No Desert Jokes!

I meat puppets cover cropgot an EMI-funded trip across country to interview one of my favorite bands ever for this article. I also got hours of Cris being hilarious on tape, including some details of the arguments he and Curt had about which and how many of Cris’ songs would make the album. Details which, when I asked Curt about them, led Curt to say all kinds of uncharitable things about his brother’s songs. I returned home to an anxious message on my answering machine from the publicist who’d arranged the junket, telling me all those comments were off the record and I couldn’t use any. I’d already written a draft on the plane that didn’t include them, but I am immature enough that I briefly considered sticking them in just so no publicist would mistakenly assume she had any ability to dictate what I wrote. Also, Curt smoked joint after joint while I interviewed him, and never offered me any, which I thought was rather rude.

A small swarm of Polygram sales executives filters into the ballroom at the Dana Point Ritz Carlton. Anonymous flunkies have done their best to make this place look something like a music venue, but it still reeks of pre-fabricated class. Black drapes cover every wall, neon palm trees hang here and there. Every standard-issue banquet chair has been covered with a goofy floral slip cover and pointed toward the small stage. The DJ fades down “Baby I Love Your Way” as everybody’s boss tests a microphone. He tells a couple of golfing jokes, and then inexplicably tells the crowd to “get ready to rock” just before introducing Jude Cole.  The whole scene is frighteningly respectable.

Which means it’s as good a place as any to see the stupendous Meat Puppets, who have always been frightening, but just recently became respectable.

“There’s a feeling now that I get that we’re somewhat venerable,” guitarist Curt Kirkwood says, managing to sound both regal and bemused. If it seems loopy to consider this scruffy, desert-dwelling trio elder statesmen of punk, just try to name another band that’s been around for fifteen years, kept the same line up, and makes better records today than they did six years ago. The main question about the Meat Puppets isn’t how they got so successful, but what took them so fucking long. They had better chops and longer hair than metal bands in the eighties. They had a bigger base and a truer vision than the indie acts major labels began gobbling up in the early nineties. Whatever the reason for the delay, Cris, Curt and Derrick each have a gold record on their wall now, god bless ‘em.

“It’s just like a gamble,” bassist Cris Kirkwood explains. “We’re gonna take our little art project here and sell it to these business guys, see if we can still maintain our love for it, and you know, satisfy ourselves artistically and not gross ourselves out. And see if we can give them something that they want to try to sell. And it turned out we could.”

OK, in the grand scheme of ever-merging multi-national conglomerates, moving half a million units barely rates a pat on the back. Younger bands are selling more without selling out. And by now you’ve come up with at least one other band that’s been around for fifteen years with the same line up who were recently filling arenas near you, although their last few records pretty much blew. The fact that the Meat Puppets managed to convert 500,000 of your neighbors isn’t even a triumph for the lo-fi, DIY, corporate-magazines-still-suck brigade. But it is heartening for everybody who actually gets off on music.

And, of course, it makes the Meat Puppets pretty damn proud.

It’s sort of difficult to explain what’s so strange about Meat Puppets songs. Certainly, part of their little art project involves convincing us they inhabit an entirely different planet that just happens to overlap ours. Gifted illustrators, they dot their album covers and sleeves with deranged cartoons that look like a cubist Gray’s Anatomy: people with intestines for limbs and hearts for heads. They’ve spent years deflecting interviewers with spacey non-sequiturs.  But the actual songs are made up of perfectly recognizable elements.

The Meat Puppets sound like they’re influenced by everything they ever heard on a car radio when they were really fucked up in the ’70s. The fantastic thing is, they remember all that stuff better than it actually was. When you catch snippets of some band you’ve heard before, it always seems like the Meat Puppets landed there by accident, just by playing what came naturally.

They first dropped this journalist’s jaw a decade ago, on tour with SST label mates Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen. They played loud and fast like a punk band. They jumped around like maniacs. But it was as if Johnny had actually died when that guy hit him on the head with a sugar dispenser, and the Ramones hired Steve Miller to take his place.

“We didn’t like the attitude that punk stopped here,” Curt remembers. “Punk is fucking Jonathan Winters coming out of a cow’s ass. Punk is whatever I want it to be. It’s a surrealist term that is entirely mutatable, permeable, just has no meaning.”

