Curt Kirkwood, Meat Puppets | Interview

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Words: Alex Manford

Photo:  Jaime Butler 

‘Every night was like a whirlwind of great noise…’

The date is November 18, 1993. Two dudes named Curt (although spelled differently) are strolling from their dressing room in the depths of New York City’s Sony Studios towards a sound stage where a hushed, expectant audience and a gaggle of MTV cameras excitedly await their entrance. Armed with nothing more than a couple of acoustic guitars, the pair are about to make music history . . .

Curt: “Y’know, I used to pull the chewing gum off the bottoms of tables when i was a toddler. I was allowed to roam around in restaurants where my parents took me. The array of different colours in the gum was the most fascinating thing in the world to me at that time.”

Kurt: “You’re weird.”

Curt: “. . . That’s the pot calling the kettle black.”

Curt had a point: by 1993, Kurt Cobain (for it is he) was already the figurehead for a music scene that had turned weird kids like J. Mascis and Layne Staley into rock heroes. Cobain’s own influence had not only inspired the kids of George H.W. Bush’s America to start bands, but also to pester record store clerks about the DIY band t-shirts they had seen him wear in photos, featuring obscure underground acts like Flipper and Daniel Johnston.

Kurt’s choice of guest to accompany him at Sony Studios that day, for the recording of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York album, was his latest gambit to bring the cultural mainstream face-to-face with musical heroes of his youth. MTV’s executives were not impressed: they wanted Eddie Vedder, Tori Amos or another A-List star guaranteed to big ratings for their next Unplugged show. Instead, Cobain had brought Curt and Cris Kirkwood, a little-known singer and his kid brother bassist from an obscure Arizona band called the Meat Puppets.

Within just six months, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York would be seized as a mournful epitaph in the wake of Kurt’s suicide. The album is still Nirvana’s biggest-selling posthumous release, went five-times platinum by 1997 and even won a Grammy. It’s place is now firmly established in the rock canon yet, even in 2013, most people who have heard MTV Unplugged in New York still know very little about the Meat Puppets, three of whose songs appear on the album’s track list.

They have some catching up to do. This year marks the release of Meat Puppets 15th LP, Rat Farm, which tones down the psychedelic and progressive weirdness of the band’s classic albums – 1984’s seminal Meat Puppets II and 1985’s Up On The Sun. The album showcases the 33-year-old group in a countrified, laid-back and gently psychedelic mood that is somewhat reminiscent of the ‘Godfather of Grunge’ himself, Neil Young. Rat Farm’s supporting tour brings the Meat Puppets to Bristol’s Fleece on June 2 – giving Fear of Fiction a perfect opportunity to quiz Curt Kirkwood.

“It was just the way the songs came out this time, maybe from just sitting around drinking beer and daydreaming. I try not to put too much thought into it,” says Curt of Rat Farm’s stripped-down approach. “I’ve never been able to control what I come up with and make it pleasing to myself, it just sounds contrived. At the end of the day, I’m just left with what comes up.”

What comes up in Rat Farm is the latest chapter in an incredible rock survival story marred by missed opportunities, band splits, drug additions, and even a shooting and prison sentence. Yet the real crux of Meat Puppets’ legacy remains their classic recordings, such as 1984’s Meat Puppets II and 1985’s Up On The Sun (and, yes, MTV Unplugged in New York hasn’t hurt them either). The band has performed both legendary albums in their entirety at ATP festivals, although Curt claims to feel unburdened by their legacy: “I don’t compete with myself. It’s impossible to recreate the mood of the past for me.”

The Meat Puppets’ past began during January 1980 in Phoenix, Arizona. The early Pups played fast ‘n’ loud, and became well-established in the US hardcore scene before signing to guitarist Greg Ginn’s venerated SST label. Led by Ginn’s own Black Flag, and driven by that group’s devotion to extensive touring and crashing on fans’ floors, the hardcore scene spread like a virus through the veins of Reagan-era America’s subjugated youth – everywhere from Washington D.C. and California to New York and Boston.

