The Meat Puppets
The Meat Puppets
Usually slotted as part of punk music’s “post-punk” development during the 1980s, the Meat Puppets have surfed atop the rise and fall of that movement, riding beyond it into the “grunge” rock boom of the 1990s. Given such a history, it’s not surprising that critics have spent a decade arguing over the correct term for the band’s music, taking their cues from the mutations occurring from one Meat Puppets album to the next.
“With each of their five albums,” Simon Reynolds wrote in Melody Maker, “the Meat Puppets have not so much made a giant leap forward as a perplexing step sideways; each time hitting on a totally new, totally original sound that any other band would have milked for 10 albums.” While Kurt Loder called them a “thrash band” in Rolling Stone in 1984, other critics later commented on their distance from the conventions of hardcore punk. One of the effects of such a resistance to tidy categorization has been the Meat Puppets’ reputation for forward-looking music—for anticipating and spearheading changes in musical style.
Members include Derrick Bostrom, drums, Cris Kirkwood, bass; and Curt Kirkwood, vocals and lead guitar.
Band formed in Phoenix, AZ, 1979, playing at house parties; cut debut EP, In a Car, 1981; signed and recorded with SST Records, 1981-91; released debut album, Meat Puppets, 1982; signed with London/PLG, 1991; toured with Nirvana, 1993; appeared in guest spot with Nirvana on MTV Unplugged, 1993.
Addresses: Record company —London/PLG, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.
As teenagers, Cris and Curt Kirkwood and Derrick Bostrom, who would later create the Meat Puppets in the late 1970s, had grown up in the open spaces surrounding their hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. Brothers Cris and Curt arrived in Phoenix from Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1965, when Cris, the younger sibling, was about five years old. The Kirkwood family’s income came from racehorses that they owned. Bored with how little the city had to offer, the two brothers found recreation in using drugs amid Phoenix’s desert landscape.
“Punk rock began as an urban phenomenon,” Ivan Kreilkamp wrote in Details, “a musical response to miles of concrete and industrial noise. The Meat Puppets were the first group to adapt punk to the twisted landscapes and open spaces of the American Southwest.” Curt Kirkwood told Kreilkamp, “There’s no trees, there’s no real society. It’s easy to get into drugs there because there’s nothing to do.” Their hallucinogenic experiences would eventually be credited with shaping the distinctive sound of their music. Kreilkamp, for example, speculated that “The Puppets’ music is rooted in the experience of three kids, heads throbbing with LSD-induced visions, riding motorcycles on a canal bed in the Saguaro desert.”
After a brief effort at the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1977, Curt returned home. Having had some musical training, including classical study, he and his younger brother started playing house parties with area bands. They also played in local cover bands, with Curt on guitar and Cris on bass. After one of the more successful local bands, Eye, broke up in 1979, the Kirkwood brothers decided it was time to do something on their own. At that point, Derrick Bostrom came on board to play drums.
Bostrom had a practice space in which the Meat Puppets could shape their sound, already heavily influenced by an odd jumble that included the Grateful Dead, the Sex Pistols, Johnny Cash, and Iggy Pop. The group had no particular venue in mind, simply a desire to see what kind of music they could make. “I came to hardcore through experimental music,” Curt told David Fricke in a Melody Maker interview. “I started getting into Edgar Varese, when he was composing things that sounded like raindrops. I didn’t give a shit about composing anything. But I thought if I hooked up a couple of fuzzboxes to my guitar and turned it up real loud, and played faster than anybody could think, what was going to come out was going to be heavily impassioned.”
Curt quickly emerged as the band’s major force, lending a compelling character on vocals and guitar, as well as his odd skill as a songwriter; Kreilkamp referred to him as the trio’s “chief visionary.” Jas Obrecht, writing for Guitar Player in 1994, described Curt as the “master of the enigmatic lyric and monotone delivery.”
While critics have often suggested the dual influences of drugs and the desert landscape on Curt’s style, the musician himself also attributes it to a specific childhood experience: “I had encephalitis when I was nine,” Curt told Reynolds, “my head swelled up, I was in a coma for a long time. After that I started to daydream an AWFUL lot, I was able to pick and choose what I wanted from my imagination.” Reynolds dubbed the three “modern visionaries who liberate the flux of experience from the grids with which we attempt to structure and manage time and reality.”
