The Eyes Have It
This is not a supergroup," Curt Kirkwood insists about Eyes Adrift, a new rock-based trio featuring himself, Nirvana's Krist Novoselic and Sublime's Bud Gaugh. "This is not any of your American fuckin' hogwash. This is real. We want to have a good go of our lives, because the past is dead, you know? There comes a time when people want to hold you to your past and go, 'See? You're like Muhammad Ali. You can't take a punch anymore. Let's make fun of you.'
"If you're getting old, you're getting old," Kirkwood, the 43-year-old former leader of the Meat Puppets, continues. "This is America. We shit on our old people here. We shit on our failures. And we shit on our heroes as soon as we can find a place to shit on. The rock-and-roll thing is like 'Go ahead and die.' And it's not 'Leave a good-looking corpse'; it's like 'Leave a corpse for everyone to shit on.'"
During an intensely vitriolic rant from his Austin home, Kirkwood unloads many personal frustrations on life, liberty and the pursuit of music. A forefather to the golden age of America's indie underground, he favors blunt, stream-of-consciousness-styled outbursts -- something familiar to fans of the Meat Puppet's brand of aggressive, country-flavored punk music. He exudes arrogance, self-indulgence and cynicism. But he's also funny as hell and indisputably sincere. Death seems to monopolize Kirkwood's thoughts. He's certainly experienced his share of it over the years, from his mother's loss from cancer in 1996 to the suicide of Kurt Cobain, his friend, two years earlier.
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During the last two decades, Novoselic, Kirkwood and Gaugh have seen several friends and musical colleagues flatline well before their time: the Minutemen's D. Boon, Morphine's Mark Sandman, the Replacements' Bob Stinson, Sublime's Brad Nowell, Blind Melon's Shannon Hoon, Tripping Daisy's Wes Berggren, Skinny Puppy's R. Dwayne Goettel, Blues Traveler's Bobby Sheehan and Pariah's Sims Ellison. But according to the fiery guitar slinger, grief and calamity did not shape Eyes Adrift.
"We didn't get together because of our mutual tragedies," Kirkwood says. "This shit just keeps happening whether you like it or not. You can't be dragged down by it, either. There's no fucking way you can get around something like the genius of Cobain -- and then he shoots himself. It's not like a phenomenon that Kurt Cobain shot himself. It's all a bad read, you know. But this isn't Survivor, Part II. This is reality.
"I'm sure nobody could've handled it much better than Krist," he continues. "It's the same thing with Bud. Bud was really devastated by Brad Nowell's death. And that devastation gives you certain depth. But I don't think it's that much different than anybody else losing a loved one. If it happens in public, you're like, 'Here's your loved one's personal effects plastered all over the place at every turn.' It's a different kind of growth. I don't think any of us can see it. We don't sit around and talk about it."
Instead, the three have assembled an exceptional new trio that sounds as fresh and dynamic as it does comfortably familiar. Kirkwood writes the lion's share of songs, fusing them with poetic clarity and deadpan humor. But the soul chemistry of the ensemble is what makes it so compelling. And while it's easy to associate Kirkwood's voice with the Meat Puppets ("This makes me sound so different to myself," he says), Eyes Adrift distinguishes itself from each bandmember's past with a sum much greater than its parts: The sound is more fluid than the Puppets' crackpot-cowboy balladry with twangy hooks, Nirvana's fuzz-blown songs about hating life and wanting to die, or Sublime's dance-happy surf/skate renditions of the Jamaican two-step.
"People would be bummed if the majors pushed this with 'Look at the rock stars and their glorious past!'" Kirkwood says. "'Come see the new Nirvana! Subvana! It's grunge-reggae!' I think that people who are into any of the three bands can find something in here that they could appreciate. The first time we ever played at all was better than I imagined. It's still really stylized and still very folksy, but not progressive. We didn't practice this new material before we recorded it. We had to learn it after we recorded it, learn how to play it live."
Though Kirkwood and Novoselic are no strangers to one another's styles and improvise well together, neither one had ever jammed with Gaugh before summoning him to Kirkwood's studio in Austin. "It was a blind date that worked out really well," Kirkwood says. "Bud's one of those drummers that makes you want to move. You start tappin' your feet. He has that Ringo Starr quality that's like 'Oh, look, he's as cute as a fuckin' teddy bear!' Everybody loves Bud. You get these Sublime fans at shows -- it's like a big cult. And Nirvana's a religion. It's a whole amalgam of different nut people coming out."
Eyes Adrift, which toyed with laughable handles, including Phawn and the Diapers, before settling on its name, crafts a refined, accessible and panoramic beauty that lends diversity to its self-titled debut on SpinArt. The band blends roundelay piano-looped gems ("Sleight of Hand"), crunchy rockers ("Telescope") and glorious, guitar-sped hoedowns ("Dottie Dawn and Julie Jewel") with relative ease. "Blind Me," written for Willie Nelson and a staple of Kirkwood's solo gigs, exhibits the maturity of a gifted tunesmith at the top of his game. "Pasted," a meandering fifteen-minute opus, explores a psychedelic and jam-oriented netherworld. And "Solid" gives a glimpse into the Meat Masters resilience: "I could cut myself and nothing would come out/'Cause the blood is frozen solid in my veins/I should know by now that I could cut myself/'Cause I'm solid and I've always been that way."
