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Meat of the matter 

The Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood confronts industry Golden Lies

Having your next album, labeled only "Forthcoming" in small print, promoted only via a sampler EP unceremoniously mailed out -- then having it disappear completely from the new release schedule -- would inspire most musicians to go around ranting to just about anyone who'd listen about the record industry's ills. Unfortunately, in the shadow of the 1999 Universal/Polygram merger, the Meat Puppets' label at the time, London Records, was busy being swallowed by Sire Records and had little to say about the two-decade-old band, whose genre-defying mix of hard rock, country noodling and punk touchstones had made it one of the most influential American acts to come out of the post-punk era.

Luckily, Curt Kirkwood, the Meat Puppets' lead vocalist/guitarist and the only remaining original Pup (the band now features three Austin musicians -- Andrew Duplantis, Kyle Ellison and Shandon Sahm), is much more forthcoming about the band's past struggles and how it relates to the latest album, the aptly titled Golden Lies.

While Kirkwood and the two original Meat Puppets rode the grunge wave to a moderate level of success in the early '90s with high-profile gigs opening for Nirvana -- even joining them on their episode of MTV's "Unplugged" -- and scored a gold record, Too High to Die, thanks to the swirling single "Backwater," Kirkwood spent much of the latter half of the '90s furiously treading water.

The success of "Backwater" can partially be attributed to the first of many tragedies associated with the Meat Puppets: the death of supportive friend Kurt Cobain and the subsequent constant airings of the "Unplugged" special. The Meat Puppets just kind of got swept along for the ride, and with the inevitable backwash that often accompanies unlikely success, washed up on a bumpy road that saw Curt's bandmate brother Cris descend into drugs, the departure of longtime drummer Derrick Bostrom and Curt's move to Austin to regroup.

"I was like, don't hold it against me for being a little successful once and having integrity for 20 years," says Kirkwood, referring to his struggle with label expectations. "I really love the Meat Puppets and feel like I just started, but expectations and different things kind of turned it weird. The next step is that it has to be bigger than that. And I never thought about it. You're judged so much more harshly on that sophomore thing. And if it comes that late in the career it's like, 'I'm not a sophomore. I graduated in about '85.'"

Kirkwood's experience after the Universal/Polygram merger was "a huge fucking clusterfuck for like three years," remembers Kirkwood. "I actually called the CEO of Universal Music myself and talked to him. The head of this whole umbrella thing was a really good guy to me and understood the plight of having a record done and being stuck in this shit. He did go around and have me see if any [Universal-owned label] wanted it, and nobody wanted to put it out."

Kirkwood's frustrations with being a pawn in the recording industry's game brought to life one of the ideas that has been attributed to the genesis of the band's name: "We're all meat puppets," Kirkwood once said. "We're all humans and none of us are in control."

Luckily for Kirkwood, the person who'd originally signed the Meat Puppets to London called soon after. He'd since taken a job at Hootie and the Blowfish's Atlantic-affiliated label, Breaking Records, and was happy to release the long-delayed Golden Lies (the aforementioned "Forthcoming").

While the album holds fast to many of the Pups' trademarks, unlike the band's early days making punk that even fucked with punkers on legendary punk label SST -- or even its middle-aged flirtations with the pop charts -- to a large extent the record-buying market is no longer searching for the type of rock alternatives the Meat Puppets have to offer.

"It's like, people made fun of Vanilla Ice for so long that I wouldn't have predicted that they would have found a way to legitimize it," Kirkwood says of rock's current climate, "but they have. And now it's like you better get with it or you're not cool. So I suppose [the future of music] will be enforced listening: There will be mandatory listening to certain types of music. It will be like in Korea where they blast nationalist stuff over these loudspeakers while people dig trenches for no pay."

Resigned to being out of step with today's rock, Kirkwood created a varied album that subtly deals with the pressures of the past few years while delivering doses of the renowned Meat Puppets lyrical surrealism and heavy, psychedelic rock (with a little leftover grunge and cathartic noise). The Meat Puppets' music has always mixed Kirkwood's love of Black Sabbath to the Beatles, country music to '50s crooners, regardless of whether or not anyone is forcefully promoting it, blaring it from the ramparts. Plus, Golden Lies boasts some new elements, including keyboards and loops, all held together by what Kirkwood considers the Meat Puppets' only true trademark: his nontraditional singing voice.

A prime example of a Golden Lies track that mixes the airy sound of classic Pups with Kirkwood's current events is "Endless Wave": "I have always been a monster/Though it seems a game of fools/And I have always come out losing/When it's someone else's rules/The song across the endless sea/Sends a wave that crashes over me/I could never make the journey/I can hardly swim/That's why I'm fascinated/Just how deep I've been pulled in/Here's the horns of my dilemma/What's behind the siren's song/Do I crawl to my own drummer/Or am I being dragged along."

That answer may not be immediately forthcoming, but the backwater's undertow has yet to take Curt Kirkwood, who, now that the Golden Lies have been addressed, is just trying to live by his other Meat Puppet philosophy: doing what he wants, no strings attached.

The Meat Puppets play the PlanetJam Cotton Club, Fri., Jan. 26, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 404-688-1193.

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