While playing more professional gigs around their hometown in 1980 and 1981, the trio cut their first EP, In a Car, on a small label called World Imitation. Michael Azerrad recalled in Rolling Stone that “a series of revelatory Los Angeles shows won them a hipster following.” In 1981 they also won a contract with a larger independent label, SST, that was just putting together a roster of punk bands—including Black Flag and the Minutemen—that would soon reign over the 1980s punk rock scene.
SST would grow along with its bands to become one of the leading labels of the genre. The company released the Meat Puppets’s first album, simply called Meat Puppets, in 1982, all 14 songs having been recorded in one day. The band also set out on their first national tour, building their reputation in clubs that catered to an underground music audience. Nonetheless, the band’s resistance to pre-established categorization was already apparent.
Mark Coleman revealed in the Village Voice, “Assimilating musical ideas from (at least) two rock generations along with cultural by-products of the Southwest—bible-preaching, earth muffin naturalism, the music of hack country-and-Western dance bands—the Meat Puppets spit back a synapse-melting sound that’s both lyrical and intense.” Furthermore, Coleman sensed the group’s ability to challenge the “conventions” of punk. He speculated, “If the Meat Puppets can open up the tightest rock format (and audience) of all to new influences and original sounds, they must have found something pretty universal down in that basement.”
By the time their second album, Meat Puppets II, was released in 1984, critics were making much of the band’s evolution and ascribing diverse values to the role the Meat Puppets had assumed in relation to society: Loder argued that they had “gone beyond head-banging to become what can only be called a kind of cultural trash compacter.”
Most notably, the Puppets caused listeners to do a double-take by introducing a country-Western twang into what had appeared, on the first album, to be straightforward thrash. “What we get,” Tom Carson wrote in the Village Voice, “is country music as it might manifest itself to a young wastrel whose sense of the void is made most immediate by the fact that the springs in the living-room couch have given out.”
By the mid-1980s, many critics were claiming the Meat Puppets as the unacknowledged saving grace of music, underground and otherwise. Describing them as “insightful deviant tunesmiths” in his Melody Maker review of 1985’s Up on the Sun, David Fricke claimed that “the Meat Puppets have come to represent in their own anarchic way all that is weird and right about recent American music.” Reynolds dubbed Up on the Sun “a weird hybrid of warpfunk, country and psych.”
Writing for the Village Voice, James Nold declared, “Instrumentally, Up on the Sun is the most impressive record any hardcore band … has made. It’s frequently beautiful.”
The strength of Up on the Sun didn’t propel the trio from alternative status to mainstream visibility, but it did provide them with a breakthrough of sorts: they made it onto the airwaves of a mainstream rock radio station in their hometown. The promise of the moment, however, was followed by a “mid-’80s dip from their formative grace,” as Brian Keizer later recalled in Spin. Nisid Hajari described in Entertainment Weekly the odd impasse the band had come to by 1985, when “their whimsical desert twang had made them one of the most acclaimed bands on the underground scene, but their anemic sales awarded them the dreaded consolation-prize tag ‘critics’ darlings.’”
However, the plateau the Puppets stood on still included considerable notice from reviewers. For example, in Rolling Stone David Fricke described the band’s 1986 effort, Out My Way, as “a decisive step in the Meat Puppets’s march away from one-dimensional punk to hearty, heartfelt pan-American rock & roll.” He concluded, “With sounds and lyrics like these, greatness may only be one more album away.” Huevos and Mirage followed in the late 1980s, precipitating the band’s first tour of England in 1988.
Even as their audience and publicity expanded, the Meat Puppets remained an underground band without major label recording or distribution. When Reynolds asked Curt about that state of affairs, the singer expressed general satisfaction, declaring, “It’s a BLAST, man—we put out exactly what we want, we earn enough to get by, we sell a bit more with each album. Plus with SST we just give them a finished record and they put it out. They don’t try to direct our development, there’s no delay, the songs don’t get stale.” He also accepted that major labels didn’t have a marketing strategy for hardcore; “there’s no way they can market us,” he told Reynolds.
