Meat Puppets: Out Of The Weeds

By: Dennis Cook

Meat Puppets
Not many bands formed in 1980 are still around, let alone putting out some of their richest, most complex and weirdly pleasurable work, but the Meat Puppets have always been an exception to the rule. Sewn Together (released May 12 on Megaforce) is pure music, a lively, gorgeously harmonized swirl of dark and light elements that grabs one with organic force. Capable of quality soaring exploration, hooky conciseness and colorful lyrical nuance, Sewn Together is the equal of seminal Puppets' albums Up On The Sun (1984) and Forbidden Places (1991) with the added boost of being considerably less apocalyptic than their earlier work.

The new record also marks the second studio outing for the reunited Kirkwood Brothers, who form the core of the Meat Puppets. Curt Kirkwood is the singer-guitarist-songwriter and overall architect of their vision, but years of substance abuse and sometimes violent fractiousness with bassist and sibling Cris Kirkwood kept Cris out of the band for a decade starting in 1996. The brothers reconciled in 2006 and Sewn Together shows strong evidence that they're ready to reclaim the powerful legacy they built up in the '80s and '90s.

"I took myself out of the picture so entirely by getting to such an extremely bad place for so fucking long. To actually manage to extract myself from that, with the help of so many people, to actually regain something as precious to me as the Meat Puppets, well, my cup runneth over," says Cris Kirkwood. "That I'm at this point, considering what's gone on, is a fucking miracle."

For American teenagers in the 1980s seeking something richer than what was on the airwaves, discovering the triptych of young, monster talented bands on SST Records - Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets – was a smart, rowdy, uncivilized, sonically exciting life preserver. Neither wholly punk nor AOR-rock, these bands took a very personal, very aggressively engaged approach that borrowed freely from whatever took their fancy and delivered it with the moxie of Jerry Lee Lewis on a handful of little white pills. While the burnout happened fast for the other two bands, the Meat Puppets endured, growing more melodic and jammier as they refined their songcraft and technical skills to nigh epic levels. One hears their influence strongly in Pavement, moe., Cracker and many others who borrowed hungrily from their twisty, psych-friendly, twang embracing blueprint. As such, they remain one of the most influential bands to emerge from that era.

Meat Puppets by Jamie Butler
"We get told that a lot, or I read it a lot, but that's one of the things you get pegged with after being around so long. As far as an actual sense of it myself, well, I guess," laughs Kirkwood. "I definitely think that us and a bunch of other bands around back then were the next link in the chain, and then after us another chain link is added on and then another, and so on. Somewhere maybe we're a part of that. That's how tradition and culture is passed on. It's the dubious distinction club [laughs]."

"Meat Puppets [their 1982 debut] was already pretty unorthodox, and Meat Puppets II was just so everybody got the point. Why I got into music in the first place was just the fuckin' open-endedness of it. It fit well with the kind of person I am, and not because I'm particularly attracted to any style of music. I just liked the fact that people liked to make noise. It's this innate quality in humankind, and I was definitely drawn to that. If anything, that [kind of openness] may be one of the influences we had," says Kirkwood. "[Kurt] Cobain took us on TV and tours with him because he was a big fan. One of the things I read him say was we showed him that it didn't have to be loud and fast; the intent could be conveyed in other ways. That's fine that he got that off of us. You can find that other ways but it's cool that he got that from us, too."

Often for non-fans, especially with younger people, if they know of the Meat Puppets it's because of Cris and Curt Kirkwood's appearance on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance, where the brothers expanded the trio's lineup and Cobain included three of their songs – "Lake of Fire," "Plateau" and "Oh Me" - in the setlist. In the wake of Cobain's suicide and MTV's endless programming of the episode, the Meat Puppets rose swiftly from an underground band with a solid core following to a nationally known quantity with a gold record (1994's Too High To Die). The whole experience is bittersweet, with success opening the door to drug and emotional problems for Cris that culminated in an altercation in 2003 with a post office security guard, who shot Kirkwood during their run-in, and finally landed him in jail for two years. Still, the Meat Puppets had been given the stamp of approval from a newly minted pop culture saint, and for a period it seemed like they might follow Nirvana's suit in terms of popularity.

Continue reading for more on the Meat Puppets...

 
You're never gonna escape the guitar playing! It's Jerry for crissakes! God bless him. The Meat Puppets wouldn't have existed without the Grateful Dead... They're steeped in romance and tradition in the way a lot of good art is, and so are we. But, fuckin' Jerry, that's just a one of a kind guy.

