Of all the bands signed in the early years of the influential punk label SST, The Meat Puppets may have seemed one of the most unlikely candidates for breakout success, but then came Meat Puppets II, an acid-fried album that helped give birth to "cow-punk" and inspired Kurt Cobain, who was such a fan that he brought brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood along to Nirvana Unplugged and introduced them to millions of impressionable youth. In the rush of Nirvana-inspired signings, the Meat Puppets found themselves on a major label for the chart-topping Too High To Die, but their career apex also signaled Cris' personal low: A lifetime dabbler in drugs, he spiraled into a heroin addiction that culminated with a series of tragedies—including the death of his wife Michelle Tardif from an overdose—that led to him withdrawing from both Curt and the band, to the point where they didn't speak for years. In 2003, a confrontation with a Phoenix post office security guard ended with Cris getting shot and sent to prison, while Curt relocated to Austin and put together a new version of the Meat Puppets. Fortunately, Cris emerged from prison clean and sober, and in 2006 the Meat Puppets announced the reunion of the Kirkwood brothers on a new album, Rise To Your Knees, followed by a string of dates supporting Sonic Youth. The A.V. Club recently spoke separately with the Kirkwoods about Cris' return as well as some of the uncomfortable details about what broke them up in the first place.
The A.V. Club: Did you ever imagine that you would be one of the only original SST bands to still be playing together?
Cris Kirkwood: I definitely thought the band was about just playing music without all the attendant fashion accessories—the kind of stuff that goes out of date. It was always where I could see us getting older doing it because we were never tied into a particular time period. I could see it aging gracefully. Some other bands are still playing, like Saccharine Trust. Sonic Youth were SST for a while. We played our first New York show with them in '82 at [Gerde's] Folk City in Manhattan. When we first started it was just Minutemen and Black Flag, really. Mike [Watt] is still working it. I imagine The Minutemen would still be playing if D. [Boon] hadn't passed away.
Curt Kirkwood: I think you just count your blessings every day in this business. I've just been doing that for so long. And it also kinda feels like I'm just getting started.
AVC: Where do you think the Meat Puppets fit in with the current modern music scene?
Curt: I never have seen how we fit in. I think it's kind of weird that we're able to be as weird as we want to be, and record albums that are totally mediocre and get away with having people think that we're wonderful. It just shows me what a bunch of shit the music business is. It's like the Mad Hatter's tea party. I'm always like, "Ha ha, the gloves are off in Cartoonland! What a fucking joke!" I'm as much about humor as I am about anything. I'm probably more of a stand-up comedian than anything, but I don't have to do overt humor, because the music business is resplendent with it. That's something that's a rolling ball of shit on hooves anyway. It always was. That's why we got categorized as punk rock. It got called "punk rock" but it was what was "far out" in the late '70s. After Kansas.
AVC: You're not a fan of Kansas?
Curt: Nah, I love Kansas. I saw them with Cheap Trick in '78 or '79. Those bands are both pretty good, but Kansas was way better than Cheap Trick. People like to pan Kansas, but it was just an era thing. Kansas reminds me of Creed. It's rock music with a Christian message, but nobody gives a shit that it's a Christian message.
AVC: So what's the Meat Puppets' message?
Curt: Our message is that we are beautiful. We always do the right thing. I don't know. We never had a message. We were always way into ourselves. [Laughs.] We're a little more honest about it than most people. All forms of philanthropy are just egoism. Everything is about me, me, me, and even if you help others, it still just makes you feel good, so ultimately it's about slavishly lapping at your own ego's genitalia. Our message is that this is a high-priced trip into alienation and depression.
AVC: What was the reason Derrick Bostrom gave for not wanting to be involved in the reunion?
Curt: He said he hadn't played drums in 10 years. I think the reality is that he has a job at Whole Foods that pays him well. I didn't press him on it. I wasn't like, "I'm gonna get the original band back together." My thing was, "I'm gonna make a Meat Puppets record. I think I'll call Cris since he's feeling better, and I might as well call Derrick if I'm gonna call Cris." Realistically I didn't think he'd want to play. I think he likes not playing, or he would be playing. I'm not anybody's keeper. I try to do shit my own way. I didn't set out to write music. I set out to ride motorcycles and fish, and I wound up doing this. I just go with the flow and trust my guts. My guts on this were to make a Meat Puppets record. That's the number one priority. If I have to I'll do it all myself. I can cut tracks on my own and call it Meat Puppets. Nobody gives a rat's ass. There are so many songs on here that are just me. It's a big fucking trick. This is what I love about the business. I was never into this West Side Story, "When you're a Jet, you're a Jet," blah blah blah. I never thought my bro would get sick, but when it was left to me I was like, "Well fuck this. It's art." It means I can do whatever I want. Right now I'm totally stoked on the three-piece we have because it just kills. Everybody sees the chemistry of the current lineup, and Ted Marcus has turned out to be a great drummer.
