Thursday, June 26, 2014

INTERVIEW: Curt Kirkwood talks about The Meat Puppets Albums

 Frontman Curt Kirkwood talks with TV STORE ONLINE about  The Meat Puppets and  Greg Prato's 2012 book on the band 'Too High To Die'

TV STORE ONLINE:   Thanks for speaking with me today....In my research on you I read a ton of interviews that you've given in the past and I want to let you know that I promise there will be no questions for you about Nirvana or Kurt Cobain...

KIRKWOOD:  Laughing...Alright, great.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I love listening to your records....It's fun to listen to your stuff like Meat Puppets II (1984) or Up On The Sun (1985) or the your newest LP Rat Farm (2013) and sort of pick and guess who are some of the musicians that have influenced you in your work...Gram Parsons once said that he played "Cosmic American Music" and I was curious to see if you thought that somehow The Meat Puppets fit in any way under that moniker or ideology?

KIRKWOOD:  Well, I don't think that we're all America in that sense.   We take influences and vibes from all over the place, but I guess its not a bad description for our music.  I think we follow that basic form for sure.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I read recently that you were a big fan of The Grateful Dead...What are some of your favorite Dead albums?

KIRKWOOD:  I've always really loved American Beauty (1970) and Workingman's Dead (1970) the best. I've always owned those two albums.   I have Aoxomoxoa (1968) as well.  I think that's a great record.  I've always thought that their records are great but I've always thought that they were a better live band.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How do you think that The Grateful Dead influenced the music of The Meat Puppets?

KIRKWOOD:   Just because they always did exactly what they wanted to do.  I grew up playing in bar bands and while it's fun to play any kind of music, I noticed how bands like The Dead and The Allman Brothers would always go on the stage and just jam out and they didn't limit or encapsulate themselves while they were on the stage.  Eventually, they did get into that years later though when people started to expect them to play through these really "trippy" jams on the stage, but I think the way they influenced our band is just with their ability to play whatever they wanted and when.

TV STORE ONLINE:  One thing I've always really admired about The Meat Puppets is how you often reinvent yourselves on a per album basis...For example... There is that big jump musically from Meat Puppets I  (1982) to Meat Puppets II...Then there is that wonderful progressiveness and funk sound to Up On The Sun or the jazz and classical music feeling of Mirage (1987).  Was that something that was a conscious idea on behalf of the band over the years as you writing and recording?

KIRKWOOD:  Not really.  It was more like just what we had at the time.  I've never sat down and said, "I'm going to write this type of song..."   I usually just write songs until I have enough to put together an album.  I think the period that you're talking about was just a great period of growth for me and I think that we were just taking advantage of SST Records and their ability to just put out anything that they wanted.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I love how you hear musical remnants across your records too...For example with Meat Puppets I...It's a very hardcore punk album. Meat Puppets II has a couple of cuts like but the sound is radically different over the rest of the album and this seems to be a pattern across your catalog of work...

KIRKWOOD:   Most of the time those were left overs from the previous album and because we record very lean and very fast we just use what we have done at the time that we record.  I've never really been a very disciplined songwriter to be honest.  I don't lock myself away to write songs.   It usually happens when I'm just sitting down and playing the guitar.  There are some songs that I can't even remember writing now, but there are some that I can totally remember writing.  Some of that stuff is a little hazy...laughing

TV STORE ONLINE:   Can we talk about this "haziness"?    In Greg Prato's book there are some fun stories of the bands antics...In particular, I'm reminded of the story about the band "daytripping" during the recording of Meat Puppets I...

KIRKWOOD:  Right, yeah...laughing     It's funny, because I actually remember recording most of that album though.   We recorded it so quick and it was almost experimental in that way.   I think the haziness is more just part of my general nature.  I'm forgetful of certain things. It's really odd what sticks in your brain.  It is the same things with shows.   People will come up to me and say, "I loved you guys when you came here last year..."   And I have no memory of coming to that town or that venue whatsoever even though I was there just a year before.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Yet, we can't deny the presence of LSD in your work?   In the book there is a mention of you writing a few of the songs on Meat Puppets II while you were under the influence of hallucinogens....I think you wrote "Lake Of Fire" while on LSD?

KIRKWOOD:   I have done a few songs that way.  I wrote Lake Of Fire when I was really young and at the time I wasn't really aware of what I was doing.  It wasn't like I was always tripping on acid.  It was more of a experimental thing for me.   Most times, when I'd try writing back then... It would come out as total crap.  At the time you think it's really great then when you look back at it, you realize it's not good.  You say, "Oh...I was tripping."

