Meat Puppets Come Full Circle and Back Into Their Own PHOTO
ARTIST: Meat Puppets Come Full Circle and Back Into Their Own
DATE: 06-03-09
WRITER: Bill Adams
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Now Playing: 'Rotten Shame' from Sewn Together by Meat Puppets

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When it comes right down to it, no matter how many minor twists and turns might manifest along the average band's career path, the beginning, middle and end of every musical group's career follows a very similar, linear progression. In the earliest stages, the band in question will work to find their voice and hopefully establish both a fan base and a name for itself. If said band is really lucky, the record-buying public will pick up on them straight away, but whether they do or not, the middle is often the dicey period. If the band in question was fortunate enough to make a significant impression on music fans, eventually the chore for them ceases to be attaining fanfare and becomes a matter of maintaining it; “success” becomes synonymous with “stuck” in a lot of ways because there is always pressure from several different sources to go in a particular creative direction – be it fans that miss the band when they sounded as they did around the time of this album or that one, or a record label hoping for a good return on the investment it has put into the band in question – and the voices of different groups seldom (if ever) actually jibe. This sort of multi-source, multi-angle pressure is what usually lands band X in their final stage of development; be it due to frustration at trying to assuage all the expectations hurled at the band and still produce material that the band's members find satisfying or the group acquiescing to a certain point that all their critics (somehow) agreed was their best and electing to make that same sound until the clock runs out (AC/DC anyone?), the band in question reaches the end of the line – not necessarily because they want to, simply because they can't help it and/or can't stave off the boredom anymore.

Simply by being themselves and not bothering to try and follow trends though, the Meat Puppets have managed to stay off this well-worn trail masterfully.

Since forming in January of 1980, Meat Puppets have watched their peers break out, ride high, crash and burn and ultimately break up innumerable times over and even the Meat Puppets themselves have been around the block so often that they have every crack in the sidewalk memorized; having gone from indie rock stalwarts in the Eighties to mainstream, big label juggernaut in the early Nineties to falling apart but continuing to perform at one-third strength in the late Nineties to reconvening after their sentence in purgatory was served in the new millennium. At this point, the band can safely say that it has come through everything fairly unscathed and now, finally find themselves in a position where they're able to apply what they've learned over the years and know what works best for them. All of those factors are clearly felt on their new album, Sewn Together, and, to be perfectly blunt, it's a good thing that their new label [Mega Force –ed] has let them do things their own way; the freedom yielding their best album in years.

In a conversation held before the band was to convene for their current tour, Meat Puppets singer and guitarist Curt Kirkwood happily outlined all of those things – from the band's most modest beginnings right up to the particular moment he answered the phone – and with a sense of satisfaction well-deserved, talked at length about the Meat Puppets' relieving return to doing things the way they want to rather than the way they're asked to and, taking a page from Kenny Chesney, how the Meat Puppets found their way to being timeless.

Bill Adams vs. Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets

BA: Hello, Curt?

CK: Hey Bill, how're you doing?

BA: I'm doing very well thanks, how're you?

CK: I'm great!

BA: That's good, are you still at home or has the tour already started?

CK: No, I'm at home.

BA: Oh really? It must be starting soon then, isn't it?

CK: Uhm, we start on the eleventh or twelfth in LA I think, and then we head back East.

BA: Ah, that's cool. So it's in the can now, but when I first started trying to track the record down, I discovered that you've changed record labels and publicity companies and... well, pretty much everybody.

CK: Yeah, well, that's just sort of the nature of it these days. It's actually been that way for me for a while – I did Eyes Adrift on SpinART and then I did a record with Pete Anderson on his record label, Little Dog, and then Anodyne with Rise To Your Knees and now this one. We'll be with Mega Force for a couple of records; it's going well so far – they've put more into it than I've seen in a while.

BA: That's cool. I did want to say congratulations on Sewn Together incidentally, it's a pretty kick-ass record man.

CK: Thank you.

BA: Last time we spoke was when you were out promoting Rise To Your Knees and you were saying that you were going to endeavor to spend as little time as was possible in the studio making the records and then just get them out and hit the road – is that right?

CK: Yeah, I prefer it that way because I think I work better that way. It's all about a comfort level and that's how I'm comfortable so that's what I do. Really too, it's not like we have a tremendous amount of money to burn on them or anything either.

BA: That's fair, how long did it take to make this one?

CK: Uhm, we probably spent about nine days in the studio altogether; I'm trying to remember, but I think I did five and then I had a couple more after that where I came back out and did three or four more. I'm not exactly sure, but it was a pretty small amount of time, all things considered. There's more on this one than there was on Rise To Your Knees; we were a little more self-indulgent I think.