AVC: How did you meet Ted?
Curt: Ted just happened to be working on this documentary that we were doing as the audio guy. I was playing drums and wasn't liking it. Ted was like, "I've played drums since I was 8." It turns out Meat Puppets is one of his favorite bands since he was a high school kid and he brought his sticks along because he knew I didn't have a drummer yet. I think he had an ulterior motive.
AVC: Is it weird to meet people who grew up on your music?
Curt: It's always been weird to have people be into us, since I was a kid. We started getting really heavy kudos, like Kurt Loder giving Meat Puppets II four stars in Rolling Stone. No punk rockers were getting talked about like that. We were out on tour with Black Flag and they were like, "Holy shit, you guys are gonna get huge." I look at it like we were archaeologists, right? We know kind of where to look and we get to uncover certain ruins. We get to be the Louis Leakeys or Margaret Mead. We're in Samoa doing studies and come across something interesting and turn other people onto it. I don't look at like this is mine. That's why we called it Meat Puppets in the first place. Somebody else is pulling the strings.
AVC: So how much of yourself—your own personal dramas or tragedies—do you actually put in your songs? There are a few lyrics that definitely sound like they're directed at Cris, like "You've turned into a monster" from "Enemy Love Song."
Curt: That one is so not about him. It's about a friend of mine who had a nice, happy marriage, and then the next time I saw him he was living in his car smelling funny, smoking too many cigarettes and not bathing because his wife had thrown him out. There's more stuff that's addressing the illusions of relationships in general. What happened with Cris went on for a really long time, and by the time he got shot I had washed my hands of him. He was such a nasty junkie and he kept ripping me off. When he got shot it kind of jerked me around for a couple of months, but I hadn't seen him in so long. It had been like seven or eight years of consciously trying to rid myself of him. On the Eyes Adrift record there is a song called "Slow Race" that I wrote after his wife died, that's not just about him but people in love/hate relationships that are like, "'Til death to us part, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that you die first." [Laughs.] It's a slow race, a race to lose. It was definitely spawned from the fact that Michelle died first, and they had that kind of a relationship. I don't do that very often. I didn't go, "You know, that's bittersweet. I'm gonna write this song." It just came up.
AVC: How much of a role do you think his marriage played in what happened?
Curt: Oh, I don't think very much. I'll put it to you this way: I was in a relationship with someone who was also doing a lot of heroin, and it ended our relationship but it didn't drag me down. Nobody holds a gun to your head and says, "Put that shit in there." I point this out in show business all the time. People go, "So and so ripped me off." You can sign stuff, but nobody makes you. Same thing with relationships: You can walk away from that shit anytime you want. If you think it's fucking you up, you better. People get to the point where they're drowning and they try to take somebody with them. Cris is a lot like that. That's why I had to push off. Every time you got near him he'd try to take you down.
AVC: Cris, now that you're sober, is it hard for you to slip back into playing songs that drugs played a role in creating?
Cris: Well, heroin didn't really play any part in the older material. Some of the albums were definitely recorded under the influence, and I was a big pothead and I'm not now. But it was music first, and drugs were sort of the icing on the musical cake. [Laughs.] But no, I'm having a really good time. I'm able to lose myself in the way that I always was—and sometimes I would just add to that sense of wonder or retardation or whatever the fuck it was chemically—but I'm still able to without it. The music was always a pathway to the fucking strangeness. I would gussy it up with this or that, but the music is still the doorway to experience. Or brain damage.
AVC: So do you remember much about your past?
Cris: [Laughs.] Why, do I owe you money? I mean, I've never had that good a memory for some the details from our childhood. I could always rely on Curt way more for that. But definitely, I have a whole head full of memories. I certainly didn't escape from my self-abuse unscathed, but there's still some shit in there. If you ask me something specific I can see if I remember it!
AVC: OK.What do you remember about doing Nirvana Unplugged?
