The Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood
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Since brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood reunited in 2006, the Meat Puppets have sustained a hard-won second act to a career that seemed destined for ruin. Their story—part history lesson, part tragedy, part cautionary redemption tale—is at this point relatively well-known: After making a series of respected albums for independent label SST throughout the ’80s, the group enjoyed a mainstream turn in the post-Nevermind major-label grab-bagging of the early ’90s (helped in no small part by their famed guest spot on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged session), only to have Cris succumb to a debilitating heroin addiction that placed the band on indefinite hiatus by the end of the decade. While Curt kept busy between solo work and projects like Eyes Adrift and Volcano, Cris fell into further trouble after a scuffle with a post office security guard left him imprisoned and with a serious gunshot wound.
Now, with the release of last April’s Lollipop, a strong collection of power-pop songs that marks the third album in a row with both Kirkwood brothers at its core, the band appears to be in better spirits (and better health) than ever before. In advance of the band’s Nov. 11 stop at the Double Door, The A.V. Club spoke with Curt about the new album, the band’s history as outsiders in an insider-driven punk scene, and whether ’90s nostalgia is worth fussing over. (Spoiler: It’s not.)
The A.V. Club: You’ve said before that you see the Meat Puppets as being immune to passing trends in music. Have you been inspired by more recent artists lately?
Curt Kirkwood: Well, I’m always influenced by what’s trendy, for sure. I think we just don’t get caught up in them. We’ve been on the fringe of some of these things, whether it was Americana or funk-punk or alt-’90s-rock, but we were never really trendy. I don’t think I can help but be influenced by stuff, it’s just that we never figured it out, like, “Oh, this is what you’re supposed to do now, this is what makes you trendy.” I don’t know exactly why that is. When I’ve tried to go, “Okay, I want to make this album heavier, like stuff that’s heavy right now,” and I’m playing with all these heavy bands, like in the mid-’90s, a lot of the stuff was coming from metal and hard rock like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, even though it was kind of punk rock-based. It’s just kind of like making a purse out of a sow’s ear.
AVC: What about Lollipop? It’s got more of a power-pop sound.
CK: With this record, what was I influenced by? Musically, not much. [Laughs.] This time, I decided I wanted to make it more of an acoustic rock record for some reason. It turned out a little heavier than I thought it would, but I cut all the basic tracks on acoustic guitar, along with the drum set, and tried not to bury them. I’ve been doing a lot of shows with my acoustic guitar through my effects pedal, and it’s given it a way different slant, and given me a lot more dynamic range. I don’t really know if it really worked out on the record, it turned out sounding like a pop record to me. You have to work a little harder to make it just an acoustic record. It did turn out to be power-pop, which is why I called it Lollipop. This counts as, you know, “pop-candy” for us.
AVC: You’ve been reunited with Cris for about five years now. Have you had to keep an eye on him on tour to make sure he stays sober?
CK: No, no, I couldn’t do that. I’m not capable of keeping an eye on anybody. He’s done that all himself.
AVC: So you wouldn’t say it’s been a struggle for him to stay clean?
CK: Oh, no, he hasn’t struggled at all. I mean, he went through the ringer and he came out incapable of going back. Some people get that lucky break, and it’s pretty clear you can’t go back. He’s had the shit kicked out of him by the penal system and by drug abuse—just horrible crap—so he doesn’t have any desire. You couldn’t get him to hear the thought of it.
AVC: Is it cathartic at all having him back in the band?
CK: It’s just nice to have a good spin put on something that’s a bad story—that was an ongoing bad story. It’s just put a definite better twist on the whole thing. It wasn’t really cathartic; the catharsis is more like getting rid of him in my mind when he was a junkie, like you have to do—you have to shove off, that’s it. Any thought about it, any communication with a hardcore drug user becomes enabling. If they feel that there’s a positive conversation, they feel enabled, so I had to not talk to him for a real long time. That was cathartic. Having him come back was just more normal, and what I had expected him to do within a few months after I put the band on hiatus. I just didn’t expect it to take that long.
AVC: Was it a relief when it finally did happen?
CK: I wasn’t even looking for it, honestly, so I didn’t really have that, either. I was able to not talk to him about it. It was like, I can do this without a thought, I could do it just like no time passed, because I’ve been through so much emotionally and had worked through so much of it in my head already.
