an interview w/ Meat Puppets on original lineup reunion, new album & more
Meat Puppets recently welcomed back drummer Derrick Bostrom, officially reuniting the band’s original lineup of frontman Curt Kirkwood, his brother Cris on bass, and Derrick. They released their first album together since 1995 with the very good, folk-influenced Dusty Notes (read our review), and their tour is about to make its way to the East Coast this week. For both the album and the tour, the original trio are joined by Curt’s son Elmo and new keyboardist Ron Stabinsky, which marks the first time the Meat Puppets are touring as a five-piece.
As mentioned, the tour hits NYC’s Mercury Lounge on Wednesday (5/8) (sold out) and Brooklyn Bowl on Thursday (5/9) (tickets), plus NJ’s Asbury Lanes on Saturday (5/11) (tickets) and Monty Hall on 5/18 (sold out). Those shows are all with Sumo Princess and Stephen Maglio. All remaining dates are listed below.
Ahead of those shows, we called Curt at his home in Austin and discussed the reunion of the original lineup, the new album, and some of the band’s rich history, plus Grant Hart, Curt’s love of the Sublime Frequencies label, fishing, and more. Read on for our chat…
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BV: How smoothly has welcoming Derrick back into the band been? Was it instantly just like the old days, or were there some kinks to be worked out?
Curt: Oh no, it was much improved. When he quit playing, we had been doing it for about 15, 16 years, and I think we were all just scratching our heads and had reached the point where we were feeling a little compromised with having people trying to make hit songs from us, and that kinda thing… it was just different. It was different than we started, and we were having to really knuckle down, and I think all of us kinda resented it. That wasn’t really why we got into [playing music]. But now, he had plenty of time to have a little bit of peace and mind from all that and come back into it just to play — same with all of us really — but it’s been really smooth, one of the easiest records we ever made in terms of how it went down.
You can hear that on the record, you guys sound really relaxed on this one.
Yeah, there was no question about it. I started playing with [keyboardist] Ron [Stabinsky] about a year and a half ago; I had known him for a number of years but didn’t really know he was a musician until a few years ago — he’s just a guy who was coming to shows for a number of years out on the East Coast. My brother had played with him some in Phoenix, and then he came down to Austin and I wrote some songs for us to play — just some simple stuff — and that went down really, really cool. It was just four songs, and then I thought, “I could make a record and I wanna have this guy be on the whole thing.” So about a year ago, we started doing that, [Former drummer] Shandon [Sahm] decided to move to Amsterdam, so I called Derrick up and said, “Hey, wanna play?” He said “Sure!” He came in, just laid down the drums — I didn’t really say much about any of it, everybody just did their parts on top of the initial acoustic guitars that Elmo and I laid down, and we just went from there. It was like butter.
Sounds like a dream process.
Oh, it really was. It feels so good playing with Derrick again. You know, we were all teenagers when we started playing together and that’s all we knew at first. I had been in a few bar bands I was in a disco band first, which was actually tons of fun, I learned how to play really good rhythm guitar. And I was in a hard rock band, but both of these bands were cover bands, and… I got fired from both of them. So when we started playing together – Cris and Derrick and I — we kinda developed our own language right off the bat, and that’s something that’s grown even though we weren’t together, as we’ve all kind of listened to more music and got more experienced just in life in general. It’s pretty cool, it’s hard to put into words. Never really saw it coming.
That language you developed… do you now feel like Derrick’s absence had been a missing link from it in the years he was gone and now things flow the way they used to?
Oh, absolutely. Just, beyond thought. And Elmo has it, Elmo grew up with it. The band had been together for three years when Elmo was born, and we used to just leave him and his twin sister in their playpen and practice right there. They’d just be in there screaming while we mindlessly made a bunch of noise in front of them. So they both heard it from the time they were little, but Elmo took to it, and he’s super fun to play with. And then Ron has been listening to the band for 20 years. He really enjoys it, and he’s really such a great musician. The first time he played with us, he just got up on stage without any practice and did a whole show with us, and that’s the way it’s kind of been. Ron lives in Pennsylvania, I’m in Austin, the other three dudes are in Phoenix — and they can practice sometimes — but it doesn’t really take any practice. With this band, you can’t really make any mistakes. Nothing you can do that’s wrong.
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The new album is a little folkier than the past few albums. Was that intentional, or did the songs just end up coming out that way?
