Q & A: Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood On Arizona Punk, SST Records, His Brother Cris Being Clean, And Not Making It Into Our Band Could Be Your Life
The Meat Puppets' thirty-year journey can be divided into a trio of disparate trajectories: the mind-melting Deadhead-cum-hardcore desert-rock genius of their SST Records years (1982-89); the glossy, muscular grunge-lite of the successful major-label stint they enjoyed in the 90's (thanks in part to Nirvana); and the current improbable comeback the brothers Kirkwood (guitarist/singer Curt and bassist Cris) embarked on after ex-junkie jailbird Cris cleaned up his act and was welcomed back into the fold.
Sound of the City checked in with Curt at home in Austin to chat about his brother fucking up Meat Puppets and himself, the Arizona punk rock scene, and his band's exclusion from Michael Azerrad's indie-worshipping Our Band Could Be Your Life.
There's supposedly been a Meat Puppets documentary in the works. What's going on with it? Were you [and your brother] Cris involved with it?
Oh, no, not really. It's an old friend of mine [working on that documentary]. It wasn't anything that was my... doing [laughs]. I don't think I would do something like that.
Why not? There's been a bunch of docs on bands, like We Jam Econo on the Minutemen.
Just doing the band takes enough of my timemaking a documentary about it would be pretty strange... tilted.
Are you familiar with Our Band Could Be Your Life?
Oh, yeah. Sure.
Were you bummed that Meat Puppets didn't get a chapter in there?
Uh, no. It's just tilted, like the documentary, I would think. Stuff like that is subjective in the long run. I know a lot of the stuff that they were talking about in [the book] and I can relate to it. I don't know about people's points of view but it's interesting to see that. In terms of that, in a lotta ways we've had a singular route because of thatgetting left out of stuff.
It seems like Meat Puppets don't get enough recognition compared to your '80s Amerindie contemporaries. Do you care?
Nah, there's been plenty. It seems like in the long run, it's more than you can ever expect and definitely more than I can read and relate to. I just feel that living in Phoenix and coming out of there allowed us to be ourselves, no matter what. We've always been on the edge there that we can kinda sustain and it's enough that we don't have to be overwhelmed by some sort of outside influence. It's been fairly rustic in that way, which is you always hope for the best, for sure. I don't know much outside of that, so it's kinda just left to my imagination.
Being a Phoenix band, how did you originally hook up with SST Records?
We did a show there with Black Flag in Tempe. We already put out our first single [the In a Car EP] on World Imitation. After we did that show that night, Greg Ginn asked us if we wanted to a record with them so it was pretty simple. We were fans [of Black Flag] for sure, and we were all about the L.A. punk rock scene at the time. Phoenix had a really good scene and there was a lot going on in L.A. and to us that seemed liketo usthe best of what was going on with Black Flag and FEAR [and just too many to mention], plus a lot of performance artists. We started getting shows in L.A. playing with Even Hands, who weren't punk but were a great band. We did shows with Monitor, who put out our first record on their World imitation thing. Monitor wasn't really punk rock; it's hard to say what they were, but [they were] still one of my favorite bands. We were huge with Black Flag, but we didn't have the categorization, really. We weren't from L.A., so we looked at it like, "Oh, my god. This is amazing. There's so many cool bands." Mostly we just did whatever they were into. Monitor said, "if you play a song for us on our record that we can't play that we love, then you can record some songs and we'll put our your little record." That's how we got [In a Car] done.
What was happening in Phoenix music-wise besides you guys back then?
To us, there was a lotta stuff going on: Feederz, Killer Pussy and The Deez. The Phoenix punk rock scene was really artistic and we tried to make an effort to get to know those people. We were in awe of them. They were people who had gone over to L.A. Don Boiles from the Germs was from Phoenix and a lot of these people were in bands with him. Through a connection, Paul Cutlerwho was from Phoenixdid the Consumers and then started 45 Grave. We did our first show in L.A. opening for 45 Grave, which David Wiley from the Human Hands got us that show and he was from Phoenix but moved to L.A. Phoenix is like a distant suburb of L.A. in a lot of ways. There's not much going on there, especially back then, but the scene was limited to about a hundred people that were total freaks.
Do you and Cris still live there?
I live in Austin. Cris still lives in Phoenix.
In those early days of say, your first album, did you consider yourselves hardcore?
