Coming Clean with the Meat Puppets

Coming Clean with the Meat Puppets

Interviewing Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets is about as easy as pinning down his band’s ever-shifting style.  The 49 year-old singer and manic guitarist shifts moods and thoughts as effortlessly as he does genres, particularly on Rise to Your Knees, the Puppets’ new record, which marks the return of Puppet-in-exile Cris Kirkwood.  After Nirvana famously invited “the Brothers Meat” (as Kurt Cobain called them) onto Nirvana Unplugged, fame and financial security undid Cris Kirkwood.  While his brother used his Nirvana money to build a nest egg, Cris came dangerously close to meeting Cobain’s fate.  He was arrested in 2003 for assaulting a post office security guard who, in turn, shot Cris twice in the stomach.  Four years of jail and detox brought the brothers back together to record their first record together since 1995’s No Joke!

The importance of Curt and Cris Kirkwood’s reunion cannot be understated.  The Puppet’s early records, particularly Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun, are hugely influential (in addition to the Cobain seal of approval, the band are often credited as being the progenitors of the entire alt.country scene).  These records are nothing less than the picture of genre experimentation.  Curt’s guitar playing somehow recalls both Bakersfield country and Bay Area psychedelia while the brothers’ vocal off-harmonizing changed the way indie rockers sing, most notably giving birth to the stoned marble-mouth of Kurt Cobain.

Rise to Your Knees is a twisted, frothing beauty of a record that manages to namecheck Funkadelic, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, George Jones, and 311, the whole thing reinforced with cheap staples to keep it from splitting at the seams.  At times the band sound like Nirvana covering Grizzly Bear (“Tiny Kingdom”), other times like the blissed-out cosmic cowboys that they invented back in the 80s.  The swirling guitars and purposefully off-key vocal harmonies recall the sonic splendor of Meat Puppets II, that record that oh-so-fatefully introduced Cris Kirkwood to the world of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism.  And if a pun may be forgiven, Rise is something of a proverbial phoenix rising from its ashes where most people expected to find a swan song.

ANTIGRAVITY rang up Curt Kirkwood to discuss the power of celebrity, the dregs of addiction, and the ferocious Los Angeles magicians in the Go Go’s.

AG:  Did you anticipate Cris rejoining the band?
CK:  You know, I didn’t really think about it too much.  I was kinda, just wanting to get away from him  more than anything at first, and then once I was away from him it was all a matter of just getting it all out of my mind.  I didn’t even think about him getting back in with the band; it just didn’t seem like a possibility considering how much of a mess he made of himself. He was, like, Sid Vicious-bad.  I thought he would just die.
AG: Did you talk to him at all during those years?
CK:   No
AG: When did you re-establish contact with him?
CK:   Last year about April, I called him up after I was sure that he was rehabbed.   And then we just kinda tried to pick up where we left off.  Cos really it’s like being crippled when you’re on heroin for that long.  The one thing he did – even though he messed up his house and was put in jail and got shot – it still kinda kept him in a stable environment where, in a certain way, nothing transpired in his life that was worth a fuck.  So, he was able to just get right back on the horse where he was at.  It’s just kinda a cool thing that music’s like that; you can take refuge in it when things start to suck in other parts of your life.  So I was just kinda waiting for him; I didn’t expect it, for sure.
AG: Is he easier to work with now?
CK: Absolutely.  It’s even better.  We always had something in there.  Early on, there was always a chance that our bad behavior was going to upset the apple cart.  We didn’t notice it, really.  We thought we were a lot safer from that stuff than we really were, cos we saw people fall all the time, but we were still not really aware of it.  We didn’t know how bad things were really getting [with Cris] until shit really hit the fan.  I still don’t know how long that had been going on.
AG: So he wasn’t really able to perform his role in the band.
CK:  Oh yeah, that was the biggest problem.  I had a problem with him being an addict and everybody else was having problems and it just got in the way.  He was just a pain in the ass.  We tried not to get too judgmental, but after a certain point it became like he was completely not able to hold up his role and you know, at the risk of being a total gigantic asshole, it’s a lot easier now.
AG: You didn’t try to help him with his problem?
K:  It’s not really any of my business.  Maybe it’s just from me being around that kind of stuff a lot.  And you know, I’ve been around it a lot.  I’ve been in the business since I was a teenager.  I grew up in Phoenix where there’s lots of heroin, and if people want to use it, that’s their own deal.  You’d rather they didn’t, but that’s like telling somebody, ‘Don’t drink beer!’ You don’t wanna be a nag.  The thing is, we always stayed away from junkies.  We always thought as a band we were beyond that.  We always thought, “Well, we know a lot of junkies in Phoenix.  We have friends that die every year but we’re not junkies.”  And we actually started avoiding junkies like in around ’83, ’84, and at least I thought more or less people were around who used drugs and narcotics and stuff.  We were trying to stay clear away from them and get them out of our scene because we’ve been in it long enough to see [what happens].  We get offered drugs every night if we want it.  That’s the business, you know.  And it’s not just us, it’s Britney Spears, it’s anybody that’s a celebrity.  They don’t just want stuff, they want to give you stuff too.
AG:  Why do you think that is?
CK:  I don’t know.  Misery loves company.  You know, it’s just one of those things.  By and large people are miserable and they need something to make their lives seem shinier.