BA: That's one of the things I noticed about it; it seems a little more produced than Rise To Your Knees did.

CK: Yeah, it might seem that way, but it's really not. I think the difference is that Sewn Together is a real band record whereas Rise To Your Knees was more insular; like, I played a lot of the drums on it and Cris hadn't played anything or recorded anything in a really long time – I don't know how long, maybe ten years – he had been out of the picture for a while so it took more time than we wanted to take to get him back up to speed. With Sewn Together, we were feeling like we were in a pretty good place and I worked more on stuff that I know how to work with; we recorded to two-inch tape and used the kind of equipment that I came up on and we just laid it out. As I say, Rise To Your Knees was more produced – we had pitch correction and were able to fiddle around a little more on the computer – but  this one was definitely a more comfortable experience because there wasn't anything about the process I hadn't done many times over before; we did put more time into the mixes for this album but, in terms of overall production, we did what we said we would and got it done really fast. With the mixing, I think it was an attempt to serve how much we'd done; like, we had recorded a lot of tracks and a lot of it sounded really cool and useful so it was just a matter of taking enough time to make sure that we had a good level on all the different stuff that's going on. In terms of what I consider to be production – which is more recording intensive and trying to get “the take” and doing take after take and all of the things that I'm used to in terms of heavy production – it wasn't heavy at all. I think we just got lucky with Sewn Together; it sounds like an expensive record, but it wasn't at all.

BA: It really, really does. I mean, not that anybody outside of the band could tell, but it does have a flawless flow to it that musicians playing to a click track tend to have.

CK: Yeah, we've just got a good drummer once again. Ted [current Meat Puppets drummer Ted Marcus –ed] is a boy scout and sort of like Derrick [original Meat Puppets drummer Derrick Bostrom –ed] in that he's metronomic; he keeps it perfectly so there's never any need to go to click tracks and things like that. I've done that before – I think my solo album ended up being the one that I played with click tracks the most for – but I don't like doing it very much – my favorite albums are the ones that get made when we just set the band up and play all the basic tracks as a band.

BA: Oh really? The basic tracks were cut live?

CK: Yeah – and the cool thing about being able to produce is that I can say, 'Okay, we're keeping that scratch guitar track.' Lots of producers we've worked with will do that – set the band up and get everyone playing just so they can get the drum track they want or something and they'll scratch the rest and then go back and do each of the other instruments individually and all this crap. Really though, we're a three-piece so it's pretty easy; the drums are pretty simple, Cris and I have played together plenty and I think one of the assets of the band is that we like playing together. Going into the album, I looked at it like, “Okay, we're pretty good right now. We're good live and I think we'll have a pretty easy go at it if we just set up and cut this stuff to tape.

BA: It was that simple? Just set it up, get it done, walk away from it?

CK: Yeah – and then there are points where I probably used some of the vocals that were cut that way and then some where I came back in and did them alone. A lot of the time, I didn't sing during the instrumental recording; I'd give vocal cues, because we really didn't know the stuff but that was it and then I went back later and did the vocal tracking. This was the first time in a while that we didn't know everything cold walking in; we had, like, two days to practice because none of us live in the same town – I live in Austin, Cris lives in Phoenix and Ted lives in New York City – so we got together for a couple of days, took a couple of days off and then hit the studio so we kind of roughly knew the stuff, but the core material really isn't that hard if you listen to it. There are some cool overdubs, but the basics are pretty simple. The overdubs are where a lot of the flavor is, like this time we used tons of guitar of course, but also keyboards, mandolins, electric sitars and stuff that I went in and did after the basic tracking was done. Working the way we did this time, I was able to go in and cut all of that extra stuff at my leisure which, to me, means I'm able to say, “Okay, I did it, it's done, move on.” It's not  that I'm that proud, I just don't like competing with myself; it really freaks me out.

BA: I can understand that. I mean, you can only agonize over something for so long before you totally lose the focus of where it started in the first place.

CK: Yeah – I'm a 'Roll Tape' kind of person and those that have worked well with me know that if I'm out there messing around and playing along with a track, you should roll tape because I'll probably get it done without even trying. I always ask producers – if I'm not doing it myself – to roll tape when I'm playing because that's really how we came up; we recorded everything early on. We recorded all the practices and all of that because they may end up being valuable later. Primarily, we are a live band and the majority of my experience has come from that context so I'm used to going on stage and just playing stuff and not being able to take it back. Because of that, I don't have that instinct where I think I could have done it better or anything like that.

