Meat Puppets: Creating Art, Then and Now

Less than two years ago, the original Phoenix, Arizona trio that grew up with an adoration for music, art, and the psychedelics of the nineteen-seventies reunited for the first time since 1995. Brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood and their friend Derrick Bostrom turned their interests and their childhood friends into the beloved, 15 studio album-producing band, the Meat Puppets. From their debut in 1982 to their hiatus in 1995, they went from being a small rock ‘n’ roll band with influences ranging from punk to country to a stellar mainstream group that both opened for and played alongside Nirvana. (Does Kurt Cobain crooning “Lake of Fire,” on Unplugged ring any bells? Because that was one of the three Meat Puppets songs performed during that session; of which Curt and Cris also played guitar on stage for.)

Imagine being a band of brothers and friends from a small region of Phoenix to being an influence on one of the most notable rock stars of all time? For the Meat Puppets, it happened, and now that they’re back to their original lineup, that influence is in full force again with everything they’re doing. There’s a new record out, they’re embarking on yet another national tour, and they’re as humble as ever. Seriously, just read what the prodigious singer, songwriter, guitarist, and co-founder of the band, Curt Kirkwood himself, had to say about taking on the revival of the original trio, writing new music, and literally driving him and his band around on tour.

A large part of who you are as a band stems from the stellar songwriting found within just about every single one of your albums, from the early years to now. Where do you draw inspiration from, time and time again?

I kind of wish I knew, because then I would look for it. Mostly I think the inspiration is just wanting something to play a lot of times; and even that doesn’t always do it. I mean, there are all kinds of things that come into play, but mostly I draw inspiration from sitting around and doing nothing. I can’t make myself write. I’ve tried it and it’s kind of forced and it just doesn’t work. Every now and then I feel like I need something new, so I’ll start playing the guitar. Sometimes something new will pop into my head, but I think at the root, it’s just an amounting of a lot of music that I listen to and have listened to over the years and is floating around. I’ll pluck stuff from it and use it the best that we can.

Do you think that coming back together as the original lineup has made songwriting and making music in itself more powerful—personally, as well as musically?

Well, it definitely seems to have come out that way. I think the record came out pretty good and I think this record sounds the way it does because of the lineup. It’s the first record that I’ve made with Elmo (Kirkwood, rhythm guitar) and Ron (Stabinsky, keyboards), and the first record with Derrick (Bostrom, drums) since ‘95. It was a super easy record to make. I didn’t have to think about it that much. I was really looking forward to playing with Ron, having never played with him before. He came down to Austin and I wrote a few sketches of songs—about four songs or something—for us to kind of jam on. No lyrics, but then when Derrick came back in, when we had already been in the studio getting down some early instrumental acoustics and keyboards and stuff, things unfolded and it was really cool. It’s a great group of guys.

It must be, because like you said and of which I agree, the album came out fantastic.

Thank you.

You’re welcome. So, you said this album was pretty easy to get together because of the lineup, but what was that initial feeling like going into the studio for the first time to write and record the album with these guys?

It was really fun, except—not always, but sometimes—I get over-ambitious and I just want to play the music. I don’t always feel like straightaway making up words and I generally do have music before I have words. I was real excited to sit back and watch everybody do their parts and that was great because I knew I didn’t really have to tell anybody anything because they’re all very intuitive; they really are. That’s the cool thing about this lineup. Then, there is a little bit of annoyance because I realize that I guess I do have to think of words eventually. That’s always the homework part of it. 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. I’m always asking my brain, ‘Oh, come on, just give me some more words here! I want to sing to this tune!’

You guys have been on the road a multitude of times over the course of your career. What do you love about performing your own music live after working so hard on it?

I like playing. I like playing guitar. I like singing. I like to hear the drums go ‘boom boom.’ I like to hear the bass thump. I like to hear the interactions; that’s something you can’t get in practice or get at home. Having an audience and having that interaction, it’s just something live shows hold over practice.

Oh, I bet. How do you keep going back to that experience of playing live and being out on the road fresh and enjoyable?

Every night is new. You never really know what it’s going to sound like when you’re us. We never really tied ourselves down to much format. We have songs to play and we really don’t follow a setlist. We have a whole bunch of them written down for different times and we just pick something up and we play around with it. We jam a lot, on stage and off. We improvise a lot and are always asking ourselves, ‘What is this going to turn into tonight?’ You never know what the crowd is going to be, what the club is going to sound like. Every night is pretty cool. It is fun driving around, too. Every time you’re out, you’re going to see something new, so it’s like being a tourist, too, in a way, if you like driving and don’t get burned out on it. I particularly like to drive, so that’s extra cool.

That must make enjoying the cities you’re driving through, and places you’re going to, easier to enjoy and connect with, rather than just showing up, playing, and leaving.