No, it’s pretty intentional in that I didn’t wanna start it off as a rock album in that standard way of “here’s how we play live — electric guitars, bass, drums.” So I decided to do it how I did the solo album I did in ’05 called Snow — record acoustic guitars first, just a couple of acoustic rhythms, like it’s campfire song time. So I had the whole thing down — even the heavier ones are basically underscored by the original acoustics — and that gave it a lot more openness, and I think that the simplicity makes it easy to see where you can fit in. That’s why it was easy to do. We just added things in a little more of a rational way, we waited until I had the vocals down and recorded the electric guitars last. We recorded acoustics and then keyboards and then drums — it’s kind of interesting, just to give it space. But yeah it has that folky thing, and I like that. I’m a huge fan of some folk music, like — I always want to make a Burl Ives covers record, it’s a recurring fantasy.
You should do it!
Oh I know, I should. It’d be so good. [Laughs.] But I don’t know if anyone can replicate the exuberance and the glee that Burl Ives projects in his voice. I laugh every time I hear it.
What other music were you into when you were writing these songs?
Ohhhh, my old stuff. I ripped off a couple of old things, although it didn’t really end up sounding like that, but I looked back at some old songs and thought “maybe I should do one like that.” But, you know, I was mostly thinking simplicity. I didn’t want to have a lot of chord changes. Especially since we didn’t really have a lot of practice time, it would be a pain to have a lot of complicated passages. So I was just looking to have it be kinda light in general. And it kind of allows for the melodies to be a little freer if the chords are simpler, so that was kind of my M.O.
Do you listen to your old stuff a lot?
No, I never do. I don’t listen to a lot of music in general. I like stuff that I can’t understand, like I love stuff on Sublime Frequencies. There’s a ton of good stuff on the label and it’s a good go-to if you like that kind of stuff. It can be hard to know where to start looking, but that label’s a good place to start if you want, say, Sumatra music, or something from a place in Africa that you’ve never heard of. It’s a good start. I like to not be able to understand the words — it seems to give the music a bit more freedom in my head. I listen to that, and I go back and listen to old favorites now and then, but I don’t listen to a lot of music and definitely don’t listen to my old stuff.
You think that’s a result of playing music on stage for your whole life? It becomes work and you want to get away from it?
Yeah. I’ve kind of always been that way, I don’t really know what to put on, I’ve never had a big record collection or anything. And yeah, definitely, I like to give my ears a break. I don’t even like to play that much when I’m not touring, it makes it so much more fresh.
The last time you played New York was on the tour with Mike Watt and Grant Hart, which was shortly before Grant sadly passed away. Do you have any fond memories you can share from playing some of those last shows with Grant?
It was a little bittersweet because Grant was sick. I didn’t realize it was that imminent really, I didn’t know. He didn’t seem real well, but… yeah, he went pretty quickly after that. So, a little bittersweet, and it felt that way, but mostly it was a lot of fun. You can’t have Watt around and not have it be a total riot.
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How does being in a band/being in the music industry now in 2019 compare to the old days?
I think I was a little more unhinged back then. Nobody was really thinking a whole lot about “let’s make it” or “how do we make it?”, we just played. We went through a period of time where we kind of had to think about that, because if we didn’t the big labels wouldn’t have it. We’d give ’em something and they’d go “oh, that’s shit, you need a producer, we need to get shit on the radio,” you know? So we went through that, but now it’s back to where we can pretty much make what we want again. We still tour the same way, still get in the van and drive around — I kinda prefer that to the bus. I like the mobility, and I still like driving. I still like getting behind the wheel and seeing the sites. The industry has changed a lot, but once again, we’re in a place that’s real similar in that there’s no “well, how do we make it?” Well, good luck! I mean nobody sells a lot of records now — well I’m sure some people do, but it’s not comparable to what it was. There are a lot more acts now, it’s just an ocean of stuff that you can see if you start cruising around on the internet and see how much is accessible. But that just makes it more like it was, like, “wow I don’t really give a fuck, I’m just gonna play music,” and that’s all I ever wanted to do anyway. I don’t like having to think about where I’m going with it, I really just like to play. It’s similar to the ’80s right now in that I feel pretty free.
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You mention the moment where you did have a little major label commitment, and obviously you guys had a brush with fame and a hit with “Backwater.” It seems like that was such a weird time where major labels wanted to sign every alternative rock band, but didn’t know what to do with them. Now that you have hindsight, what was your experience during that time like?