-Cris Kirkwood

 

"The record company loved it, I can tell you that! Nirvana was cool. I felt like our influence on the guy was to help make him the kind of artist who would want to expose his new, massive fanbase to the people he'd been into. It's an attitudinal influence," Kirkwood says. "Beyond that, it's just something that happened, part of the band's history. The guy went on to blow his head off, and it turned into this thing. It's a tragedy, for his family at least. This was one of his last performances and it's kind of gone down into music history, but at the time it just seemed like some songs to us. We'd been around for a while at that point and the music business had existed throughout our career, and we'd been a part of it to the degree that we had. So, we just saw this really good band. You could see why they got popular to the degree that they did, but a big part of that is the music biz – it didn't just happen on their own. But beyond all that, they were a pretty cool band that wanted to do some stuff together."

The Kirkwood Boys by J Cultice
Conversation turns to another great musician no longer with us, Jerry Garcia, an undeniable but not oft-cited influence on the Meat Puppets. His ghost lingers powerfully in many passages of their catalog.

"Fuck the ghost, you're never gonna escape the guitar playing! It's Jerry for crissakes! God bless him. The Meat Puppets wouldn't have existed without the Grateful Dead. You want to know where the fucking attitude shift came from that we passed onto the punkers, well, it's largely from the Dead and the rich musical background they echoed back to," offers Kirkwood. "They're just a bunch of guys that really fucking dig music and really like playing it and aren't constrained by the times. It's a kind of art that's always been around in a way. They're steeped in romance and tradition in the way a lot of good art is, and so are we. But, fuckin' Jerry, that's just a one of a kind guy."

What one hears on the new Meat Puppets album is guys making music in very much this manner – music that plays to no sensibilities other than their own. There's zero courtship of modern radio/video culture, and the whole thing rises up like some beautiful, exotic animal rollicking in its element. That's perhaps cornier than Sewn Together deserves but there's a fine sense of active, hirsute life in the grooves of their 12th album.

"Curt and I made the last record, Rise To Your Knees [2007], after not playing together for a while because of all my travails. It was Curt's idea to play together again at all and just go right into the studio, and it's a touching record just because of that. It's beyond a treat, it's really big for me to be able to get to the place where I could play again and Curt would want to play with me," says Kirkwood. "But, on this [new] project, we'd been playing with Ted [Marcus, drums] for a while and we fell further back into it, my past falling further and further behind, and Curt and I just doing what we've always done, which is chasing some weird ass piece of shit that's ultimately served by Curt's songs and the band doing whatever the hell we do."

Meat Puppets
"On this one I descended into bass nerd land. It definitely has some Phil Lesh damage going on," continues Kirkwood. "I've got this rant, this lil' koan, which is the two sides of the lysergic bass. On one side is Phil and on the other side is Dusty [Hill] of ZZ Top. Two completely different approaches but together you end up in Lysergic Larryland. On [Sewn Together] I've managed to grow as an artist by minimalizing my trip as opposed to trying to chase something as accomplished and musically advanced in terms of theoretical and compositional elements like Phil. I don't have the fucking patience or attention for that, but I definitely have the consumptive abilities! 'I'm stoned enough so why does my bass playing still suck? [laughs].' I'm just finally figuring out that I can play less and dig it, and I think it served the songs nicely."

"I find myself listening to Curt's vocals on [Sewn Together] and thinking, 'Damn dude, nice!' I'm listening to them somehow removed from it even though we recorded it, and I'm drawn to them as music. I'm starting to get to that place with our music now that Curt and I are playing together again. Jesus, we've done this for a while. I think I may have been at his point when I was younger but I don't really remember. But, we're getting to a place now that's really satisfying musically. There's moments when I just have to stop and go, 'Well, that was fucking Satanic!' [laughs]."

There's also the matter of making art with his brother, which is bound to have an impact on the intimacy of the creative process.

"Oh definitely, to the degree that it does. Curt's one of the walking dead, so I don't know if 'intimacy' is really the word you'd use for a fucking rotting corpse. He is my brother though," chuckles Kirkwood, whose humor has the gallows swing of someone who's survived a lot of dark shit. "It's back to where it started from in the first place, with three of us playing together and realizing, 'Ah, that's something.' There's for sure some more music to come out of us. We're hitting a new stride I guess."

The Meat Puppets are on tour now, dates available here.

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