Curt and company were doing their best to mutate punk that night.  Sometimes they used big fuzzy monster chords to set up an irresistible groove. Sometimes they used big fuzzy monster chords to form a bed for evil riffs. Sometimes they strummed gently and warbled liltingly. Usually they did all that in the space of two and a half minutes. Oh, sure, the Minutemen noodled and looked into it. But they seemed self-conscious and forced in comparison. The Meat Puppets just sounded so damn right.

The band has come to Dana Point to perform songs from their new disc, No Joke! This is both a perk and a prod for the sales folks. No Joke! happens to be kind of great, although we have no way of knowing whether that makes sales folk happy. “Scum,” the first single, strikes these ears as the type of song both record executives and actual music fans can get excited about. “The water that quit our thirst/Was not from earthly vineyards mined,” Curt sings (which is the best description of Meat Puppets music since he coined “ancient blocks of sound” on Mirage). The rhythm sucks you in while the screeching guitar drives you back, just like the best Meat Puppets songs. It’s got a groove and you can’t dance to it!

The Meat Puppets are the last of six acts this night, and the only one who don’t make a point of thanking all the bizzers for working the record or say how nice it was to meet them in between songs. Cris looks like a gremlin on stage. He sneers and twists his face up in such a disgusting manner that you know he’s forgotten anybody’s watching. (Really. He compares performing to the most private activities: “I think I would be embarrassed to watch videos of us. You feel music through your fucking body. It’s gross. It’s like, how do you look when you jerk off, or take a shit?”) They play seven new ones, but it seems like work. Then Curt calls out a song, drummer Derrick Bostrom shouts no, Curt plays it anyway. Maybe it’s because they’re angry, maybe it’s because they play every cover like they wrote it themselves: in the middle of “Mi Via Loca,” the group suddenly catches fire. You can feel the sunstroked crowd wake up. The band finishes with a stunning rendition of “Backwater,” otherwise known as the hit. This might be a job, but the Meat Puppets sure are good at it.

Curt meat puppets photoKirkwood is discussing his band’s history in a resort down the road from the Ritz Carlton the next day. He is surrounded by the accoutrements of rock stardom. These include: a Gold Mountain manager who, for some reason, meets the rock journalist at the elevator and escorts him the five steps to Mr. Kirkwood’s door; an attractive companion getting dressed in the bathroom; an impressive number of empty beer bottles; and a very large, very expensive-looking bag of weed on the nightstand. He’s not exactly Eddie Van Halen cavorting in Cabo San Lucas, but the scene does form a nice counterpoint to his tale of early-days-in-crappy-Phoenix-bar-bands.

“Cris would come with me to gigs, and I didn’t have a distortion box, I had a button on my amplifier, so he’d sit back there on my amp and pull the button up for leads. It was like, totally the fledgling musician trip for me, and he was just kind of watching.” One day the brothers and another friend got together with Derrick Bostrom. “We had a jam. We played ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Highway Child’ and ‘Anarchy in the UK.’ ‘My Girl.’ Just jamming around.

“Derrick was really interested in having his own little art-rock band. He was probably the more industry-astute or trend-astute person. He had designs on that. He knew that Cris and I could play. We were from the west side, where it’s more gutbucket sort of, and he was from the east side. So he was willing to risk the fact that all of his friends thought that we were dustheads.”

Derrick’s friends could be forgiven for thinking the Kirkwoods were dustheads after listening to Meat Puppets, the band’s eponymous 12″ EP. Listen to contemporary releases by Hüsker Dü and Black Flag and you’ll hear some potentially talented kids learning how to write songs.  Meat Puppets sounds like a couple of aliens trying to figure out how to communicate with goofy earthlings. “It was a concept album,” Curt says. “The idea was to take LSD and make the recording while we were tripping. We did, all three of us, for two days. We knew what we were gonna get.”

It didn’t take the band long to stop sounding like they were on drugs and start sounding like they’d become one. Meat Puppets II is alternately scary and beautiful, shocking and revelatory. It begins with what sounds like a hardcore song, then basically says, “That was simple. Now we’re gonna really blow your mind.” You could call it genre-busting, but that implies the Meat Puppets see walls between musical styles in the first place.

