Muscle and Meat: The Meat Puppets, June 24 at RIBCO Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 04 June 2009 10:53

Meat Puppets

The Meat Puppets have a name that all self-respecting rock fans recognize - even if many have only heard Kurt Cobain sing the band's songs - and a hell of a history.

But singer, guitarist, and primary songwriter Curt Kirkwood didn't want a big comeback record or tour when he reunited with his bassist brother Cris.

"Let's just pretend like we're a brand-new band - just forget about it all," he said in a phone interview last week to promote the band's June 24 Daytrotter.com show at RIBCO. "I don't have to meet anybody's expectations. ...

"Can we just do this on a real level - make records and not be an anachronism or a re-formation, a tribute to the '80s or '90s or whatever?"

Kirkwood, who turned 50 this year, isn't dumb, though, and recognizes that the ideal is unattainable. The most important thing, he said, is to make progress, to not merely exploit the past: "There is the anachronism involved, there is a heritage, there is a history in all this stuff. And yet, you move it on. ... It's on you to not rest on your laurels."

You expect similar pronouncements from any long-running band, and you'd be smart to be skeptical. But the closer you look at the Meat Puppets' history, the more weight Kirkwood's words carry.

The short version is pretty dull - what looks like a standard-issue cash-in for a band that used to be cool. The Kirkwood brothers reunited in the Meat Puppets and, 12 years after their last album, put out Rise to Your Knees (2007) and then Sewn Together (released last month).

The longer version is a train wreck but a rock-and-roll cliché. After more than a decade as an influential but relatively obscure alternative band, the Meat Puppets had a commercial breakthrough with the gold Too High to Die (1994), which was facilitated by the Kirkwoods and three classic Meat Puppets songs being featured on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged special - the channel's impromptu memorial following Kurt Cobain's suicide. Cris Kirkwood became a junkie, and while Curt Kirkwood never disbanded the Meat Puppets, the group ceased to exist in any meaningful sense. Curt assembled a new band and released 2000's Golden Lies and a 2002 live record under the Puppets name, but it hardly seemed right without both brothers.

The still-longer version is horrifying and heartbreaking, and it makes you realize how unlikely a Puppets reunion was. The Kirkwoods' mother died of cancer in 1996. Cris Kirkwood's wife and good friend died from drug overdoses at his house eight months apart (in 1998 and '99, respectively.) Curt called his brother a "suicide in progress" in a 1998 article. "No matter how logical or cynical or realistic I try to be to protect myself, of course I still have hope," Curt said in that article. "There would have to be a tremendous amount of mending, but there's always a place for him." Then, in 2003, the troubled younger Kirkwood was shot after attacking a security guard with his baton during a parking-lot argument and was sentenced to 21 months in prison.

But Curt Kirkwood was true to his word, and when his brother was released from prison and clean, the real Meat Puppets were resurrected - with a new drummer (Ted Marcus taking the role of original member Derrick Bostrom) but the Kirkwood-brothers core.

This is the band that, with Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen, helped SST Records define alternative rock in the early 1980s. This is one of the seminal cowpunk bands, paving the way for alternative country in the '90s. This is the band that released two classic records (1984's Meat Puppets II and 1985's Up on the Sun) and has been around for nearly three decades.

Given that history, it's not surprising that the Kirkwoods moved slowly.


Piece by Piece

The Meat Puppets' commercial success in 1994 was earned long before but was still unexpected. They had the Unplugged exposure, a hit with "Backwater," and a successful tour with Stone Temple Pilots. In the 1998 article, Curt Kirkwood said that was the point when drugs became a serious problem for Cris: "The refuse of that tour is still floating around, in the form of Scott Weiland and my bro."

By the 1995 recording of No Joke! - the swan song for the original Meat Puppets lineup - Cris was pretty much lost. The album came out, but the record label, aware of Cris' drug abuse, pulled the plug.

Curt said he didn't have much contact with his brother when he was abusing - in a band, he noted, "their habits are yours" - and that was the end of the Meat Puppets as the group had always been.

Curt Kirkwood remained busy - with those two "Meat Puppets" records, Eyes Adrift with Nirvana's Krist Novoselic and Sublime's Bud Gaugh, the short-lived band Volcano, and a 2005 solo record - but his old band never ceased to exist for him. "I hadn't really addressed breaking the band up," he said. "I was just kind of going at it, kind of blindly, after Cris and Derrick were gone."

He heard from his son that Cris was free and drug-free. Cris was interested in re-joining the Meat Puppets. Bostrom, however, was not.

