Local Wire

Meat Puppet Cris Kirkwood's Podcast Is a Window Into His Mind

Cris Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets begins talking almost immediately, standing in his driveway, dressed casually in sweats, his hair and beard gray save for a few stray dark strands radiating in all directions from his head. A fuzzy halo.

His neighbor, he says, was the victim of a recent fire. Not a fire next door to Kirkwood's place in Central Phoenix, but another house his neighbor owns. It reminds Kirkwood of a fire he experienced at his childhood home with his brother, Curt. He rattles through the story quickly. It's difficult to keep up. He veers into off-color asides, giggling often, using the phrase "fuckin'" like one might pause or say "um."

"I'm a chatty motherfucker. I like the sound of my own voice," Kirkwood says, settled into a chair on his back porch, lighting an American Spirit from a blue pack. His chattiness is the topic tonight as he begins explaining the Cris Kirkwood Podcast, a talk show he launched with producer and co-host Bill Cody in April 2015. The show re-launches this month on the Alternative Network podcast channel as The Cris Show: Featuring Cris Kirkwood.

Recorded mostly at Winslow Ct. Studios in Hollywood — the preferred studio of the Zappa family trust and featured in 2000's dog show comedy Best in Show — the podcast has found Kirkwood interviewing fellow punk legends like Mike Watt of the Minutemen and Firehose; Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro; Keith Morris of OFF!, the Circle Jerks, and Black Flag; comedians like Jack Black, Kyle Gass, and Fred Armisen; singer/songwriters like Gabby Moreno and Sam Phillips; and other filmmakers, writers, and artists. Kirkwood's interview style mirrors that of his artwork, which appears on Meat Puppets album covers and tour posters — squiggly, enthusiastic, and perfectly suited to far-out discussions about psychedelic experiences and the nature of reality.

"It completely and entirely wasn't my idea in any way," Kirkwood says.

The idea was pitched to him by Cody, a longtime friend and filmmaker known for features like the Black Lips documentary Kids Like You & Me and music doc Athens, Ga. — Inside Out. He sensed that Kirkwood's conversational skills and wealth of stories might make for an interesting show.

"I was so very not really aware of what the fuck a podcast even was," Kirkwood admits.

Cody sent him an episode of Marc Maron's WTF, an interview with writer Nick Tosches. Kirkwood dug it, and the idea of free-ranging, wide-open conversations with friends and artists appealed to him. He had conditions, though: Cody had to handle all the legwork, save for Kirkwood's interview prep and "the chatting part."

Over the course of his time with the Meat Puppets, the influential and definitive Arizona genre-mutating psych punk band he formed with his brother, Curt, and drummer Derrick Bostrom in the late '70s, Kirkwood had grown to enjoy interviews.

"One of things the band was lucky enough to have was interest from the press," Kirkwood says. "I've done plenty of interviews and actually got to the point that I enjoy it."

Stepping into the other role — the interviewer — wasn't something he'd ever seriously considered, but he was attracted to the concept and the freedom to expand on what he enjoyed about being interviewed himself.

"I try to amuse myself," Kirkwood says about being interviewed. "And you say a bunch of shit, and the article is about this big [indicates a very small space with two fingers] and there's, like, three quotes in it and half of it is wrong."

The podcast format allows more space, a format conducive to Kirkwood's favorite kind of talks. "This is something where you're talking to someone and you get the whole conversation," he says, explaining the way it diverges from his normally truncated interviews. Here, he has free license to explore the questions that most boggle him.

"So much goes into influencing who you are and what you are," Kirkwood says. "It's creepy and weird, what in the fuck? Why are we here? What is reality? Why are these little balls of dirt floating in the infinite nothingness, apparently, and these little microbes upon them spouting out the noises they make? It's all very . . . you're certainly not going be able to answer that question."

Kirkwood makes notes for each show and spends time investigating his guests' careers, but naturally, the conversation often turns to his history with the Meat Puppets, usually when the guests — like Fred Armisen or Jack Black — begin to detail their fondness for the Puppets' sound, which blends psychedelic rock, prog ambition, and the particularly mystic and far-out strains of country and Americana.

"One of the things is because of the band . . . our history . . . we wind up talking about the band," he says. "That's fine enough, but I also don't want it to just be that. I don't know — I don't listen to the fuckin' things. I haven't listened to one of them. I listened to about half of that first one . . . That was plenty for me."

His affection for the sound of his own voice has limits.

"I get a lot of smoke blown up my ass, but it don't add up to nothing," Kirkwood says of the band's vocal fans. "And that's nice enough. I influenced so-and-so. I get to go home and fall asleep thinking what a wonderful person I am." He laughs. "That's nice that people say nice shit about us, but this is a tactile actual thing, where people come in and I get to make this other thing out of the work we've done."

The podcast follows a period of renewed activity of the Meat Puppets, and Kirkwood in particular. In the late '90s, he struggled with coke and heroin addiction. His wife, Michelle Tardif, died of an overdose in 1998. He found her body, and the tragedy corresponded with Kirkwood's own addictions spiraling, landing him in and out of jail. In 2003, he was involved in a fight with a security guard he assaulted with a baton at a downtown Phoenix post office. The guard consequently shot in him in the back. It's hard to imagine the altercation now — not in the presence of such a self-described "softie" — but it led to his longest stint in federal prison, on assault charges. There, he finally cleaned up, and when he was released in 2005, he stayed clean.

In 2007, he returned to the Meat Puppets, recording Rise to Your Knees. The group has been on a tear since, releasing three albums, including 2013's excellent Rat Farm.

"I went through some painful, dark shit, but I've managed to come back to it, and it's about family," Kirkwood says. Recently, his brother Curt's son, Elmo, has been playing with the group on guitar, which Cris loves.

"It's bitchin'! It's so satisfying," Kirkwood says of the band's legacy and recent output. "We were so far out as kids — me and my brother — and to have [the band] live in this way and have that be such an affirmation of the ideas we had as kids . . . It's such a human thing. It's sick. It's fuckin' sick as fuck."

In a few days, he's headed out to Los Angeles to record an episode of the show with Dweezil Zappa, son of Frank, one of his greatest musical inspirations. He's excited for the talk, noting that a huge image of the elder Zappa hangs in Winslow Ct. Studios, a comforting sight to him. "I'm just a shy, creepy guy," Kirkwood laughs as he takes a drag. "But I'm getting a kick out of it."

Listen to the The Cris Show: Featuring Cris Kirkwood podcast on SoundCloud or subscribe via iTunes.
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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.