What's in a name? Depends, when your name is Elmo Kirkwood. At 22, he's the singer and guitarist for locals Broken Robot. But his musical legacy is much older: Elmo's the son of Meat Puppets guitarist Curt Kirkwood and nephew of troubled Puppets bass player Cris Kirkwood.
"I was in a strip club and the stripper asked me my name, so I told her, and she seemed kind of disappointed that my name was Elmo," he tells me at Hollywood Alley on a recent Monday before his band plays. Having the first name of a Sesame Street puppet obviously negates having the last name of a Meat Puppet at least, in some circles.
Nonetheless, as I watch Elmo Kirkwood play guitar later that night with his bandmates guitarist/singer Brian Boyer, bass player Kyle Reich, and drummer David Libman I'm struck by how much of his pop's skills he's inherited.
Though there are only 20 or 30 people in the Alley after Page the Village Idiot's hilarious one-man set, the foursome cranks out a huge sound with Elmo's lead guitar psychedelically wahh-ed out over Boyer's rhythm guitar. With a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel's painting of God and man's hands about to touch looming overhead in the red lights, Elmo strums his guitar like it's on a computer-programmed rubber band.
Considering the shots he imbibes (Southern Comfort and lime) and the fragrant smoke we'd earlier inhaled outside the Nappy by Nature barbershop next door (where we wonder exactly what the "Afro Tappers" advertised in the window are), Elmo Kirkwood blows my fucking mind onstage, and it isn't just 'cause of the wacky tobaccy. He doesn't have the twangy cow-punk style of the elder Kirkwoods, but throughout the hourlong set he and the band demonstrate a mastery of a litany of styles, from Sonic Youth-style psychedelia to Pixies-ish melodic whimsy to screaming punk rock to what Elmo describes from the stage as their "John Mayer song."
Not every kid has the sort of upbringing that nurtures his talent to this degree, or the pedigree to go with it, of which both Elmo and I are aware. "I obviously have opportunities like this because of that," he tells me while we're sitting outside near the Alley's stage door. "I think it's helped me growing up around music. To a certain extent you've gotta watch out, though; you don't know if people are really into it or if it's just fuckin' . . . ," he trails off.
"My dad's band wasn't really that popular. They were popular enough, but a lot of people don't know who they are, so it's pretty cool." That's kind of an understatement in this town, where the Meat Puppets are known not only as the 'Nix's contribution to '80s and early-'90s punk rock and later as the band Nirvana covered on its Unplugged session, but also for the drug addictions and legal problems Elmo's uncle Cris has suffered in the public eye.
"I just don't say anything," he says of his last name and the musical history attached to it. "In general, people have to be told. I never really say anything about it. For the most part, it's been good. Curt's band was not huge enough where . . ."
"You're not Frances Bean Cobain?" I finish for him.
"Yeah, it's not a Sean or Julian Lennon sort of thing. I think it's done more good than bad."
Elmo lived in the Meat Puppets house with his dad, uncle, and drummer Derrick Bostrom until he was about 3 years old, and after that lived next door to his uncle's house in Tempe, where the Puppets practiced, for nine years. Elmo started playing guitar seriously about a decade ago, and he's been playing with his current band for a year and a half. Cris, his uncle, now clean after years of heroin and crack addiction, attends most of Broken Robot's shows, though he doesn't make it down this night.
Elmo Kirkwood is in a position that any young musician would envy he just quit his job at Boston's Pizza in Tempe and he's thinking of joining his dad on a solo tour for a month or so this summer but what I admire about him is that he's not standing on the shoulders of the family name. He may have had a privileged upbringing musically, but the talents he's developed more than validate the advantages he's had.
Besides that, just being a Kirkwood doesn't mean you won't get screwed in this town. I was supposed to see Broken Robot on the Friday previous, at the Big Fish Pub in Tempe, but management waffled on whether to continue on with the show when there wasn't a sufficient crowd around 10 at night.
Never mind that the Big Fish was charging $8 for those old enough to drink and $10 for the underagers to see mostly unknown bands; the management pulled the plug on the show as Libman, the drummer, was just setting up.
"People that were showing up weren't even coming in," Elmo tells me. "That's game-playing and if their bar was cool to hang out at, there would have been people there already. Half the people I told about it beforehand made a face, or said something about it. No one wants to go to the Big Fish Pub in the first place. We just won't play there again."
I wouldn't count that as a huge loss. Elmo Kirkwood and his bandmates are determined to have a career in music, and I've seen firsthand that they've got the skills to make it happen.
"It's all I want to do, and I don't see too many other options," Elmo says with a grin.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.