Few bands active today can claim to have seen or done as much as the Meat Puppets. As one of the original SST bands, they were among the more notable groups in the explosion of independent rock in the early ’80s. A decade later, they found themselves caught up in the alternative rock movement, with guitarist Curt Kirkwood and bassist Cris Kirkwood appearing on stage with Kurt Cobain and company for Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set and the band’s Too High To Die scoring mainstream success.
After a tumultuous period spanning the late ’90s and the early part of this decade, the Meat Puppets are once again in full swing. In May, the band released Sewn Together, its 12th LP. The record sounds like a classic Meat Puppets album, as the band’s country and Southwestern influences freely intermingle with shards of the punk that have always driven the trio. While the frantic, breakneck edge that distinguished the group’s initial efforts may have mellowed with age, Sewn Together is packed with familiar Meat Puppets sounds that make for an engaging listen.
Live, the band continues to deliver. With drummer Ted Marcus, who has been with the group since 2006, rounding out the line-up, the Kirkwood brothers and fans young and old all seem to have a blast taking a trip through the band’s catalog. The verdict is pretty clear: almost 30 years into its existence, the Meat Puppets are still a vital act. I caught up with Curt Kirkwood during the band’s ongoing tour to talk about the group’s recent activity and to learn a bit more about what keeps the Meat Puppets going.
The new record has a relaxed and sort of nicely well-worn feel to it. Was that something you were aiming for?
Curt Kirkwood: We didn’t really aim for that, no. It was more just the same thing we always do: just try to record the songs. We’ve never been real good with having a vision. We just kind of wind up with what we do.
How has your songwriting process changed over the years?
CK: I think I’m a little more attentive to the vocals and the lyrics. But honestly, I don’t want to sound blase, but it’s really about the same there, too. I watch TV and play the guitar and just write stuff. I’m really not very disciplined. So once I’ve got some riffs together, I’ll finish it up and put lyrics to it.
So it’s not like I sit down and do it, or anything like that. I think it’s a product of being lazy more than anything really, just sitting around doing nothing.
So it’s more of an intuitive process, then?
CK: Yeah. It’s just a product of having fun with the guitar. I have written songs where I go, “I’m going to sit there and write now.” But I’ve never really learned the discipline of composition, and I don’t really know that much about music, so I’m at the mercy of whatever comes up.
Is there any record or period of time in the band’s history that you consider as the high point or peak, or do you think that’s still yet to come?
CK: There’s been plenty of high points. I don’t know if there’s any cycle to it—there’s just been plenty of things I thought were exciting. Right now is a pretty exciting time, and I feel like we’re having fun and the shows are a lot of fun. We like the album.
Seeing you on stage in Columbus the other night, it does come across that you’re having fun. Do you feel reinvigorated in a sense?
CK: I’ve always loved to play. The audience is really what does it. I can’t bring too much if it’s not there already. I’m not really like that—I’m not a good MC. I’m not a cheerleader. I really count on it just being there latently, and it gets tapped somehow.
The other night was one of those nights where everybody was having a good time. At that point, everybody’s kind of in the same boat. And that’s another thing that’s always been there—I’ve seen it from when I was a kid going to concerts, just how the separation kind of comes down in terms of the energy that’s happening in there. The person on the stage is a purveyor of the goods, but really you can’t tell what it is. So my concert experience involves playing, but on a really good night like that there’s a good amount of listening that I’m doing, too.
How does touring now compare to the way it was 25 years ago?
