By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
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By Emily Weiss
Contrary to the eulogy in the latest issue of Details, the "late, lamented" Meat Puppets aren't dead yet. Nearly 20 years have passed since singer-guitarist Curt Kirkwood founded the twangy, trippy punk band in Phoenix, Arizona, with his brother Cris Kirkwood on bass and Derrick Bostrom on drums. Since then the group has outlasted many of the grunge titans it inspired. And last month Curt finished recording a new album with an all-new lineup, based in Austin, Texas. Still, the premature obit is understandable, stemming from a long line of breakup rumors that have persisted since Cris, the junior Kirkwood by a year, became virtually incapacitated by cocaine and heroin addiction in the mid-'90s.
In a way, the Meat Puppets had always been a drug band. In the early '80s, their psychedelic approach to post-hardcore music seemed to suggest that given enough peyote, punks would eventually play like hippies. Even more than iconoclastic SST labelmates the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü, the Meat Puppets took sick joy in infecting punk with the spirit of its avowed musical enemies. They smuggled Skynyrd boogie and ZZ Top butt-rock over hardcore's militantly guarded border, and it seemed no subgenre could contain Curt's restlessly wandering solos, which noodled through the most careening thrash of their schizophrenic 1983 classic, Meat Puppets II.
This alternately dark and sunbaked suite has just been reissued on Rykodisc, along with the band's equally startling folk-funk followup, Up on the Sun, and the rest of their SST catalog. In addition, Ryko has released a concert album recorded in 1988, Live in Montana, which shows off the just-try-to-play-this-and-sing-in-tune chops that endeared the group to their cabal. As these albums testify, Curt's precise fingerpicking and speedy arpeggios evoked the pantheon of guitar gods, from Chet Atkins and Jerry Garcia to Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen.
Most of the Meat Puppets' punk peers split up before reaching the Mentos decade, but the band kept chugging, settling into a kind of polished competence that, while never sounding wack, nonetheless seemed less and less fantastic. After watching apprentices such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Soul Asylum achieve massive mainstream success, the veterans finally stepped into the commercial fold themselves with 1994's Too High to Die, which went gold and spawned their sole hit, "Backwater." Soon the trio found itself playing stadium crowds as openers for the Stone Temple Pilots and Blind Melon. During these tours, which Curt recently described as "Hollywood Babylon" in the Phoenix weekly New Times, Cris began his long bout with drug addiction, a face-off from which he has yet to emerge the victor. Curt says he has tried to intervene, but that his brother keeps skipping rehab and hiding from family and friends.
The band's label, London Records, had hoped that 1995's No Joke would turn the Meat Puppets into the superstars they deserved to be. But when it became clear that Cris's problems were preventing him from functioning as a band member, the imprint all but dropped the group, scaling back promotions and canceling a video shoot and national tour. Since then, Cris's state has worsened, friends told New Times. "He's smoking cocaine and shooting heroin in death-wish quantities," the paper reported. "Overweight from bingeing on Ben & Jerry's ice cream, he's pocked with the sores and boils that result when a junkie misses a vein and shoots impure, infectious heroin directly into muscle tissue." On April 28, Cris was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, forcing him into a much-needed mandatory detox.
The band never officially broke up--Curt now calls his brother a "Meat Puppet in outer space"--but after two years of "doing nothing and playing nothing," Curt decided to move on without his brother. Drummer Bostrom, who settled down as a Web site designer in Tempe, Arizona, wasn't game for touring, so the bandleader began searching for new collaborators. He flew guitarist Kyle Ellison (who had played with the band on the '95 tour) and drummer Shandon Sahm, from Austin, Texas, to Los Angeles, and the new trio began jamming together regularly. After racking up thousands of dollars in airfares, the two new Puppets convinced Kirkwood to move to Austin, and soon afterward, ex-Bob Mould bassist Andrew Duplantis signed on as well. The foursome began performing as the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra, but in January of this year, they readopted the old moniker, explaining that they would always be compared to the Meat Puppets anyway.
But without Cris's bobbing, happy-go-funky basslines and Bostrom's sober, minimalist drumming, what does the new band sound like? The answer remains shrouded by Curt's indifference to interviewer questions. Over the phone from Austin, he can't or won't describe the sound of the new Meat Puppetry. Our only clue may be that Ellison and Sahm last played together in Pariah, a band whose 1993 Geffen debut, To Mock a Killingbird, was described by the Chicago Tribune as "a little bit Ugly Kid Joe...and a little bit Bang Tango." Might this mean that Kirkwood has embraced the one white-trash rock subgenre he has thus far avoided--snotty hair metal? When I press him for recent influences on his songwriting, he trots out the dreaded "I don't really listen to music" line, claiming that his inspiration is "primal." "Besides, I've never really had anything to say in the first place," he deadpans. "I'm a peon. I'm, uh, from Phoenix."
That's a typically self-deprecating line from the meek, reserved musician, but it's also utter nonsense. This new resident of Richard Linklater's hometown was among the first rock figures to affect the now-token slacker pose. With the Reagan-era Meat Puppets, Kirkwood used the feigned carelessness of his warbling singing voice to disguise the lofty themes embedded in his music. Paired with the whine of his never-quite-harmonizing brother, he sounded not just stoned, jaded, or apathetic, but borderline manic. And like imitators ranging from J. Mascis to Joan of Arc's Tim Kinsella, the singer always sounds as if he were simultaneously indulging and defeating depression.
Ultimately, Kirkwood's music is about redemption--and the ability to find it not in punk anger but in the beauty of a suburban desert wasteland. Listen to how Meat Puppets II stages a battle between hope and lethargy. On "Lost," Kirkwood roams the freeways, only to end up locked in his attic. "Plateau" is a long, existential hike that ends with the quip "Who needs action when you've got words?" And Up on the Sun shows how much cheerier the Meat Puppets seem when Curt zips his lip. Similarly, the instrumental "Maiden's Milk" is the happiest tune the Kirkwoods ever composed, with the brothers playfully sliding up and down their fretboards like children chasing each other through the Arizona twilight.
Like his greatest student, Kurt Cobain (who performed three Meat Puppets II classics with the Kirkwoods during Nirvana's legendary MTV Unplugged performance), Curt writes his best songs when he is giving form to the battles in his cranium. And listeners new to the Meat Puppets may well hear some of the late icon's howl trapped inside Kirkwood's off-key crooning. Cobain may have taught himself how to play guitar, but Meat Puppets II taught him how to sing, and the resemblance is often frightening--as if the two were possessed by the same miserable muse. With his flesh-and-blood slipping into Cobain's old morass, and Ugly Kid Joe wannabes snickering behind him, Kirkwood, one hopes, will soon trap that muse once again.
Meat Puppets perform Sunday, June 6 at Grand Old Day; (651) 699-0029. They'll also perform Monday, June 7 at the 400 Bar; (612) 332-2903.