Cris: One of the things I specifically remember is that Bobcat Goldthwait came by one of the practices out in New Jersey, and he was going on The Tonight Show the next night and he wanted to do something outlandish. I told him to tip over Jay Leno's desk, and I think he ended up lighting the couch on fire or something fucking insane and it fucked his career up. I also remember one day we came out of the hotel and there were these kids who wanted an autograph and [Kurt] Cobain didn't want to do it—you know, "You don't need my autograph, that's not what the art is about"—and they poo-pooed him. So he spit on 'em. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you feel as though the pressures of signing to a major label played a part in the band's breaking up?
Curt: It was more that Kurt Cobain shot himself and was a heroin addict, because everybody looked up to him so much. It set a lot of people spinning in a weird way in the summer of '94 to where there was a lot of nihilism. We were all left to reckon with that darkness. I think it fucked [Cris] up. It was like, "We work hard, everybody blows sunshine up our asses and says we're so good and we're making money, but why isn't the hole in my soul repaired?" I think a lot of artists get involved in show business to try and patch something, like it's supposed to make them better by getting famous and earning a lot of money and having people kiss their ass. I think Cris took to it the most out of all of us. He liked to wear the little boas around his neck and sunglasses, and would have worn a top hat probably if Slash hadn't done it first. He played that game, and what are the attendants of fame? Bullshit and drugs.
Cris: Maybe I didn't handle it that well. More what happened is my mom got sick—but there's no excuse for it. I wasn't careful and I allowed drugs to take over. I'd always been someone who tended to excess. Then my wife passed away and that was that. That's not something that can be remedied in any way. I just let go and I was gone.
AVC: Cris, what do you remember about the incident in the Phoenix post office?
Cris: Everything in detail, most clearly. [Laughs.] I was wronged I tell you! No, it was fucking completely retarded. It, like everything that happened in the last decade and a half, was my fault. Other people played their parts—the pigs played their part, the security guard who shot me played his part—but I'm the one who allowed this shit to happen. My wife didn't have to die. I didn't have to wreck the band. I didn't have to get shot and go to prison, but I allowed it to happen. It was just the next fucking horror show—years and years of truly fucking awful shit. But yeah, okay, so I went to the post office to mail some crap. This lady got mad at me in the parking lot because I wanted her to back up and she wouldn't. Then she got out and yelled at me so I told her to fuck off. I was real fat, I didn't have any teeth—I was a mess, just an imposing, scary, dope-abuser. She got the security guard in my face. I tried to cool it off, it wasn't happening. I tried to leave, he followed me out saying shit, I told him to fuck off, he pushed me, I belted him, he whacked me with his stick, I took it away from him and hit him with it, pushed him again, turned around and tried to split, and he shot me in the back. That's what I remember.
AVC: How did you pass the time in prison?
Cris: For a long time I didn't do anything. He shot me right in the middle of my lower back and the bullet hit my spine. Fortunately, I was fat enough. I mean, it was a .357, which is a big fucking gun. I couldn't walk at all for quite a while. I was in a wheelchair and all I did was sit there and bemoan the fact that I'd destroyed myself after working so hard to put together a life that was really fucking bitching. Then when I finally started getting up out of the wheelchair, I realized I'd lost some weight because I was so sick from kicking junk and having a fucking bullet in my back, and being so overwhelmed by the fact that I was crippled and in fucking prison again. I decided maybe I could at least shake off some of the weight. I wound up on a fed yard with Jerry Posin, who was the drummer for Steppenwolf in the '80s. He lifted weights every day so we got into an exercise regimen. I learned how to play chess, and there was a music room on the yard and I ended up being the bass player in a couple of different bands. We did some jazz standards and some originals. It was actually pretty tolerable.
AVC: What was the turning point where you realized you wanted to stay clean?
Cris: I never wanted to do that to myself in the first place. It was the kind of thing that I let get out of hand. I knew going all the way back. I had friends die of fucking dope abuse. Hillel [Slovak] died from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and he was a fucking seriously sweet cat. Rob Graves from 45 Grave died. The drummer from The Feeders died. I knew better. Dope's been around forever and you can't fuck with that shit. But when Michelle passed away, I just didn't care. All I could do was fucking dope myself into oblivion to try to numb the horror. Once dope has taken everything that you loved, then all you have left is dope. It's a fucking ugly, awful, sordid tale. Being a junkie's a fucking drag. So it's like at least I don't have that motherfucking monkey. The maintenance of always having to score dope, the money it cost left me absolutely broke and fucking destitute. So at least I ain't struggling with that. I still wrecked my life, and I'm hollow and empty and regretful and all that kind of shit but too bad. At least I'm not fucking hustling for dope. Plus it keeps the pigs off your back. And then Curt called about a year and a half ago and it was magic for me to have my brother back in my life. To be somebody that my brother could tolerate at all or talk to—and then the idea of actually playing again? Son of a bitch.
