Master of Puppets

Curt Kirkwood is the heart, soul, and everything else of the Meat Puppets, no matter who's in the band

Discussing the reality of what lies ahead and reflecting on the history of what came before (not just the Phoenix trio, but the beast known as The Biz), Kirkwood chomps the subject into a morass of sarcasm that endlessly eats its own tail. It's classic Kirkwood. And more than a few fans will be glad it/he/whatever is back.

Before Kirkwood met them, the three new members of the Meat Puppets had long-standing ties. Ellison and Sahm were childhood friends in San Antonio, where Sahm grew up the cool kid with a white Cadillac, the son of the legendary Doug Sahm, and Ellison was a handsome, soft-spoken kid whose passion for guitar blazed early. The two became bandmates when they formed Pariah with Ellison's older brother, bass player Sims, along with singer Dave Derrick and guitarist Jared Tuten. Through the late '80s and early '90s, the band was known for the youth of its members (Ellison and Shandon were just out of high school when Geffen Records signed them in 1990), for the quintet's unique brand of leather-pants metal prone to Roky Erickson and R.E.M. excursions. Unfortunately, Pariah would also be remembered for the 1995 suicide of Sims Ellison.

Sahm and Ellison were bound through history, tragedy, music, and friendship. And strangely, the brothers Kirkwood and Ellison were linked without anyone knowing the degrees of separation and affinity.

Banding together: The Meat Puppets in 2000 are, from left,  Kyle Ellison, Andrew Duplantis,  Curt Kirkwood, and Shandon Sahm.
Banding together: The Meat Puppets in 2000 are, from left, Kyle Ellison, Andrew Duplantis, Curt Kirkwood, and Shandon Sahm.
The original trio--Curt Kirkwood, Derrick Bostrom, and Chris Kirkwood--before pain and addiction tore it apart.
The original trio--Curt Kirkwood, Derrick Bostrom, and Chris Kirkwood--before pain and addiction tore it apart.


September 30

Back in 1993, the Meat Puppets and Pariah played the same showcase at South By Southwest. Curt Kirkwood and Kyle Ellison recall only that it happened, not much else. But it was Sims who really turned Kyle on to the Meat Puppets in 1994. As Kyle remembers, not long before Sims died he brought home the Pups' 1994 album, the destined-for-gold Too High To Die. But fate had further plans for Ellison and Kirkwood, because in 1995 when Too High to Die producer Paul Leary headed to Phoenix to produce the Meat Puppets' last album No Joke, the Surfers guitarist brought with him drum tech Cory Moore (now Jimmie Vaughan's manager), who introduced Kirkwood to Ellison. Kirkwood hired the young guitarist to join the Meat Puppets' No Joke tour. But the outing ended when Cris Kirkwood's drug addiction worsened, and the Phoenix trio, the one that had played insanely riveting live shows for 15 years, was no more, though their demise would never amount to an official split.

In the meantime, Ellison joined the Surfers on their Electric Larryland tour in 1996. Once off the road, he joined Kirkwood in the studio in L.A. to work on music, with Austin-based Stuart Sullivan, who'd worked on Too High to Die, engineering. But the fruits of that labor didn't pan out. London was in no position to peddle it, what with the Meat Puppets' status in limbo, with contractual ties involving the band's name in the balance, and with London itself being swallowed by Warner/Sire. The pair continued to work, however, and Ellison introduced Sahm to Kirkwood. At that point, in early 1997, Kirkwood decided he should move to Austin. Not only did he have a budding band in Texas, but long-time friends Leary and Gibby Haynes were there. So were Sullivan, Moore, and people like Bob Mould, an old SST labelmate from the Hüsker Dü days. There were countless familiar faces in Austin, and they weren't constant reminders of the tragedies that had assailed Kirkwood's family in Phoenix.

Also in 1997, Louisiana-born Duplantis was living in the same complex as Sahm, across from the late, lamented Austin Rehearsal Complex. After national tours with Bob Mould (as a duo) and with Alejandro Escovedo, Duplantis was playing with the Austin band Superego. And like many local musicians, he was spending a lot of his spare time hanging out at the ARC, where Sahm, Ellison, and Kirkwood had a studio. They asked him to sit in one day.

After a series of brushes between parallel universes, the Meat Puppets coalesced.

"No one ever told me I was in the band," Duplantis recalls with a smile. "I just kept showing up and nobody said, 'Hey don't show up anymore.' It was in early October '97, and they were in their room and I was out front, and Kyle was like, 'You want to come in here and jam?' They were playing 'Fat Boy,'" he says, referring to the slow-grooving song on Golden Lies with classic Kirkwood lyrics: "Stop abusing Martians/Stop reducing calories/Clip your eggs together/Monkey one." "We played and it just kind of went from there. I kept showing up and jamming. I finally brought my own rig down."

"It just happened," echoes Sahm, a blend of garrulous energy that occasionally conjures a skinny doing-my-own-thing image of his dad. "It's not like you can plan this stuff. Everybody just went, 'Dink, dink, dink, dink.' Like links in a bracelet clinking into place.

"Chemistry is the best word for it, overall. And that's what we've maintained," Kirkwood interjects, as the four sit in the cluster of amps, guitars, drums, keyboards, doodled-on pieces of paper, coffee cups, bongs, and Dr Pepper bottles amassed in their Music Lab studio. "That's what happened in the beginning with the three-piece, but we even have that now and it's cooler. Not that that wasn't cool. That's great stuff and I love it. That's so much of my identity and everything. But this just kind of broadened the whole thing. People go, 'So does it sound like Meat Puppets?' And I go, 'Which Meat Puppets? Up On The Sun? The first one? Huevos? Or the sixth stupid Prince-rip-off Meat Puppets? Which one?'" It was always evolving. I was never privy to what Meat Puppets is as a thing anyway."

Perhaps it is just a label. But all kinds of negative-positive polarity can emanate from a label, and Kirkwood is well aware of that. On the one hand, the name sets the band on a path pot-holed by inevitable comparisons, or on an occasional by-road muddied by the disgruntled fan who cries "fraud" or accuses someone of trading on name recognition. On the other hand, Kirkwood arguably was the soul of the trio. He wrote most of the songs they're known for.

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