I think what [original Meat Puppets drummer] Derrick Bostrom said early on was really apropos to that: "We're not hardcore but we have a hard core." So that way enabled us to play hardcore and play anything else because we were an entity unto ourselvesthat how we viewed ourselves. We were immune to whatever influence that we didn't want and whatever we wanted, we absorbed. I still maintain that. It was a great way to kinda come up. It was a thrill just as music fans and we liked a lot of different things so when we started to see the categorizations it wasn't something we had to resist. Idealistically, we had the music chops to do whatever anyway; we were already doing it. It was like "okay, here's your categorizationyou played some punk rock so here's these people who want to come spit on you." Some of them really liked energy. We pick and chose kinda where we wanted to playmostly just what we wanted to do [laughs]. That's always been the biggest privilege of this bandno matter what, it's been kinda indefinable. To this day, I'm like "what do I want to do now?"
Do you keep in touch with Bostrom, who still runs the Meat Puppets website?
Nah, not too much. He keeps to himself.
In '89, Monsters was released by SST but rumors circulated it was supposed to come out on a major label. So you flirted with the majors like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and the likeas early as the late '80s?
That was kinda a fluke. We recorded it for SST and then Atlantic and came around and wanted it and kinda made a strong bid for it. It wound up coming out on SST.
When you left SST, was it an amicable split or was there bad blood?
We had to do a little wrangling but definitely it was fine. We never really had anything outside of a handshake kinda going on [with SST].
You had an unreal stretch of LP's on SSTthe first one, Meat Puppets II, Up on the Sun, Mirage and Huevos. Do you have a favorite?
I still like the first one the most. It is what it is. You can't reallyat least meI never look at it any than what it is. It reminds me of the plasticity and the fluidity of the music at that time. Meat Puppets II was a distillation of the first one, in a wayjust a little bit of clarity.
Drugs were always associated with Meat Puppets' early material. How much did it play a part?
I think that's always played a partit's always been a fairly big influence. I think we took the early rock and roll thing to heart. It was almost like "this is the state of mind that all these people were in. We should have a band. If we bury our silly drug fueled antics to music, it'll be fun" like our heroes did.
When you finally ended up signing to a major and having your MTV hit, what was the feeling toward it?
Yeah, it was great. It seemed like a huge feat, in a way. We've never been against whatever would happen. As you're in this business, you see how, at that time anyway, being as different as we were consistently, the odds are kinda stacked so it was anomalous. Yet, at the same time, I always figured "well, we have as much as a shot than anyone else." I started thinking that around Meat Puppets II... but whatever. It's all about the same stuff; it never really hurt of me. I think we thought ourselves as outsiders at first and then you start to realize "oh, you're playing music for money like everyone else."
How was it being on a major after SST?
It was fantastic. My dealings with labels has always been really great. It's been a cakewalk. London [Records] was like that, too. The three records were each their own thing and really cool to make. It's hard to pigeonhole the band; it was hard to say what they [the labels] wanted. We had a fan base but... so... what do you do? They weren't exactly sure. They were like "we need a hit." But what would that mean for us? So they kinda gave us loopholes.
When did things start going downhill with Cris?
Oh, you know, mid-'90s, pretty much. By then, he had started getting into partying a little too much.
Do you blame the success Meat Puppets had during that period as the start of Cris' troubles?
I think that definitely the cause of it is getting to a point you realize that all the stuff you worked for and the stuff you that you dream of and being like famous and rich and whatever is a pretty huge crock of shit, in terms of like satisfying that kind of thing, that void you're trying to fill up with some sort of ulterior recognition beyond self-recognition, which is a simple thing. I'm not a psychologist [laughing] but having too much money and the ability to party as much as you want to you think at the same time it could happen when you get too much too soon.
That said, do you regret your band being thrust into the mainstream and public eye when Nirvana plucked Meat Puppets out of wherever you were, took you on tour and on MTV Unplugged?
No, never. That was just a great thing that happened to us, among many. Ultimately, when you're a musician you're looking at like it's ground zeroyour odds are crap being a musician, so anything that happens is great. Things like that don't happen very often and that was an amazing thing to happen. People definitely dwell on it. To me, that doesn't have a lot to do with me, really. I just get caught up something that was that big.
I imagine you handled it better than Cris did.
Oh, sure. I've never partied too much, and it didn't inspire me to party that much. I looked at it as like, "Oh, great, opportunities, more gigs, it's fun and it'll be more of a cakewalk." I had a pretty easy time, all things considered, with the music business. But then it's like [with Cris], "Oh, you wanna shoot yourself in the foot here?" Mostly it's just been like, "Just hang out, do music and things work out." For me, it was like that. So we just kept dealing with it with the same way and you think you can probably get yourself a little bit of dope but then all of a sudden you can get as much as you want [laughing].
