True rock ‘n’ roll survivors, the Meat Puppets are back once again with a new album
Back in the early ‘80s, there were probably few who would have given the Meat Puppets a shot at leaving a lasting mark on the rock ‘n’ roll world. The Phoenix, Ariz., trio centering around brothers Cris (bass, vocals) and Curt (guitar, vocals) Kirkwood began making off-the-wall, nasty punk rock that became progressively more psychedelic as time went on. The group quickly became a staple of the underground scene, but it wasn’t until the mid-’90s, and a guest spot with Nirvana on their ballyhooed performance on MTV’s Unplugged, that the Meat Puppets entered into mainstream consciousness. Through it all, they encountered many of the same pitfalls of their peers—drugs, incarceration, breakups—but unlike many others, they managed to endure and are still together, more or less in one piece. In April 2013, the band released their 14th full-length studio album, Rat Farm, more than 33 years after they formed.
The trio, which now consists of the brothers Kirkwood with Shandon Sahm on drums, recorded their latest effort in Curt’s hometown of Austin, Texas, at Yellow Dog Studios with engineer Dave Percefull, who’d worked at famed London recording studio Abbey Road in the past. Cris says that Rat Farm’s warm sound is, in part, a function of Percefull’s experience working at Abbey Road.
“He’s way into the sound of Abbey Road Studios, so he engineered the room to have similar acoustic qualities as Abbey Road,” he says of the engineer’s influence on the album. “That plays a part in the records, definitely.”
Rat Farm is a harrowingly spare album, probably the Meat Puppets’ most complete effort in years. Simple chord progressions are paired with haunting melodies, resulting in a mature, cohesive and decidedly rocking collection of songs that fit nicely in the band’s extensive catalog.
The band is currently on the road promoting Rat Farm; while traveling between Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, Cris Kirkwood took some time to speak to Submerge about where the Meat Puppets are now musically, and how the band has become a real family enterprise with Curt’s son Elmo Kirkwood joining the Meat Puppets as a touring guitar player. He also attempted to decipher the elusive, mysterious quality of the band’s music.
How was the show last night?
It was fucking rocking. It was really fun.
Do you guys still really enjoy antagonizing the audience?
I would have to say yes. What else are they good for? If not directly, verbally, at least with our music, it’s always been one of our goals to make people feel if not flat-out nauseous, at least somewhat dyspeptic.
Is that something you get a big kick out of? Riling up a crowd?
Not really. I’m about as quiet as a church mouse on stage. Curt is good at that interaction—the repartee. We don’t play in that big of a room, so it’s a conversational sort of a thing.
The band has come such a long way since it’s been around for more than 30 years. Do you ever think, “Wow, I can’t believe where we started and where we ended up”?
Oh sure. Where we’re at right now, and how long it’s taken to get here, it’s been a pretty natural progression. We got into a cycle where Curt would be coming up with whole new albums of material. After we’d make a record, we’d go out and play a bunch and sit around and the next thing you knew, we’d have another record’s worth of material to learn and make. That would move along another year or year and a half—some years saw several records come out—and in that, the years just ticked off and took care of themselves like time will do. While you’re doing that, you’re growing, you’re moving through the process. It’s not like you’re going, “OK, now we’re in this place in our careers and soon we’ll be in that place.” The perspective from now is definitely unique enough and it’s informed by how long ago some of that stuff took place. It’s shocking as fuck to me that I could look back on those times and go back to a particular age and go back to who we were as people and artists and players at that point. Each one of them, it’s pretty wild the body of work that we did.
When we were younger, it was an intentional thing to not dress up like punk rockers or any other type of thing. It was so much about the music and letting the guitars do the talking for us. In doing that, we set ourselves up to be able to do it longer than one particular fashion trend. We were conscious of skewing the songs so they weren’t so time-period specific so they could continue to live as well through the years. In that, we were set up, but we intentionally made the band and the ideas something we could continue to grow.
Still, to get to this point, you talk about being old farts and playing together when you’re a kid, but at 20, my mid-50s seemed a hell of a long way off, but here I am, and here we are. Being at that place is unique, it’s novel. The only way to get to this place is by playing together for as long as we have. We certainly have that element to it.
When you started out, and considering everything that’s happened in your career, did you ever think you’d still be playing when you were 50 as a member of the Meat Puppets?