TV STORE ONLINE:  On Meat Puppets II...What about "Plateau"?   In the book you mentioned about how you can't recall what that song was supposed to be about?  You've said that you can't remember who the talk show host is that is referred to in the song either...   But what about that incredible crescendo that occurs at the end of Plateau that leads right into "Aurora Borealis"?   Do you recall how that came about it?  Was that something planned from the start or was that something that just came in the spur of the moment in the studio?

KIRKWOOD:  I don't have an answer for you on that one either....That's just how I wrote the song.  It probably just came from listening to The Beatles as a kid and hearing the cool parts in their songs.  I think it might have just came that way.  I've always done stuff like that.   It took me a while to figure it out.  It is an odd part because it's not really a bridge or a chorus, so it must be an outro.  Sometimes trying that can be really awkward but that seemed to work pretty good.. 

TV STORE ONLINE:  Right, it can remind one of how The Beatles end "She's So Heavy" on Abbey Road (1969)..

KIRKWOOD:  Sure! Sure! There you go!

TV STORE ONLINE:  I'm a huge fan of your album Up On The Sun...I've mentioned earlier how I thought it was a major departure for the band, and I hate to suggest these types of labels... But where Meat Puppets I was a punk record, Meat Puppet II was a hybrid of punk and psychedelic country...Up On The Sun is this crazy funk progressive sort-of-hippie-dance-record....Where did that combination of sounds come from?   In particular the opening track on Up On The Sun...Where did come from!?!?

KIRKWOOD: 
Probably from The Who's Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy (1971)...Or The Who Sell Out (1967) era of the The Who.  Shit, Jimi Hendrix.  Then The Minuteman were an inspiration at that point as well.   Wire too.  Of course, Parliament Funkadelic.   It was a cool little riff.  I was trying to do more with harmony vocals.   I was really starting to understand harmonies outside of country music and that came to me from the music of The Who.  Then also through the music of The Eagles as well.  I was really working on that with Up On The Sun.   I was also working on overdubbing guitars on Up On The Sun too because on Meat Puppets II we didn't have any of that.  With Up On The Sun we had a full studio at our disposal...

TV STORE ONLINE:  When Mirage (1987) was re-released a few years back you guys put an awesome cover of Elvis's "Rubberneckin'" on the disc....So you're an Elvis fan?   Do you like '50s or '60s Elvis over '70s Elvis or vice versa?

KIRKWOOD:  There is no difference for me.   I love all of his stuff.  I have just about everything he ever did.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Yeah!  Me too...  I love that solo LP you put out a few years back called Snow (2005)...That has always reminded me of that stuff that Elvis did in the mid '70s where he's just singing all of these really just gut-wrenching and heartbreaking songs like "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues..."

KIRKWOOD:  Thanks. That's a great song too.

TV STORE ONLINE:  On The Meat Puppets Mirage... I hear all of these incredible classical music types of things going on...For example in the song "The Wind and the Rain"....   The guitars are very Bachesque...

KIRKWOOD:  I'd say that's in there for sure.   We've always been interested in that stuff.  When my brother and I were younger we used to always mess around with this friend of ours and try to play some of that stuff on the guitar.    I took classical guitar lessons when I was a kid and I probably learned a few things like that here and there.   I don't know composers names per say always but I do like a lot of classical music.

TV STORE ONLINE:    The author of the book "Too High To Die" Greg Prato mentions in the introduction that his first exposure to the band was the band's LP Too High To Die (1994)...Given the mega success of that album and the single "Backwater"....How many fans do you meet today out on the road or wherever that tell you the same thing?

KIRKWOOD:  Quite a few....That was a big period of us as a band and that record sold more albums for us than any of our previous records.

TV STORE ONLINE:
  Where the hell does that album title come from though?

KIRKWOOD:  I think it was something that our sound man came up with or something.  It was just one of those things like "Party until the world obeys.."  It was just something that was floating around our tour vehicle.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Did the success of Too High To Die and Backwater take you by surprise?

KIRKWOOD: 
Well, I had seen how it worked before.  I didn't really catch me by surprise. I saw through friends how it worked.  I saw how it was built up through various components.   I always thought that it was different for us though because of what type of band we were.  We were quite the anomaly in comparison to the other acts of that time that were having success.   We were being pushed by that record label at the time.   We were lumped into a particular genre at that point, and by that time, it was like the fourth or fifth genre that our band had been lumped in with.   There was a trend happening at that time too, but considering who we were as a band I thought that it was really cool that it happened to us at that particular time.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Right!  (Laughing)  So how do we label The Meat Puppets today? (Laughing)   Are you "Steam-Punk" or "Emo"? ( Laughing)

KIRKWOOD: 
I know, right?  There isn't really much punk to us anymore, but there never really was that much punk to us at the start.   We just got lumped in with that because of the sound of our early records and people didn't really know how to take us.   There are so many little sub-categories out there.  I really don't even know what we are today.  As we're making new music today I'm often wondering, "What is this supposed to be?"