BA: Now, how old were some of these songs? You said you only had a couple of days to rehearse, were these all written after Rise To Your Knees?

CK: Uhm, some of them are really old actually – like “Love Mountain” is one of the first songs I ever wrote. I think I did it when I was like twenty-one and, back then, I used to fantasize that I was writing songs for, like, Michael Jackson or Diana Ross and that song was written from that standpoint – I can't remember which one it was for, but one of those two. I still do that sometimes actually. In that particular case though, “Love Mountain” is really just a folk song; there's some intricate guitar work on it but, really, it's just a three-chord folk song. I had a couple of others that I thought would fit well on the album with it and I wrote the rest of them before we entered the studio. They were all new to Cris and Ted, but I think they turned out well when all was said and done. Well, I think the final result of the album is good for these songs. It's nice to be able to just get the sense of them and then just do it and let the songs come out how they will and on their own merit rather than try to work it into a sort of theme or agenda. There are a couple of these songs that I tried to record before – that's always the case and I end up with some leftovers that I can never figure out, from album to album, why some of the songs don't get done – but happily, the way I write, you can never tell when I wrote any of them. None of the songs are so obviously written at a particular time that it would stand out as being unusual or old.

BA: That's one of the things I always noticed about the Meat Puppets: nothing ever seems to be deliberately timely, they always tend to focus on themes that are easily relatable and can't be stamped with a certain year or period. Because of that, they could have been recorded anytime.

CK: Yeah, I've always used the example that, it's not country music but there are country elements to it and elements of this and that and other things that different people take away from the music and like. I mean, we're not hip – we never were – and people have always read into us as they liked. When we started, for example, we were considered a hardcore band except that we weren't hardcore and we weren't cool or in a hotbed of activity, we were from Phoenix; we were rubes and it's really easy to see that if you're aware of where we were coming from. Coming from Phoenix, we weren't getting exposed to a lot of different things so we couldn't come off that way if we tried so all we really had going for us was the stuff that we liked to play and even in the very beginning we decided that a band is like a bell – it has a certain sound to it and it doesn't matter what you play. It's the message, not the medium, you know? Like, when we started, we were called a hardcore band and then we were labeled alt-rock and so on – we've been labeled a lot of different things – but we've never really paid that much attention because it was secondary to what we were doing at the time. Again, it's sort of like country music; a lot of the country music that I like, yes, uses that as their medium but the message is otherworldly sometimes. I can get the same feeling from looking at a painting; really, the medium of any art is not the end result, the content and message within it is. I don't give a shit what kind of music I play or what sort of category it happens to fall into – if it happens to be trendy, then it happens to be trendy but that's still second to what's happening within it.

BA: See, that's the irony in it though – you're not from LA, you're on from New York and, to quote you, you're not hip but you're doing it your own way and because it doesn't sound like all the junk that's coming out of LA or New York, that's what instantly grabs people's attention.

CK: Well, we did realize that we did have a market cornered too. I mean, being from Phoenix which didn't have a lot of hot original bands coming out of it – most of it is cover bands in bars – what was there got really stoked by the punk rock scene and that's what we played off of in the early years of the band. Even at that, it wasn't a particularly easy go; lots of musicians are from Phoenix – Stevie Nicks, Alice Cooper, Jimmy Eat World, Gin Blossoms, The Tubes and a bunch more – but often those bands got famous somewhere else and then came back and were accepted. Phoenix is a tough town like that.

BA: My hometown was like that too so I can totally understand that. Now, over and above that, have you already started playing some of these songs live?

CK: We have – we did some of them when we played South By Southwest – but we haven't really given them a thorough going through yet. Because of that, I'm looking forward to it more than I have in a while; we didn't play Rise To Your Knees very much at all. It wasn't a band effort and it was never really presented to Cris or Ted properly taught to them or anything, we just started touring and didn't really bother with learning them for the most part. This time, the songs are a little simpler and lend themselves better to the live thing.

BA: Do they?

CK: Yeah, I've done a few albums like that. Mirage, from '87, was like that and we discovered how tough it was to do when we went out to tour with it. It was fun, but it wasn't as mindless as I like things to be in a live setting so we went and did Huevos which was a really simple album and we got a lot of mileage out of it. That's actually why we did two albums in '87. Rise To Your Knees was sort of like that too; we played it so little, it's just ridiculous. It wasn't a conscious thing, we just have a lot of songs we can play and people were fine with that. I didn't have any expectations for coming back in with Cris and doing another Meat Puppets thing because people were figured us for a re-construction of a band. I figured, “Well, if that's the perception – even if it's just a continuation in my mind – I'm just going to play it how it's comfortable and see how it lies.” That's how it wound up working out too; I hadn't played Meat Puppets songs in a really long time and it turned out to be a blast to play it so we toured for a year playing pretty much whatever we felt like playing from all of our old albums.