Oh, yeah! That’s the focus and it’s pretty addictive. I’m kind of amazed like that: no matter how lazy you feel or whatever, once you turn up and once a show gets going, it’s like ‘Oh, ok. That’s it. Here we go. That’s better.’ I can feel pretty dead and not enthusiastic—I can be sick—and feel cured by the end of a show a lot of times. Music is restorative, cool stuff.

Music definitely has that power, I believe.

Yes, it’s about the best thing for me in that way. I don’t listen to a whole lot of music at home, actually, so that my ears stay fresh, too, because I’m looking forward to hearing stuff for years to come.

Right, and having been an active musician for just about 40 years, what have you seen—if anything—change over time in the music industry?

I’ve seen a lot less of stuff that I like [laughs]. I don’t know why, but I think it’s probably because I’ve gotten older. When you’re a teenager and you’re young, you have your idols and just love a lot of stuff… and I still love a lot of stuff, but maybe I just stay in my hole a little bit too much and don’t hear everything that is going on. Maybe it’s because of the perfusion from the Internet. There are just an insane amount of things that you can access in a second and it’s just a constant change in that. One day it’s like ‘Oh, here’s this!’ and then the next day it’s  ‘Oh, who is this person? I’ve never heard of them!’ It’s just kind of hard to keep up with. I definitely think that’s the biggest change: the perfusion. You know, I’m a useless product of the seventies in a way. I still really like the sixties and seventies because that was when I was in high school and when I was just ‘totally bitchin’ man.’

[Laughs] Everyone has a bit of that nostalgia, for sure… like this past weekend was Record Store Day! So, we have something of that sixties and seventies time frame definitely coming back. I saw online that you guys not only released your latest record on vinyl and participated in the day that way, but also did a signing at a Record Store Day event. So, I have to ask, what does vinyl and the physicality of music mean to you?

Well, vinyl sounds the coolest still. That’s just my feeling in a way. Every time I put the needle on something, it’s just this feeling that something is right. Again, that is what I grew up on, but I just think it sounds better. Records look cool. I’ve also always really liked the big format of the 12-inch, so you can get a big reproduction of the art on the cover.

The art that comes with the Meat Puppets albums and merchandise is very unique and very commonly you. How did that start? When did you realize that art was another way to make your music a more personal entity?

Oh, it was from the beginning. The three of us always drew a lot and painted and whatnot, so right away we started exploiting that with our covers. Once or twice it’s been something that we did, like (with) Too High To Die (the record company) wanted to use something a photographer shot, so we have like me in a gingham dress—not something I would’ve probably done myself, but the photographer wanted it and it turned out to be a messed up show. It was all faded and pink on the side, but I thought it was fine. It turned out to be kind of cool, but then for this record we kind of paid tribute to the way that Cris and Derrick and I grew up: making cartoons and art and painting each other. The guy who did it was Sam Hundley who was my best friend in fourth grade. He was the guy, along with me and another friend—we were the drawing guys. We were the guys who were always drawing cartoons and doing art in class and stuff. Sam and I stayed in touch and he ended up being an illustrator, so he kept doing his stuff and that’s his scrap art on our cover. He collects junk and makes art and it’s our first collaboration that we’ve done since grade school. Although, it’s not that much of a collaboration. It’s more like we’re the subjects of his scrap art. It still ties in because he was the guy who drew with me growing up. We wanted to be animators. He wanted to work for Disney. We watched Disney cartoons a lot and Charlie Chaplin and things like that; then from fourth grade, fifth grade, and sixth grade, we thought it would just be cool to be animators; draw Pluto and Mickey Mouse.

Hey, that would’ve been a cool job, too, but there’s a reason you’ve been successful at making music, and you’ve seem to have been combining the two for years in any way possible, so that dream is coming full circle.

Oh yeah, it’s what makes it a lot of fun, really. I have tons and tons of just doodles and drawings and crap. I don’t really sell the stuff so using it as album art is a cool way to get it out.

Now that the original three members of the Meat Puppets are back together with an album out and a tour underway, do you see a continuation with this group from here on out? Can we expect this revitalized lineup to do some more after this Dusty Notes era is done?

Well, that is what we want to do. I don’t want to look too far ahead. I’m just waiting to see what the writing entails after this. We want to, though, for sure. We’re really having a blast being all together again and doing all of this. I think it’s probably safe to say that it’s enough fun that if I felt like I was in a drought—which happens to me and can go on for a while and be quite frustrating not getting any ideas—I would probably take this thing and cover a bunch of Burl Ives songs and Howdy Doody and Taylor Swift and whatever I give a shit about. It doesn’t really matter what you’re playing, just that you can get the band—this band—together to make the band’s version of it.


Catch the Meat Puppets on tour at the Mercury Lounge on May 8, Brooklyn Bowl on May 9, Underground Arts in Philadelphia on May 10, and Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park on May 11!