“We toured for eight weeks with Black Flag once at the time Meat Puppets II was released,” remembers Curt. “We did quite a few tours with them and a tour of California once with Hüsker Dü, Minutemen and Saccharine Trust. Every night was like a whirlwind of great noise. A few times, Greg Ginn would hand me his guitar at the end of the set and I’d play ‘Louie Louie’ with the band; totally insane for me as I was a huge fan.”

America’s hardcore scene was a brutal, angry and primitive – but the anger soon began to eat away at itself as gigs became increasingly violent and the music itself ever-more formulaic. Something had to change, which saw the scene’s leaders become its innovators. Black Flag alienated their audiences by slowing their music to a Black Sabbath-like sludge; Saccharine Trust made an improbable detour into free jazz; and Meat Puppets released Meat Puppets II.

“I had already recorded a few harder, faster, dirtier things,” recalls Curt. “We had always played many different styles from the time we started [but] I thought it would be fun to record them and get a little distance from the mosh pit.”

Today, as in 1984, Meat Puppets II remains a totally unique record. It was also the group’s defining moment. Critics were so taken about by the LP’s eccentric blending of Hendrix and the Byrds with weird prog and psychedelia that they invented a new term to describe it, ‘Cow Punk’.

“I don’t mind the term,” says  Curt, “though I’m not sure it really described that record. Meat Puppets II was just pulling out more of my seminal influences: Hank Williams or George Jones, Abbey Road, Led Zeppelin – and we wouldn’t be the band we are without the Grateful Dead.”

The influence of San Franciscan hippie legends The Grateful Dead on the Meat Puppets can be interpreted beyond the former’s famously eclectic, expressive and unique sounds. The Grateful Dead were also survivors in the face of tragedy – and Curt and Cris Kirkwood have learned a thing or two about tragedy in their 33 years as Meat Puppets.

Meat Puppets II brought both critical plaudits and success; a hit video on MTV, a gold certified album, big tours including with the Stone Temple Pilots, and the promise of a successful future. Yet, like many of their grunge-era peers, the Meat Puppets were steadily working their way through a litany of drugs from cocaine and LSD to heroin. Addictions began to take hold which culminated in Cris leaving the band and eventually losing his wife to an overdose in the late-1990s.

More tragedy came in December 2003 when Cris was arrested for attacking a security guard outside Pheonix’s main post office – with the guard’s own baton. The victim reached for his other weapon, a gun, before shooting Cris twice in the stomach. Major surgery followed and then a spell in Arizona’s state jail (the bassist’s other previous drug arrests and probation violations were also taken into account). Cris was eventually released in 2005 and, by the time he rejoined Meat Puppets on bass in 2007, he had been away from the group for 11 years.

The Meat Puppets have been together ever since, and Curt is philosophical about the band’s perseverance: “We  just love doing it. None of us has ever had another job, and I don’t think we’d know what to do with ourselves in any other case. We’ve also been very lucky in my opinion – it’s a very cool gig!”

The group’s luck shows no signs of running out. Just as Kurt Cobain’s DIY t-shirts once influenced his young fans, his musical tastes today inspire ATP festival lineups (and the wish lists of Bristol’s gig promoters). Cobain-favourites like Melvins, the Raincoats, Flipper, Daniel Johnston and the Vaselines have all made regular appearances.

“There’s not been anyone else like him, as is the case with iconic artists” muses Curt when asked about Cobain’s continuing legacy. “I think he transcended any genre, much in the way I’ve always felt that George Jones or Hank Williams were more than just country artists. He was simply a very unique spirit; a one of a kind artist, which is pretty rare.”

Naturally, Meat Puppets have also been warmly embraced by the ATP generation. They performed Meat Puppets II in its entirety ATP’s 2008 New York festival. Later, in May 2011, Animal Collective invited the band to give a spirited and soulful rendition of On The Sun at Camber Sands.

Yet, despite the Meat Puppets’ longevity, accolades and resilience in the face of adversity, one of Curt’s fondest memories remains the chewing gum anecdote he once shared with Kurt Cobain all those years ago in New York. “We had a chuckle. It’s always been a fond moment of levity with a person I greatly respected.”

Rat Farm by the Meat Puppets is out now on Megaforce Records.