Definitely. There’s never been anything else I really wanted to do. This is what we’ve applied ourselves to…
It’s not like you can step outside of the wheel of aging and time. Years ago, I felt old in my mid-20s; the sensation of time passing and the inevitability of our brief existence. It’s not like anything new, that I’m suddenly going, “Hey, I’m older.” I’ve been older for a while.
The warm sound of the record is the first thing that jumped out at me about Rat Farm, that it’s just a good, straightforward rock album.
The straightforwardness of the thing, Curt’s always doing that as an artist. He’s a minimalist in a way. Part of the dynamic of the band is I’m sort of a noodle-meister. I’m always asking him if I can stick in some complicated, goofball parts where you’re wiggling your fingers around more. But that’s not what he’s on about. It’s not about the actual form, it’s way more the people who are doing it and the mystery behind it all. It’s the question of not presuming to know what’s good or not, and he’ll go for less and less and less…
Rather than trying to force the music, it allows the music to be there itself. We’ve always been about more of something you really couldn’t put your finger on. The magic is inherent in it; the mystery is inherent in it—that elusive quality. That’s just what the Meat Puppets implies, the name of the band even.
That elusive quality, is it something you know when you hear it? Do you know what you’re striving for, or is it the striving for it that’s more important?
I think that particular elusiveness is inherent in and of itself. It’s down to the people who are doing it—it’s me and Curt doing it for this long. It’s going to come out as our music, and it’s going to be imbued with the ideas that we have. There’s just going to be something mysterious about it because life is mysterious. People turn to religion to try to answer the big-dollar questions, and we just go to the art and let the art exist on its own and aren’t judgmental about it beyond the actual making of it. It exists in a realm of mystery—as does fucking everything. Good God! Go outside some night and look up. You tell me.
One of the other bitching things about music—live music in particular—is some shows, you just come off the stage like, “That was a goddamn Silver Surfer expedition to the outer reaches of the cosmos…” And why that particular night? What’s it down to? The shows will be fine. We’ll make it through the shows, but sometimes they really fucking sparkle.
For Rat Farm, you said you got the lyrics handwritten without seeing them prior. Did the meaning of them have time to sink in or is that something that occurs to you later?
It would be both. I’ve had enough experience of playing songs that I’ve played a lot of fucking times…plenty of fucking times, and suddenly I’ll actually have the lyric come through to me, and that’s novel. I get a kick out of that. I’m Curt’s biggest and oldest fan, and his most devoted, long-lasting supporter. I think he’s fucking great. He’s a really good composer on par with anyone at this point. I mean, he’s my brother. But it’s incredible how often, for my tastes, he manages to write stuff that’s not hard to sing. He doesn’t write stuff that I have to get around, like, “I don’t feel that way,” or, “I don’t want to say that.” “That’s too corny,” or “that’s about your relationship or something.” He gets it out to a level where it’s fairly applicable. He writes from a particular place, and he’s so good at making his lyrics about things but making them evocative enough so that they can be interpreted in your own way.
You said it’s been a natural progression for you guys over the years. What’s your sense of where the band is now with Rat Farm?
Rat Farm will have to sit a while for me to get a sense of it… I mean, a sense of it is already there. Once the album cover is on the thing and the name is on it, it’s taken its place in the pantheon, but it’s more of a question of where the band is right now. That’s what I’m conscious of at this point. How am I? How is my body holding up? Am I in or out of fucking prison? I’m currently out and have been for a long time [laughs].
It must be really cool to have your nephew touring with you as part of the band. The Meat Puppets are really a family affair.
It’s a total fucking mindbender. Elmo has a twin sister Katherine. We all used to live together. The kids were born in 1983, so the band was well along and playing together for a while. We’d been out on the road and made records. It was a pretty loopy-doopy sort of scene, as you could imagine—a bunch of desert rats, stoner, ne’er-do-wells. It was an interesting scene that he was born into. Now all these years later he’s playing with us, which is very cool. Ultimately, he’s a good enough guitar player to play with Curt and I, because we’ve done it for a while.
He’s going to be 30 this month… God damn. This band is absolutely a fucking trip. That’s for sure.
See the Meat Puppets live in Sacramento with openers The Word Takes (with DJ Bonebreak from the band X) at Harlow’s on Nov. 13, 2013. The show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased through Harlows.com.