A Conversation With Meat Puppets

Now is as good a time as any for an official Meat Puppets reunion. Brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood are back with founding drummer Derrick Bostrom for the first time since 1995’s No Joke!, the Arizona-bred trio’s impolite London Records send-off. And given Cris’ epic struggles with addiction, we could easily be talking post-mortem tribute right now. But this tale of excess has a relatively happy ending, beginning with his eventual recovery in the late 2000s and continuing with his reconciliation with big brother Curt.

And then there’s the new Dusty Notes (Megaforce). It’s the band’s first studio release in six years, and it was worth the wait. Curt has simplified his songwriting, cleaned up his vocals and eased up on the guitar histrionics. That’s opened up space for virtuoso keyboardist Ron Stabinsky and Curt’s guitarist son Elmo, who brings a more conventional rock grounding to his dad’s intricate Billy-Gibbons-by-way-of-Jerry-Garcia overlays.

With just a couple months to go before their first U.S. tour in 20 years, Curt and Bostrom explain the band’s recent bout of productivity.

Dusty Notes is easily the Meat Puppets’ most keyboard-heavy album. Ron Stabinsky’s contributions are huge.
Curt: Ron had been coming to our shows for years. I didn’t even know he was a musician until he handed me a CD. We got together and played a little in Austin when he was in town with one of his bands. From there, I came up with a few easy little tunes we could play. That came out real nice, and it gave me some direction as to what I wanted to do with this album. And this is also the first album that Elmo is on.
Bostrom: Elmo’s shit is my favorite part of the record. It just kills. His parts are more classic rock, where Curt’s got that weird spaciness.
Curt: The first four songs are all Elmo on lead guitar. He can play a lot of different stuff—more than I can. You don’t hear me doing a lead on this album until the actual “Dusty Notes” song.
Bostrom: Curt kept the songwriting simple to give us a maximum amount of space. The whole process was so organic. I added my parts in pretty much one day. We recorded it in Phoenix with Cris’ friend Jeremy (Parker). Jeremy has helped out Cris a lot. The fact that he could talk his big brother into recording the album with his buddy, and having it come out as good as it did, is so cool.
Curt: There really wasn’t a lot of planning. It was kind of accidental—very fluid.

There’s a certain warmth and mellowness to this album.
Curt: Yeah, there’s not a lot of overt rock ’n’ roll. One of the big things is that we tracked acoustic guitars first. I also did that with Snow, my solo record with Pete Anderson. For this one, Elmo and I just laid down nice solid acoustics on everything. Drums got tracked to that, and then keyboards.
Bostrom: These songs do head to more of an Americana place—they sound a little bit more classic. Some of it sounds like gospel; some of it sounds like Stephen Foster; some it sounds like Tom Petty or Fleetwood Mac. But it’s still Meat Puppety.

Curt, your vocals are surprisingly clear—almost pristine.
It was the right microphone for me—but I can’t remember what it was. The warmth of the vocals is really apparent. I generally didn’t sing with a whole lot of overt emotion. I mostly wanted to hurt people’s feelings—even if it was screaming nonsense. I never intended to sing. With my first few bands before the Meat Puppets, I was only the guitar player. Then there was just the three of us, and we thought about having a lead singer—but we decided, “Nah, that’s annoying.”
Bostrom: Curt used to like to come up with a bunch of words, and then if it got a little too close to home, he’d change them so they were nonsensical. He didn’t really do that this time. To fuck with people, I’ve been telling them that these new lyrics hold the key to understanding all of his old lyrics.
Curt: Once I started doing solo shows in the early 2000s, I began to see how much weight the words had. I realized that people like to hear them, though I never really thought about it until then. 

When the original lineup first disbanded in 1996, where did that leave you, Derrick?
Bostrom: I was never a huge fan of the whole rock shtick. It’s really easy when you’re sitting in the back of a van as the drummer in another guy’s band. I learned a lot about myself. I got a good opportunity to grow up, get married and get a job—I do IT for all the Whole Foods stores in Phoenix. Once we got a bunch of cats, I put the drums away. I never wanted to play with anybody else.

So what brought you back?
Bostrom: This whole thing with the Arizona Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. They’d wanted to induct us for a few years, and finally one of our heavy-hitter local promoters got on the phone with Curt, and we played the ceremony. I stayed in touch, but they already had a drummer (Shandon Sahm). Last April, I got I call from Curt saying [Sahm] had decided to move to Europe. He’d already recorded his tracks for the album, but Curt sent me the roughs and gave me the opportunity to compose new parts.

In going back through your ’80s work, I always seem to latch onto 1989’s Monsters. It has two of my favorite Meat Puppets tunes: “Light” and “Touchdown King.”
Curt: That was the last SST album. Atlantic made us a really good offer for it once it was done, and I wanted to give it to them. It was recorded for super-cheap, and they liked it. That led to the rift between us and SST.

And then, of course, you follow that up with your first major-label release (1991’s Forbidden Places), produced by—of all people—longtime Dwight Yoakam collaborator Pete Anderson.
Pete knew who we were because he and Dwight had opened for us a number of years before. We learned so much from him, and that learning rubbed off when we made (1994’s) Too High To Die. He’s very methodical, and we’d never had a real producer. We’d never spent more than like eight grand on a record. (1984’s) Meat Puppets II was done in four days; (1985’s) Up On The Sun was literally 36 hours straight of recording and mixing. Once we played—if we played it right—it was done. 

I was a grad student at Arizona State University when I first saw you guys 30 years ago. If I recall correctly, Cris was wearing a kilt, and he taped his face to the mike stand for most of the show. My girlfriend was terrified. I was both horrified and fascinated by the whole display.
Yeah, that wouldn’t have been too strange. I lot of the stuff we did was the result of the boredom we experienced between soundcheck and having to go onstage. We’d sit around and draw on ourselves, or whatever. There was very little you could do back then that was going to help or hurt your career in that scene. It was what it was—and it wasn’t really going anywhere.
Bostrom: If we couldn’t chase the audience out, we weren’t doing something right. We’ve never been about going onstage and doing what we know we can do. It’s always been about putting ourselves in the position to allow the X factor to occur—and that’s exactly why I returned. In this day and age, it just seems so fucking obvious that America has gone in a crazy direction. From all sides, people need to get a lot less comfortable with their assumptions. There are worse things in the world than having people not know what they think, because usually what they think is wrong to begin with.

—Hobart Rowland