Rise to Your Knees was "put together piece by piece," Curt said, because he did most of the drumming along with singing and playing guitar. "They would qualify as demos almost, if the recording wasn't pretty good. I kind of just slapped it together that way. We didn't have a band."

The aim was to get back in the saddle rather than have a master plan. "We have to get a real drummer, but we'll figure that out later," Kirkwood recalled. "I just want to put out a thing. I don't want it to be shit, but I want it to be like a calling card and say like, 'We're ready to play more,' and see where it goes."

Marcus joined in the middle of recording, and after those sessions, "we went out for a year and had that under our belts as a real band." Cris, his brother said, "had to kind of get his sea legs a little bit."

Kirkwood doesn't exactly disavow Rise to Your Knees, but he certainly casts it as a stepping stone for the reunited band. The cut-and-paste recording method, he said, was necessary in this case but not a good fit for the Meat Puppets: "When I do it, a lot of times it sounds kind of like a cartoon or a sketch of the real thing."

Such frank pronouncements are typical for the Kirkwoods. As Curt said, "We've been so candid about all of our horror ... ."

That honesty can make Curt sound self-flagellating. As he talked about the band's history, he implied that he's displeased with everything after Up on the Sun until Sewn Together.

He said that the band decided for its new album to record to tape as a trio and overdub. "It turns out to be a real album that way, like a lot of the stuff we made in the '80s," he said.

As Curt tells it, the Meat Puppets were long a victim of handlers who had a "vision" for the band. "God bless everybody; they thought we had potential," he said. "I always thought we were fucking what we were, and that was good enough. That kind of confidence breeds confidence. And we always had that, but when people are trying to make a purse out of a sow's ear - once again, I love all those people, and we're very malleable - ... it doesn't mean it's necessarily the best idea for us."

The excessive massaging, Kirkwood said, robbed the band of something essential: "I think there's something to the band muscle that's really hard to get if you mess around in the studio too much. You can't make me sound better vocally that much. I sound how I do. And people dug that on Meat Puppets II even though I sounded like shit. And yet people are like, 'Let's make it sound better.' Let's just make it sound like we really do. ...

"The surprise [with Sewn Together] was that, finally, after all these years of me going, 'Why don't we just do stuff like we did, like with Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun?' I didn't have anybody saying 'no' at all."

While it doesn't reach the scorched-desert heights or psychedelic grandeur of II or Up on the Sun, Sewn Together works. It's full and polished but retains the band's alien charm. "The Monkey & Snake" is dominated by whistling and a mariachi-tuba bass, and "Blanket of Weeds" is lyrically wizened but as musically bracing and joyful as classic Puppets. Meanwhile, the relatively straightforward "S.K.A." has both muscle and moan.

And Curt is in fine form as both a vocalist and guitarist. He might have sounded like shit in the '80s, but he's learned to sing.

The solo album was instrumental, he said: "It gave me the quiet environment to hear myself. ... I could really hear myself and see what it was that I like about my voice ... ."

Kirkwood said that it's "more of a relief than a surprise that it turned out good." Recording is always a bit of a crapshoot, and "if you get a good one, there's some luck involved."

Curt also said he doesn't feel burdened by expectations, either in the studio or on stage.

"I've never been able to imitate the previous record," he said. "That suited me, like not having a particular sound outside of the vocals, and it's me on guitar." He said he wanted to make "a record that stands on its own, not on the band's reputation."

Of course, nothing made the Kirkwoods retain the Meat Puppets name. Curt said he recognizes the contradiction of not wanting pressure while still being an influential and famous band, but he said the Meat Puppets structure is "a comfort zone, a good banner. ... If I'm going to do electric stuff, that's what it's going to be."

In the context of just about any other band, Kirkwood's wishful thinking would sound pretty dumb. "We don't have much style. We don't have much fashion going on. We don't have a motto," he said. "Just make good music. I really just like to play music. And I like it to be well played and compelling. I'm not that ambitious outside of that."

Of course, by all accounts Cris should have been dead years ago. Given that the Kirkwood-brothers Meat Puppets shouldn't exist at all, it seems only fair to allow that Curt's modest aspirations are actually pretty miraculous.

The Meat Puppets will perform at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue in Rock Island) on Wednesday, June 24. The show starts at 8 p.m., and the bill also includes Chrash. Tickets are $12 and available from RIBCO, Co-Op Records, and RIBCO.com.

For more information on the Meat Puppets, visit MySpace.com/themeatpuppets. To hear the band's Daytrotter session, click here.