Master of Puppets
Curt Kirkwood has a new project.
The least surprising thing about this venture is that it's based in Austin. And there's more to it than the fact that his new bandmates are from there. And it's not, as drummer Shandon Sahm quips, "because Texas has barbecues and death penalties."
Phoenix was no longer an option for Kirkwood -- too much dark water under that bridge -- and he'd grown antsy in Venice Beach. Austin made sense for more reasons than one. In fact, the story of his new band's convergence is a complex and perhaps cosmic one, involving overlapping histories, freaky synchronicities and small-world inevitabilities. But the most complex part of the tale is the fact that Kirkwood's "new" band, the Meat Puppets, has actually been around for more than two decades.
Meet the new Meat Puppets, the Austin-based foursome led by Kirkwood, which now includes bass player Andrew Duplantis, guitarist Kyle Ellison and Sahm. The group's first effort together, the jangly psychotropic folk-rock-whatever Golden Lies (set for a September 26 release), is as wacky and solidly crafted a work as Kirkwood has summoned, full of the haunted visions and noodling insanity he's known for. The 13-track album is produced mostly by Kirkwood, with two songs produced by the Butthole Surfers' Paul Leary ("Hercules" and "Wipe Out").
It's different than old Meat Puppets albums. Duh. It's also very good.
As with most of the band's catalogue, it leaves one grasping for descriptions. Maybe the most accurate way to characterize the album is as folk-rock balladry meets Kirkwood rap meets Martian-invaded heavy-bottom roots-pop, with the songwriter/guitarist's style slathered all over it, down to the cover art.
Naturally, there will be mutterings about the "new" Meat Puppets. There will be hobgoblins and aliens and ape fists -- funny fire-breathing wraiths similar to those conjured in Kirkwood's poetry on Golden Lies. And no doubt, there will be diehard Pups fans who claim they can't see it, can't hear it, don't want it, blahblahblah -- to which Kirkwood offers a simple "fuck you if you don't like good music."
One thing is definitely true. The band is nothing like the Valley trio that made the Pups a punk epigram among undergrounders throughout the '80s and mid-'90s. Drummer Derrick Bostrom is happily ensconced in Paradise Valley, making his own electronic music and running the creative department of a multimedia company, and bassist Cris Kirkwood is laying low in the desert, struggling to recoup from years of drug addiction and personal tragedy. Both are technically still members of the band, and both are watching from the sidelines and, apparently, wishing the new guys well.
"It's not like Curt ran over my dog and I'll never forgive him," says Bostrom, who maintains the Meat Puppets Web site and oversaw the massive reissue of the Pups' catalogue on Rykodisc last year. "I don't think he's gotten to say everything he wanted to say with the band. The band was three members, but it was also a platform from which Curt could mount his ideas. He's still doing it. He's not through by any means."
The mantle of the Meat Puppets, whatever that implies, will bring questions and expectations, for which the new group says it's ready. They're ready for the gauntlet, the flaming hoop, the coal-walking, the baring of teeth and ass and soul and bones. Most of all, they say they're ready to get the music out and hit the road. They've spent three years swirling in the cyclone that fused Seagrams/Universal/Polygram/Island/Def Jam/etc. into one big scary monster and left London Records (later gobbled in a Warner Bros.-driven frenzy) bereft of many of its U.S.-signed bands, including the Meat Puppets. Fortunately for Kirkwood, after getting a sweet release from Universal, a mid-summer deal jelled with Atlantic Records' Breaking imprint, run by Hootie & the Blowfish and former London A&R man Max Burgos. Burgos and Blowfish guitarist Mark Bryan plucked the band out of limbo and set it on the trail toward whatever's next.
Bryan voiced his pleasure with the deal in the July 1 issue of Billboard magazine, saying, "We now have a career artist on our label. Hopefully, it gives us a little clout."
For their part, the guys say they are unflustered by the months of touring and promoting ahead. All four are savvy musicians; they know what's at stake. As the 41-year-old Kirkwood says with characteristic fire-and-brimstone confidence, "This is a great fucking band, period."
