Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood: I'm probably not cut out for a regular job
Photo By Jaime Butler
Over the course of their distinguished 30-plus years in the music industry, Meat Puppets have brazenly ignored trends, hype, and expectations, while simply going about things their own distinctive way. Formed by brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood in Phoenix in the early '80s, Meat Puppets were one of the early signees to legendary SST Records, which released all of their records throughout that decade. And while the band have seen their lineup and style shift slightly over the years, the imaginative musical partnership of the Kirkwood brothers has always pulsed at the heart of their idiosyncratic rock numbers.
Meat Puppets have experienced a creative resurgence since 2006 (following a four-year hiatus), signing to the seminal Megaforce Records and releasing a string of hazy, psych-rock albums filled with inspired songs that stand proudly next to their distinguished back catalog. Ahead of Meat Puppets' headlining set at Saturday's Roots, Rock & Deep Blues Music Festival, Gimme Noise reached Curt Kirkwood at his home in Austin, Texas. He opened up about the band's new album, Rat Farm, their wild early days at SST, what it was like playing with Nirvana at their celebrated Unplugged performance, and his summers in the Alexandria area as a kid.
Gimme Noise: What was the writing and recording like for Rat Farm?
Curt Kirkwood: I thought it would be easier, I just started feeling like writing and figured I could get an album out pretty quick -- but it took about five times longer than I figured it would. Every time I'm intentional about something, it takes longer -- that's how it turns out. If I'm not thinking about it, and I'm just sitting around and don't really have any aim, then stuff seems to come out a little easier.
The new songs sound a bit pared down, and artfully restrained in a way -- was that an aim of yours with the new tracks?
Yeah, I was initially going for something that sounded kind of like a Burl Ives album. If a riff was sticking in my head, then I'd record something quick into my cell phone, just the melody and the chords and kind of leave it at that. I would come up with like 30 or so snippets, but got into the studio and realized I didn't really have any lyrics. So, I wrote a lot of those right in the studio. Yeah, it was another deal trying to get the record done, and produce, and trying to be on it as a musician. I mean, it's good because I can change it up, and it's not like we've got anything set in stone when we get in there, which is kinda cool. But I kind of gave myself a lap full of work.
Has the recording process grown any easier for you over the years, now that you are 14 albums deep into your career?
Yeah, but it's always been pretty easy for me. I'm pretty easy to please, it's everybody else who can be difficult. You get in there with a bunch of people, and they've all got their own ideas -- which is good. But I'm kinda lazy that way -- once it goes to tape, it's done as far as I'm concerned.
Obviously, the music industry has changed considerably since your SST debut in 1982. What is the biggest difference you've seen within the music world over the years, and do you think the changes have actually helped the industry?
You know, I'm not really much of a watchdog like that. I just see how it's been for me. Honestly, I've never really made a lot of money recording records. I've made money in publishing, and getting something played on the radio every now and then or whatever. And on the road, shows are still shows, and that's about the same. I think it's kind of a puzzlement for people who have record companies. But I still do the same thing -- I record, do interviews, and go out and do shows, it's not that much different for me.
It hasn't changed much -- it's kind of back how it was when we started. You know, no real hope of getting that type of pie in the sky success that people started dreaming about back when records started to be something that you could sell a lot of. There was a number of years there where people could make a whole lot of money. But in the '80s, for us, it was like, "OK, nobody is going to sign us to a major, we're on this indie thing" -- it's for people who are going to go seek it out and find it. We didn't really even think about it.
Then we got signed, and went through that major label thing -- where they are really into having a hit, and kind of pushed you for it and tried to groom you that way. But that was cool, we had done enough on our own to be able to weather that without getting our arms twisted too much. And now, it's back to just making records without too much influence. I see it as being a lot like the '80s -- it's pretty free, and that's cool for me. I don't like to think too much about what's popular.
What are your memories of those early SST days? Those must have been some pretty exciting times for the band.
Yeah, it was kind of like a Y.M.C.A. or something (laughs). SST was kind of like a boys club in the early days. But all of those bands were friends -- it was just a bunch of young dudes, and there was some friendly competition. Yeah, it was a lot of fun. It wasn't everybody thinking, 'We're going to be huge.' It wasn't like that at all. It was more like, 'Let's play good,' you know. I think Greg Ginn really had an eye for cool stuff. It was amazing to me, all of the great bands he had on his label there.
You've played in Minneapolis countless times over the years -- playing with the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Soul Asylum in the early days. What do you remember about those shows, and to what do you attribute your longstanding affinity to Minneapolis?
Well, Minneapolis has had a good music scene for a long time, and when we started playing up there that was definitely the case. I met all of those bands really early on, like first tour-type stuff for us. I started meeting some really nice people up there each time we played. It's just always been a good place for me.
So, Dennis [Pelowski, the band's manager] mentioned that you used to vacation up here when you were a kid, and had a summer place near Alexandria?
My granddad had one from like the early '30s -- a big old house down there that was on the lake. He was from Omaha, so that was heading North for him, and that was the first place that seemed to be a bit more recreational than the Missouri River area around Omaha. He went up further north, and had a place up in Northwest Ontario, it was just fly-ins, he had a lodge and like 14 cabins. He liked it up there. He had a partnership in something called Rainy Lake Airways, which was along Rainy Lake there -- actually in Fort Frances, not International Falls.