That other Kurt helped enshrine Meat Puppets II in the alternative nation hall of fame when he invited the brothers Kirkwood onto an MTV soundstage to sing three of its numbers for an Unplugged shoot ten years later. Which is just one of many reasons Curt-with-a-C is finally sitting in this hotel room today. “We had mistaken what the reception of our psychedelic endeavor would be, and it was mistaken for like hardcore punk. It more had a hard core, it wasn’t hardcore. So I wanted to have Meat Puppets II show some of our roots.”

Curt also started singing for real on II. “That was just a big experiment. I had no idea how to not just fly off the handle. I had to have Derrick sit there and flip me off the whole time.  Cause we were raging on Ecstasy.”

Narcotics certainly come up a lot when you talk to the Meat Puppets. “We would have friends over the years that weren’t in the band and were hooked into our sick magic,” Derrick recalls. “They had to like, completely leave us, leave town. We would just like, smoke a lot of pot. There were times when we were younger when we would spend all of our money on pot. You know, everything we had. And go, ‘Well, the rent will come.’ Some of our friends would find that nerve-racking.”

This wouldn’t be interesting if the Meat Puppets were simply talented players who were otherwise incoherent. But these guys should be NORML poster boys. Curt sings about light, time and eyeballs the same way Springsteen sings about factories, cars and working class Joes, and Curt still manages to make his obsessions more relevant to your life. If anybody else wrote a simple line like, “and the coloring/is changing/reflecting everything,” you’d think he was telling you how pretty New England is in autumn. But when Curt does it, you know he’s talking about from one minute to the next. That trick can be pulled off only by somebody who realizes you can see everything by keeping your mouth shut and staring at one spot long enough.

That’s easier to do, in the desert. “I think the desert has just colored us as people somewhat. You know, that and fistfuls of psychedelics,” Cris explains over coffee in the hotel restaurant. When he’s not cursing out the admittedly inept waiter, Cris talks about the Sonora Desert like he’s the head of it’s chamber of commerce. “You get a few cactus out in these other deserts, but you don’t have the diversity of cactus like you have in the Sonora. The Sonora desert’s flat-out gorgeous. Out there it’s like, everything’s dead. Except they’re not, there’s all these plants and they’re alive, but they’re nasty little things that if you touch them they’ll hurt you. They’ve got stickers on em, they’re leaves that developed into spines because they need to, because it’s the desert and everybody wants to eat them because it’s fucking nasty out here. That in itself is beautiful.”

Derrick,meat puppets inside who stopped getting stoned five years ago, is bored of all the desert talk. “Drag us out to the desert, drag us out to the desert, whatever. Get a picture of me standing next to a cactus. I think selling the Meat Puppets as a desert act is a wrong-headed move. If you thought we were from St. Louis or something, you wouldn’t have that idea, it’s just hype. Of course, we trade on that mountain wisdom, old as the hills sort of knowledge bullshit.”

Yeah, sometimes you get a clunker like, “All it took was a little understanding/Before I learned to move with the flame,” which sounds like advice the master gives to young Cricket. But it’s not all bullshit. Derrick’s recently been compiling interviews, art, lyrics and more from the band’s past on a web site (http://www.nando.net/music/gm/puppets/), so his current pragmatism could be a simple reaction to all the traces of a younger, hazier Bostrom he has to scan onto the server.

Of course, the very fact that he’s posting all that history for public consumption means he recognizes an audience beyond the one that just digs his groovy tunes. “There are people out there who are getting more out of it than your average rock and roll jollies,” he relents. “People who can connect really well with the wisdom that’s being displayed. I like an artist who can do that to me as well, so I don’t begrudge them. But I sure hate getting dragged out to the desert.”

After Meat Puppets II, the band released four and a half more albums for SST. They also toured so relentlessly that, “We decided to just buy an RV,” Cris says. “We worked out this thing where you’d go play the gig, and you’d leave that night, drive to a state park halfway between that town and the next gig. You’d wake up the next morning and it’s all nice out, spend the day in a park. Got the RV, so you’d sleep in that. It’s got a kitchen in it, you could have a little food and go for a nice hike.”

Conditions were less cozy at home. “The band has never really been that lucrative. But I was able to live off it, we just didn’t live that, you know, expansively. And then we were really poor, when I fucking decided just to stop working, only play music. We lived in dumps and shit, we’d just scrounge, scrounge. I don’t know how the fuck I got by. I used to deal a lot of pot.”

“We liked the life of touring, making money, splitting the money up, living on it. And when it was gone, make a record. Then go back out and do it again,” Derrick says. “And then that got old, the music started to suffer.”

