Their sound is as sunbaked as the valley from which it arose, ambling as if disoriented with a deceptively genial manner that disguises the alienation and darkness underneath. Meat Puppets were among the first acts signed to Black Flag’s legendary punk label, SST Records, back in ’82 alongside the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü. They were alt-country before it had a name, blending a love of punk, blues, twang, prog and groove rock.
Meat Puppets rose in Phoenix behind brothers Cris (bass) and Curt Kirkwood (guitar, vocals). They were inspired first by rock and later American hardcore acts such as the Feederz, best known for the at-once homophobic and sacrilegious gem “Jesus Entering From the Rear.” (Cris would play bass in the Feederz for a time.) This encouraged them to head to Los Angeles, where they found kindred punk spirits.
After their abrasive, unfocused self-titled debut, they ran off a string of great albums through the early ’90s, sounding unlike anything else at the time. It’s an unpredictable, loose-limbed attack that ranges from bouncy country-rock paean to slackerdom “Lost” to the clamorous road rocker “New Gods” and tuneful rubbery rustic-funk of “Swimming Ground,” which suggests Gang of Four kicking it with the Dead.
They signed to a major (London Records) in the early ’90s, and released the underrated Forbidden Places before being championed by Nirvana. Next was Too High to Die, produced by the Butthole Surfers’ Paul Leary, which was certified gold behind the minor hit “Backwater.” But by then Cris Kirkwood had gotten hooked on heroin, and it drove the band into the ground.
After many false starts and typical junkie unreliability, Curt finally forged on without his brother for a time before closing it back down after a couple years in the early aughts. Curt played with ex-Sublime drummer Bud Gaugh and Nirvana bassist Kris Novoselic in Eyes Adrift, releasing one album. Curt formed another band, Volcano, and put out an album, then released a solo album in 2005 before Cris returned to the Meat Puppets on a probationary basis. Cris had finished spending 18 months in prison for attacking a security guard with his own baton at a Phoenix post office and used the time to get clean once and for all.
Their first album, Rise to Your Knees, was as shaky as the title indicates. Cris’ chops were dull, but by 2009’s Sewn Together, the band had solidified especially with the return of onetime drummer Shandon Sahm (son of the legendary Tex-Mex musician Doug Sahm) shortly after the album’s release. The last two -- 2011’s Lollipop and 2013’s Rat Farm -- are as tight and well-written as their golden-age ’80s albums, and aided by touring guitarist Elmo Kirkwood (Curt’s son), they’re an ass-driving powerhouse live.
We caught up with the legendary outfit at the Crofoot in Pontiac, Michigan, a nicely revitalized theater with several different stages, supported by an especially gracious staff and generous owner Dan McGowan. We spoke with Cris and Curt pre-show while taking a few rips from their jury-rigged water-bottle bong in the green room. (The conversation’s been edited and abridged for length and clarity.)
What was the inspiration for the looseness of your sound?
Curt Kirkwood: Inexperience
Cris Kirkwood: Psychedelics. And pot.
Curt: I’ve been in bands that want to be good and they want to practice, and we thought it was cool to be sloppy and have people accept it for what it was. Because it’s still happening as really well-played stuff, so it’s relevant. I still kind of think you have to allow for that stuff to happen. A lot of the stuff that’s really good you just never know. We just never could hold it together very well. It was punk rock. It was supposed to turn people and make them hate you. And we hated them.
Cris: We got a review one time that said the slightly retarded Kirkwoods seem like they’re trying to make people not like them.
Curt: That was part of it. The goal was to drive people out. We wanted people to leave the gig.
Cris: We were good at it too.
Tell me about your major-label deal, did you go in with your eyes open?
Curt: We had been on SST for long enough to get used to the way they did it. They were really easygoing and we kind of assumed the majors would be the same way. And we didn’t really lock horns with them. It was pretty easy. They had their ideas. They wanted to do this or that. They never really monkeyed around with what we did. They wanted to hook us up with a producer, which we thought was fine. Put us in a nice studio. All the stuff that we thought would be cool about the majors. We were going to produce ourselves and we made a demo and they told us it sucked.
Cris: They were wrong.
Curt: It was kind of the main switch there, but we were kind of naïve about the whole thing and they were kind of naïve about the punk rock/alternative. They knew that it was coming and all these other bands were being signed. We’d been looking for a major label so we could get better distribution. Then when they came up with the idea of Pete Anderson doing the production, we thought that was great…. We had never had a producer, so we were game.
