In anticipation of the Meat Puppets’ first performance with their new lineup (at tonight’s Stereogum showcase in Austin), Stereogum contributor Brandon Stosuy spoke to the band’s guitarist, vocalist, and songwriting guru Curt Kirkwood to figure out what folks ought to expect from the legendary group’s new look.
Curt Kirkwood was in his backyard when we spoke. It sounded sunny. Now and again he asked his dog to be quiet, or went on a spirited tangent about Bruce Springsteen. Kirkwood’s an affable guy, laughing repeatedly, slipping in nonsequiturs, poking fun at himself and others, etc.
Emboldened by his charm, I tried figuring out what to expect at tonight’s Stereogum Puppet Show. Kirkwood insisted the band’s always “winged it” without set lists and just tries to “have a blast.” He did tell me, though, that it could include any number of songs from the Meat Puppets’ back catalogue, tracks from their forthcoming album Rise To Your Knees, extended jams, some “gutbucket country crap,” and, well, after more pushing on my part: “I just emailed [the new drummer] Ted and told him to commit to memory the entire first Coldplay album for your party.” Score?
More likely, you’ll hear something like the excellent new cut “Disappear,” a psychedelic guitar-workout Kirkwood kindly passed along for inclusion with our discussion. The nimble, acid-tinged fret scorching makes a great soundtrack, especially to Kirkwood’s mention of pooh-pooh mountains and ketchup stuffed balloons — press play, repeat.
CURT KIRKWOOD: Well, you know, it’s basically the same lineup — because it’s my brother and I … then Ted, the drummer, he’s a Meat Puppets fan. He happened to be doing audio for my friend Joseph Cultice, who’s shooting a documentary on the band with his wife, Soohyun Chung. They brought Ted Marcus down with them. I was playing the drums on most of it, at first. I did about … [counts quietly to himself] … I played like half the drums on this record we just did — then Ted said, “Hey, I can do that, I’ve been playing drums since I was 8.” It wasn’t planned at all. I had tried to find a drummer — everybody who wanted to do it, I just knew it probably wouldn’t work. I mean, I know my brother well and I know… I have a good sense. I’ve played with a number of really good drummers: Shandon Sahm was amazing; Bud Gaugh’s an amazing drummer; Derrick Bostrom was an amazing drummer. So I had some big shoes to fill, really, and I didn’t want it to have it be just anybody. But Ted then sat down and started playing, and Joseph was telling me, “Shit, Ted has more Meat Puppets stuff in his archive than you do; he knows more about your band than you.” I was like, “Whoa.” And then he starts playing and I could really tell he did — he had a great sense of it. He’s been as deep in the thing as me for years, but as a fan, which is a huge luxury. It’s not just hiring somebody who’s a really good drummer. Ted’s a great drummer, but he loves the band, and his primary mission is to try and do it justice in terms as he saw it growing up on Up On The Sun and whatnot.
STEREOGUM: There’d been talk on your MySpace page about a possible reunion of the original lineup. What happened with that?
CK: Derrick didn’t want to do it. It would’ve been original … My brother was a junkie for ten years and then he got put in prison after he got shot. That’s another story, but that’s basically what happened: He was a junkie, he couldn’t function, his wife died from a heroin overdose, he got shot and put in prison for nearly two years, and so once he was out…
I had no intentions of doing it. I just wanted to do another Meat Puppets record. I was always kind of glib about the lineup after Cris became a junkie and Derrick didn’t want to play. I didn’t want to fold it; I mean it’s a cool band name. You know, art is like that; it’s about what I want to do; it’s not about what the fans think, or anybody else. It’s about what I want to do. I like the Meat Puppets’ name. Thinking up another band name’s a fucking pain the ass! Eyes Adrift — what a stupid fucking name for a band, you know? It’s like — what’s that? Eyes Adrift, that’s the dumbest shit. Krist Novoselic was like, “It’ll do.” I was like, “Probably, yeah. And that’s about as good as it can be?” I was like, no, we should’ve called that Meat Puppets II and played Sublime and fucking Nirvana songs. I’m a total whore, I could give a shit. We invented this fucking stupid genre, you know, and we can do what we want with it. I don’t not care because I invented it … I don’t care because it’s punk rock and I can take a crap on the nicest things in the name of punk rock. I mean, yeah, I wish it would’ve been the original lineup because I love Derrick, I love his drumming, I love our band, I never wanted it to go south in the way that it did … but it never did in my mind. I write for the band. It’s like a fucking phantom limb; you can’t get rid of it. Plus, like I said, it’s a cool name for a band; I never wanted to stop doing it. My response to Cris’s heroin addiction was, “No, I’m not stopping.” Then Derrick quit, and I was like, “No, I can do this if I want to…”
STEREOGUM: A number of classic bands from the American underground have returned. Dinosaur reunited, as did Pixies. Why do you think? Most individual players have remained active, but they’ve resurfaced as their old bands, only bigger.
CK: I think it’s about a need for it. In my own case, I never folded … I put out another Meat Puppets record with other guys called Golden Lies, then Novoselic came around while I was doing a solo tour and said, “Do you want to do a band?” So I did Eyes Adrift. But I never folded it. It’s another thing that I do. In terms of, say, Dinosaur, yeah, or Pixies … those are great bands. It’s not, like, smaller bands that are coming back; I don’t know the circumstances — I know Pixies were gone a long time. I did a show with J Mascis at South By two years ago; he and I did a solo show together. I just look at us being always kind of current. It’s like punk rock.
It’s hard for me to follow cycles … all that stuff. I know how perception works — if people wait for a year, you’re gone, right? But to me, when I write for a band … when I write harmonies, I write for my brother. I never realized that until just now when I just got back together with him. I’m like, “Holy fuck, I write harmonies for he and I…” I can write lots of different harmonies, but this is what I’m writing for; this is what I grew up on myself.
So maybe it’s just comfortable for these people, and maybe they’re valid still and maybe they never weren’t valid. Maybe there’s too much fucking Britney Spears? And, you know, everybody likes to stick their dick in a water balloon full of ketchup now and then…
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] Yeah, especially Mascis. He’s always up to something…
CK: I never wanted to be up to anything. This, to me, it’s like — it’s kind of stupid, but I’m really into Walt Disney, and Meat Puppets to me is like Disneyland. So my original planning was: Here’s the Magic Kingdom, the rides are the songs, the amplifier is your Pirates of the Caribbean, or whatever. You know, that’s how I looked at it. It’s very independent, which Disney was. I really love the way he fought the studio system and was just an evil prick unto himself. Then also appealing to all ages, not trying to focus…
I was telling my girlfriend this morning that I’ve never cussed on a record. I did that on purpose. It’s just too easy. I mean, I made a pact to never do it — it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Spontaneously it’s very easy to go “what the fuck?” or “this is fucking shit,” but to put it in a song and have to sing that every time — it starts to sound bad. I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about now. [Laughs] I forgot your question…
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] Well, how about the new record?
CK: This record’s done. I’m really anxious for people to hear it. I like it a ton. I like it more than a lot of things I have percentage wise. I think I got all the songs the way I wanted them to — where usually, I like all the songs but the renditions … I have a smaller percentage of how I like the shit. This time, song-to-song, all the renditions suit me. That’s because it’s an independent record and nobody said a word about it. I was able to spend an extravagant amount of money; I spent 5 million dollars on it … it cost me 5 million dollars and it took me 30 years to record.
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] That’s a lot of money…
CK: It contains, what’s probably, the best song ever written. All I can say about it is that it’s pure genius. [Laughs] That’s what Chris Martin said about Coldplay’s new record this morning. I don’t know if you watch CNN, but he was like: Coldplay’s going back in the studio. And that’s fucking CNN news, right? So the [commentator] says, he’s not going to say much, but they’re going to record what may be their greatest song to date and he said basically, it’s pure genius. I was like — man, that’s good news, especially following the Anna Nicole debacle that’s upset me so greatly. I needed a little cheering up and now I have something to look forward to in life.
STEREOGUM: I missed all of that — or the bulk of the frenzy. I was out of country.
CK: The day she died I was writing a short story for this book in England, a compilation of alt-rock whatevers’ fucking short stories … a 5,000 word piece. I had just started. So I’m on page three, saw that she died … It’s about witches, so I said witches sneak into children’s rooms using dead beauty queens’ corpses as a Trojan horse, and like a hundred of them can hide in her stomach alone. It became an integral part of my story. I thought it was pretty clever — Anna Nicole Smith as a Trojan horse, for a witch to get into a child’s room…
STEREOGUM: What’s the collection called?
CK: Star Shaped. Kristin Hirsch … I don’t know who else … Nick Cave … you know, trendy, who knows … Who else has become trendy in that realm? The dude from Bright Eyes. Maybe that’s why Dinosaur’s back together…
STEREOGUM: Speaking of Cave, have you heard his new band, Grinderman?
CK: No, haven’t heard that, haven’t heard of it. He’s always doing something, too. He’s an ambitious man. I did some cool shows with those guys. I mean, Nick Cave’s a really nice guy, I have to mention — I did a show with him once in the late ’80s with the Bad Seeds … Blixa Bargeld’s in the band. He was from Einstürzende Neubauten, and Nick Cave was intimidating just on his own. I was like, man we play in San Francisco with these guys, once again it was going to be, “How gritty and how alternative do you want it?” God, I don’t know, I did something and threw up on stage; somebody gave me some kind of pill or something … I don’t know. It was awful. Nick was really nice and easily engaged in conversation, interested in my trip as much as I was interested in his … It’s one of those times when you kind of break through all the posturing and crap … you didn’t want that anyway when getting involved in punk rock, but shit, punk rock has more people with fake names in it than mainstream rock.
STEREOGUM: If you were forced to compare Rise To Your Knees to some other Meat Puppets material, what era or period would you say it reminds you of?
CK: It reminds me a lot of like if I had a recorded Too High To Die on a budget of a couple thousand bucks. It’s very much a return to the SST days format, which is: I refuse to spend any more money on this; I refuse to do more than one take on each fucking track; I refuse to let people indulge their sick fantasies with my band. It’s an independent record; it cost fucking nothing. It’s a piece of shit. And, you know, I hope when people listen to it they die.
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] How many songs on it?
CK: Umm, I think 15 … It’s like 73 minutes, a long record. It’s pretty cool. It’s pretty self-indulgent; it’s not a jam record, though. It’s got pop songs on it. It’s got a Blondie-style reggae song on it that I did with Stuart Sullivan, who did Too High To Die and the Sublime stuff, their self-titled. He’s my next-door neighbor, my best bud. We did a very cool reggae song. [Laughs] So, it actually has really cheesy reggae, which you’ll find appealing. It’s one of those things like that I try to do where, as much as I hate it, it’s appealing, and people deserve to hear it. Even just so it irritates them … it’s that fine line separating myself from it; even Stuart’s kids like this, he has year and a half old twins. So it has that kind of thing on it, some of the real go-for-the-jugular-with-a-hypodermic-full-of-LSD type shit, too.
STEREOGUM: Any other collaborators on the record?
CK: Yeah, both Cris and I let out a select half a dozen or so of each of our demons. That’s pretty traditional, too. Oh, wait, Stuart, played a Wurlitzer solo on this reggae track. I shouldn’t call it that; it’s not a reggae track … that’s not fair to myself. It’s a scummy Blondie rip-off track … it’s “Tide Is High.” [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: You have me thinking about Willie Nelson’s reggae…
CK: I know. I never heard it, but just the thought of it made me feel a little bit like my temperature had sunk to about fifty degrees…
STEREOGUM: With the recent talk of what would’ve been Cobain’s 40th birthday, I was thinking again about when Nirvana covered three of your songs for their Unplugged album … Obviously, that was a huge moment for the Meat Puppets.
CK: That was pretty significant. There are three songs on that record. That’s a third of that record, nearly, in terms of the valid publishing outside of Leadbelly and stuff, which is pretty significant in my life, I have to say … financially, as people would well imagine. That’s basically the crux of it. I mean, while I’m beaming with pride as I stand atop this fucking mound of loot, it gives me a higher position from which to direct my urine stream. But yeah, it changed everything. It fucking ruined my brother’s disposition towards hard drugs, which we had figured out in our teens, pretty much. I mean … we weren’t doing any of that stuff by the time we started the band — and, yeah, he fell prey to it when the band was, whatever, 14 or 15 years old … That happened because we started making too much money all of a sudden. It gave Derrick the opportunity to not tour anymore, which he didn’t want to do anyway. He didn’t really like it. I split and went to California … It’s definitely been surreal.
STEREOGUM: Now you’re back on the road…
CK: Cris and I, we’re like journeymen, you know. We just do this. This is our avocation. He got sidelined, so him being well again and able, we can go ahead without question. We play shows. We take on offers … And then when things are going really good, we’ll do a bunch of angel dust during one of these gigs. [Laughs] … We’ve been to the mountain, we found out it was made of snakes and poo poo, and so whatever, we still like it.
The band’s new album Rise To Your Knees comes out in June on Anodyne Records.