By the time the band released their final SST album, the lackluster Monsters, the independent scene that had sustained them for almost a decade was withering away. “A lot of people were jumping ship on the independent market, which was our market. We watched that network fall apart. We stuck it out until it was gone. Because if everybody deserted it, it was gonna die, so we waited until it was a forgone conclusion rather than help kill it off.”

Well, that’s Derrick’s version. Curt remembers it a little differently: “There was never any interest in us until London signed us. We’d been trying since about ’85.”

It’s a good thing London signed them, too, since the band was in what Cris calls, “some bad financial straits.” Litigation-happy Greg Ginn sued the band for libel, although Cris can’t talk about that. Plus, “We forgot to pay our taxes again.” Curt claims he stiffed Uncle Sam on purpose, which is a ballsy move, considering how much pot he smokes. Personally, I always think the government’s after me when I get stoned. What if they actually were?

“They’re a fucking paper factory. I’m not afraid of them,” Curt says, unamused. “I knew I’d pay em back someday. I just looked at it as a loan.”

That loan amounted to tens of thousands of dollars, but Curt paid back all his taxes after “Backwater” hit. “And pre-paid!” he adds, now that he has accountants.

The Meat Puppets suddenly face the daunting task of maintaining financial as well as artistic success. Derrick acknowledges the label considers them, “a pretty high priority, so they’re treating us well. But there’s an implicit threat that failure will not be tolerated.” He also admits that,”if there’s really an actual market out there, then you kind of think in terms of what’s gonna be a good show. The audience changes, then the band changes, just a matter of course.”

The band hasn’t changed so much as focused. Forbidden Places, their London debut, sounded more Meat Puppetsish than Meat Puppets. Both Too High to Die and No Joke! showcase a reinvigorated trio. “Beyond any flexibility or anything else like that, creative-artist weird crap,” Curt says, “we have this band muscle that’s really the first thing that we ever had, and I’ve developed this respect for it again.”

Much credit for kicking them in the ass goes to Paul Leary, who produced both discs. “He loves the band, so he wants to hear what he’s always loved about it in the takes. Sometimes the Meat Puppets want to get a little bit too involved with tinkering around in the studio, or they’ll record something that they can’t hope to pull off on stage. Paul is from our realm, you know, he’s in the Butthole Surfers, he’s also in a psychedelic, over-the-top rock band. And he’s a guitarist, so he can appreciate ridiculous guitar playing and stuff.”

Not that No Joke! lacks surprises. There are a couple of mellow tracks, including the gorgeous, loping, “Predator,” and “Vampires,” which beats out last album’s “Shine” as the purdiest song the Puppets ever wrote. “Taste of the Sun” is ultra-poppy, and “Head” boasts that new must-have instrument for serious alternative rockers: a cello.

Then there’s “Cobbler,” a song Cris wrote and fought hard to get on the record. A straight ahead pop-punk number, it makes one think the Meat Puppets might have turned on that car radio recently. Does he suddenly feel pressure to keep up with the competition?

“I’m not really competing,” Cris insists. “If I am, they can have it. I’m fat, got a small dick, I’m a bad player, and I hate everything. So they’re gonna win.” Besides, Cris says he doesn’t listen to a lot of rock and roll. “But I watch MTV. I like that Coolio song. I’m down with it. All these guys wear their pants down around their ass. I’ve always done that. When will it be cool to start spilling food on yourself? That’s when I’m gonna be fucking riding the wave.”

Of the three Meat Puppets, Cris honestly seems the least concerned with his band’s new status. He doesn’t mind having to “spend a little more time, make a slightly more polished effort. They find it easier to reach more people if you just fucking sing in tune, these little things that take a little longer for us.” He has as much fun now, taking two months to make a record, as he did when it took two days. “I love being in the studio, all of it’s just totally music to me. Anything that has to do with any music, I don’t give a fuck, I could sit in there and make this shit, you know?” He waves his finger toward the ceiling, where invisible speakers spit out some cheesy dance tune. “I fucking love playing fucking music, man.”

He does, however, sense that the record company might be happy if they got even more polished. “I mean, we could really go all the way over, drop the Meat from the name, fire me and Derrick. Well, let’s not go too far guys. There’s something rustic and charming about them, isn’t there? Please? I can’t do anything else.”

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