Well, I figured that they would logically capitalize on the base that we had built once we signed with London in 1990. Because what they wanted was to put out Monsters. They heard that before it came out, and they were like “oh give that to us, we like it as it is” — or so I thought. So I figured they wanna keep going like this if they’re gonna sign bands like us. They’re gonna let us have our way, ’cause that’s what alternative about it. But we find out pretty quickly that that wasn’t the case, and SST ended up keeping Monsters. So we started doing Forbidden Places and we turned in the stuff that we recorded in Phoenix on our own, and they were like “No, you need a producer.” We had never worked with a producer, we did everything ourselves. And I ended up really enjoying working with Pete Anderson. I had known him a little bit — Dwight Yoakam and he opened for us when Dwight was coming up, I would say ’84 or ’85. And I really enjoyed that duo, so I was looking forward to it. I knew he was a good producer and it turned out that it was a blast, and he really taught me a lot of stuff.
But then that record didn’t produce a hit, and the label was like “okay, you’re close, you’re real close.” And then with the next record, they still didn’t know what to do with it, and they said, “Why don’t you try recording some acoustic versions of your old stuff?” I was like, “okay, can I have [Butthole Surfers’] Paul Leary do it?” ‘Cause he had done Delusions of Banjer for Bad Livers. So they put us up, we recorded a few songs. Then we recorded the Feederz song “Fuck You,” real loud, not acoustic, and the label was like, “Oh, that’s great! Do a whole record like that!” So then we came up with “Backwater” and they found a song they could roll with. And a couple months before that we did Unplugged with Nirvana. So now they’re off and running, there’s confidence at the label that they can pull it off how they’d like to and have the hit record. So that happens. And then, they just get even more intense, like, “Now we need more hits, we can’t just coast on this.” And I didn’t write “Backwater” or anything else to be a hit, I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to direct my writing, I just kind of get what I get. And I’m not very disciplined. So, next record, I think they found something on it that they thought they could go with, and “Scum” was the song that started getting some good play right away. But then my bro took a…. a long journey into having fun with drugs [laughs], and that was that for a while. Once they saw what was going on in the band, they pulled support, which was like a couple weeks after we released the thing. They were like, “Oh, these guys are fucked up” [laughs]. It wasn’t Derrick and I, it was mostly Cris. But, we kinda saw all that go belly up real fast, and then Derrick was fed up, I moved to California to get away from all the heroin in Phoenix, and tried to figure out what to do with the band.
It was too expensive in California, so I moved to Austin because I knew some people and knew I could put a band together here. So I ended up in Austin, a more affordable, more relaxed place to put the band back together. So I did that and wound up putting out Golden Lies for Atlantic. So I had about ten years of major label experience, all about the same, they wanna have a hit. It’s good and bad — it’s nice to have attention, it makes things a little bit more affordable and that kind of stuff. But really, it makes it a job and you just watch your time disappear. The more you honor the commitments that come up naturally through that kind of success, the more your time isn’t your own. And I personally really enjoy my free time. It’s one of my favorite things, just to waste time. I didn’t even dream about being a musician really. I just did it because I couldn’t hold a job. It’s fun to play music with my friends, but it just evolved. I wanted to be a fishing guy. I graduated high school when I was 17 and I moved to Northwest Ontario and then onto Northwest Territories, and was working in the sports fishing industry — well it’s not really an industry, but you just fly rich people into remote lakes and catch cool fish.
Do you ever get around to fishing these days?
Nah, I haven’t done it that much. I get my thrills with the music. Playing music is like fishing, you never know what you’re gonna catch but it’s cool getting there.
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Meat Puppets — 2019 Tour Dates
May 8 New York, NY Mercury Lounge #
May 9 Brooklyn, NY Brooklyn Bowl #
May 10 Philadelphia, PA #
May 11 Asbury Park, NJ Asbury Lanes #
May 13 Woodstock, NY Colony #
May 14 Hamden, CT Space Ballroom #
May 15 Portland, ME Port City Music Hall #
May 16 Boston, MA Brighton Music Hall #
May 17 Portsmouth, NH 3S Artspace #
May 18 Jersey City, NJ Monty Music Hall #
# with Sumo Princess and Stephen Maglio
For more Meat Puppets, read our list of Nirvana’s 10 Best Cover Songs. (Spoiler, their version of “Lake of Fire” is #1.)