Cris: Pete was very meticulous and knew what he wanted to do. Like he wanted to put shaker on something. And he’s like, “I’m going to get a guy.” And the guy that came in was fucking Alex Acuña, drummer of Weather Report. The first time Curt and I smoked pot together – both of us had been smoking grass and hiding it from Mom… and the first item we smoked grass together, we smoked a joint on the way down to see Weather Report. It was a fucking great show. This was like ’75, probably. Years later we’re making this record with Alex. The guy did it in one run-through and it was perfect. Then he’s like, “Let’s smoke pot!” And I told him the story about the first time we smoked grass together and so anyways, what about Jaco? He told me, “Man that was 15 years ago. I can’t remember five minutes ago.”
Cris, how did you close down the junkie business?
Cris: I was just a pathetic turd. I discovered an ability to let myself go to such a horrifying degree to the point I didn’t want to live that way. Then it was just coming back and stopping doing that to myself. That last go-around in the pokey definitely was long enough – I mean, there’s dope in jail, but it’s not like on the streets. Anyway, I had been trying to not hurt myself for a long fucking time. I’d gone to rehab a ton. Really, what it was was a lot of support from other people really being kind and giving me another chance.
Curt & Elmo Kirkwood: You’re welcome!
Cris: It became really apparent that I got the chance to stop and I was finally in a place where I could totally and completely stop and put it behind me. It will be 10 years in December.… I made that happen with a lot of intentional willful self-destruction. I happen to be very good at it.
Curt: Willful self-indulgent prickery.
How did you guys first start getting high?
Curt: We grew up around racehorses. Our parents had thoroughbreds and we kind of traveled around and did racing. We always had a dozen horses in the back proper, so we had a lot of alfalfa. We took newspaper and rolled alfalfa into these giant foot-long cigars and got whacked out of our minds. So it wasn’t marijuana the first time.
I didn’t know you could get high off alfalfa!
Curt: You can get high off anything if you smoke enough of it. The first time I smoked pot someone took me into a laundry room of an apartment complex next to where I was going to school and we smoked a joint. I was laughing and having a great time. My mom picked me up and said, “What’s wrong with you?” And I was like, “Hahahahahaha.”
When did you make the pot/music connection?
Curt: Probably listening to Pink Floyd. I kind of got tranced out like you’re supposed to and said, “Oh, this is what they made this stuff for! This is for stoners.” In my school we had a football team that went to state championship, and they were all dropping acid during the state championship game. People who went on to play pro ball were stoners. I had a pretty cool group of classmates. It was just really common.
So it wasn’t really counterculture there in Phoenix?
Curt: No, it became that way more and more but it was definitely in the ’70s like it was just part of the culture. And cocaine wasn’t an evil thing. It was like, “Wow, look, nose candy.”
Cris: I remember one time we dropped; I hadn’t been playing bass that long. I started playing banjo first, then I thought basses were cool somewhere around 15 or 16, around when Curt turned me on to acid
Curt: I took Cris to see Emerson, Lake and Palmer and gave him a hit of acid.
Cris: It was so cool; my first real good hallucination was so cool. The crowd turned into this big scarab beetle. It was demanding from the little beetle up onstage, this little noisemaking beetle.
Cris: [continuing story about getting busted for smoking pot] I got out but didn’t pay the fine. Like a douche, I don’t pay that. A few years later me and Curt went up to beautiful Sedona with a couple of our friends. It was beautiful day and I’m driving our mom’s mini pickup and it had a light out, according to the pig that pulled us over. But he gave us a warning. And I was like, “I can’t believe he let me off.” I actually got out and did a little freedom dance at one point. So we drive a little bit more and we stop at the Circle K to get some stuff. Then here come the pigs, and boom, I get busted three-fourths of the way through a really fucking beautiful trip and go to jail just tripping balls.… [Curt] lied and told them his name was Juan Gomez from Hollywood, California.
Curt: They towed the pickup and left us sitting there in front of the Circle K and we’re all despondent. We called Derrick [longtime Meat Puppets drummer Derrick Bostrom], our buddy in Phoenix, and he said “Yeah, I’ll come up and get you.” So we’re waiting and bummed and a couple of longhair Native American dudes pull up. One guy has long braids and is like, “What’s happening here?” And I said, “The cops took our truck and we’re stuck here for a while,” and he said, “Well, do you want to get stoned?” And we’re like, “Yeah!” So we go behind the Circle K, and he had some kind bud; it was really good. We were like, “Wow, holy shit this is really awesome.” And we started talking, “We’re here hiking, what are you doing?” And he goes, “I’m up here shooting a TV commercial.” And I go, “No shit.” He goes, “Yeah, you ever see those Mazola Corn Oil commercials with the dude that says, ‘My people call it maize’?” It was that guy.