If Curt Kirkwood seems rather aloof towards his brother’s struggles with addiction, it’s only because he’s recognized how little power he has over it.  A 1998 interview with the Phoenix New Times makes it abundantly clear that Curt loves his brother but had indeed come to terms with his own powerlessness.  It’s not a matter of apathy; it’s a matter of ability.  We cannot ultimately take the needle out of anyone’s hands.  Kurt Cobain’s shadow looms large over the group; it was on a post-Unplugged tour opening for Stone Temple Pilots that Cris Kirkwood (along with STP frontman Scott Weiland) became addicted to cocaine and heroin.

AG: How did the Nirvana Unplugged sessions change your life?
CK:  Oh, it made it so I didn’t have to work for a while, which was kind of interesting.  I like to work, but all of a sudden I didn’t have to.  There was a lot more money.  (pause)  Well, there was money whereas before there was no money (laughs).  We had a name for ourselves all throughout the 80s but we never had any money.  Then all of a sudden we had money and that gave us a chance to realize that we didn’t have to do anything.  So all of us in our own way…we didn’t quit, but maybe in a way.  Derrick really saw that it was a good time for him to get out.  Cris used his for drugs.  I took mine and bought a nice place to live out here in Texas and hung out and tried to get things going.  It helped out that way.
It also brought a lot of different kinds of attention.  It was a cool way to experience it, by proxy, because we didn’t have the spotlight on us.  I’ve been around long enough to see what that does to people.  It’s not the greatest thing in the world.  It’s not a totally bad thing, but…They did a poll, and the number-one most-desirable job among grade schoolers now is celebrity.  Kids don’t have any idea.  They just wanna get attention, but that’s not normal, that’s not healthy.  They’re starting to see that with Lindsay Lohan and people like that, who get pushed by the press and the fans who eventually want to see [celebrities] build their own crucifix and climb up there and use their forehead to put the nails in.  They’re saying, “Look, if we put enough heat behind this magnifying glass, they’ll start to jump around a little bit and it’s just as entertaining as when they’ve got their act together.”
AG: Do you think that’s what happened with Nirvana?
CK:  Oh, absolutely.  The psyche starts to come apart from so much attention, and then other things start to come into play.  Power corrupts, absolutely.  Ultimately, it’s an abnormal situation.  I know that with them, there was so much money being made that it was hard for them to take a break.  Especially if you’ve been poor and you have millions of dollars pouring in, and you’ve got this circus around you of record companies and management who are counting on you to hang one more carrot out there in front of them.  They said in Hammer of the Gods, the Led Zeppelin book, that people were funneling drugs to them to keep them shut up.  It’s deeply, deeply troubling stuff.  You read about someone like Elton John and how crazy he was until he became adjusted until how absolutely fucking huge he was, and what does to someone.  David Bowie, same thing.  All these people.  So it’s interesting that Cobain did [Bowie’s] “The Man Who Sold the World.”  On any level of celebrity you can see it.  We never had that, though.  We had enough to where we got money and people know who you are and they keep you in business.  It’s always been that way for me, this cottage industry, so the spotlight’s never really been focused on me.
AG: Do you think Kurt’s death had a serious effect?
CK: He’s a leader, in a way, to where it makes people think that they can get away with something like that.  I know that there were probably plenty of copycat suicides, and I know a few personally.  I wonder if that would have happened if the Punk Rock Acolyte hadn’t done it, you know?  That’s like if the Dalai Lama did it; a number of people are gonna follow.  Hopefully most of them just went on and started listening to Korn and didn’t shoot themselves.