"It's like fine art meets cartooning -- just what I like," Kirkwood says of the new album. "We like that lowbrow gutbucket thing for now. Like what Beefheart meant when he said, 'Turn yourself inside out.' Fuck everyone else's vomit. Yours is gross enough."
On "Inquiring Minds," one of three tunes written and sung by Novoselic, tabloid-fueled culture receives brutal scrutiny (see sidebar). Using JonBenét's murder and the cottage industry it spawned as a flash point, Novoselic questions the media's motives of putting flowers on her grave when "All they want to do is poke around your mummy."
"It really has nothing to do with the little girl," Novoselic says. "No disrespect to her or the Ramseys. That whole thing was such a tragedy. And all those news investigators made money off of it. People used to go to watch executions for fun. Or they slow down for car wrecks. And this sniper now. Do we really need to have such saturation coverage? Man, do they milk it."
"JonBenét and Cobain were kinda similar," Kirkwood adds. "They were both cute little blondes. It's necrophilia. It's kind of a heavy thing, so we made it a triumphant song. And you know what lives on? The absolutely mind-numbing beauty of the little girl."
Carl Renstrom, a devout atheist, was a Swedish inventor turned wealthy industrialist. His multi-national company, Tip-Top Products (now Goody), designed plastic hair curlers and liquid solder as well as barbed-wire throwers used during WWII.
As Kirkwood's grandfather, Renstrom was also something of a bully.
"The guilt I feel was pounded into me by my granddad," Kirkwood says. "He'd say, 'The faults of women are many. Men have only two: Everything they say and everything they do.' It's always your fault. Cobain said the same thing. But if you don't take responsibility for everything in your life, you're gonna be a whiny fuck. And that's what most people are.
"Here's another one," Kirkwood adds: "'You have your own row to hoe.' That's a big one for me. 'Don't wait for your boat. Swim out to it.' I had these things crocheted on embroidered plaques in my room. So my guilt comes from, like, 'Am I doing enough? Am I taking care of my loved ones?'"
Kirkwood's beautiful and eccentric mother, Vera Pearl Renstrom, married six times during her 59 years. Her first husband played semi-professional hockey for the Rangers' Omaha farm team following a tour in the Air Force. He sired two sons at the dawn of the '60s: Curt and Cris, his younger brother by one year. Born in Texas, the boys followed their mother to Colorado when husband number two, Paul Revere White, came into the picture.
White's family owned the largest uranium mine in the Western Hemisphere. Located north of Golden, the family mine closed in the early '60s and "they started going over to plutonium," Kirkwood says. "The Rockies are a trip. There's something about those Rocky Flats that was weird before they fuckin' dropped uranium up there. I've been up through them, goin' up to that mine when I was a kid. We used to pasture horses there. I lived in Littleton when I was a kid, over by the racetrack. That's what my family did for a living: raise horses."
After relocating the family to Sunnyslope, Arizona, White was replaced by a succession of stepdads, two of whom beat Vera badly enough to hospitalize her half a dozen times. On a few occasions before he could legally drive, Curt had to transport his mother to the emergency room to get sewn up.
In 1980, the brothers Kirkwood answered punk music's call and formed the Meat Puppets. Curt was the frontman/guitarist, and Cris played bass. They met drummer Derrick Bostrom through a mutual pot dealer. Fueled by grass, acid, endless touring and a desert-fried twist on the Apocalypse, the band blazed trails with a distinct mixture of swamp blues, country choogle, free jazz and open-ended jamming that borrowed from Jerry Garcia and set the table for grunge.
"We wore our Dead influences on our lapel," Kirkwood says. "Way before Phish. We were one of the first bands to plumb that Grateful Dead thing on an indie level. We moved on from there, too. The influence of the Meat Puppets has been rather fuckin' pervasive. From Widespread Panic to Soundgarden to Nirvana to you name it. Go on and on."
And on and on the Puppets went, through the Reagan era and beyond, issuing eight albums in a decade via West Coast-based SST records with the help of journeyman producer Spot. Released in 1983, Meat Puppets II is the album that critics gush the most about, thanks to repeated airings of MTV Unplugged in the wake of Cobain's death. Amid candelabra and funeral lilies bathed in sub-aquatic blue light, Aberdeen's tragic hero paid unexpected, posthumous homage to the obscure Meat Puppets album by covering three of its songs during the taping: "Plateau," "Oh Me" and "Lake of Fire."
"Cobain studied that album a lot," Kirkwood says. "It was probably a big influence. They're some of the best songs ever written, and he knew that. That's all I can assume. When I heard him sing 'Lake of Fire,' I was like, 'Fuck. That's what my influence is to people?' I could really hear it. I just think Kurt could do that. He could shift from 'All Apologies' and do 'Lake of Fire' and then do 'Man Who Sold the World.'
