Something That’ll Never Change
Cris Kirkwood on being back with the Meat Puppets
Between their connection to Nirvana and ’90s near-hit “Backwater,” it’s tempting to get all nostalgic when thinking about the Meat Puppets and listening to several decades’ worth of their records. The grizzled trio have even courted that somewhat by performing the joyfully unwieldy landmark Meat Puppets II in its entirety here and there, like at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival at Monticello, New York, this past fall.
But talk to founding member/bassist Cris Kirkwood, who speaks in excited blurts and says the band is “at a pretty fucking feisty place right now,” and he’ll tell you revisiting that record wasn’t steeped in emotion as much for the band as it was for audiences.
“It was someone else’s idea to have us do that,” says Kirkwood. “It’s interesting to a degree. A lot of those songs have managed to become live staples. There’s a few things on there we hadn’t played in a long time, so some of that stuff feels like we’re gettin’ old. I go back and listen to the record and go, ‘Oh, my, I was quite the young man when we made this.’”
Meat Puppets formed at the dawn of the 1980s in Phoenix, Arizona, where Cris Kirkwood and his brother, singer/guitarist Curt Kirkwood, were going to high school. Landing on seminal punk label SST, the band evolved from the brief country-vs.-hardcore piss-takes of their self-titled debut—“That was youth music. It’s got a lot of excreting of teenage verve,” says Cris—to the subtler, more studied twang of Meat Puppets II, several songs of which were later covered by Nirvana for MTV Unplugged with the Kirkwood brothers’ accompaniment.
Over the years, the band got dreamier and, ahem, meatier, jumping from SST to the majors in the ’90s with mixed results. Disbanding in 1996 only to re-form in 1999 sans Cris and again in 2006 with him, the Puppets loomed large as influential cult figures, spanning gangly ’80s indie rock and the overblown grunge era that followed. These days, with Cris living in Phoenix, Curt in Austin and new-recruit drummer Ted Marcus in New York, it has been difficult to get things together enough to tour behind 2007’s Rise to Your Knees, the first Meat Puppets album featuring Cris since 1995.
“There’s a lot of stuff I have to flat-out relearn,” Cris admits. At recent gigs, the band have been experimenting with a more acoustic direction, stripping away the noise and effects to focus on the ragged country core and Curt’s increasingly complex guitar work. “Curt and I have done a fuckin’ lot of shows together over the years,” says Cris, “and occasionally, the acoustic-y things come up, like at in-stores. We’ll definitely do our louder kind of shows, but one of our hallmarks is definitely doing whatever the fuck we feel like doing at that point.”
If any given audience is lucky, that includes a lengthy, psychedelic medley of Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Stud” and the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
“It comes up when it does,” Cris demurs. “‘Tennessee Stud’ is a cool song, and we’ve always had a hint of the shit-kicker about us. It’s just near-and-dear crap we grew up with. And then, of course, the inescapable Beatles, who were also a big part of our childhood. They kind of melded into each other at one point.”
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Likewise, Rise to Your Knees found the reunited band melding their spontaneous earlier sound with the cleaner output that came years later. It’s sleepy and haunting, catchy and cryptic, spare and surreal. One can easily detect the years Curt spent pursuing acoustic guitar while the Puppets were on hiatus. Now in their current acoustic-friendly mode, the live Meat Puppets can be relied on to not just revisit ’80s and ’90s favorites, but also dip heavily into Rise to Your Knees and preview this March’s Sewn Together, which Cris describes as being “so much about our little trip.”
“Rise to Your Knees was mine and Curt’s getting back together,” he explains. “It was the first time I’d been in a studio in a very long time. It has a lot of sentimental value to me. Now we’ve been playing for a while again, and this new one is back to where we always were making records.”
Cris pauses for a moment and adds, “The new record’s just fucking cool. To me, it’s more in line with how we always poked away. It’s just a little farther down the road and shakin’ off some of the fuckin’ cobwebs.”
Meat Puppets, The Shaky Hands and Stab City perform at Alex’s Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8292; www.alexsbar.com. Wed., 8 p.m. $15.