Original One: An Interview with Curt Kirkwood (Vocals, Guitars)
By Angela Kinzie
Photos by Jaime Butler
“I kind of enjoy it more, now that I’ve got it down a little bit more and there’s not as much craziness… There’s not the dragging somebody who’s half unconscious into the van or whatever… There’s GPS now!”
Meat Puppets singer Curt Kirkwood explained to me when I asked if he still enjoyed life on the road.
The band – whose core since 1980 has consisted of “The Brothers Meat Puppets” -Curt and Cris Kirkwood – has been touring off and on for over 30 years, and fans know that the ‘Pups’ are their own thing: an original. Their career has been a roller-coaster ride from out of place underground punks to discovery by mainstream grunge audiences through Nirvana’s famous Unplugged to maintaining Top 40 popularity themselves through 1994’s “Backwater” and Too High To Die, which awarded them a gold record. The desert-rooted cowpunk rockers from Phoenix have come through 14 albums, a severe struggle with drugs, diverse styles and sounds and have inspired countless bands over the past three decades.
From his home in Austin, TX, Curt talked to me about their new album, adding, “I’ve been enjoying playing it more than I have an album for quite awhile.” He also spoke to me on his relationship with his brother, his time with Nirvana and what he likes about touring 30 years later.
The Meat Puppets have existed for over 30 years now. Could you imagine it going this far when you started all those years ago?
No. … I wasn’t thinking ahead that far; that’s for sure! I never really thought about it at all. It just happened. [Laughs]
The new album is Rat Farm. How does it fit in with everything else you’ve done, or do you see it as completely new?
I think there’s elements in all our stuff. … Some of the songs are pretty old. The oldest [one] on this one is probably late ’90s. I always have that happening. I’ve got stuff just sitting around. This one, there’s elements of stuff from the late ’80s in it a little bit, kind of an extenuation of the last one a little bit… It’s hard for me to see how they fit together a lot of times because they’re always kind of set apart. I just know that it fits and it works.
Since we passed the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death not long ago, I wanted to ask you personally how close you all were as friends, as opposed to simply two bands playing together?
Not real… I didn’t know him real well. I was just getting to know him. We toured with them for a couple of weeks, and he kept to himself. We practiced for like a week before the Unplugged thing, and we got along. We were friendly, but he was real quiet too. I think we got each other. The bands were pretty similar, at the core, even though they don’t sound that much alike. It was just real easy to work with them. I just didn’t know them very well.
Between Unplugged and the band becoming well known in its own right with Too High To Die, how did that affect the band for better or worse?
It was both of those things. While popularizing it a little bit, it also created a little bit of a stigma. Which I don’t find unpleasant at all, but it’s one of those things like any other marker in a band that can tend to start to define you in a way that’s not all together an apt description. ‘Well, they did this with Nirvana, and it was ’90s and stuff.’ But there’s a lot of history before then. Although it was a cool one, you know, Unplugged and Too High to Die, that little era. It blew things up outside the band that made it a little bit more difficult for us. Because we’d gone on for so long, just our own little low there, and then it’s like, ‘Here’s your new clothes, whether you like it or not.’ And some of us had a little difficulty handling that attention. That was the downside, really. The upside is that it was great promotion and something that we enjoyed. I know we really enjoyed it a lot, but all that stuff always comes at you from a lot of different angles. It comes with a lot of different baggage, which was heavy. We did another album after Too High to Die, but then it just got difficult to kind of go on in the same way that we were, and we went on a hiatus. But I don’t know if it was exactly all of that stuff either. There was a lot of personal stuff that was going on simultaneously that was not linked to the band at all. But that was the beginning of some big change there, where the original three- piece just went ‘poof’ and the band kind of had to go with the hiatus thing. We never really broke up, but it just got real hazy for a long time.
Around that time, your brother had a severe battle with drugs. Has going through that made your relationship closer?
We were always real close. I think it ironed out a lot of stuff. He tackled a lot of… whatever it was that resulted in the drug use. He just kind of had to face it. I think there’s stuff in people that makes them do that. It’s not just, ‘I want to do a bunch of drugs, or oops I messed up, it was an accident.’ There’s usually something there, [but] coming out on the other end of it, I think there’s definitely a smoother relationship. It’s been good since he’s tackled that stuff. I don’t know if we are closer; we were always pretty close. He’s my only full blood sibling.
Do you think he would have had the same problems if he had chosen a different career?
Oh … hard to say. I don’t know about that. It probably would’ve been something. It’s hard to extract. I figure there’s probably some underlying thing that causes that with anybody, no matter what they’re doing. But there’s definitely a lot of temptation in this career, and that just comes with the territory for some reason. The people are just like, ‘Here’s your drugs and your fun times and your parties and all that come with it.’ There’s always somebody trying to offer you something.
You drive the band around, act as tour manager and you play every night. Do you still enjoy touring as much as you did when you were younger?
Yeah. I do! I kind of enjoy it more, now that I’ve got it down a little bit more, and there’s not as much craziness. There’s not the dragging somebody who’s half unconscious into the van or whatever. [Laughs] There’s GPS now! It’s kind of my choice; I like driving. There’s a lot of time to kill. You can get a bus, you can get a driver, there’s stuff you can do, but it can get kind of boring. I like driving. I did 11 hours yesterday. I drove back from Jackson, Mississippi to Austin. Just get in the grove. It was beautiful; it’s springtime. You know, it’s a challenge to be safe, all that stuff. It just gives you something to do. I’ve done it a lot of different ways. We owned our own motorhome; we had a van with a trailer. These days we’ve just been keeping the gear small. We just have a van, no trailer. It’s a lot easier with no trailer, and if you’re in a bus, any little side trip is a big deal. Just pulling off into the gas station is a big deal, finding parking, all that different stuff – it’s about the bus. The mobility is something I really like. Like, ‘Oh, look, there’s a barbecue place or something that’s off the road a little bit; let’s go get that.’ There’s definitely times I wish I could just kick back and have everything taken care of, but you wind up spending, in our case, just about everything that you’re making to take care of the trip. And these days touring is a lot of the income. Like it was in the ’80s.
Purchase Rat Farm here: http://www.themeatpuppets.com/shop/