, I’m really gonna get to know these fuckers.” They just came up out of his pit, and fucking devoured him. And he’ll straight up tell you, he let ‘em, and it hurt him worse than anybody else in the long run. If there’s somebody around that uses dope like that, it’s just not for me. I didn’t say, “Oh, the band’s broken up,” I just said, “I’m not playing with you until you get clean.” It just happened to take a lo-o-ong time.

There aren’t many quick evacuees from that predicament.

Yeah, if they ever even make it. I know very few people that have cleaned up from a habit like that. All of them are dead.

Ultimately, were you just not cut out for the big time?

We didn’t resist it. It wasn’t so much the pressure, as we let them spread us a little thin, like these are all these different ideas that came in. Like, “I think I can get married” — not like people shouldn’t, but the drum player really just wanted a more sedate life, and he works at Whole Foods, and has for years. Things got difficult for me, because the other guys weren’t there. I was still just, like, cruisin’.

I tried to put the band back together here in Austin, put out a record on Atlantic, and all along the most difficult thing was people going, “Meat Puppets are done, you guys broke up, it doesn’t exist anymore.” I’m like, “Yeah it does, I write the songs, nobody else can say what it is.” If I wanna get a bunch of kids and have them swing ball bats against metal poles, I’ll call that Meat Puppets, you know?

So I had other guys coming in like [Nirvana's bass player, Krist] Novoselic, and Bud Gaugh. “You guys wanna make a band?” So we had Eyes Adrift, which was really fun, I’d never been in another band, since I started Puppets. I did a solo record, then once I decided to put out a Meat Puppets record, people were like, “Wow, you’ve reformed, it’s a comeback!” Those are showbiz things. If you’re yourself, and Meat Puppets is part of your psychotic artistic identity, it doesn’t go away just because people say it does.

I told Cris, “We’ll get this back up, but I’m only doing it if we can go back to the way it was, where you can trust me, and we’re not gonna be listening to anybody else.” ‘Cos that’s what happened: People were like, “We love you, here’s some money — oh look, that’s a hit, would you give us another hit” — and even though it doesn’t feel right, you try to cooperate, and it leads to co-option.

What’s left to do?

Oh, I don’t know. There’s always stuff to do, we’ve only made 15 records. I never know what I’m going to do. I’ve been writing some stuff right now that has a lot of bass, and fuzz guitar.

You’re making your grunge record at last!

It’s kind of like that. It’s a little even beyond grunge. I’m gonna call it “Get Stoned, Fuck You” music. I don’t know. I have no idea, man, I really don’t. That’s what’s fun. What will the next thing be? Lollipop didn’t become Lollipop till I was toiling over the cover. We had the album, had it mixed, then my girlfriend took a painting of mine and swirled it round on the computer, and I went, “Aw, a lollipop…That’s it!” People will have to say the word lollipop now when they talk to me, which is already just like, “Dare you…?” “Your new album’s called Lollipop — bastards!”