From his home in Austin, Curt Kirkwood, founding member of legendary indie rock band The Meat Puppets, sounds mellow and contented, a far cry from when he was leading his band through its tumultuous days in the '80s and '90s. Even though he's getting ready to tour with a recent incarnation of The Meat Puppets in support of the band's worthy new effort, Sewn Together, Kirkwood is laid-back and reflective—almost to a fault.
"I'm never too overworked," Kirkwood says in the driest of monotones. "The best thing I can do is try not to think about how long I've been around."
Amazingly, Kirkwood's Meat Puppets have been around, on and off, for nearly three decades. Begun in Tempe, Arizona, in 1980 by Curt and his brother Cris, the original Meat Puppets featured drummer Derrick Bostrom and started out, more or less, as a punk band.
The Meat Puppets perform Friday, June 19,at House of Blues' Pontiac Garage.
"When the three of us first played together, we made such a racket that people said we were a punk band," Kirkwood says. "But we knew we had a different sound and that there was something compelling about us."
With their flowing manes of hair and Curt's instrumental competence, The Meat Puppets were never your run-of-the-mill punks. The band's racket was due more to its members' rampant drug use than to any allegiance to Iggy's Stooges or The New York Dolls.
Yet the noise of The Meat Puppets was compelling, and it did find an audience. Black Flag's Henry Rollins helped the band get signed to SST Records, and its eponymous debut album, with its rushed tempos, screamed vocals and odd nods to country and folk, proved a harbinger of things to come, both for the band and for indie music in general.
But first and foremost, the trio wanted to end any talk of The Meat Puppets being a punk band.
"I quickly got sick of the punk rock pose, the punk rock cliché," Kirkwood says. "I liked those bands, but I couldn't endorse that lifestyle or the actions of the crowds. It was just too confining for me."
Both Kirkwoods knew a rethink was in order, so the pair decided to move in a somewhat Americana direction. The result was Meat Puppets II, a landmark recording that Curt correctly describes as "Beefheart country." Gone were the incomprehensible vocals and train-wreck tempos of the debut. Instead, Meat Puppets II ushered in a warped take on country/folk that, while still incessantly ragged, bordered on beautiful.
The 1984 release could well be seen as the first alt-country album. At the time, critics erroneously labeled it "cow punk," but songs like "Lake of Fire," "Oh Me" and "Plateau" were something totally new: country and folk in the spirit of Hank Williams and Joe Strummer, a hybrid of ideas and emotions that still sounds fresh today.
"I made the conscious decision to change, to shake things up," Kirkwood says. "I had always liked country anyway, and we just had the idea of crossing over all over the place."
Sadly, The Meat Puppets would never again attain the heights of the band's sophomore effort. Although still first-rate, future releases such as Up on the Sun, Mirage, Huevos and Monsters confused more than they charmed. Sometimes embracing folk/rock a la The Byrds while at other times recalling the southern rock boogie of ZZ Top, The Meat Puppets released competent product that lacked inspiration for nearly a decade.
In 1993, it would take a fateful tour with Nirvana and a return to the aforementioned trio of tunes from Meat Puppets II to get the band back on track.
"When we were on tour with Nirvana, they were talking about filming an unplugged segment on MTV," Kirkwood explains. "The guys in Nirvana were always telling us how much they liked us and then Cobain just asked Cris and me to do the show with them. I could tell that Nirvana and The Meat Puppets were cut from the same cloth."
That acoustic performance by Nirvana featured inspired performances of "Lake of Fire" and two other Meat Puppets originals. The resulting album, MTV Unplugged in New York, served as a swan song for Nirvana as Cobain killed himself just four months after that concert. Even with the grief of Cobain's passing, though, the exposure for The Meat Puppets brought the band to uncharted territory. Its next album, Too High to Die, and accompanying single, "Backwater," earned The Meat Puppets a gold album and found the band on a high-profile tour, playing stadiums and opening for Stone Temple Pilots.
"It was pretty bizarre," Kirkwood admits. "When we played 'Backwater,' the crowd liked us. But when we did 'Lake of Fire,' idiot people were calling us Nirvana wannabes. I was in the bathroom at one of those shows and a guy suggested that we stop doing all those Nirvana songs—you know the ones that I wrote."
Another casualty of that tour was the easy availability of illegal substances. Cris Kirkwood ended the tour being severely addicted to cocaine. His spiral downward would signal the end of the original Meat Puppets. Cris disappeared for long stretches at a time and eventually ended up in jail for attacking a security guard at a Phoenix post office in 2003.
Curt, meanwhile, moved to Austin and tried to start his post-Puppets musical career. He ended up forming a new version of the band with drummer Shandon Sahm, son of legendary Texas singer-songwriter Doug Sahm. But the resulting album, Golden Lies, only hinted at the past greatness of The Meat Puppets.
Meanwhile, Cris was released from prison in 2005, and Curt posted a bulletin on his MySpace page asking if fans would enjoy a reunion of the original Meat Puppets lineup. The response was overwhelmingly positive, but drummer Derrick Bostrom declined to take part.
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"Derrick hadn't played drums with anyone for a long time," says Curt. "I cannot conceive of not being in The Meat Puppets. But for Derrick, it was different."
After recruiting drummer Ted Marcus, Curt and Cris Kirkwood launched Meat Puppets version No. 3 in 2007, and released Rise to Your Knees later that year. The recently issued Sewn Together ups the ante considerably, as it's filled with cuts that span nearly every aspect of the band's history: "Blanket of Weeds" is classic, mind-bending country psychedelia; "Rotten Shame" returns the band to its punkier origins.
"The musical identity of the band is still intact," Kirkwood says. "Certain [newer] songs can sound like they could fit on any of our previous albums."
Thankfully, he means the better albums.