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Friday, June 12, 2009

Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets speaks

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Chad Radford: I had a hard time with Meat Puppets when I was a teenager. You guys were an SST band, which in my limited understanding meant something specific, i.e. punk rock. I loved Black Flag and the Minutemen, and I guess the first couple of Husker Du records, I but couldn’t get my head around what you were doing because there was always so much more to your music than punk rock. Ironically, the thing that I didn't like is what gave you longevity, and is what I'm drawn to now. Did you feel like your natural inclination to incorporate so much more was confusing to listeners?

Curt Kirkwood: We thought those bands were all posers; all style and no substance. That's pretty much what I still think. Even back then someone had already done it. the Germs did it... the fucking Ramones did it first, you know? If it's loud and fast it qualifies as punk? We were a lot more hateful than all of those people. We hated them and we hated our fucking audience. That's why we played country music, so they'd get pissed off and leave. We knew what we were doing and we wanted to evolve the medium — if it was a medium at all. We liked the style, just like we like bluegrass and metal. There isn't much that I don't like.

SST sought us out and invited us to make a record. All the punk bands sought us out too, and I mean all of them: Flipper, TSOL, Dead Kennedys... we played with all of them. I can say it now because it was a long time ago, but we were the ones who didn't buy into it, and saw that they were putting themselves in a corner by doing that. It was an intentional thing and it has worked to a degree. People are capitalizing on that era now and all I can ever think about is that I wish I hadn't ever fired the fiddle player.

I think of Meat Puppets II, which came out in '84, as the album where the band's true personality started to shine, and a lot of the songs on your latest album, Sewn Together feel like a nod to that album. Maybe not in a coherent way, but there’s something intuitive about the way Sewn Together unfolds that puts me in the same place. Does that sound crazy to you?

I've heard that from other people, too, that it reminds them of Up on the Sun and Meat Puppets II. Style has always been kind of insignificant to me. I liked punk bands because style was their medium. I probably would have liked Black Flag if they were a bluegrass band, too. It's the vibe. The message is not the medium and that's where we are now. Sewn Together is the first record that we've done since the SST days that's completely self-produced. There's no outside interference, and our first forays into that were naively stumbled into with our first three records. We made some nice albums, and with the rest of the SST records we were kind of experimenting with what we could do with our skills and trying to see what production was all about. They were like lab experiments in finding out what we could do up until Monsters. We got away with a lot on Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun. It lifted the focus away from the fact that self-production was enough. We didn't have to stretch out as much stylistically, but we weren't really thinking about it. This is hindsight.

This time around we know what we can do and we're not experimenting much. It's a matter of us getting in there and seeing what we can do with the stuff without anyone telling us what they think about it. That's how we make the most satisfying records and that's where the vibe comes through the most. This record was cut pretty much the same way, we cut the basic tracks, overdubed some background vocals and guitars and pianos or whatever and let it stand on its own. Leave it alone and let it stand on its own merits.

It's tough to do, and I've been trying to do this for a long time, get back into a studio situation where I didn't have anyone outside of the band criticizing me or throwing in their two cents. I've liked working with my friends and producers, but there's a compromise that you go into knowingly, in the beginning, in the hopes that it will bring out what's already there. But that's the basic issue, it's already there. We sing like we do. The issue has always been, 'Let's make these voices sound better.' But I don't want it sound 'good.' It already sounds good. Who is anybody to come in and say whether I'm good or not. ...And I'm not one of those people who likes to be told that I'm good. It's like, 'oh thanks! Glad you approve. ... Fuck off!'

I imagine that there is a certain amount of knowledge or confidence that can only be gained by going through the process as many times as you have.

It's the wisdom of you are what you are and there's no time like the present. It's more confidence in the knowledge. Even if I hate myself I'm going to record what's real and that's my favorite part about doing it. I like messing around and I like special effects, and I like a confluence of instruments and I like for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. But ultimately the confidence is inspired by the fact that reality works the way that it does, and one way or another, it's still what I was at that point.

Is your 1994 album Too High to Die your biggest seller?

I think so. The others have sold well throughout the years but Too High to Die racked up good sales right away. I think it's platinum but nobody kept track. Polygram got shuttered.

"Backwater" had a lot of radio play at the time and it was a pretty intense era for a lot of musicians of your ilk. Nirvana had been at cruising altitude and they covered three of your songs, "Plateau," Lake of Fire" and "Oh Me." A lot of bands strive for that kind of success and attention. Who wouldn't want Nirvana to cover three of their songs?

Most musicians would love to have Kurt Cobain throw up in their lap!

Was it hard dealing with that much attention and commercial success?

It was fun and I think everyone has trouble with it. It changes your life, but I didn't mind it at all. It was a real thrill. For me it's like, take an epic movie and 'gosh, I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when Liz Taylor was playing Cleopatra.' I got to see that kind of show biz history and it was a lot of fun.

It has to be hard when things change and it's all over. Nothing lasts forever.

Yeah, but I've always been good at leaving parties. I'm usually the first to leave.

Do you have a favorite song on Sewn Together?

I like "Go to Your Head" a lot. I'm sure that will shift. I like "Sewn Together" because it's a fun one to play. I like "the Monkey and the Snake." I kind of like them all. There's usually a batch that I don't like to play, but this album holds up all in all. If you want to talk confidence, confidence is what I got from it. I went out on a limb telling everyone that I can do a good record on analog, and it turned out, so I knew I wasn't just flying blind when we did our own production.

The songs that stick with me the most are "Sapphire," "Blanket of Weeds" and "Clone."

Oh yeah, "Sapphire" and "Smoke" are both really fun ones too. I forget them until I'm reminded.

Are you a a Grateful Dead fan?

Sure.

Meat Puppets are often compared to the Grateful dead. Have you noticed this?

Yeah, from like way back. From like before jam bands even. We thought that's what we were going to be until Phish started getting all of the kids in tie-dyes. Right around the time we put out Monsters the Dead asked us to open for them. Their manager asked us for five copies of the album for the band's edification and approval. Apparently someone didn't edify.

We had friends who worked for the Dead and pointed out the similarities in that we were both trying to make our own trip, that we didn't have any boundaries, and that we were trying to map alternate universes. There wouldn't be a Meat Puppets without the Dead, for sure.

I think it was '77 the first time I saw them and it was at a time when I was seeing a lot of cool things like Art Ensemble of Chicago and Ramsey Lewis. It really opened my eyes. I was like 17 and I saw these things that were different from what you hear on the radio. The Dead seemed to put it all together. It wasn't the style that impressed me so much, but the fact that they played what they wanted to play. But at the same time I was really turned off by how locked into their style they were.

At the same I was also seeing things like Iggy Pop and Devo and it just made me wish that the Dead would throw a fucking cherry bomb into the audience every once in a while and scare some of these fucking hippies out of the twirling trance thing they were in.

That's what made us think 'man we can take what Sun Ra is doing, Led Zeppelin, Sabbath, Iggy Pop and punk rock and everything and make it our own.' Rock's cool that way because generally speaking it is the lowest common denominator.

So when you come to town you're doing a benefit in-store at Decatur CD for PAWS Atlanta. I read that if you present your ticket to the show later that night at the Earl you will get a free piece of art, and I assume that means from you, right?

That's horse shit! (laughs) That's my manager talking. ... What else do you need me to do while we're there? Mow your lawn? Maybe you need some dental work done? Sure, we'll do it!

"Rotten Shame" mp3

(Photo courtesy Daffodil Publicity)

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