AVC: Given the mix of success and tragedy that followed you in the ’90s, do you have any mixed feelings about the major-label phase of your career?
CK: Not at all, it was fantastic. It was real productive for us and a real challenge to get out what we wanted and still satisfy the corporate needs and desires coming from the other side. I loved it.
I never really saw things as clearly as majors and indies, it’s just who has more money. They’re majors in terms of being, you know, well-heeled. At SST, you know, it was like, “Major labels suck!” Eh, what’s the difference? We’re all trying to hawk stuff, what makes you so much better? Because you don’t have money to hawk it, so you’re, what, a street vendor? There’s nobility there? Yeah right.
AVC: Having experienced both, do you prefer having more of a personal say in the whole process?
CK: Well, it’s that way anyway. I’ve never put out a record myself, it’s more like you make the record—which we always did on SST—and then license it to somebody. Like now, with [NYC-based independent label] Megaforce, they just give me a budget and let me go at it the way I did with SST pretty much, or how we did with Eyes Adrift. You just become the producer. With the majors, it was like, “You need to have a hit.” The profit is the thing, success is the thing. With the indies it’s not upfront, it’s not the main goal, and yet somewhere inside it probably is. It’d be great to have it break out, and we wouldn’t have to toil away at all these mom-and-pops and all that stuff. It was a venue to do this sort of stuff without having to strive for something to get on the radio.
AVC: So would you say it’s better to make music without those kinds of goals?
CK: I’ve always kept that, kind of no matter what. As soon as you start trying to do something, it’s harder for it to come out. You have to let it be what it is. I’ve never been one of those “knows what it’s supposed to sound like to get on the radio”-type people. Trying to do something usually fucks me up. I’ve got to be careful not to embarrass myself. [Laughs.]
AVC: There’s been a lot of ’90s nostalgia in music recently, including Nevermind’s 20th anniversary this year and bands like Pavement and Dinosaur Jr. reuniting a couple years back. What effect has that had on you?
CK: I think this is just the time that bands do that. And it just so happened that Cris got out of prison at right about that time to where we could come back up again, too, and be another ’90s band during that. [Laughs.] But I mean we’re not a ’90s band, we were doing it 10 years before the ’90s ever started. We’re an ’80s band! But I don’t think we’ve fit into any of it exactly, it’s always been an anomaly for some reason.
AVC: Do you share in any of that nostalgia?
CK: No. It wasn’t that long ago, and it wasn’t that fucking great, either! [Laughs.] So-called punk-rock bands become famous? I don’t know, I didn’t see anything that looked too much like the punk rock that came 10 years before that when it was hardcore. I would say The Offspring and Green Day kind of sounded like punk rock, but it seemed like a creative anachronism by that point. It was alternative to a degree because it wasn’t Bon Jovi or whatever, but it wasn’t that far out, either.
I think Nirvana was a really exciting band and really interesting, for instance, and it’s still fairly vibrant, so it’s not really anything you have to be nostalgic for. It’s kind of unique. Also, that’s just me—I’m not nostalgic, I’m not very sentimental. I don’t like to look back that much; I only do it if I have to.
AVC: Are you disappointed with what happened to punk in the ’90s, it being rebranded and repackaged as “alternative rock”?
CK: No, not at all. I didn’t really have an affinity for that scene anyway. We got lumped in there because we were doing shows with Black Flag and Fear and the Circle Jerks—the list goes on, Dead Kennedys, all the cool punk bands. We played with the ones that we liked. We were really lucky. I mean, at the time we put out Meat Puppets II, for instance, George Jones was my favorite singer. I think he’s the greatest singer ever. I’ve thought that since I was very young, and I have just as much love for something like that. I tend to view things as being a little more timeless and singular.
The scene itself didn’t thrill me. Although I really liked the music, I thought slam-dancing was obnoxious. I got sued a couple of times from people getting hurt at our shows. I never tried to provoke people to hurt each other, or any kind of audience reaction like that. I’m just there to play music. I’m not there to have the audience put on a show for me, which is what slam-dancing seemed like. The actual scene, all the participants and all that stuff, that’s the nostalgia. I still get a kick out of it.