Meat Puppets II marked a definite change for the band.  Where their SST debut was a traditional hardcore record – perhaps the last thing stamped with the name “Kirkwood” that could ever be considered traditional – II is full of the spent and bent style that the band would become famous for.  This is a band that has never been ashamed to wear its influences on its sleeves, no matter how many hardcore traditionalists it may piss off.

AG: How is it different being in the scene now as opposed to the 80s?
CK: In some ways the shows never changed.  Audiences have changed significantly.  We used to always be able to piss off the punk rockers cos they used to only like Black Flag and Fear and the Dead Kennedys and they would spit on us for being too weird.  And then we grew and we got covered by Nirvana, then Korn and Eminem came around and kids started to realize, “Wow, it’s not all about cliques and whether I listen to disco or heavy metal.”  There’s a huge portion of the music-listening world that doesn’t give a crap about genre rules, and that’s what we were always about.  It’s like MOR radio in the seventies; the playlists were really cool and you could hear Elton John then Led Zeppelin then Jackson Browne.  It was all cool music and they didn’t play a lot of disco or whatever, but I really liked disco.
AG: Really?
CK: Oh yeah, I spent a lot of time in my platform shoes and my flared pants.  I graduated high school in ’76; I was all about that stuff.  I thought it was a lot of fun.  The Bee Gees are still a huge favorite.  When I first heard “Jive Talkin’” I was all over that crap.  I went and bought the record.
AG: So you didn’t buy into the whole “Disco Sucks,” disco versus rockers thing?
CK: Oh it never bothered me at all.  We listened to so much stuff like that.  I love Prince, for instance.  I’m into all kinds of different music.  There’s a heavy dose of Stevie Wonder in my stuff, always.  I grew up on Stevie Wonder and dissected his 70s records in terms of how to record and track.  There’s very few limitations as to what I could get into in the right frame of mind.  The 70s were great for that.  Don’t get me wrong, I was into Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, but I loved going to the discotheques.  I loved when they would turn on the smoke machine, and you drink tequila and just kinda lose it.  I didn’t know any better; it didn’t bother me at all.
AG: Who do you consider to be your contemporaries?
CK: We have none.  We are without peer and always have been.  Everyone always says that we’re similar to this band or that band, and I can only say what they say.  I mean, I felt a kinship to Nirvana.  They had the same names as we did, which is a start.  That’s shallow (laughs).  We saw it right away, we were like, “Well, there’s a Kurt and a Kris and they’re kinda hippies playing punk rock music and being kinda sneaky-psychedelic about it and it’s all sort of a big trick and everybody likes them.  Isn’t it weird how big they’re getting?’  The music doesn’t sound that much alike, but we’re similar in how we approached it and how stupidly artistic we were about the entire thing.  I always felt a kinship to the Go Go’s.
AG: The Go Go’s?  Why?
CK: Because they’re magical.  They’re pure magic in the same way that Frank Zappa was pure magic to me.  They’re LA Magic.  My contemporaries now, though?  The E Street Band.
AG: Really?
CK: Aw yeah.  Same deal.  It’s an environmental thing.  They’re a New Jersey act in the same way that we’re a Southwestern Desert act.  I don’t know about musical contemporaries.  For me it’s more of a spiritual thing.  It’s hard to compare styles.  Because then you’re saying, “Who do I rip off?”  REM, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Mike Watt, the Violent Femmes.  We genre-skipped a lot.  Would we be in the same genre as Wilco now?  They get kinda heavy sometimes.  Are we like Wolfmother?  Sometimes.  I don’t know, they’re so young (laughs).
AG:  How do you feel about being considered a pioneer of the whole alt.country movement?
CK: I meant to do it.  I meant to hook up the whole Neil Young thing with my Hank Williams fetish.  I love that stuff.  There wasn’t much like that when we started except Neil Young.  I heard the high and lonesome in some of those bands like the Violent Femmes.  But we got our shit from Carl Perkins.  We got our shit from Elvis.  It wasn’t so much Neil Young.  We were punk rockers.  I didn’t even really hear Neil and get into him until after the Puppets had already started going.  I heard “Cortez the Killer” one time when we were driving back from Tucson and I guess I hadn’t really gotten it until that point.  I liked his songwriting but I didn’t really get the depth of Neil until then.  Same thing with Hendrix, same thing with the Stones.  Derrick turned me on to the depth of a lot of artists that I didn’t understand.  So I was of this mindset that you can play anything with a loud guitar.  You just put on that fuzzbox and you can do “Blue Moon of Kentucky;” just scream that sucker.  We thought it would be fun to do Broadway music that way; we did Rodgers and Hammerstein that way.  We credited ourselves with helping to start the jam-punk movement outside of the Grateful Dead.  And before the Grateful Dead asked us to open for them.  Garcia was into that.  He saw the continuum and the necessity of surrounding yourself with people who are like-minded.  It’s not as if after Hendrix died people just couldn’t play like that.  Who else could?  Neil?  Where were the rest of these people who could, like, puke Technicolor like that?
I’ve been in other bands.  One of the reasons that we stuck together is because when we first started playing we realized that we were a great band.  We didn’t have anything to do with it; that’s why we called it Meat Puppets.  We were like, “This is way beyond us.”  The notion that the three of us could make this glorious sound like so many of our heroes.  We knew we were lucky.