During the '80s you were living way more low-key than in the '90s. Is it must have been culture shock when you achieved the success you did.
Oh, sure. We lived day to day all through the '80s. There was nothing else coming innothing, that was it. We still had all the experience so in a lot of way it made it easy and we weren't astounded [by the success in the 90's]. Ultimately, the band was fine the way things were going. It's kind of a quirk that somebody gets messed up like [Cris did]. Personally, I just kept going on.
Were you pissed off that Cris was fucking up the band when things were going so well?
Oh yeah, for sure. It wasn't a good thing. We had this great stuff going on then that stuff happens. It just takes a little bit of time when you're that in a trance that you're like "for real? How fucked up is this?" Thing is, the person in that situation will keep going on if you let them. I could have kept the thing kind of rolling with him. Most of what I did was take a break. I was like "okay, we're not doing anything." And it just went on and on. I said "oh, we're gonna break up and I'm gonna throw you out of the band." That's the weird misconception, generally, that the band broke up. But it really didn't. Cris just, like, went into the ozone.
Cris is clean now?
Oh, yeah. He's been clean since we got back up and he's great to play with. It's pretty crazy.
So Meat Puppets never really broke up; you just put the band on hiatus until when or if he cleaned up his act.
It was an odd situation. I never broke up with the guys. I cancelled a tour to allow Cris to get into rehab, which he didn't do. From there, I could see Derrick became generally disinterested and he was looking at it as an opportunity to take a good breath. I moved to L.A. and for a couple of years I sat there trying to figure it out. A couple years just went by like wow... nothing's happening. It was like "what am I supposed to do?" I had six months to a year go by where you don't put out an album but this was remarkable. I hooked up with this this guitar player Kyle [Ellison] in 2000 and came out to Texas and reformed the band [Meat Puppets without Cris]. I looked at it as really a forum than this breathing entity. It was easy for me to look at it the same way I always had. It allowed me to get through that period of time. I just continued with the mindset: I know where the Meat Puppets live; I know where it coming from and I know what it is. It wasn't a fabrication of the three people [when I reformed the band with only me as the main guy].
And now you're touring behind [your new album] Lollipop.
We play a few songs off [Lollipop] like we always dograb a few that we like.
You've performed Up on the Sun at ATP also.
It was pretty cool. Animal Collective asked us to do it so I was game. At another ATP thing [the Don't Look Back], we did Meat Puppets II. We just keep on getting asked.
Do you keep up with the indie music of today? Did you know who Animal Collective was?
Sure. I hear about tons of stuff. I'm lucky that way. People will tell me if something's cool; I hear about it pretty quick. I don't follow much and I don't think I am on the cutting edge by any means but I am kinda up on stuff.
What about SST stuff?
I still keep up with those people. I played with [Chuck] Dukowski fairly recently. I played plenty of shows with Watt in the last number of years. Did a tour with Bob Mould a few years ago. I met Bob a long time ago. He's one of the people I met really early on my first tour in '82. He was at the show. It was the first time we played Minneapolis. I befriended Bob and Grant [Hart] the first time around. First show we ever did in New York City was at Folk City was with Sonic Youth and Rick Rubin's band Hose opened the show. It's pretty amazing that way, it still continues and the same people are still around [laughs]. We all had the fire to begin with. It was cultural and it seemed like a microcosmic way that like this is cultural change and we are involved in something here. Really what I thought it was was good music, it's good garage music and it could get a little attention. I actually thought in the early '80s, it'd get really bigI was that enthusiastic about the whole thing. I thought Black Flag was greatI figured they'd be what Nirvana was ten years later, ya know?
I saw you have a Meat Puppets gig with the Gang Font, [ex-Hüsker Dü member] Greg Norton's band with Dave King of the Bad Plus.
We've been digging Greg up out there in Red Wing [Minnesota]. We played at his restaurant. Then we got him and Grant Hart together and jammed out on some stuff up in Duluth. They've been getting more active and that's cool. We're in a lot of different circles. We just did shows with Soundgarden up in Canada and in Washington. That circle [SST] is still really vibrant in a strange way. That's another place we're we are really lucky: we just didn't get into a lot of weird, little circles. We get to do these ATP things and the SST people are still around and get to do shows for people that like us. It's always kinda been that way.
Meat Puppets play (le) Poisson Rouge tonight.
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