When the Meat Puppets Reunited for the First Time in Eleven Years
Midway through their March 14, 2007 SXSW gig, Meat Puppets bassist Cris Kirkwood told the crowd, “This just happens to be the first time in eleven years that Curt and I are gonna play together, so.” A roar reminiscent of a NASCAR rally echoed through the small, outdoor club, and Cris raised his arms, both visibly dotted with the white scars of old burns and needle marks, in what seemed part gratitude, part inauguration. “It’s pretty coooool,” he chuckled.
Half bluegrass, half electric, the thirty minute set was part of a string of warm-ups leading to the July 17, 2007 release of Rise To Your Knees, the first CD Cris and his guitarist brother Curt recorded together since Cris’ spiral put the legendary band on hiatus. Hiatus. Cris was never kicked out, and Curt never retired the band. “I don’t have to check my interest in this shit,” Curt told me from his Austin, Texas home the week before the show. “It doesn’t seem old to me in any way.”
Formed in 1980 in Phoenix, Arizona, the Meat Puppets built their reputation on a carefree embrace of experimentation and evolution. Self-satisfying creativity was job one. Before Uncle Tupelo ever provided the name No Depression to the now defunct music magazine and the this-isn’t-your-pappy’s-country-music sensibility, the Puppets were mixing country, thrash and Americana with hard-charging rock and Jerry Garcia-ish psychedelia. They played over-amplified versions of “Dixie Fried” and “Blue Bayou” in Phoenix punk clubs in ’81, and they covered everyone from Kris Kristofferson to George Jones at a time when singing to Hank Williams was still something to hide from your friends. In one show they plunged into The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” after Patsy Kline’s “I Fall to Pieces.” Along with the Brothers’ verging-on-off-key harmonies and Curt’s nimble guitar work, the Puppets’ one constant has always been change. Up On the Sun is a jazzy, jam-based trip into acid daylight. Huevos is guitar driven, ZZ-top rock. Too High To Die is catchy, moody and fuzz-heavy. “I don’t care if any of my fans want to hear anything,” Curt says of their music. “That’s not how this works. They have a good time at all the shows. The other side is completely self-indulgent stuff.” That fierce independence ─ making art for yourself, not your audience ─ certainly moved musicians like Kurt Cobain to proclaim: “The Meat Puppets gave me a completely different attitude toward music. I owe them so much.”
Cobain reciprocated by inviting the Brothers onstage to record “Oh, Me,” “Plateau” and “Lake of Fire” on Nirvana’s Unplugged, not only lining their pockets with impressive royalties, but introducing the band to incalculable listeners. Too High went gold, produced the band’s only charting single, “Backwater,” and the band played sold out stadiums on Nirvana’s U.S. In Utero tour. Despite the increased recognition, in 1994, the Puppets’ fourteen coherent years began to unravel.
Following Too High’s release, they toured with then-Alterna-darlings Cracker and Soul Asylum, and during that summer’s Stone Temple Pilots tour, Cris developed a cocaine habit. Hit-makers STP were already multimillionaires, and as Curt recalled in a 1998 Phoenix New Times article, ounce bags of coke and boxes of straws fueled that tour. Singer Scott Weiland struggled with addiction for years after, doing jail time, ruining his marriage; he eventually died of an overdose at age forty-eight. Cris fared only slightly better. Period concert recordings capture a band full of energy: forceful harmonies, tight renditions and what sounds like fun. But listen closely to the intro of the 1994 Fillmore show, and you’ll hear Cris greet the crowd with, “I am so fucked up.” He stayed fucked until 2004.
While age was busy graying Curt’s thick hair and carving lines into his cheeks, technology was busy changing the music business. YouTube became the new MTV, social media the new marketing platform, and file-sharing threw record labels’ roles into question. Like Miles Davis said, “If you aren’t appearing, you’re disappearing.” Curt never disappeared. He reformed the Puppets with new members for 2000’s Golden Lies, played a 2001 solo tour, formed the short-lived Eyes Adrift with Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Sublime’s Bud Gaugh, and relseased his first solo effort, Snow, in 2005. “It’s not really a comeback,” says Curt, “it’s more like, Cris was really sick.”