AVC: How did that first conversation go?
Curt: It was just like picking up from before. It was the first time I'd talked to him pre-'95 that he wasn't on drugs. It was like the desperation was gone, the whole thing where I could just tell, "Oh, you're full of shit. You're fucking lying to me." I wouldn't have talked to him if my son and my buddy back in Phoenix hadn't told me, "Cris is fine." Everybody was like, "Cris is behaving again. He's his old self." Cris is definitely held to ideals. He doesn't get to party like the rest of us. He doesn't get to do whatever the fuck he wants anymore. He lost his privileges.
AVC: Is there still tension between you two?
Cris: Not a bit. I fucked everything up and I'm aware of that. From my side there's only regret and fucking sorrow and self-admonishment. I try to imagine watching Curt do to himself what I did to myself and I don't know how the fuck I could have dealt with it. I know he dealt with having to watch me self-destruct, so it was self-protection on his part. He's completely put that behind us. He's like, "The past is past, and if you're better now you're better." What there is is fucking ferocity. Me and him pounding away on wood and metal, with the inclusion of electricity.
AVC: So you're optimistic for the first time in a while?
Cris: It's so way beyond that. I'm like awash in the glow of the wonder of the resilience of the human spirit and the fucking mystery of existence. It's fucking sick.
AVC: Curt, do you feel as though Cris is still earning your trust?
Curt: He has my trust totally, but my trust only goes so far. I'm not blindly trusting. If somebody steps on my foot I'm gonna try to find out if they did it on purpose or not.
AVC: Are you concerned that going on tour will bring back some of those bad habits?
Cris: Not at all. I'm so strong in that way. I hate that shit. In this last [tour] I saw narcotics for the first time in years, and it was like, "No thank you!" It's just not a temptation. If I wanted dope I could get it in fucking five minutes. It's too fucking amazing to be back.
Curt: Before, we were the ones who didn't fuck up. We didn't get drug habits. We're back to that now. [Cris] can't go back to prison. And if he fucks up again, I won't drag myself through it again. I have no patience for any kind of bullshit. If he fucks with me it's done.
AVC: Cris, do you feel as though you're being watched closely?
Cris: I know I am—by my parole officer at least. [Laughs.] And Curt's certainly not looking to see me fuck up again. I'm sure he'd bail on me in a second if I in any way threatened his security. But I'm not keeping my shit together to please Curt or my p.o., I'm doing it because I want to. They watch me for their own sakes—the pigs need it because they're the pigs, and Curt needs it because he wants to make sure it's okay that he's working with me again. The further we get along, the more I'll show him he has nothing to worry about. I can't say "never," you know. I'm a once-proven ape. But I'm very secure at this point.
AVC: Is this a fresh start for the Meat Puppets?
Curt: Cris is back and he's figured it out. You know, he got shot. It's not small stuff for us. We're not hoodlums. He's a really smart guy who went to a prep school and shit. [Laughs.] It's like, "Wake up, asshole!" The only way I can do this is bury the hatchet, like the last 10 years didn't exist. But I wear my fear of junkie assholes on my sleeve now. I won't have that shit around me. I won't have violence around me. And if I have a problem with something I'm gonna have rights. I kept this ship afloat when he was getting fucked up and getting put in jail. I call the shots now. I have 12 more years experience than he does. In the past I had two partners and they could be like, "The fuck you say," but this time I'm like, "We're taking it into the rocks, boys" and nobody can say a thing. Get the fuck off if you don't like it. Cris isn't in any fucking position to be able to do it. He's been in prison and shit. He's playing really, really well, but he's like an oddity too. You take him down off the shelf and turn him on. [Laughs.]
AVC: Cris, does it bother you to be bossed around in a band where you used to be an equal partner?
Cris: Not at all. I wasn't really an equal partner. We started the band together, but it pretty quickly funneled down to Curt. He's such a prolific and profoundly talented, far out songwriter. I know who I am, and I accept myself. Nothing bothers me. I've been through the fucking wringer, man. To have survived and undergone the wonderland of shit that I made for myself, nothing can get to me now. My ego isn't being assuaged? Boo hoo. It's so fucking easy to let things go. I'm just really, really grateful to be back.