As for its use of the moniker, the singer says, "It's like Willy Wonka or Disneyland or whatever. Somebody is in the suit. It's not really a fucking mouse. It's a fucking guy in a mouse suit that walks around and says hi to your kids. It's just a convenient shelter, it's a tool. Music is beyond labels. But stuff sticks to you, and that's just 'show business' in America."
As abstract comparisons go, Kirkwood has a knack for putting things in your face and daring you to disagree. What's the point? Ultimately it is only rock 'n' roll, whether it's called the Meat Puppets, or The Artists Formerly Known as Meat Puppets Minus Two People and Plus Three, or Royal Neanderthal Orchestra, which the foursome used briefly back in 1997.
Kirkwood dares you to spar, all the while gleefully slagging mass-market music, hypothesizing why Britney Spears is the hardest-working artist in show biz, or contemplating why Jim Nabors rocks and Burl Ives is a god.
Discussing the reality of what lies ahead and reflecting on the history of what came before (not just the Phoenix trio, but the beast known as The Biz), Kirkwood chomps the subject into a morass of sarcasm that endlessly eats its own tail. It's classic Kirkwood. And more than a few fans will be glad it/he/whatever is back.
Before Kirkwood met them, the three new members of the Meat Puppets had long-standing ties. Ellison and Sahm were childhood friends in San Antonio, where Sahm grew up the cool kid with a white Cadillac, son of the legendary Doug Sahm, and Ellison was a handsome, soft-spoken kid whose passion for guitar blazed early. The two became bandmates when they formed Pariah with Ellison's older brother, bass player Sims, along with singer Dave Derrick and guitarist Jared Tuten. Through the late '80s and early '90s, the band was known for the youth of its members (Kyle Ellison and Sahm were just out of high school when Geffen Records signed them in 1990) and for the quintet's unique brand of leather-pants metal prone to Roky Erickson and R.E.M. excursions. Unfortunately, Pariah would be most remembered for the 1995 suicide of Sims.
Sahm and Ellison were bound through history, tragedy, music and friendship. And strangely, the brothers Kirkwood and Ellison were linked without anyone knowing the degrees of separation and affinity.
Back in 1993, the Meat Puppets and Pariah played the same showcase at South by Southwest. Curt Kirkwood and Kyle Ellison recall only that it happened, not much else. But it was Sims who really turned Kyle on to the Meat Puppets in 1994. As Kyle remembers, not long before Sims died, he brought home the Pups' 1994 album, the destined-for-gold Too High to Die. But fate had further plans for Ellison and Kirkwood, because in 1995, when Too High to Die producer Paul Leary headed to Phoenix to produce the Meat Puppets' last album, No Joke, the Surfers guitarist brought with him drum tech Cory Moore (now Jimmie Vaughan's manager), who introduced Kirkwood to Ellison. Kirkwood hired the young guitarist to join the Meat Puppets' No Joke tour. But the outing ended when Cris Kirkwood's drug addiction worsened, and the original Pups, the group that had played insanely riveting live shows for 15 years, was no more, though its demise would never amount to an official split.
In the meantime, Ellison joined the Surfers on their Electric Larryland tour in 1996. Once off the road, he joined Kirkwood in the studio in L.A. to work on music, with Austin-based Stuart Sullivan, who'd worked on Too High to Die, engineering. But the fruits of that labor didn't pan out. London was in no position to peddle it with the Meat Puppets' status in limbo, especially with with contractual ties involving the band's name in the balance and with London itself being swallowed by Warner/Sire. The pair continued to work, however, and Ellison introduced Sahm to Kirkwood. At that point, in early 1997, Kirkwood decided he should move to Austin. Not only did he have a budding band in Texas, but longtime friends Leary and Gibby Haynes were there. So were Sullivan, Moore and people like Bob Mould, an old SST labelmate from the Hüsker Dü days. There were countless familiar faces in Austin, and they weren't constant reminders of the tragedies that had assailed Kirkwood's family in Arizona.
Also in 1997, Louisiana-born Duplantis was living in the same apartment complex as Sahm. After national tours with Bob Mould (as a duo) and with Alejandro Escovedo, Duplantis was playing with the Austin band Superego. And like many local musicians, he was spending a lot of his spare time hanging out at the famed Austin Rehearsal Complex, where Sahm, Ellison and Kirkwood had a studio. They asked him to sit in one day.