Like most great 80s indie groups, the Meat Puppets were notorious for live shows that barely stayed together; they are nearly as notable for what went wrong as for what went right.  It was not uncommon for their shows –  still littered by the hardcore kids who were pissed off that the Puppets had slowed the tempo – to end in chaos.

AG: The records you did in the mid 80s aren’t near as punk rock as your first record.
CK:  Well that’s cos it’s not supposed to be.  It’s supposed to be punk rock artiste, Sex Pistols extravaganza, way beyond.  You’re not supposed to have conventionality in punk rock.  Our thinking was, “If Captain Beefheart is the godfather of punk rock, why does everything sound like it’s been stamped in a factory?”  Why did it have to be loud and fast, why did it have to sound like rebellion, why did it have to sound aggressive?  It doesn’t make any sense.  And other bands did it better; Fear was great at that, and so was Black Flag.  We didn’t want to repeat that.  We didn’t wanna just be so forthright and “Whoo, we’re punk rock.”  Even Black Flag used to make fun of all of that.  Black Flag drew a lot of morons and they knew it.  Punk rock drew a lot of jocks who were just into it so they could go out and hurt people in the mosh pit.
AG: Yeah, I read this article in Rolling Stone about this crew of hardcore kids who apparently just go out to shows and beat up skinheads.  They’ve got franchises in all of these cities.
CK:  Yeah, that’s far out.  That’s one of the reasons that we opted out.  I got all of my front teeth knocked out by one of those idiots early on.  And my brother would flat-out knock the piss out of people.  But I’ll take on any skinhead, I guarantee you.  We had a side to us where Derrick is a very meek individual but my brother and I are just about as nasty as any other motherfucker would wanna be and we never gave a shit about ‘em.  If we got any adversity, we’d take people out.  And that’s part of how we got our reputation, too.  We’d create serious mayhem around anyone who showed adversity to our music.  It was really easy to do, once you’re incensed.  I can get myself pissed off; I don’t need to rebel against Mom and Dad and society.  I hate myself already, you know?  I really hated the audiences that were coming to those hardcore shows.  That’s half the reason I did Meat Puppets II.  It was like, “You guys wanna see something really boring?  Here, choke on this.  You’re so punk rock.”
AG: Are you proud of Meat Puppets II?
CK: Yeah, I’m really proud of it.  I’m proud of everything we did.  I think the first record’s so cool because it cleared the artistic palate for us and freed us up to not have to be punk rock anymore.  I still say that we can be whatever we want.  I can’t get into the middle of the first album.  Meat Puppets II is much easier to get into.  We were real intentional about those things.  When you have success like we did on Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun – not commercially but critically – I felt real rectified in having those things get received the way they did.  I almost want to try it again, try to make Up on the Sun again.  Meat Puppets II would be hard to do again.

