When Meat Puppets (due tonight at the Bluebird Theater with Bad Weather California and The Black Box Revelation) formed and released its first few records on SST in the early '80s, the Phoenix-based act challenged punk rock conformity with its eclectic blend of countrified psychedelia and what later came to be called freak folk. The group's commercial breakthrough came on 1994's Too High To Die with the "Backwater" single. Receiving relatively heavy airplay on the radio and MTV, the song introduced a younger audience to the Kirkwood brothers' ability to write catchy, seemingly straightforward rock songs with a deeply experimental edge.
This year, Megaforce put out Meat Puppets' latest release, Lollipop, proving the guys still have a knack for crafting truly odd rock songs disguised in more conventional clothing. The trials and tribulations of Meat Puppets are legion and could fill a book all on their own. We recently spoke with Curt Kirkwood about the band's history and his approach to songwriting past and present.
Westword: How did you find out about the art of Bernard Kliban, and what was it about the drawing "Bill and Sue Enjoy the All Meat Puppets" that appealed to you enough take part of that title for the name of your band?
Curt Kirkwood: It wasn't. I made it up. I didn't realize it was something else. I thought it was original. Of course, that's a stretch anymore. I could have gotten a little more far out. But I thought it was an appropriate name because we felt like the music was coming from someplace else, like we were just making ourselves available for it. As time has gone by, I've heard it from a number of places: the cartoonist, fashion models and stuff like that. But I was young, and I thought I was being original.
What was the climate like for being an independent band in Phoenix when the Meat Puppets started, and how did you get hooked into that circuit of bands that paved the way for underground music in the '80s like Black Flag and the like?
They just kind of adopted us. They liked us. We were like the doppelganger children that got left in the crib or something like that. We were definitely the anomaly for the punk rock scene. We weren't trying to be as overtly weird like Phoenix punk rock, which was totally inspired by Alice Cooper -- just be as weird and offensive as you can. We were really into music of all kinds, and I think people kind of saw that.
Bands started asking us if we would open for them. That's really what it was. We made a bunch of our own flyers and threw them onto the lawn of the Hate House. The Hate House was a place where a bunch of the punk rockers lived altogether in downtown Phoenix. We were dorks and younger, so we threw a bunch of our handmade posters onto the lawn and ran off. They saw us do it and thought it was funny. So we kind of started getting offered shows with this and that.
People we knew from Phoenix that lived in L.A. started having us come over. Then the punk rockers over there saw us and were like, "Oh, this'll piss the punk rockers off, even." So we got to start opening for Fear and Black Flag, that kind of stuff, Dead Kennedys. So we just kind of got adopted. It was weird that way because we definitely were not punk rockers.
Did Michael Azerrad ever approach you about writing a profile for Our Band Could Be Your Life, and has anyone proposed writing such a piece on your band?
People have written stuff. There's a guy right now writing a book. Azerrad, I don't know. I don't think we were in [Gina Arnold's] 666: The Road to Nirvana that much. I don't know what he wrote about us. I know him pretty well, but I don't think he ever did. I think it's a little too close to the bone or something -- that's the way I look at it. I know the story. I know what we mean. I've been told enough by the well-heeled cognoscenti of alternative rock or whatever.
I talked to a guy recently who is a college professor in Utah, and he's been doing talks on the band. He told me he's written more than four hundred pages on my lyrics. I was like, "You spent more time writing about me than I spent writing the lyrics, man." But, once again, being the anomaly, it might be hard to place us. It might be hard to write about us vis-á-vis a "scene." We deserve our own book. You know, "Glad to have been an influence, see you at the spa." There's been some obvious omissions in some of these things.
To a lot of people who know, your band has been influential in wide and unexpected circles. Did it come as a surprise in any way when "Backwater" became a hit in 1994, and did that change the fortunes of the band in a meaningful way for you?
Oh for sure. It was nice. That's some validation, a little bit, for your efforts. No matter what everybody says, I'd been putting myself in that pond for a long time and making that sort of opportunity available. I really thought that punk was going to break in the early '80s. I was naive. I thought that Black Flag was going to kick that door in just because it was so compelling to me, and that's all I have to go on.
It wasn't that much of a surprise; it was overdue, that somebody should have a hit. And we were one of the first bands that was like a punk band to have a hit. Those old school guys -- you were having the third or fourth wave, whatever that was, all the Seattle stuff coming in -- there were major label hits going on by the time "Backwater" hit.
They found out how to sell us, finally. I don't think they really knew how to market it, or something. Once again, I just naively thought that would have happened ten years before. Not necessarily for us but something of that ilk, some underground band. It was also a nice surprise. I didn't have any expectations either. I'd been in the game for a while, so it was like, "Okay, cool, so this is what that's like."
The sound of your first album and the second seem to be markedly different. What was the catalyst for that change, and what did you get interested in, musically-speaking, that led to the kind of music you wrote on the second album?
