Meat Puppets Add a Fourth, But It's All in the Family
If the Carter Family palled around with Black Flag in the late ’70s, dropped a lot of acid and moved to Arizona they might’ve found kinship with The Meat Puppets, one of the finest and most enduring bands to emerge from the early American punk underground.
Once a flagship act of trailblazing punk label SST Records (run by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn), the Puppets revolve around the brother act of guitarist Curt Kirkwood and bassist Cris Kirkwood. Their hazy, ambling cowpunk/country-psych owes a solid debt to The Grateful Dead and the dreamy, dissolute indigence of youth. (See, for instance, their mellow paean to the pre-GPS world, “Lost.”)
Strangely, the brothers came to music separately. Though they shared lessons, it wasn’t until younger brother Cris saw Deliverance that he was inspired to take up first the banjo and finally the bass.
“Curt always kind of played guitar and then at a point in his mid-teens he really got into it; he tried going to college and spent that time expanding his consciousness,” recalls Cris. “He was a whole different guitar player all of a sudden.
They debuted their eponymous album on SST in 1982. It was the label’s ninth release, and Cris recalls sitting outside a venue with SST co-owner Joe Carducci and Henry Rollins in 1983.
“From across the parking lot this guy yells at Henry, ‘Rollins you sellout,’ and Henry puts his finger up, and says ‘Excuse me.’ We’re like ‘uh-oh,’ because we knew what that meant and not only was [Henry] buff but he was definitely somebody who would lay hands on you,” Cris recalls.
“So he goes bolting across the parking lot, the kid sees him coming and tries to scamper away and Henry just flattens him to the pavement and goes, ‘You have something to say to me. You say it to my face,’” Cris continues. “He comes walking back and goes, ‘I hate it when that happens.’”
Shortly after that tour, Curt wrote the classic Meat Puppets II (featuring three songs Nirvana later covered in its famous Unplugged session for MTV) and fathered twins. As luck would have it, the band survived long enough for Curt’s son Elmo to join a few years ago, changing the Puppets from power trio to quartet.
“It was a cool move on Curt’s part to keep the band interesting and push back at those boundaries and things that get built up to see where else we could go,” Cris says, offering that even more than his father, Elmo’s a tremendous technical player. “He’ll sit around and learn complicated stuff like Stevie Wonder songs or The Bee Gees. He’s able to not just hang with us, but propel us forward in a very satisfying way.”
Adding a second guitarist has opened up things for Curt, and allowed the band to throw a few more album tracks into the set they that they’d previously avoided as a trio. It’s been a win-win.
“We get to share what me and his dad built and people dig it,” Cris says. “We come out on stage and they’re shouting ‘Elmo! Elmo!’ He’s got his own people.”
There was a moment in the ’90s when the Puppets’ legacy was in doubt. Cris grew addicted to heroin and had to leave the band. Later he was imprisoned after a scuffle with a security guard at a post office. Jail offered an opportunity to get clean and, after his 2005 release, the band reunited and set to work.
Though the Nirvana money enabled the situation, and the death of their mother catalyzed it, Cris dismisses excuses.
“I was in my mid 30s … I absolutely knew better, and it comes down to me. There’s this hole in my character,” he says. “The only element of it that I can tolerate is that I did manage to come back from it. I don’t take credit for that; there’s nothing heroic about it. It was a goddamn shame that I let—made—it happen … but at least I’ve been able to repay [my girlfriend and family] by getting my shit back together.”
Not only has he reassembled his shit, the band’s last two albums, 2011’s Lollipop and 2013’s Rat Farm are among the best things they’ve done. That this has gone largely unnoticed in the press is criminal, but Cris could care less.
“We have succeeded by leaps and bounds being what we are and making exactly what we wanted to make. Considering how we’re a bunch of non-conformists to rock ’n’ roll formulas or pretty much any formulas, we’ve done just fine,” he says. “And in that self-indulgence we managed to create something that’s fairly unique.”
Meat Puppets play Shank Hall with Mike Watt and the jom and terry show, and Porcupine (featuring Hüsker Dü’s Greg Norton) on Friday, May 5 at 8 p.m.