Master of Puppets

The least surprising thing about Curt Kirkwood's new venture is that it's based in Austin.

There's more to it than the fact that his new bandmates were based here. And it's not, as drummer and new bandmate Shandon Sahm, quips, "because Texas has barbecues and death penalties."

Phoenix was no longer an option for Kirkwood--too much dark water under that bridge--and he'd grown antsy in Venice Beach. Austin made sense for more reasons than one. In fact, the story of his new band's convergence is a complex and perhaps cosmic one, involving overlapping histories, freaky synchronicities, and small-world inevitabilities. Perhaps the most complex part of the tale is the fact that Kirkwood's "new" band, the Meat Puppets, has actually been around for more than two decades.

Meet the new Meat Puppets, the Austin-based foursome led by Kirkwood, that now includes bass player Andrew Duplantis, guitarist Kyle Ellison, and Sahm. The group's first effort together, the jangly psychotropic folk-rock-whatever Golden Lies (set for a September 26 release), is as wacky and solidly crafted a work as Kirkwood has summoned, full of the haunted visions and noodling insanity he's known for. The 13-track album is produced mostly by Kirkwood, with two songs produced by the Butthole Surfers' Paul Leary ("Hercules" and "Wipe Out").

It's different than old Meat Puppets albums. Duh. It's also very good.

If there's any way to describe something non-verbal, the album is folk-rock balladry meets Kirkwood-rap meets Martian-invaded heavy-bottom roots-pop, with the songwriter/guitarist's style slathered all over it, down to the cover art.

Naturally, there will be mutterings about the "new" Meat Puppets. There will be hobgoblins and aliens and ape fists--funny fire-breathing wraiths similar to those conjured in Kirkwood's poetry on Golden Lies. And no doubt, there will be die-hard Pups fans who claim they can't see it, can't hear it, don't want it, blahblahblah--to which Kirkwood offers a simple "fuck you if you don't like good music."

One thing is definitely true. The band is nothing like the Phoenix trio that made the Pups a punk epigram among undergrounders throughout the '80s and mid-'90s. Drummer Derrick Bostrom is happily ensconced in Phoenix, making his own electronic music and running the creative department of a multimedia company, and bassist Cris Kirkwood is laying low in the desert, struggling to recover from years of drug addiction. Both are technically still members of the band, and both are watching from the sidelines and, apparently, wishing the new guys well.

"It's not like Curt ran over my dog and I'll never forgive him," says Bostrom, who maintains the Meat Puppets Web site and oversaw the release of the Pups' catalog on Rykodisc last year. "I don't think he's gotten to say everything he wanted to say with the band. The band was three members, but it was also a platform from which Curt could mount his ideas. He's still doing it. He's not through by any means."

The mantle of Meat Puppets, whatever that implies, will bring questions and expectations, for which the new group says it's ready. They're ready for the gauntlet, the flaming hoop, the coal-walking, the baring of teeth and ass and soul and bones. Most of all, they say they're ready to get the music out and hit the road. They've spent three years swirling in the cyclone that fused Seagrams/Universal/Polygram/Island/Def Jam/etc. into one big scary monster, and left London Records (later gobbled in a Warner Bros.-driven frenzy) bereft of many of its U.S.-signed bands, including the Meat Puppets. Fortunately for Kirkwood, after getting sweet release from Universal, a mid-summer deal jelled with Atlantic Records' Breaking imprint, run by Hootie & the Blowfish and former London A&R man Max Burgos. Burgos and Blowfish guitarist Mark Bryan plucked the band out of limbo and set it on the trail toward whatever's next.

Bryan voiced his pleasure over the deal in the July 1 issue of Billboard magazine, saying, "We now have a career artist on our label. Hopefully, it gives us a little clout."

For their part, the guys say they are unflustered by the months of touring and promoting ahead. All four are savvy musicians; they know what's at stake. As the 41-year-old Kirkwood says with characteristic fire-and-brimstone confidence, "This a great fucking band, period."

As for its use of the moniker, the singer says, "It's like Willy Wonka or Disneyland or whatever. Somebody is in the suit. It's not really a fucking mouse. It's a fucking guy in a mouse suit that walks around and says hi to your kids. It's just a convenient shelter, it's a tool. Music is beyond labels. But stuff sticks to you, and that's just 'show business' in America."

As abstract comparisons go, Kirkwood has a knack for putting things in your face and daring you to disagree. What's the point? Ultimately it is only rock and roll, whether it's called the Meat Puppets, or The Artists Formerly Known As Meat Puppets Minus Two People and Plus Three, or Royal Neanderthal Orchestra, which the foursome used briefly back in 1997. Kirkwood dares you to spar, all the while gleefully slagging mass-market music, hypothesizing why Britney Spears is the hardest-working artist in show biz, or contemplating why Jim Nabors rocks and Burl Ives is a God.

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