After a series of brushes between parallel universes, the Meat Puppets coalesced.
"No one ever told me I was in the band," Duplantis recalls with a smile. "I just kept showing up and nobody said, 'Hey don't show up anymore.' It was in early October '97, and they were in their room and I was out front, and Kyle was like, 'You want to come in here and jam?' They were playing 'Fat Boy,'" he says, referring to the slow-grooving song on Golden Lies with classic Kirkwood lyrics: "Stop abusing Martians/Stop reducing calories/Clip your eggs together/Monkey one." "We played and it just kind of went from there. I kept showing up and jamming. I finally brought my own rig down."
"It just happened," echoes Sahm, with garrulous energy that occasionally conjures a skinny, doing-my-own-thing image of his dad. "It's not like you can plan this stuff. Everybody just went, 'Dink, dink, dink, dink.' Like links in a bracelet clinking into place."
"Chemistry is the best word for it, overall. And that's what we've maintained," Kirkwood interjects, as the four sit in the cluster of amps, guitars, drums, keyboards, doodled-on pieces of paper, coffee cups, bongs and Dr. Pepper bottles amassed in their Austin Music Lab studio.
"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.
"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."
Doug Sahm was actually part of the Golden Lies picture in an abstract way, and because of that, when he died two days before one of the Meat Puppets' Austin performances last winter, the band dedicated the show to the elder Sahm.
In fact, during the hardest times of last year, when London Records' commitments were being compromised and the band was waiting and doing the only thing it could do -- write more music (recording almost 60 songs in three years) -- Doug Sahm would sometimes poke his head in the studio.
"He used to say to us all the time, 'Music is what's happening beyond the other shit,'" Kirkwood remembers, "and the other shit is like, 'Oh, isn't that a pain in the ass?'"
Clearly, the elder Sahm's death was a blow to the band. Shandon was devastated. His father's heart condition was unknown, and his sudden death due to heart failure in New Mexico, following the death of Shandon's mom a year and a half before, shattered the drummer. "Hard stuff, I know man. Hard. I'm just thankful that I got to spend 30 years with him."
The Meat Puppets wound up playing that weekend after Doug Sahm's death -- a performance that's still talked about by those who were in the audience. Shandon decided it would be the best way to carry on -- to play the music. As he said, everything in this band is about the music.
So when you talk to any of the guys about the definition of integrity, any of them could unleash a hurricane of examples of how they've stuck it out in the business, regardless of the crap it entails. Because they all love it. Pure. Simple. Perhaps the album's title is about the surface conflict between making good music and making a bunch of money so you can keep making good music.
Kirkwood, as usual, shares a pithy view of the phenomenon that is large-scale music making in the 21st century. It's really basic.
"It's like the same thing we were all doing when we were smoking dope when we were kids," Kirkwood begins. "Fucking, 'I want to be Pink Floyd, man.'" He screws up his face and makes a goofy, howling riff sound that might the beginning of "Money." "That's all it is. It's just jamming out. That's all it is. It's the fucking groove, man. That's all it is. It's all the same fucking day, like Janis said. It's all the same fucking band. And it's the same planet, from the stupid monkey Romans or whatever, to the Neanderthal fucking dinosaurs. I mean, it's great that we've all noticed anything, anyway. That's the way I look at it. It's great that we've all noticed."
He's on a roll now. "That brings it back to the paradox of the trick," he says, continuing. "Get people involved and then get them beyond it. It's supposed to be transcendental. A lot of stuff in rock is like that. KISS or Elvis or Kid Rock or whatever. Rock by nature: Elvis is transcendence. Like, 'Yeah I'm wearing a fucking lime-green suit. Get over it.' And it's always like that. 'And by the way, thanks for fucking caring. Please don't call the police or do anything violent to me.' Just don't fucking pass out, that's all I can say. Or somebody's going to take your wallet."
It's an apt metaphor for just about anything that matters in life. Don't pass out, because someone will rob you. Or at least if you pass out, says Kirkwood, make sure you're alone.
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