Original Meat Puppets drummer Derrick Bostrom has declined offers from the Kirkwoods to rejoin the band.  Bostrom has instead given himself the role of band archivist, posting ancient demos and videos on his blog, meatpuppets.com.  In what may be viewed as a passive-aggressive diss on Bostrom, the Kirkwoods’ Meat Puppets site – themeatpuppets.com – bills itself as “the site for CURRENT Meat Puppets information.” Bostrom’s role has been filled by Ted Marcus, a former MTV employee and huge Meat Puppets fan who happened to be working on an in-production documentary on the band when Curt caught him in the studio drumming.  “You sick, sadistic motherfucker,” Kirkwood apparently said.  “You could play like that the whole time and didn’t say anything?”

AG: Are you and Derrick still close?
CK: I haven’t talked to him in ages.  He stays involved with his blog by and large.  We went our separate ways and neither Cris nor I have seen him since probably ’96.  I think he likes it that way.  I asked him if he wanted to get together for this record and he said no.
AG: What do you think about his blog?
CK: I don’t read it.  I don’t care.  Not just his; I just don’t do that.  I don’t have time to delve into people’s opinions and thoughts unless it’s Dostoevsky or something.  Derrick is an incredible artist and even more incredible person.  I’m sure his blog is wonderful.  He really is one of my favorites.  It’s kind of a shame that he doesn’t push that a little harder.
AG: But that’s your music that’s on there; he’s releasing your old demos and instrumental versions of tracks from Meat Puppets II.
CK: He does that and it only helps me out if he wants to do that.  I mean, he’s on those recordings, too.  I’ve heard it before, I’ve played it.  I know what’s there.  He’s the archivist, he always was.  He’s more reticent to be involved; he’s not even going to be involved in the documentary that’s being done right now, for some reason.  I think he just wanted the band to die when he left, you know?  I think that’s just how his mindset goes: the story’s over.
AG: What do you think about the new record?  There are some tracks, like “Island,” that seem almost out of place on a Meat Puppets record with their ragged positivity.
CK: Sure, sure, that’s a pretty far out little tune.  It’s really good.  I think it’s a major triumph and a vital, shining addition to our catalog.  For what we put into it, it came out really good.  The other records that we spent so little time and money on also came out that good, so it doesn’t surprise me.  In the long run, everybody shits on stuff that’s really done well, whether it’s like Limp Bizkit or whatever, anything that’s well-recorded.  People are all into it at first and then it’s like, “Eww!”  They cost so much and they did all this crap and it’s just not punk rock.  And, yeah, it’ll sell at first because they force people to buy it, but what really holds up is garbage.  I have these old Hank Williams demos that are just him and a guitar, and it’s just acetates and it sounds so fucking good.  It’s irreplicable [sic].  And I wouldn’t want everyone to do it the way we do it.  I like the way the Limp Bizkit records sound, for instance.  But we can get away with making really good records for cheap, and this is one of them.  I’m ashamed to say how little this record cost.  It’s absolutely ridiculous.  In terms of bang for the buck, this is already approaching Meat Puppets II.  If you can do it cheap and get away with it, why not?  We’re the Meat Puppets, who cares?  If Kid Rock put out a new record people would care a lot more.
AG: Well, people may buy more Kid Rock records but I think that, because you have an established critical reputation, your records are scrutinized much more closely than Kid Rock’s, which I think means that people do care about your records.
CK: Yeah, that’s a good thing to have.  That’s kind of what I mean.  It’s not a complaint.  I know that I’m scrutinized.  I also do acknowledge the fact that this is just how I approach things.  I just emailed an old friend of mine from way back who was saying that I’m the greatest songwriter alive – this is someone from childhood – and he’s the main editor on CSI.  He loved it because it was just like when we were kids, you know?  Making music for our friends.  Cris and I, we come from a group of buddies who were musicians back in Phoenix, kids hanging out and getting off on our heroes.  So we do this, and when it’s done at its purest it’s done for our friends and our peers.

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