CK: There’s a bit more traffic on the highway. It seems like there’s a lot more bands than there used to be, too. But on the other hand, people have had their ears opened a little more to some of the stuff, probably because of the internet and the easy access to different styles. So you really find that people are more open by and large. The feeling I get is that people are more tolerant to some of the weird stuff that we used to like to do. Sometimes the audience would be like, “Oh, this is too strange,” and it felt as though we were alienating people. But now we don’t get that feeling much anymore, and I get the feeling it’s from the change in the mainstream things, starting with the alt-rock thing with some of those bands, and then going on through stuff like Eminem. I’m in Detroit right now, so I’m thinking Eminem. That was kind of groundbreaking, ’cause you’ve got this guy who is just saying this horrid stuff and little seven or eight year-old girls are learning it. I mean I liked it and I thought it was fun, but I think the magic was that they were able to get across to kids, too, with stuff that’s pretty cool. It’s also stuff like Korn that’s just a little odd for the mainstream when we started out that seems to have really made a difference in the general audience.
You just can’t account for a lot of stuff, and I don’t really try. That’s the feeling I’ve gotten, though. People are really, really nice these days. They’re really open-minded, and whether we play some punk rock or whatever, they’re in to it.
What kind of stuff have you been listening to lately?
CK: I like some of the Sublime Frequencies stuff. I like foreign music. I like things that I can’t understand lyrically. They have a thing called Radio Algeria that I like a lot. Guitars of the Golden Triangle—there’s a straight-up Burmese one, Myanmar stuff, it’s called Princess Nicotine, that’s really good. I also like Bill Monroe a lot. I like the Louvain Brothers. I like George Jones. I like just regular country stuff from the old days. I still like Roky Erickson a lot, I listen to that. I like the Beatles—my girlfriend listens to them a lot. She’s young and she’s discovering a lot of little stuff. So when I tell her, “Hey, you should check this out,” she’ll get it up and I’ll rehear it again, so it’s fun for both of us.
How has living in the Southwest shaped your music?
CK: Definitely with plenty of Hispanic influence, being close to Mexico there. We spent a lot of time in Mexico, so it’s a good rhythm from the Mariachi stuff and just the straightness of that stuff. The harmonies always impressed me.
There’s not a lot of music going on down there, really, so we also got influenced by our friends who were doing punk rock. Also, just the desert itself, visually, is a beautiful influence, and definitely a lot of fun if you can get that kind of thing and really feel it. We always did, and it seemed to have its own sort of charm that we could try to put a little bit in to the music.
You guys have been around for almost 30 years now. Can you see yourselves continuing to record and perform actively for as long as the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan?
CK: I can’t see myself at all anyway. I really don’t think about myself very much like that. I don’t think about the years. I think the band is about as strong as it’s ever been, anyway. In a lot of ways, we just don’t have the same mayhem going on, and that’s about as much as we’ve matured. It feels really good for now. I just don’t think about it. It’s kind of strange, but I don’t. Nothing lasts forever, but I’m definitely not opposed to keeping playing right now.
It’s still looking back, but do you have any thoughts on where you guys fit in the legacy of rock?
CK: Yeah, it’s been interesting to see how we’ve always been pretty good and we’ve just watched trends come and go. I think we’ve always been kind of amused that we’re involved in it at all, ’cause in a lot of ways getting attention is horseshit in terms of what the basic motivation is for it a lot of times. We were always happy to make a living, and I find it kind of embarrassing to have anything more than that made of it a lot of times. Having people point you out and stuff, that was just never my favorite thing. I don’t know that I’m shy, but I just like to stay to myself, and then as soon as that happens you get painted as that.
It’s good and bad. It’s good because it’s fun to defy what people think you are, and arts is one of the places you can do that, ’cause it’s not about your face so much. Some people make it that way, but it’s really not—you can take it any way you want it. So you get all this attention, and you get to go, “Nope. Wrong. Yeah, you thought I was that. Nope, I’m not.” And it’s not like you’re just being snotty, you really are doing that if your sneaking about it and you can stay on top of it and go, “This is what I am today.” Not to seem evasive or anything, but that’s what the arts is about, and then people can figure out some new aspect. It keeps it in some way from being like, surrounded by these characters—people are characters, and images are images, and this is this and that’s that. It’s fun to be able to kind of twist that stuff.