Ironically, however, just around the time that SST issued a compilation Meat Puppets album called No Strings Attached in 1991, the band broke with the label over legal and financial troubles. By the following year, the band was embroiled in a competition of mutual lawsuits with SST that would not come to an end until an out-of-court settlement in June, 1993; SST was left to pursue lawsuits against several other bands from their early roster.
The shift to a major label always leaves a band in danger of either becoming, or being perceived as becoming, “mainstream”—a death knell for a band that has built its reputation on going against the grain. Consequently, 1991’s Forbidden Places, the Meat Pup-pets’s first release on PolyGram’s London subsidiary, came under considerable scrutiny. While Cathi Unsworth insisted in Melody Maker that “these three rovers still travel their own path, the fork between acidic psychedelic weirdness and earthy country wildness,” Azerrad would later acknowledge that the Puppet’s first major-label release had “bombed.”
In a sense, however, the Meat Puppets had already become a part of the mainstream; recognition was simply the final piece to fall into place. In particular, their years as underground rock visionaries had greatly shaped the “grunge rock” generation that would capture the market in the 1990s. In 1994 Obrecht described the Meat Puppets as “cult faves for a dozen years,” noting specifically their influence on “members of Nirvana, Soul Asylum, Butthole Surfers, and Pearl Jam,” the primary forces of grunge rock.
Nirvana and Soul Asylum both made the connection concrete in 1993, when they signed the Puppets on as opening band for their European tours. Although the group sometimes expressed concerns about becoming commercial, Curt was willing to accept the status conferred on him by Nirvana’s lead singer, Kurt Cobain; he told Azerrad in Rolling Stone that since Cobain was “the guy that made punk rock commercial,… basically we’re the inspiration for commercial punk rock.”
When the Meat Puppets’ second London release, Too High to Die, reached record stores in 1994, the attention from Nirvana began to pay off; Too High to Die was the first commercial success the Meat Puppets had ever seen. Declaring that the band was “finally getting its due,” Carrie Borzillo reported in Billboard that the band had, for the first time, broken onto Billboard’s Top 200 chart; both the album and several single cuts rose into the Top 20 on their respective charts. Furthermore, a guest appearance on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged spot “may have guaranteed more sales of the Puppets’ latest LP … than years of good reviews ever could,” as Hajari commented.
Of course, not all credit for the Meat Puppets’ success was due to Nirvana—critics also noted the strength of the album itself. Chuck Crisafulli, reviewing Too High to Die for Musician, clearly concurred. Noting the “strong melodies” and “ingenious songwriting,” he predicted that the album “should win these pop oddballs some overdue respect.”
Regarding their breakthrough, Cris told Azerrad, “I’m way into it, because I haven’t had to go out of my way to get to the mainstream. The mainstream veered off course and came over to my little puddle. I’ve been sitting there for years.” Curt mused to Hajari that “It’s only recently that punk-rock underground music took on one more eccentric tentacle—that to be a really bitchin’ punk-rock band you must also be successful. I don’t know how that happened, since the very word underground means that your style and substance and art should preempt your actual commercial endeavor.” Cris, however, told Borzillo that he found it “neat to see [the band] crawl out of its little art trench and into the mainstream.”
In a Car, World Imitation, 1981.
Meat Puppets, SST, 1982.
Meat Puppets II, SST, 1984.
Up on the Sun, SST, 1985.
Out My Way, SST, 1986.
Mirage, SST, 1987.
Huevos, SST, 1987.
Monsters, SST, 1989.
Forbidden Places, London/PLG, 1991.
Too High to Die, London/PLG, 1994.
Billboard, April 11, 1992; January 22, 1994; May 7, 1994.
Details, April 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, February 11, 1994.
Guitar Player, April 1994.
Melody Maker, May 18, 1985; June 6, 1987; October 3, 1987; December 12, 1987; October 28, 1989; December 16, 1989; January 19, 1991; November 9, 1991; January 11, 1993.
Musician, February 1994.
New York Times, February 15, 1994.
Rolling Stone, April 26, 1984; October 23, 1986; April 15, 1993; June 10, 1993; May 19, 1994; June 2, 1994.
Spin, February 1994.
Village Voice, December 7, 1982; April 24, 1984; July 30, 1985; January 19, 1988.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from London/PLG publicity materials.
—Ondine E. Le Blanc
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