BA: That's cool, and have you been faced with that? That perception like, “Well, Dinosaur Jr. is back together and making new records and the Pixies might record again and – oh look! – now the Meat Puppets are doing it!” Now, I remember the last time we spoke, you were saying that it's not as if you'd reformed, you'd never broken up.

CK: No, that's the way I looked at it and that might have been a little naive because I know that public perception is everything but I really never did say that the Meat Puppets were done. I did say that I couldn't foresee doing it because Cris wasn't around but, realistically, it simply wasn't foremost on my mind and that's where it say for a while. Also, to be fair to the Meat Puppets, we were around for a pretty long time before those other bands and I never felt comfortable being categorized with them because they came into their own right largely as a consequence of the stuff in the early Eighties too, but we never felt like we were part of any of it. By design and by consequence of different situations, we've been alienated all along and we're a very different sort of band from Pixies or Dinosaur Jr. although they might have been influenced by the Meat Puppets to a degree, I think we never really reaped the same audience. Critically we did, but those were hip bands; we were around for too long before those bands that are coming back now emerged originally and the reason that we sort of got thrown in with them was because they finally got recognized and got their due in the Nineties because of “Backwater” and our association with Nirvana. Really though, I was in my mid-thirties by then and had put out seven full-length Meat Puppets album so, as far as the association with the Nineties goes, I'm not going to thumb my nose at it at all, but we could just as easily be associated with the early, mid or late Eighties you know [laughing]? I live with myself so it's very easy for me to see but it's more difficult to explain to people that the Meat Puppets is my life's work and I knew it was going to be when I started it. I can bear through the 'reformation' concept and I sort of knew it would happen, that's one of the reasons why I tried to make an album as good as this one is; to get beyond whatever competition there might be – whether it's from public perception, whether it's the work of other bands, whatever it is. I'm conscious of it, I see what people do, I hear it, I know what my band has done and I know what I can do, and I did it this time really forthrightedly; this is a really conscious effort, with what limited resources we had, to make the most explicitly fantastic album we could. It's like Wonka; I'm really lucky that I can look at things that way, actually pull it off, and then have people people say, “God – this is a really great album.” My first response is usually, “Yeah – let's see anyone else do that on that kind of money.” That's how people think; it's competitive. We were conscious of that, and this was our conscious effort to get beyond the popular opinion that we could ride on the coattails of our own reputation or that it was a trend we could follow.

BA: And, realistically, how could the 'reformation' thing really apply? I mean, in the case of the Meat Puppets, two thirds of the band are family.

CK: The other bands you're talking about did break up though, and we never did. My brother got fucked up and so I wouldn't play with him, so I hired other people and continued on. It never really ended; these other bands did break up and did end – we never really did. That's a good point too that we're family; Derrick was family too and he didn't want to do it anymore – that's all. It's all PT Barnum and Willy Wonka stuff; they'll cast their own mould of what you're supposed to be using you anyway – that's what public perception is – but I have to work on it to spin it the right way. I have to say this stuff and I have to debate it a little and set it clear and straight but the truth of the matter is that no one is going to make a record that sounds like Sewn Together except the Meat Puppets. For a Meat Puppets record, it's pretty fucking good.

BA: Well, realistically too, I've heard what have been regarded as good Meat Puppets albums and bad ones before too but, either way, people basically know what they're going to get when they throw a Meat Puppets album on. Even so though, it's always a bit of a surprise because there's always something a little different and, I don't know if better is the right word, but it's certainly always thought-provoking.

CK: Yeah, and I can say that if you listen to the whole thing, the lines do get a little blurred but I can tell you that this is the first time I've been able to record to tape and not draw criticism for it since the mid-Eighties. The criticism is always welcome from peers, producers, record companies and I'm a compliant co-worker – I'm a good person to work with like that – but I really prefer to have my own say a lot of the time because I'm not as critical of myself as other people are. I like the way I sing, for example, and I don't like pitch correction. Because of that, I've been trying to talk people into it for years to let us just cut it to tape, wing it and just see what happens. [laughing] Stop trying to make me sound better, just record how I really sound. That's how we did all of the early records up until Monsters – all the SST albums – and then once we reached the majors, people started messing with it more. We produced all of our early records ourselves too – we didn't have any help and didn't want it – but once it was available, it was expensive and we welcomed it because we thought we'd get something for our money but we didn't really get anything we couldn't have done ourselves. This record runs on the same ethics we had for those early albums like Meat Puppets II and Huevos or Up On The Sun that were pretty good and now we have the benefit of having learned more after having gone through major label production. Really, what this new album represents is a Meat Puppets II effort backed by what we've learned since then. What we wanted to get was the gloss and the good playing of a high-production record, but with the off-the-cuff feel that we had in the Eighties which was easy to get because that's what it was [chuckling]. People love those records, but they don't want to just leave it as is because they don't want to take the risk so they mess with it too much.

BA: With that said then, what can people expect to see on this tour then? I mean, you said yourself that Rise To Your Knees didn't get a whole lot of play even though you were out supporting it for a year, will that happen again this tour?

CK: We are going to try and concentrate on the new record this time, but we'll also throw some older songs into the sets because people want to hear them and maybe a couple of covers... I'm not sure how it's going to go yet.

BA: So, forgive me, I don't know how the songwriting process works for you....

CK: Uhm, for me, I've been doing a bit of songwriting right now actually – when I'm supposed to be getting ready to go out on the road. I've never really figured out songwriting; I've tried to set aside time to do it, but more often than not something will just pop into my head – a lot of the time it's at the most inconvenient time like when I'm drunk and just sitting around playing the guitar at two in the morning and something will come up that I know I'm going to like. Through the years, I've learned too that you can go ahead and try to record it right at that moment – when you're drunk – but if it's really actually good, you'll probably remember it. A lot of the time it's when I'm living a life of leisure – which is usually right before we go out on tour – that I start writing songs. It's happened that way for a long time that, when I'm supposed to be prepping for tour, stuck around the house and having a few beers that I start writing.

BA: Is there any chance that folks might hear fresh, unreleased material on this tour?

CK: Yeah maybe, if I come up with something that's easy to learn. Like we've had our hands full just learning these new songs and there's only twelve of them but once we get on the road and we're comfortable with the songs we're playing, if I come up with something, I'll give it a swing. I generally don't write on the road. Going on tour will very often preempt whatever's going on and then after I get back and I've got that leisure time again, I'll resume what I was up to. It's going to be really difficult to try and do that now too, because it's only the three of us out there. I haven't toured like this hardly ever – we often used to have a sound guy or a friend of ours along with us but, since we got back up, we cut off all the extras – we use small gear, drive in a minivan – but at that point, it really does become a 24-hour-a-day job. I'm really glad that we like playing this stuff and that people have liked our shows [laughing] because we're pretty much sleepwalking before we get on stage and sometimes we're sleepwalking through it.

BA: So what else would you like to see in the article?

CK: Uhm, my ass kissed and compared to Kenny Chesney in a commercially viable way. [laughing] Naw, I don't know....

BA: I swear to god that I will put it in there; I will draw comparisons to Kenny Chesney just so I can send you the email saying to be careful what you wish for.

CK: [laughing] And also comparisons to Jim Thorpe in terms of being a super athlete. Oh and let it be known that I demanded no questions be asked of me, and that you had to endure an hour and a half of diatribes and lectures.

BA: Alright – you've got it! I'm on it – no problem! See, that's why I like interviewing you Curt, we always come up with a lot of shit that makes us both laugh and I somehow manage to work it into the article and the publicists are left scratching their heads wondering what the hell to do with it.

CK: [laughing really hard] See that's the elusive, elliptical realm that becomes timeless. That's how you stay current and hip is by being evasive, elusive and stupid because that's the stuff that gets printed and gets questioned.

BA: Ah! I'm all set! I've never considered myself to be cool, but I'm remarkably good at being evasive and elusive!

CK: Well that's just it – I mean, I could sit here and tell you a bunch of different cool new band names to check out, but realistically, I've never been that person. I mean, I've listened to Led Zeppelin since I was a teenager, does that make me hip? Not very [laughing], it wasn't even hip then.

BA: So, so true. Anyway, thanks a lot for taking so much time to talk to me.

CK: Hey man, thanks for bearing with me – I'm always game for it and I have been drinking beer this afternoon and when I'm drinking, I get into it so, thanks very much for sticking with me. It's nice to have an interviewer be into it at that point for me.


Meat Puppets' homepage/myspace


Ground Control's review of Sewn Together


Sewn Together is out now on Mega Force Records. Buy it here on Amazon .


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