Elmo Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets Has Pop Ambitions

Elmo Kirkwood on stage with the Meat Puppets at Underground Arts in Philadelphia.EXPAND
Elmo Kirkwood on stage with the Meat Puppets at Underground Arts in Philadelphia.
Beta Klein

Elmo Kirkwood recently got a haircut.

It's a standard barber cut, short on the sides but with a dramatic swoop of curly brown hair combed over that serves as a constant reminder of his familial heritage, that of the brothers Kirkwood, his father Curt and his uncle Cris, two of the founders of the legendary Meat Puppets, whose psychedelic country punk began in Phoenix in the early '80s and whose discography stands as one of the greatest in alternative rock.

Kirkwood seems to still be getting used to the cut -- in past years he's sported a sprawling mane -- as he sips a beer at Casey Moore's Oyster House, where we've settled on default after he suggests we meet at "any of the regular haunts" in Tempe.

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The 31-year-old Kirkwood grew up in the East Valley, in Mesa and later Tempe, where he formed a series of bands including Kirkwood Dellinger and Flamingo. In 2011, he joined the reconstituted Meat Puppets, alongside his father, uncle, and drummer Shandon Sahm, son of the late songwriter Doug Sahm of the Texas Tornados.

Kirkwood had initial reservations about joining the Puppets. It meant less time for his own music but presented a daunting legacy.

"I thought to myself, 'I'm not gonna do this unless it serves the greater good, the greater purpose of what we've got going on here,'" Kirkwood says. "I didn't want to fucking do it otherwise, because it's got its own thing and it's so respected."

It didn't take long for Kirkwood to find his place on stage with the band. As if a testament to his DNA, the youngest Kirkwood understands both fluidity and sonic space, and isn't afraid to employ Captain Beefheart-style rhythmic tricks, muting his guitar and strumming hypnotically. His first recordings with Meat Puppets, covers of the Texas Tornados' "(Hey Baby) Que Paso" and the Everly Brothers' "Cathy's Clown," demonstrate his prowess in the studio, too, as he trades breakneck Latin rock leads with Curt on the former and adds haunting harmonies to the latter.

Kirkwood sometimes talks about Meat Puppets the way a dedicated fan might. He alternates between referring to his father as "Curt" and "my dad," noting the band's position in the SST Records creative vanguard alongside the Minutemen and Saccharine Trust and their defined influence and hits in the '90s. He recalls punk icons like Henry Rollins and guitarist John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers being around the house when he was young, knows that the band's records presaged the alternative boom of the '90s, and remembers fifth-grade classmates struggling to play "Plateau," which his father wrote for Meat Puppets' 1984 record II and Nirvana covered on MTV Unplugged in New York (with the Kirkwoods in tow).

"The solo from 'Lake of Fire' was a thing that was impressive to be able to play," Kirkwood laughs.   The guitarist feels natural as a Meat Puppet now, but that hasn't stopped him from exploring his own idiosyncratic ideas on the side. For a few years now, he's been obsessed with pop radio, citing the work of producers like the infamous Dr. Luke, Mike Will Made It, Benny Blanco, Jesse Shatkin, and Greg Kurstin, hitmakers known for their work with pop stars Katy Perry, Sia, Rihanna, and Miley Cyrus, as inspiration for his electronic work.

"I like a lot of these modern producers," Kirkwood says. "I like the idea that it's really contained . . . What I've noticed the most is that it's all super-simple. It's all about emphasizing in the right places. It's getting concise hooks. Stripping it down but layering and stacking it up while having it not be this mess. It's like, 'Less is more, but then more is also more, right'?"

Four of Kirkwood's nascent electronic recordings can be found on his humble ReverbNation page. Kirkwood has some party anthems, like the dance punk excursion "Do the Russell Crowe (C'mon Everybody Let's)" and "Giving Up the Ghost," but he shines most on slower songs like the haunting "Prince of Thieves" and cooing "Slow Jams Forever," which rides a gentle G-Funk pulse. There's little context presented, but Kirkwood made songs using nothing but his iPhone.

"I wrote, performed, and recorded it all on my phone, and I used the talk back function on my Beats by Dre headphones to do the vocals," Kirkwood says. "I got the GarageBand app for my phone, and [while there are] definite parameters I had to operate in, I realized I could make some pretty cool shit on it, some '80s throwback stuff."

Kirkwood says he might release the iPhone-recorded album for fun (he's leaning toward calling the EP America's Got Talons), but he's already focused on a more fleshed-out realization of his electronic pop ambitions, a trio called Supr3yes with his former Kirkwood Dellinger bandmate Brian Boyer and Dave Owens of Vial of Sound.

"It's analog synths, live guitar and bass, programmed drums," Kirkwood enthuses, noting that his bandmates would probably prefer that he keep that information closer to this chest. But he can't help gushing about it. He sends me a few demos after we leave the bar, and it's easy to see why Kirkwood is so excited. The untitled demos are long-form dance tracks, with interlocking live instruments and trance-inducing beats, instrumental jams with clear nods in the directions of Chic and Daft Punk. In other words, the songs will kill in packed dance clubs once the band gets around to playing shows.

"It's so much different than anything I thought I'd be doing," Kirkwood says and while the music's "spacey disco" throb is removed from the scorched cowpunk he plays with Meat Puppets, there are both rhythmic parallels as well as spiritual ones.

"[In Meat Puppets' classic albums] there's disco, country, funk, all that shit," Kirkwood says. "They were just doing whatever they liked. [They were] very open-minded with music. They were just like, 'Fuck it,' you know what I mean? That's where the punk rock thing came from in the first place; they were just very open-minded. I can't speak for them, but [I don't think that they were] punk rockers. They just made far out fucking music, and that's a pretty far out thing to do when you're a young person."

Tweet at the author @jasonpwoodbury.

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