The members of the Meat Puppets have been to hell and back.
Their appetite for drugs once derailed them—but they’re back and better than ever. In fact, they’re on a national tour, including a stop at Pappy and Harriet’s on Sunday, Nov. 3.
The brothers Kirkwood—Curt (guitar, vocals) and Cris (bass)—founded the band in Phoenix in 1980 with drummer Derrick Bostrom, as the hardcore-punk scene was developing across the country. Bands such as Black Flag, Minor Threat and Bad Brains were finding fans with in-your-face, nihilistic music.
During a recent phone interview, Curt Kirkwood talked about the early days of the band.
“We didn’t think that much into it back then. I had been playing in bands for a few years—a disco band, a hard-rock band. We just got into playing whatever we wanted. All we ever really wanted to do was play what we wanted to play,” Curt Kirkwood said.
The Meat Puppets signed with SST Records, founded by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn. The band’s self-titled album was released in 1982 and became a staple of the hardcore-punk sound. The group toured relentlessly and gained a reputation for both humor and pissing off audiences wherever it went.
In 1984, the band released Meat Puppets II, which marked a departure from the hardcore punk sound by melding psychedelic, folk and even country sounds. The album included “Lake of Fire” and “Plateau,” two of the Puppets’ most-recognized songs.
Curt Kirkwood said the new sound was a result of the band coming of age.
“We were young back then,” Curt Kirkwood said. “In some ways, it’s just more about how we recorded stuff. Even when we started, we did a lot of hokey stuff. We’ve always done a variety, and we did it a little rough.”
While the Meat Puppets continued to put out albums with SST Records through the ’80s, many of their label mates—including as Dinosaur Jr., Husker Du, Sonic Youth and others—left after allegations regarding Greg Ginn’s accounting practices, problems with the availability of records, and other issues.
“Being on SST was great, and we loved it,” Curt Kirkwood said. “They put out whatever we gave them, and there was never any discussion about what we did in terms of being an artist on the label. They didn’t manage us; we managed ourselves. We were with SST up until 1989. In the long run, we felt like we could sell more records on a major.”
The Meat Puppets continued to thrive through the ’90s. They also managed to have a significant influence on Nirvana. Both Curt and Cris appeared with Nirvana during their famous MTV: Unplugged performance in November 1993, playing with Nirvana on “Lake of Fire,” “Plateau” and “Oh Me.”
Nirvana’s cover of the Puppets’ “Lake of Fire” was released as a promotional single—and many people today think it is a Nirvana song.
“I don’t know how much of an attachment I have to the stuff I do, anyway,” Curt Kirkwood said. “When you write a song, it’s sort of open for an interpretation like that. I was pretty close to the whole Unplugged thing and that version, anyway. We played on it with them, and I was really happy to have them do it. I thought it was a great version. We were pretty close to the members of Nirvana, and still are.”
Unfortunately, Cris Kirkwood’s drug addiction was starting to become an obvious problem. The Puppets went on hiatus in 1996; Curt started the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra, which later took the Meat Puppets name due to legal reasons.
In 2003, Cris was arrested for attacking an armed security guard at a post office; during the incident, the guard shot Cris—and he was fortunate to survive. He was later sentenced to 21 months in prison.
Curt and Cris didn’t speak to each other during those years, Curt Kirkwood said.
“Our relationship was pretty much non-existent for 10 years,” Curt Kirkwood said. “I didn’t see him; I didn’t talk to him; and I had to ignore him. I learned from being around people who are addicted to drugs that you can’t even talk to them. I got used to it. I was just cheesed off about having him be messed up at first, and then with time, I just said, ‘Well, that’s how it goes.’”
Cris was released from prison in 2005, and there was talk of a Meat Puppets reunion in early 2006 on the band’s Myspace page. A month after the band released a poll on the page asking if fans wanted a reunion, the Kirkwood brothers announced they were reuniting, but without Bostrom. The band recorded Rise to Your Knees—and started touring again.
Cris and Curt were able to settle their differences rather quickly, Curt Kirkwood said.
“It was really easy,” Curt Kirkwood said. “I’ve played with Cris so much in the past, and I had kept on playing in a band with Krist Novoselic of Nirvana and Bud Gaugh of Sublime during all that time, called Eyes Adrift. It took a little bit of time for Cris. He’d been out of jail for nearly a year when I got back up to him, and he was pretty normal again.”
When it comes to performing these days, the band has an easy-going approach that the members display on tour behind their new album, Rat Farm, which was released in April. The band now includes drummer Shandon Sahm, and on tour, Curt’s son, Elmo Kirkwood.
“We talk stuff out a little bit, but mostly, we wing it a lot,” Curt Kirkwood said. “We could practice and plan all this stuff, but a lot of the time, it goes right out the window when we start playing. During one night, we decide we might want to do something else. You just never know. It’s fun if you’ve had something going for a long time and can reach into a pretty big bag of tricks.”
The Meat Puppets will play at 9 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 3, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. Tickets are $13 in advance, or $15 on the day of the show. For more information, call 760-365-5956, or visit pappyandharriets.com.