By the time Cris last abandoned rehab, Curt had distanced himself and moved to Austin. “I always had good friends here, like Paul [Leary] and Gibby [Haynes] and Stuart Sullivan.” Leary, who co-produced Too High To Die and its follow-up No Joke!, might have produced Rise had Curt thought to ask. “That would’ve been cool,” Curt says in the stoney, laconic drawl of a teenage surfer. “I don’t know if he woulda’ charged me any money or not. I don’t have any money.”
Being on the indie Anodyne Records, the Puppets approached Rise as they did classic SST albums like Up On the Sun: really fast, really cheap. “It’s like the old days,” Curt says, “like punk rock: you didn’t see them chargin’ any less for their records did ya? They didn’t fuckin’ cost anything, but they sure charged the same as someone who put a couple hundred grand into it.” Curt would know. No Joke! cost London Records over 200,000 dollars. Rise only cost a few. “We took five days to record it,” Curt says, “and a couple days to mix it.” As an exercise in fiscal restraint and artistic independence, they tracked mainly at Austin’s Wire Recording, operated by Curt’s engineer buddy, Stuart Sullivan. Curt is pleased. “It’s song-for-song one of my more successful things.”
“With Meat Puppets in the ’80s it was a lot of, ‘Well, that’s cool,’” recalls Curt. Later, amped on coffee or playing to the record, he often found renditions too slow and wondered, “‘Why didn’t I think to record that to my liking now?’” Meaning, moodier or faster. Thinking songs should’ve been played faster is Curt’s Achilles heel. But a high thrash-capacity sparked the band’s recording career.
When L.A. punk band Monitor couldn’t play their song ‘Hair’ fast enough, they asked the Puppets to record it. Monitor provided studio time and, like good friends do, eventually released the session’s five Puppets originals on their own label (re-released later as In A Car). Rolling Stone writer Michael Azerrad called the Puppets “one of an elite group of pioneering bands that …[blazed] an underground railroad of indie-oriented clubs, stores, radio stations and fanzines.” Radio and records were never Curt’s deal. “I was more of a band guy. I just liked to have a band, liked to play a lot of music.” Curt dropped out of college to play. After he, Cris and original Meat Puppets drummer Derrick Bostrom teamed up, Derrick’s punk rock merged with Cris’ art rock-fusion jazz and Curt’s straight Zeppelin rock. Derrick also upped the Kirkwoods’ anemic indie-business sense. “We’re from Phoenix,” Curt says. “We weren’t thinking, ‘We’ll get a video and blah blah blah,’ or, ‘Oh, we’re gonna make a record.’” He recalls playing Average White Band and The Blackbyrds in a bar band where everyone wore powder blue, three-piece suits. “I think Derrick knew a little bit more about the actual ‘bands that are cool make records.’” During breaks between tours, the Puppets recorded seven records for SST. Label-mates may have included SoCal thrashers Black Flag, and the Puppets’ twelve-song debut may have totaled, in typical punk fashion, twenty minutes, but the curveball inclusion of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and Doc Watson’s “Walking Boss” foretold the genre-bending, countrified vastness of their entire career.
Fans consider Too High a classic, and London predicted big sales for No Joke!, but with Cris nodding in the sessions, record execs eventually pulled promotion. Between No Joke!’s October, ’95 release and the Puppets’ final tour with Primus, Cris and his new wife Michelle retreated to their Tempe, Arizona house, smoking coke and shooting dope delivered by dealers like Chinese food. Cris’ two No Joke! songs boast of newfound escapism, as in “Inflatable” where he sings, “Gotta run gotta hide/Gotta get away/Gotta run gotta get away.”
