The Meat Puppets had already made their bones with a classic run of albums on Greg Ginn’s SST records when they were swept up in the tide of the grunge revolution. The band’s appearance with Nirvana on Unplugged raised their profile both quickly and unexpectedly, leading a band that was already no stranger to the abusive side of rock ‘n’ roll on a wild ride that seems tailor made for Behind the Music. Despite a few near misses, though, a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. The band reformed and put out an album — this year’s Sewn Together, after working out the kinks on 2007’s Rise to Your Knees — that showed flashes of their former glory. Here, vocalist and guitarist Curt Kirkwood discusses the new album, the band’s history and how it got back together.
Tell me about Sewn Together.
We’ve put quite a bit into it — as much as we’re allowed. There’s a little more interest in the band than there has been recently, and we’ve been working toward this record since we got back together. We’re anxious to play it live and get the songs out there in the front of the public.
Did you go in and record the album with a particular idea in mind?
It was more like a concept than an idea. We wanted to use two-inch tape and just play it live as much as possible. All of the tracks on the album are done live. There are overdubs, of course, but they are what they are. Basically I wanted to get a group of songs together that were easy to play so that the physical act was mindless. The focus was more on rocking out. We’ve been a lot more rocking in the past, but the success of this album is that it was executed in a way that was similar to some of our other records.
Is your writing process different now than it has been in the past?
No. I’m still the same. I don’t really have a process. I’ll sit around and catch a buzz and start playing for enjoyment. Something comes up and will stick in my mind, and that serves as the basis for a song. Because I was never trained to write, I feel lucky when I have the inspiration. It happens on average twice a month, and there have been whole years where I don’t write a thing. I’m kind of a slave to the process rather than the other way around.
The Meat Puppets will be having a 30th anniversary in 2010. When you started the band, did you have a clue it would end up being your career?
Yeah, I knew it. I knew it from the very beginning. I didn’t have anything else to live for. I literally wasn’t interested in anything else. The strange thing was that I wasn’t really an artistic type. I had been in bands here and there, but in high school I never focused on anything musical. I left Arizona at 17 and went up into the Northern Territories to become a fly-fishing guide. I liked to fish and be outdoors, so I followed that to Canada and Alaska. That set off a chain of life-changing experiences in my late teens that led to me founding the Meat Puppets. I realized that I really liked electric guitar. I joined a few bands, bar bands, and continued to that for a while. Then I found out that all musicians are essentially the same, but some write their own songs and more people like them. That’s when it crystallized for me.
At this point in my life, though, I was completely spaced out. I was a total loser by other most people’s standards, but I had my little thing going on in my mind and that was enough. During that time girlfriends were giving up on me, relatives were giving up on me, but I had this idea that was substantial and that was enough. I put a lot of thought into the band at that point. Even something as simple as the name was really a part of the larger whole. It had to be something that I could live with, because I knew that this was going to be a very long-term thing.
Early on, you were one of the bands that made SST. Did you ever get paid?
We eventually got paid richly, but not really. I suppose we ended up making more money than anyone else, but that’s because I worked really hard to maintain the publishing rights to our entire catalog. I own it lock, stock and barrel. I really can’t go in to the details of the arrangement, but that has been the bulk of the money I’ve made over the years.
Of your first run of albums, which one do you think is your best legacy?
I really have more favorite songs than favorite albums. I still really like “Love Our Children Forever” and maybe “Other Kinds of Love.” I suppose that Up on the Sun has aged pretty well, but a lot of those albums are so old that they really don’t sound like me anymore. I guess that every time I go in to record, I’m trying to make that album, and there’s a period of time where the new album is that one for me. Is it as cool as Huevos? I don’t know. It’s a different time. You could try to do it again, to play it exactly, but that would just be spinning your wheels. I just want to play the music that’s right for me at the time and not worry about what’s expected. I really don’t care if anybody remembers me. In the end, what good will it do me? If my soul’s in jeopardy, the adoration of my peers won’t save it.
You then flirted with the mainstream when you appeared with Nirvana on Unplugged. How did you get the invite?
Kurt was a fan, and they invited us out on the In Utero tour. When it came time to film the show, they wanted to play the songs but were having trouble with the guitar parts. That was really the reason we were out there. We played the guitars and Kurt sang.
Tell me about the show.
It was really our show and our day. The music industry is, and always has been, about making money. It’s guys in suits getting behind something and saying it will dominate pop culture. They have been so successful with this model, and it continues even now. The Unplugged show was one time where the status quo was definitely upset. Sure, there was the “roll camera and make money” aspect to it, but it was also different. The industry had to recognize these strange assholes that had somehow toppled Madonna from the charts. It wasn’t like we were mouthing off, but everybody had to let it roll. These guys could not claim that they did the groundwork for the music. It was music for people that love music, and that was in the face of people who don’t really care about music. That show was a watershed moment. It should be remembered that way.
What’s your relationship with “Backwater”?
I like it. It’s cool. I like the video. It’s nice. I’ve never been incredibly fond of it, but not because of it what it was. For a band like the Meat Puppets, any measure of mainstream success was so unexpected that we just went along for the ride. There are times when I don’t feel like playing that song, but that’s a normal cycle for any song. “Backwater” was a good experience for the band. I wouldn’t trade it.
At what point did you decide to walk away from the Meat Puppets?
I didn’t really walk away; it just looked that way to outside observers. First Universal died, and then I signed with Atlantic and it died. After that, the band I was playing with in Austin got pretty loose. The bass player quit, so I decided to start playing some solo dates. I didn’t see Cris [Kirkwood, his brother and fellow Meat Puppet] because I don’t hang out with junkies. I wasn’t aware of what the perception would be. If I’d have felt like it, I would have put together another group of musicians and called it the Meat Puppets, but I’m glad I let it go. The Meat Puppets needed a little bit of time on the shelf.
Did mainstream success ruin the Meat Puppets?
We have a new document so the results can be examined, and our success was minor in comparison to the years the band had spent playing together. It caused some problems, but the band was well on the road to ruin before everything really started to happen. Cris got a drug problem, and that was it. Drugs have their own life. He had to follow that path out to the end. If anything saved him, it was that he had actually accomplished something in his life. If he didn’t have that to hang on to, he probably would have died. It was a fluke in a weird way.
What made you want to put the band back together?
I did a solo record, and I felt it was time to do another rock record. It had been four or five years, and I really wanted to use a Stratocaster. About the same time Cris became well, got out of jail, and got his shit together. That was where everything started, and it went from there.
Where are the Meat Puppets at this point in their career?
It’s the focal point right now. A band develops a life that’s bigger than what you intend. It has a fan base that is interested and keeps a demand for new material. As long as that exists, we’re committed to putting stuff out there.
Do you have any goals left to accomplish as a musician?
Yeah, right now I want to play shows. All the other stuff that happened wasn’t stuff that I thought about or tried to plan. I just like to see what happens when you let stuff take its natural course. The result is that there has been some weird stuff, some uncanny stuff happen to the band. It’s hard to define in terms of ambition, because that’s very linear. Right now, playing shows is a good use of my time.