AVC: A lot of those ’80s bands have been getting a lot of attention lately, in part because of Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life. Have you guys been swept up in that, or do you see yourselves as separate from some of those groups looking back?
CK: I haven’t read it, but I know that we’re not really in it, and it makes sense to me that we’re not. We were never as boys-club as the rest of the people at SST, for instance. There’s a bit of an arm-wresting, fake, World Wrestling Federation-type camaraderie there, and we were more straight fucking weirdos, you know? We didn’t fit in at all! And we made sure of that, because I’m not way into male bonding and I’m not way into being involved in some sort of club. I loved N.W.A when they came out because it was like, “Oh these guys are as cloistered as we are, they’re in their own fucking world. Totally, I get it.” You couldn’t say they were like other rappers—no way. What made N.W.A funny and good and cool was their non-habitual approach to the whole thing. And yet musically, too, you had Dr. Dre in there being as cool as Todd Rundgren.
I never felt like those bands were just like us. These guys were all my friends—I loved the Minutemen, you know, they were my good buddies. But even back then, when we put out Up On The Sun, everyone at SST was like, “Holy shit!” And I was like, “Yeah, I want it to be like Prince and Duran Duran,” you know? Everything else sounds like it has to be fast and loud; it has to be aggressive. Even musically, we were set apart from the rest of the bands in that book. We could play real fast, and that’s probably why the other punk bands liked us. We just weren’t that aggressive, we weren’t that pissed off. I mean, we were more than pissed off—it was psychosis full-bloom—but it was just beyond emotion. I always loved REM for that reason. I think it was Derrick who used to say, “We’re not hardcore, but we’ve got a hard core.” As for the book, people wonder like, “Oh you got left out of that whole thing.” But I don’t know, we were kind of left out of it when it was happening. [Laughs.]
AVC: Have your feelings toward SST changed over the years?
CK: I’ve always had really good feelings about it. I look at SST and Greg Ginn as being as big a catalyst for us as the Nirvana thing—it’s where we got our toehold. Opening for Black Flag is what turned Kurt Cobain onto us, for instance, which was one of his first rock shows, if not his first rock show. Those guys always gave us these opportunities and made it to where it was like completely our own. It gave us the freedom to do that and just put out whatever we did without a word. That was the unspoken thing: You have to do what you want. Those were great times.
AVC: With major labels being less of a factor nowadays, do you see it going back to how it was done in the ’80s, at least from the artists’ perspective?
CK: Well, we’re doing it like we did in the ‘80s. We’re in a van, we have one person who helps us set the gear up and sells T-shirts, and we take care of everything else. That’s how we always did it. When we had endowments from the majors in the ’90s, they’d front you the money to take a bus every now and then, maybe hire some more people to make it run a little tighter that way. But it’s definitely back to where we make the majority of our income off of touring. It’s a little different for us than the ’80s, because those years of sweat equity have sort of built up. In terms of generating income though, being a band, it’s like, what do we do? We go on tour.
You can’t explain what the ’80s was like to people. That scene had started to become pretty marginalized by like ’85, when Hüsker Dü got signed to Warner Bros. The early ’80s was free of that kind of aspiration—at least overt aspiration—toward success. It wasn’t just about partying or anything, it was just very, “We’re into our bands.” The band itself was a lifestyle. The opportunity to do that started going away once major labels started sniffing around, and that gets everybody thinking about money and fame.
It wasn’t a big scene, but it was nationwide. We got this roadhouse experience and it became kind of a grind, like, “Here’s your tour, here are the promoters”—more traditional music business. The heyday of punk rock was pretty obviously over, because it wasn’t just the style of music, it was how it was getting done, too.
AVC: Few punk bands can claim to have been around for 30 years. Did you expect the Meat Puppets to last this long?
CK: Well, yeah, it was my avocation, I knew it was something that I was going to do. I didn’t consider myself a punk rocker. I loved Neil Young and made it clear on Meat Puppets II, along with my love of Hank Williams and George Jones, all that stuff, the sounds of the pioneers—Grateful Dead, you name it. All the stuff that I love is always in there. I just always felt like it was my calling.
AVC: Is there anything you hope people remember about the Meat Puppets?
CK: Oh, I don’t know. It’s left on the discs—that’s the way I look at it. It’s the music, whatever it means to them. I don’t give a shit what people think about me, you know?