While the tips of Cris’ fingers turned scaly black from pressing rock onto Brillo, Derrick bowed out and Michelle fatally overdosed. (Cris’ woes wouldn’t end there. In 2004, he received a twenty-one-month prison sentence for assaulting a security officer in a Phoenix post office; during the bizarre incident he also got shot in the abdomen.) Curt, unwilling to retire, moved on without them. “Just my experience as a professional musician,” he says. “You pretty much have to stay on it unless you’re stupid successful.” No Joke! is “kind of a lost record in a way,” though Curt wouldn’t describe it, or success, as stolen. “You’re balancing on top of people who are just completely insincere and all this shit, your own insincerity. It’s not that great a place to be anyway.”
The Millennium has fostered a reunion renaissance: Pixies, The Stooges, Dinosaur Jr. “I’m sure that’s lucrative for them,” Curt says. “There’s no guarantee for the Meat Puppets that it would be lucrative.”
“The Meat Puppets have always done what they’ve done and never been very popular,” Cris said in a 1994 Boston Globe article, “but we’ve been popular enough to keep doing it. I’ve always considered myself really fortunate.” According to his then-girlfriend’s 2004 blog, Cris felt like a failure for becoming “the guy that wrecked the Meat Puppets.” But once Curt learned of Cris’ recovery, he played some new songs over the phone, and they started rehearsing. “[Cris] was pretty much, very very adaptable to the situation.” Curt says. “He understood I wanted to have a fairly autonomous reign on what was goin’ down this time.” Cris didn’t have trouble remembering the songs. Both Brothers had to relearn things. “That’s the nature of having a large catalog,” Curt says. “I don’t remember a lot of stuff.” Like “New Leaf,” the song he recorded for Rise but previously released on Golden Lies. “It’s one of those things that you just go, ‘Oooo.’ But it’s a different arrangement,” he snickers, “so I forgot.” Performing in public doesn’t scare Cris either. “He’s been in fuckin’ federal penitentiary. If anything’s gonna make you nervous it’s being around a bunch of murders and thugs like that.” Curt’s philosophy now is: “We just wanted to make a record pretty much for ourselves and for anybody who wanted to hear it. We don’t have any ambition. We don’t have anything to prove. We figure, you know, we’ll probably be given whatever we’re due, because we have a good name and if we play good people will kiss our asses as much as we deserve.”
As usual, Curt wrote all the material, some of it having laid around for years. Surprisingly, Curt plays drums on nearly half the record, even drums and bass on three tracks. Although asked to participate, Derrick declined the invitation, favoring the settled pace and steady pay of a Phoenix Whole Foods market. Luck delivered Ted Markus, a New York-based engineer doing audio on a Puppets documentary. Markus, drumming since age eight, previously played with two New York bands and owns a sizeable collection of live Meat recordings. “Nothing needs to be filled in,” Curt says. “He knows the stuff better than Cris and I do easily.”
Interviewed for a 1993 PhD dissertation, Derrick described touring as a drag. “You drive all day and eat shitty food and take weird hours,” he said. “Nobody likes living out of a suitcase.” But his other interests had also started assuming importance. Jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw’s autobiography, The Trouble with Cinderella, seemed to resonate with Derrick because Shaw, Derrick explains, “kept saying, ‘Man, if I could only get a lot of money I would just quit.’ And he finally realized that he was in the weird vicious circle.” Yearning to write but feeling trapped, Derrick says Shaw eventually “gave up music and began to write.” Having overseen the Rykodisc reissue of the SST albums, Derrick now travels, hosts a web-radio show and the Puppets’ website. Time has also revealed his own love of writing, in the form of a voluminous and eloquent blog covering everything from Scottish castles to classic country. He also collects stamps. “[If] if you get out of the business,” Curt says, “and a lot of people will tell you this, it’s hard to get back in. It’s hard to get your head back in it.” As much as he wanted Derrick onboard, Curt knows, “If somebody hadn’t played the drums in ten years, they’re probably not playing the drums very well.”
The band raged that night in Austin.
After banjoing through “Lost,” Cris shouldered his bass, Ted hit the floor tom, and fans screamed to a blaring “Lake of Fire.” “Where do bad folks go when they die?”
“People notice when you’re away more than you do,” Curt says.
Hearing the new songs live, it hardly feels like a year, let alone eleven, has passed.