TV STORE ONLINE:  Then with Backwater....What was that song about for you?

KIRKWOOD:   Hmmm....Well, with Backwater...When I first wrote that song I wrote it on an organ.  I think I was trying to write a Gospel song.   I think I was just coming up with wordings and phrases that to me sounded like they were out of Gospel music.  


TV STORE ONLINE:   Did you ever record that slower organ version of Backwater?

KIRKWOOD:  I did, but I can't find it now!   We had a practice space in Phoenix and around the mid-to-late '90s we started to lose a bunch of stuff out of there.  I'd love to re-record it again that way someday.

TV STORE ONLINE:   I just love how Backwater is structured musically...The bridge to that song comes early at the 1 minute and :20 second mark which is really interesting...Do you think about experimenting and breaking the versus/chorus/versus tradition often when you're writing?

KIRKWOOD:  For sure.  A lot of times I'll say, "Well this is nice, but it's kind of repetitive..."  I remember when we were working on that song thinking that it just needed something different...

TV STORE ONLINE:  All these years later....I've read what you've said about that song recently and also what you said about it back when it was first released....Do you deny the inherent greatness of that song still?

KIRKWOOD:  Well, I think I'm just to close to the song.    I think it's a good song.  It's catchy.  Most things that get onto the radio are catchy, and when I'm writing a song it has to catch itself in my head in the first place in order for me to stick with it.

TV STORE ONLINE:   You joked a bit about the production on Too High To Die and No Joke (1995) in Greg Prato's book about the band....But both of those records just explode sonically for me...They do that unlike any records I've ever heard.  Your guitar playing on something like "We Don't Exist" on Too High To Die is incredible. It's like something you'd hear on a Megadeth record or something.... How did you guys get that sound in the studio, and what was the collaboration like for the band with Producer Dave Jerden and Paul Leary?

KIRKWOOD:    All of that was part of the co-production between us.  Paul always made sure that the guitars sounded good.  I did the arrangements and Dave mixed Backwater and We Don't Exist on Too High To Die for example.   Dave got what I was doing with the guitars. It was that old '70s rock thing where you put a guitar on each side and make it big.   We hadn't really done that before, but I saw that it would work really well for both of those songs.  

TV STORE ONLINE:  What about something like "Scum" on No Joke (1995)?  That's an incredible arrangement...   Do you write songs off of riffs more that anything else?

KIRKWOOD:  Not really. Sometimes I'll write around a riff but I usually start with the melody.  Scum really just came out of great '70s rock.  That's me remembering things like Black Sabbath or those great '70s British space rock bands...

TV STORE ONLINE:  One of the coolest parts of Greg Prato's book on the band is the chapter on your guitar playing and what your peers have said about your work....Was there anything in there that was said that just completely blew you away when you read it?

KIRKWOOD:   For sure.  It was all flattering to me.  There are some people in there that said some things about my playing that I know would never say that stuff to my face, so that was pretty incredible of all of those people to do that.

TV STORE ONLINE:   The Meat Puppets have paid some serious dues over the years...What do you think about the state of music and how the internet can produce a artist in five minutes after they get discovered on YouTube?   Also, how about the fact that someone can download the entire Meat Puppets catalog in 10 minutes if they are fairly smart enough and now how to use the internet?

KIRKWOOD:  I think it's fine.  I've never made much money off of our records anyhow.  I've always kind of thought of our records as calling cards.  There is always a hope that you can sell millions of records, and I think every musician thinks about that.  But the reality of it is that you have to go out and play shows.   I would rather go out and play shows than record.  I get bored pretty easily.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Top Five Albums?

KIRKWOOD:   Oh Shit...I don't know.  That's way too much!  My favorite album...I couldn't even tell you.   What have I listened to the most over the years?  Led Zeppelin probably.  

TV STORE ONLINE:   In Greg's book you mention that you've often thought about how your music has held up over the years...There's that early work that perhaps you're known for to the casual listener...But has there been anything that hasn't gotten the attention that you think it deserves in The Meat Puppets catalog?

KIRKWOOD:  Well, I always think that whatever I'm doing is really good and at the time I'm doing it I think that it should get notice.  Afterwards.... It has had its chance out there, so it is what is is...

Purchased Greg Prato's book on The Meat Puppets on Amazon HERE:
For more with The Meat Puppets please visit their official website HERE:
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung