by Charles D.J. Deppner
The Meat Puppets are a cornerstone of American alternative and college music and pretty much everything that's come after it. It's hard to imagine what later became the "Seattle Sound" or "Grunge" actually being anything of note if it weren't for a Phoenix-based musical trio that emerged onto the early American hardcore scene a decade earlier.
The Meat Puppets' self-titled debut album featured atypically punk rock dissonant vocals. However, they lay those upon a strong foundation of original and heartfelt harmonies which would build into a pantheon of releases bringing something uniquely Western and American to rock music for years to come.
They managed to stay mostly under the radar, whispering into the ear of a generation, until the constant namedrop of the Meat Puppets and the strength of the music itself brought them to the forefront of the music scene in the early '90s. Suddenly, the Arizona trio were beset by big band success and big band problems: fame, money, drugs, prison, breakups, and reunions.
A few short years following a wake of successes after being featured on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York, the Meat Puppets seemed to peak out and meander.
Singer-songwriter Curt Kirkwood focused on more independent projects. Drummer Derrick Bostrom focused more on Meat Puppets legacy and less on the concerns of actually being in the band -- never to return. And Curt's brother, bassist Cris Kirkwood, turned to drugs, hard times, and an assault case which resulted in multiple gunshot wounds to his stomach and a year and a half in prison.
With Lollipop, Curt Kirkwood proves he's stayed with it and somehow holds the strings of the Meat Puppets together with love, passion, fate, and sheer luck.
Does the music come any harder these days?
It's easy. It's real easy. It's surprisingly easy. Once again, we know the territory and there's elements of musicality to it and all that stuff, but it's still like working on your chess game. You get your binds.
We had great fun when we were young, but it was like hanging off the side of a moving vehicle a lot of times. It's like, 'Whoa! I wish I could get the steering wheel. This is fun, but... ' You want to maintain an element of that. I think about that all the time.
Of course, that's how we always made it fun. It's not supposed to be hard. When stuff gets hard, I just fuck it up. I don't care at all. I'm gonna make mistakes. If it gets hard, I'm gonna just play through it like I learned in school band.
And who cares? That's the way it's supposed to be. It's supposed to be like right on the edge of rapture. Apparently, if you're an emotional leader -- right there on stage or whatever -- there's something appealing about that.
What keeps the Meat Puppets together after all these years?
I think good luck in a way. Stuff I just can't account for. Opportunities. Just a keen interest in it maybe?
I just love it and I don't know if I've been ruthless about it, but I've definitely been avid. And just one thing leads to the next.
I've never gotten frustrated with it to the point where I didn't want to do it. It hasn't seemed like it's been one thing other than just wanting to do it more than anything.
Have you ever given up on the Meat Puppets?
I've seen despair. With Cris being in the ongoing situation he was in, it wasn't up to me to conjure that up. That's just plain despair because you got one of the guys in a predicament like that.
While there was despair, I was always persevering too. I was always, 'What else do I wanna do?' Not much. I had my hobbies, but of course my main one -- the Meat Puppets are my main thing.
The Meat Puppets is 'flexible'. That's what I learned. It's intrinsic in the name. It's the Wizard of Oz. 'Don't pay attention to the man behind the curtain,' because it's really more about the big, fake head-making than those people.
I try to not lose too much of a step. It happens. Things change. What you consider not losing a step may take a year or two -- just to figure it out: 'Oh, I'm doing this art thing, and I can just replace this guy or whatever... '
When Cris got messed up, at first, I waited around a couple of years. It's just hard with junkies. You just can't figure it out. I kept figuring, 'Well, he'll just quit that... ' And a week turned into a month...
At the same time, I was conjugating what my next move would be and that can be just as oblique, especially if you don't have the band propelling that. A lot of times the band pushes that stuff. So you take a break like that. That's all's it's ever been. Hey, it's just these weird breaks. Your mind gets idle. You can't figure out what you're gonna do, because you can just think of all kinds of stuff and listen to anything and go, 'Oh, I''m gonna be an African band this week.' (I'm still just really a music fan.)
How much of the Meat Puppets reflects your relationship with your brother?
Cris definitely knows a lot of the same stuff I do musically. And also knows me well. It's a 'brother thing'. There's a lot of unsaid stuff there. I won't say it's unconscious how we go about it. It's a given we're both brothers. It's been that way since the beginning and it makes certain things tight musically.
And definitely he's one of those people who musically can click his music up to his personality, character and depth, and put that in regardless of what he's playing or what notes he's playing. So, that's a findable quality with a musician to be able to go, 'Alright, we want to really take the bite out of this thing's ass right about... Now.' He knows that. He knows how to do it. That's cool stuff.
I mean that's what mad the band in the beginning was the three guys realizing, 'Wow. If you let go to this thing... ' and just go, 'We can feel it. We can definitely feel it.'
I'd been in other bands, but the Meat Puppets was the first time with that push coming was like, 'Oh here comes something. Check it out.' Like put that other sail up and boom. And it's like a working band in a different way and that's not an easy thing for people to figure out, or how to do it, or how to be there when that's coming. To go through the different extremes that you need to.
I mean this is the most modern stuff. How much do you even charge to get it on a record? You get some of it through the DNA, but definitely the live thing is the thing.
Are you survivors?
That's all it's ever really been. You could see that from the beginning. This is a game that requires that like any.
It started to seem right away like, 'Look what happens to bands.' I couldn't figure it out until I was in one why they just all of a sudden here's this dude or all these people burned out or died early.
From the beginning I was like, 'We can't do all this crazy stuff that other people do'. But you can see why it happens a lot of the times.
Are you comfortable with being cited as a major influence?
It doesn't bother me. I have my influences. Everybody has them. I'm an influence on myself too so I can look back on stuff and go, 'That's pretty cool! I should do what that guy did.'
Do you actually make that conscious decision about who you were previously and who you are today?
Oh for sure. I can't do Meat Puppets II again. I wouldn't try. Really... I know what it was. I know kinda what the components were. But a lot of it is foggy too. And that's how stuff gets made. The best has always been not unconscious at all -- it's direct. There's songs and that kind of stuff, but it's just that there's a free part of it and we're capturing that time as much as we can.
Back then we didn't service albums. We didn't say, 'Oh, let's play Meat Puppets II and let's cue up on the song just how it sounded.' What that probably sounded was a nice sounding record and we just destroyed it live over and over again and had no idea what we were doing. It was different times. So, yeah... For sure. I'm a different person.
Would you guys get along?
Probably would've found me pretty cool. I'm never totally sold on myself. I just do what I can and I look at it like a lot of everybody else does. I love doing it.
I'm in love with myself to the degree that I definitely love playing guitar, singing, having an audience there and having a show like that, but I'm not pretty ambivalent about most of my stuff. I don't want to be too much of a critic, so I don't do it to myself either. I'm probably not a very good critic.
Some of the stuff I do better than others. You can't change what you do in that way. You just try to do the best you can I guess.
With regards to defying categorization, how could the Meat Puppets be perceived?
Since I was a teenager and wanted to have a band and all that, I've always just thought, 'Oh it'd be cool to have a band that rocked.' That would be about it. You go through different stuff.
With the action we got that we're hard to pigeonhole -- it's not like something I really had to struggle for 'cause I just kept writing different stuff and I don't 'Oh now I'm doing this.' It's always like, 'What am I doing now?! Oh wow. Really?!'
I could try to write some sort of thing -- and now and then I have -- but I don't think it's my best stuff. I just think it's doing what I do what I feel like doing because I was led to a difficult place in terms of categorizing.
I think just a 'rock band' -- that's what I always wanted to be. 'Rock' seems to cover a lot of stuff -- blues stuff and country stuff. And we've done a lot of disco and ska.
How do you see your relationship with the Meat Puppets listener?
I don't feed on it any more than they feed on me. I'm sure it's mutual. It's always gratifying to have people that into it to the point where they sustain you for years and years and still coming into it. I learn a lot about what's going on with the band and how I view it by what people say to me.
Interviews are like that too. I don't really go through that stuff unless I'm part of the conversation. I view the thing a little differently. I look at us talking about a piece of it -- a tour, a song. But then to talk about how it actually transpires -- that becomes a thing in the world, that's what it really means.
I mean who gives a shit about what it is when I'm working on it or when it's just latent. It has to be out, but then, all of a sudden, it takes on this other life. So, what we're talking about this that 'other life' of this stuff.
And I'm considered the progenitor, but people who hear it are the fundamental part in every much a way. They're as much a part of that actual 'giving life to a song' as the people who are making it.