"I don't think my shit's that good," Kirkwood concedes. "But when [Kurt] did it, it was really cool. That album's a piece of shit! Meat Puppets II sounds horrible to me. It always did. I tried to make it sound like that. I'm just really lucky people saw the concept clearly."
The Pups followed up their worldwide broadcasts in 1994 with Too High to Die, spawning a hit single ("Backwater"), a gold record, a large-scale tour and piles of money. But Cris became increasingly addicted to drugs that were much harder than pot or acid, smoking cocaine and shooting smack in suicidal quantities. Following the release of the band's final album, 1995's No Joke!, he basically fell off the planet, ending the band's fifteen-year career and costing himself, his brother and Bostrom millions of dollars. Three years later, Cris's wife died from an overdose of morphine and cocaine. With felony drug warrants out for his arrest, Cris once told police during a traffic stop that he was Curt, forcing his older brother to appear in court to clear his name. Kirkwood paid a professional interventionist to help his little brother, but after another arrest (for possession of stolen property), he gave up and moved on. The two haven't seen each other in more than four years.
"I don't try to get in touch with him unless I want to fuckin' get fleeced for some money or something," Kirkwood says. "He got involved in rock cocaine, too, and quit that supposedly earlier this year. I'll believe that when I see it. Rock would be easier than heroin in my book. Shit's hard to kick. I did plenty of it when I was a kid, and so did my bro. A lot of people did. But I didn't think it would come in when we were in our thirties and just wreck everything.
"People that have never been addicted to things have a problem understanding it," Kirkwood adds. "It's bigger than anything they can handle. It's not really their fault. You know, it doesn't matter how much they love their children or how much they love their profession.
"The music started to go," he continues. "That was the bottom line. I've stuck with my brother as long as I could, though I have guilt over leaving him. I don't have Catholic guilt, like 'Oh, I cheated and lied and killed and fucked or whatever.' That's human, you know?"
In Kirkwood's perfect world, Disneyland would have a virtual transgendered reality.
"My theme park would have, like, Female Land for the dudes," Kirkwood says, "where you can go in and experience what it's like to be a chick. Instead of the jungle-boat ride, it's like, this chicks' gate riot."
In another perfect world, writer Michael Azerrad would have given the Meat Puppets an entire chapter in Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, his lengthy tome about the American indie underground. "That's why his book failed," Kirkwood snaps. "Meat Puppets were D. Boon's favorite band. Period. And [Azerrad] wants to call the fuckin' book that and not have a Meat Puppets thing? Whatever, dude. Go ahead. He better be writin' a book about me, that's all I can say. 'Cause D'll flop over in his grave. That's fuckin' crap."
Forgetting his legacy for a moment, Kirkwood simmers down and counts his blessings. There are plenty of things he can control, after all. "I'm really glad that there's super-famous guys in our band, 'cause we can get our foot in the door," he says. "Unless you're tied in with fuckin' General Motors and the multi-death corporations, you're not gonna get the exposure a lot of the times. I've had my fill of those cheesy assholes for now. I couldn't get along with majors if I tried. It has nothing to do with music. It's a board of fucking directors. It's public opinion swaying art. 'No, we tell you what to listen to.' Kiss my ass."
"We pitched this shit to majors, and their response wasn't like anything I'd have figured," he says. "It was like, 'Just go sign somebody else that's imitating one of the bands we were in before!' We didn't want somebody to put their pathetic spin on it, you know.
"One day up in Lake Tahoe, we were practicing where Bud has a house," Kirkwood continues. "I'm like, 'Guess what? Let's not fucking deal with these people. They're slime. Let's make 'em crawl to us. I had an epiphany: Let's keep our fucking publishing. Let's keep the rights to our fucking record.' I really like making art without some asshole telling me if he thinks it's good or not. I'd really rather have people just listen to it and applaud politely. And then, if they want to come back afterwards and tell me that they thought it was good, they're not telling me anything that I don't already know.
"We are Wonka," he explains. "And we always knew that. Derrick and Cris and I know that. Kurt knew it. Krist knows it. Bud knows it. Like Bud says, 'I just kinda like my style.'"
Wonka or not, Kirkwood seems sympathetic to the plight of chocoholics and deities alike.
"I tend to be tangent-oriented these days," he says. "I'm very comfortable with Jesus when he comes across my lawn. I've seen him in the forest at a cabin one time in North Carolina. And I'm an atheist. But I have seen Jesus. I've never seen him in my own house. That would be cool. But I think if you talked to him, he'd split.
"What's he look like?" Kirkwood continues, laughing. "Like something that I made up out of reading when I was a kid. Kinda like the mummy. I don't know. It's one of those things like with ghosts, you know? It's more of a feeling. It's like a spirit that's devout and loves. And I don't know what worship is really all about. If you need to worship, that's a different thing. But there's love. It exists."
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