My first job out of high school, I moved to Fort Frances to be a fishing guide, because I had spent a lot of time up in Northern Wisconsin and Northern Minnesota fishing for walleye and Northern Pike and whatnot, and I enjoyed that. So, I moved up there when I was 17 and spent the summer in Fort Frances and International Falls. That whole area up there is beautiful, and I just love to fish, so that was my stake in it. I was obsessed with it when I was a kid, I haven't done as much of it as an adult, really.
So, how have you managed to survive and stay sane after 30 years of touring?
Well, I don't know -- I don't think I ever was that sane anyway (laughs). I don't think anybody in their right mind would purposely put themselves in that situation. But it suits me. I'm just probably not cut out for a regular job -- I couldn't keep jobs when I was a kid, even in my first couple of bands I got axed. I couldn't keep menial labor jobs, that was frustrating. But touring just presented itself as a thing that I could do as time went by. By the time I was in my 20's, that's what I was doing. I try to strike a little balance, I try to get a bit of a home life. I always keep a home, and try to keep both feet in that place when I'm there.
Do you still get a lot of joy out of hitting the road and taking your music to your fans?
Oh yeah, there's nothing like it. I think that goes without saying -- that's addictive to play shows. That's the only place you can get that kind of joy. I don't mind driving around, and traveling and sightseeing and that kind of stuff. You can make a vacation out of it if you're balanced and don't burn the candle too hard. It's fun to get up and do that drive, and then you get to where you're supposed to play and get your work done, and then you can look forward to what you get to see tomorrow.
So, how did Too High To Die [a recent book about the Meat Puppets by Greg Prato] come about initially?
Greg Prato is buddies with Kim Thayil from Soundgarden, and he was talking to Greg and told him he should do a Meat Puppets book. I've talked with Greg a number of times over the years, and we've kind of become pals over the course of putting the book together.
Was it gratifying for you to look back on your entire career and relive some of those high points?
Well, you know, I have all those memories. I think the way the book was done was cool, it made it different than just reading a historical account, which I have. I haven't forgotten too much so I can always reminisce. But the way the book was done through different people's perspective was kind of what made it for me, I thought that was a really innovative, cool way to do it.
It must have been rewarding and heartwarming to read all of the kind things that your contemporaries had to say about your band and your music.
Yeah, and just to get a different perspective on some of the stuff that I remember too. And their opinions and feelings on the whole thing was definitely kind of heartwarming, and easier to get my head around than just reading about myself.
One of the parts of the book that made me laugh was when Kim Thayil admits to initially being pissed off that Nirvana brought you out for their Unplugged performance because he felt that the Meat Puppets were HIS band. What are your memories of that Unplugged performance?
Well, it really made sense to us. The songs that they wanted to do, I think that they really made sense for the rest of the setlist that they were doing, and they did them really well. We got along really well with those guys, I still do. The similarities, as musicians, between all of us was pretty amazing -- we all liked to play and not put too much into it. We practiced for about a week, but it wasn't like 'Let's grind this stuff,' it was more like, 'Let's just make sure we know it.' And then once the cameras roll then we'll rise to the occasion. I think both of our bands were good at that. Because that way, you always get something different, rather than try and project how it's going to be. It made it come out really good.
It was a lot of fun. As it was with indie bands at that time, even though they were really, really famous, they were still very cloistered and in their own little bubble too, that's how indie bands kinda liked it. And that's how it stayed the entire evening -- the musicians were in their little bubble, and then there's the whole rigmarole around it. And everyone was kind of laughing up our sleeves at the whole thing, going 'Would you look at this?'
I think the performances of "Plateau," "Oh, Me," and "Lake of Fire" were some of the clear standouts of that entire set. Those are beautiful performances.
Yeah, I think Kurt was the kind of singer that could have done "Happy Birthday" in that set and made it sound fucking great, you know what I mean. He was a great singer.
I can imagine that performance had a pretty positive effect on your career after that.
Yeah, it still does, actually. It gave us a window there, which actually goes both ways. I mean, we could kind of reach into another world that we hadn't had access to. And at the same time, a lot of other people -- and to this day this remains true -- a lot of people were drawn to us because they were big Nirvana fans, and that Unplugged performance became a gateway for a lot of people to get into us.
We played the night before last at Summerfest in Milwaukee, and one of my buddies was getting a beer while we were playing "Plateau," and somebody in line said, "Oh, they're playing a Nirvana cover over there." He was like, indignantly, "Nope. Let me tell you something, man, that's their song." So, people are still learning that (laughs).
In this modern musical climate, having a 30-year career is quite rare and should certainly be celebrated. What do you think is the key to your creative longevity?
Just a focus on the music. There's a lot of luck involved -- outside circumstances that I don't have any control over. The winds have blown the right way enough times. I just like doing it. I'm not really that obsessed, but I suppose I could be -- it's all I've ever really done for a long time. But music is such a broad thing -- you can always find some spin or variation on it, or if you're lucky something brand new. So much always seems to present itself. I think wanting to do it is a big part of it. I just want to make cool songs and play shows. Keep it simple.
Upcoming Meat Puppets shows in Minnesota:
Saturday 7/13: Rochester -- St Johns Block Party 5 p.m.
Saturday 7/13: Minneapolis -- Patrick's Cabaret 8:45 p.m.
Sunday 7/14: Duluth -- Tycoon's (with Enemy Planes and Actual Wolf)
Friday 7/19: Mankato -- What's Up Lounge (with Enemy Planes)
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