Master of Puppets

Curt Kirkwood is the heart, soul and everything else of the Meat Puppets, no matter who's in the band

"That's what happened in the beginning with the three-piece, but we even have that now and it's cooler. Not that that wasn't cool. That's great stuff and I love it. That's so much of my identity and everything. But this just kind of broadened the whole thing. People go, 'So does it sound like Meat Puppets?' And I go, 'Which Meat Puppets? Up On the Sun? The first one? Huevos? Or the sixth stupid Prince-rip-off Meat Puppets? Which one?'" It was always evolving. I was never privy to what Meat Puppets is as a thing anyway."

Perhaps it is just a label. But all kinds of negative-positive polarity can emanate from a label, and Kirkwood is well aware of that. On the one hand, the name sets the band on a path potholed by inevitable comparisons, or on an occasional byroad muddied by the disgruntled fan who cries "fraud" or accuses someone of trading on name recognition. On the other hand, Kirkwood arguably was the soul of the trio. Most of the songs they're known for were written by him.

Still, there's no faster way to get Kirkwood's eyes blazing than to talk about labels and the music business. He talks about the down-and-dirty reality of rock 'n' roll.

New edition: Meat Puppets Version 2.0. Kirkwood 
(kneeling) and, from left, Ellison, Duplantis and Sahm.
New edition: Meat Puppets Version 2.0. Kirkwood (kneeling) and, from left, Ellison, Duplantis and Sahm.
Kirkwood on the original trio: "It was always evolving. I 
was never privy to what Meat Puppets is as a thing."
Kirkwood on the original trio: "It was always evolving. I was never privy to what Meat Puppets is as a thing."

"Anybody that sells anything is totally fucking hooking their product, that's all it is, doesn't matter what the fuck it is," Kirkwood says. "There's no integrity if it involves filthy fucking lucre. Everybody knows it. They deny it, and they drive around and wreck the world and the air, and they know that. They also know that they flush their turds away to God knows where and let somebody else take care of it."

The question of integrity naturally arises, then. And Kirkwood doesn't delude himself as much as other established artists might. He knows he doesn't have to defend himself. The new album is more lush and laid-back -- and just plain lovely -- than some of the former trio's work, but it's also solidly inventive, technically brilliant. If compromises can be extracted from melodies, harmonies, chord progressions and bass lines that should easily seduce the radio racket, then so be it. As he says, hell yeah, he hopes the record gets radio play -- and MTV and whatever else might come along. But don't question his integrity.

"Integrity is my fucking business, that's what it is," he says, not exactly riled, but animated. "That's what I think. It's whatever I say it is. It's like punk rock was or anything else -- it's your own thing. It's music. Basically, this band has worked really hard on these songs, and then you have to come back to the actual concept of commercializing it, or promoting it or whatever. Well, I'm not really in this 'business.' They're their own thing, and it's a phenomenon right now to me. I'm trying to get back into it, and it's different than it used to be. That's for sure. But I don't think to have 'integrity' is important. Elvis proved that, and that's what he was all about -- he fucking raised the bar so high he put everybody else at the time out of business."

In a sense, he's talking about gimmickry. And the truth is, it's necessary to have a gimmick, or name recognition, or the big-money record companies behind you giving you those things. Any band that doesn't have that will spend years eating macaroni and cheese -- or "playing to 10 drunks in a bar in Houston and saying, 'Oh, that was fun, now let's go drive around the country for three years,'" as Kirkwood says.

"I'm putting my kids through college with this shit," he says. "On a real level, I've worked since I was 21 in the Meat Puppets, and on a real level, I'm not going to sit there and watch fucking schmuck after schmuck make millions of dollars in this business in fly-by-night little costumes of fucking retardation that I can hardly stomach -- and give up my own hard-owned sweat equity because somebody doesn't like what I'm doing now."

He understands what's going on, the way Madonna understood what was going on and Elvis understood what was going on. If you've got the talent or the chutzpah or the tenacity beneath the "gimmick," then what's wrong with making the most of it? Use the name. Use the hips. Use the skin color or the Latin accent or the hair and leather pants. Use it for all it's worth. That's the only time rock 'n' roll really ever works is when it's in the artist's favor.

With Kirkwood steering the boat named Meat Puppets, it won't merely be Meat Puppets 2. Not if he can get the listener's ear and just play the music. The rest of the band feels the same way. In separate interviews, all of them say that ultimately this is Curt Kirkwood's band, and yet it's a band that interacts instinctively and democratically.

"There's no shadiness here," Sahm says. "Everybody gets along great and we all respect each other. We're not here to waste anybody's time or money. This is a great record, and we're ready to get out and play and get people exposed to it . . . I don't want to sound like Mr. Confidence, but I know what's up. I've done this for 15 years. Even though I'm just 30, I've been in the music business for a long time, and the situation that this is is a good thing. Everything we do in the band is about the music. Curt respects us, and I totally appreciate that. My dad used to say, 'I like that man, Curt. I like him.' Not only did he like Curt as a person, he liked the whole band. He thought it was a cool thing and wanted us to stick with it."

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