Well, you know, we were just really into playing stuff as fast as we could. We weren't really trying. That was just one of the things that I liked about the punk rock. I liked some of the really fast, classical stuff. One of the coolest things I'd ever seen was Itzakh Perlman playing "Devil's Dance" by Paganini. Before I started the band, I really liked Mahavishnu Orchestra, and all of a sudden, that sort of intensity was made available to relative amateurs in terms of scales and stuff. "Okay, he's the really intense and fast stuff we can play." It wasn't necessarily venom-oriented -- there's some of that in there, but it's more musical.
Once again, it was kind of a naive thing; playing fast, suddenly there's people with Mohawks spitting at you and wanting to beat you up. There's not as much venom and machismo there as much as anti-authoritarianism as they had anticipated from hearing the record. They come to the show, we play shit, we play showtunes, we play country. It's, "Oh, hey wait a second, I thought this was punk rock!" I was like, "Well fuck you, I hate you, too. Here's a whole album of folk music." Really played like shit. It's funny that that albums popular too because it's just like, "We're fucked up, just choke on this. I hope this hurts your feelings."
That was the side where it was like, "That's pretty cool, nice rubbery folk music, that'll put these punk rockers off of our shit for a change. Get them to stop coming to our shows and just stay the fuck away because we don't need their asses. That's what it was. A big part of it. Nice songs, and it'll fill a double role -- it'll definitely take these people who were knee-jerk, comin' to slam dance and make them go away.
I've always known Megaforce to be kind of a metal label. How did you end up working with them?
They've been putting out all kinds of music. They put out the last Black Crowes record. They put out The Verve's latest record. They've been putting out Bad Brains. I think they distribute Slightly Stoopid. They do quite a bit of stuff. They put out that Metallica record early on. [We came to work with them] through my manager. It turned out to be real good because they've definitely been supportive and let us do what we want to do.
You've been making music for over three decades. How would you say you approach songwriting differently now than you did say ten years ago or twenty or even thirty years ago?
Not much differently, really. It's pretty much the same. There's not much you can change. The content changes, but it's like writing a book. You can talk into a computer, and it will write what you say, so that probably makes writing a book easier. In some ways there's technology that makes things a little bit easier. But it hasn't changed a whole bunch. You get a bunch of songs together and you go and record them and whip it out.
For me, that's the fun of it. So not making a big deal out of it, we've always been that way. Try to document a little piece of the moment. We can take advantage of the state of the art technology and whatever and work on the sonics. We've always been as much into that in a way as much as the content. It's, "Let's make our little cottage industry thing sound as cool as we can." Which is interesting, because we're pretty rustic, but you can make it sound pretty cool.
Lollipop is your thirteenth full-length album. What kinds of subjects do you find yourself writing about most lately and do you feel there are themes that seem to run through the record?
I haven't really checked it out that much, this record. I get told more, "I hear themes of this, I hear themes of nature, themes of alienation, depression or exaltation." I tend to avoid that, actually. I'm not a very topical writer. I write lyrics that fit syntax lines in terms of typical poetry -- how do the feet fit in there, does this iambic formation go along with the notes or the cadence or tempo.
They tend to be more like notes that tend to a little bit more variable. There is a suggestive meaning behind them. Which is kind of the fun thing. I don't put these things together like cut-ups, or the extreme version of that with the Burroughs thing. I think this stuff out and try to make it sound like there's something going on when there's really not, where it will imply stuff to just about everybody with the way that we read these things.
Especially with English, being so flexible, that if you put it down, to a degree, and the actual phonics are correct, it can mean nothing. But person-to-person, [everybody] will have their own take on it. That's what I'm trying to do, if anything. Just leave that open and have it not seem like stream-of-consciousness or ad lib or surreality or anything like that. That's part of the fun of it. It's kind of like a crossword that way, "Oh, no, that's not right. I've given away too much there. That's too pointed." Or whatever.
So a meaning emerges whether you mean it to or not?
Definitely. It will if you put a string of words together. If it's not's just [meaningless]. People know the difference. They go, "That's nonsense." Well it is, everything's nonsense, but I tend to use conversational English, too. I throw in a little bit...I love Shakespeare. I'm not gonna say I ever got beyond that or Coleridge. I loved my English lit class, and I'm on my knees to those people. Those are real writers.
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What are the most important lessons you've learned in your long career in music?
I don't know, overall the broadest response I could give is, "Don't believe everything you think." That's what I put on myself all the time. Because this is horseshit. It's an abstract world. At best, it's a Mad Hatter's tea party. You don't want to sit there and cogitate the meaning of oil slick too much. It's like, "Well, it sure does look like it's changing; I'll give it that." And therein I trust my instincts. It's something I've known all along, and it's something I retain to this day.