“Disappear” (from the album Rise to Your Knees)
“Aurora Borealis” (from the album Meat Puppets II)
“It’s really difficult for us to get the real value of the Meat Puppets documented,” says singer/guitarist Curt Kirkwood. Speaking from his home in Austin, Texas, the veteran musician sounds just as cool, laid-back, and philosophical as he did two decades ago.
He and his bandmates are in between mini-tours of the country this summer in support of their first studio album in years. “It’s always been the live, three-piece muscle that we’ve had to deal with,” Curt says. “We’ve never gotten that on a record. We just tried to get the songs down. Right now, we’re back to where we were. Anyone who’s seen us this year can attest to that.”
The Meat Puppets are set to release Rise to Your Knees on July 17 on the Kansas City label Anodyne (www.anodynerecords.com). It’s a welcome gift for fans young and old from a terrifically unique, influential American rock band who never really got the recognition they deserved.
Considered by many to be the greatest band to emerge from the underground scene of the early 1980s, the Puppets first played together in their hometown of Phoenix in 1980. Curt and brother/bassist Cris Kirkwood joined up with drummer Derrik Bostrom. All three were simultaneously attracted to hardcore’s energy and opposed to its rigid dictums.
From their classic seven-inch EP In A Car and their heyday at the influential L.A.-based “punk” label SST Records (alongside Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, Dinosaur, Jr., and Sonic Youth) to their last one on London Records (to which they signed in 1990), the Meat Puppets created a genre-defying sound combining high-lonesome country, full-throttle punk and psychedelia, and improvisational guitar-rock, mixed with liberal dashes of gonzo comedy.
“This record is very much a return to our ’80s approach,” Curt says of the new collection. “It cost next to nothing to make and everything on it is a first take. I refuse to spend a lot of money on this. I refuse to overthink it, and I refuse to let other people impose their own agendas on my band.”
Younger fans probably know the Puppets best from Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged” special, where Kurt Cobain invited the Kirkwood brothers to perform a trio of Puppets tunes (“Lake Of Fire,” “Oh Me,” and “Plateau,” all from Meat Puppets II). The group picked up a major label deal with London and released Too High To Die in 1994. Buoyed by the Top 40 success of the riffy, mid-tempo single “Backwater,” the album went gold and the Puppets were briefly the darlings of the alt-rock scene.
In 1999, Rykodisc released the definitive, remastered Meat Puppets SST Records catalog, comprising seven original albums: Meat Puppets, Meat Puppets II, Up On The Sun, Out My Way, Huevos, Monsters, and Mirage. Each included extra tracks and a CD-ROM video clip, and a never-before released live album, Live In Montana from 1988, featuring the Pups in top form.
Then came an unexpected five-year hiatus, during which Curt relocated to Austin, Derrik settled in N.Y.C., and Cris struggled with drug addiction in Phoenix. The Pups came back with a short-lived Curt-led lineup in 2001, but quickly disbanded. Now, with a rejuvenated and cleaned-up Cris back in the band, they’re back on track.
Rise to Your Knees is the first album to include the band’s new drummer. New York-based timekeeper Ted Marcus first met the band when he was in Texas doing audio production work with filmmaker Joseph Cultice and Soohyun Chung. In an unusual move, Curt actually played the initial drum tracks in an Austin studio for the album, only gradually discovering their new drummer was working right under his nose.
“When we set out to do this new record, we practiced briefly with Tim Alexander from Primus,” Curt says. “He’s really good, but he was too busy to fulfill the agenda that I have planned. He lives in Phoenix. It fell into our lap and it would’ve been good. Then we decided to get somebody who could try and do it with us full-time. Ted’s always played the drums and has his own audio company in New York. He was checking the drums for me in the studio. I watched from a monitor and went, ‘That’s the guy who’s been sitting here, watching me play drums and busting my ass for a couple of days? What a joke!’ Once the topic was breached, he pulled his own sticks out. He’s like a Boy Scout: he’s prepared. He knows the band and the songs really well. He can call out songs that we haven’t practiced and play them.
“Ted kind of understands that ‘let go’ thing as a three-piece,” he adds. “You can’t teach somebody that; you just have to know how it is. We don’t practice it. The stuff that comes up live is the basis for our reputation. It’s beyond the critique. It’s kind of beyond jam bands. I know we can get tossed in there, but it’s riffing on the present and it’s chemistry … and our music has to do with our own personalities and the characters of ourselves. There’s so much going on, it takes a certain type of drummer to keep up. Once Cris and I started talking about things, we knew what we wanted so much … it’s actually not fair to drummers a lot of times, because, while it’s not that complex, it is integral. We want an unspoken kind of thing. A lot of people volunteered for the job, but it didn’t really feel quite right.”
Through the years, Curt shredded as an exceptionally expressive electric guitarist, influenced by and incorporating both the buzzsaw attack of punk and the psychedelic blues of cats like Hendrix, John Fogerty, and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons (a hero from whom Curt learned to pluck with a serrated coin). Lyrically, the Puppets were sharp, mixing mushroom-inspired imagery with wild narratives and characters. No other punk act sounded or jammed like them. No other hippie rock band could come close to their chaotic, unpredictable enthusiasm on stage — then or now.
“It’s not mayhem that Cris and I are up to,” Curt asserts. “We grew up in a similar realm and had a lot of privileges and gave ourselves a lot of privileges. We’ve got over 25 years of playing together. You can’t just a have a talent, you have to have experience and know a lot about music. In the ’70s, we used to go see the Art Ensemble, Chicago, Weather Report, and the Talking Heads. Every time we saw somebody, we said, ‘We wanna be them!’ It’s like cooking — you stick another thing in your pantry. And it’s not just music. We try to depict what those Robert Williams paintings look like with music. Or let’s show people what concrete with dog piss on it looks like, musically. Van Gogh did it with paint. And it doesn’t have to be surreal! You just take a step back from your present subjective point of view and, as painfully objective as you can, you’ll see how alien everything really is right before your eyes.”