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If VH1’s Behind The Music ever decides to branch out from the internal squabbles, trivial psychodramas and minor torments that are de rigueur in most of the episodes they air and start tackling stories about true conflict in music and the bands that make it, the best story to start with would be that of the Meat Puppets. Now back on the road and supporting its first record to boast the musical contributions of both of the founding Kirkwood brothers in 12 years, the Meat Puppets have survived and are once again working together—however, singer and guitarist Curt Kirkwood says that he wouldn’t call it a comeback because he never left. “I never broke the band up,” says Curt Kirkwood plainly as he begins to run through the events of the last twelve years with knee-buckling candor. “My brother [bassist Cris Kirkwood] got sick and Derrick [original Meat Puppets drummer Derrick Bostrom] quit, but it’s just a different kind of band. It’s not like Fallout Boy or something, I get to do whatever I want and it’s always been that way. That’s why I could go to Texas and make a record under the Meat Puppets name with three other guys [2000’s Golden Lies found the singer enlisting Kyle Ellison on guitar, bassist Andrew Duplantis and drummer Shandon Sahm to round out the band’s lineup] and put out a solo record.
“I penned most of the earlier records completely so in a lot of ways it’s always been kind of solo stuff,” continues the singer. “Things like Up On The Sun and Meat Puppets II, I wrote those entirely. I played them with a band, but they’d have been done one way or another no matter what.
“It’s just a matter of whatever I want to call it. It’s the difference between Everlasting Gobstoppers and Wonka Bars; it’s all the same company.”
So what exactly happened within the band that led to what people perceived as the initial dissolution of the Meat Puppets twelve years ago? The story of the Meat Puppets’ excesses even prior to 1995 is the stuff that movies are made of but, in the simplest analysis, Cris Kirkwood’s demons finally caught up with him in a most spectacular fashion that ended in him serving time in prison. “It all just boiled down to drugs,” says the guitarist flatly. “Cris was using too many drugs and that went on for a long number of years; about 1995 until about 2003. Then he got into a fight with some cop at a post office. He got shot in the back and put in prison for 18 months so he had lots of good reasons to address his problem seriously.
“Even before that though, when Cris’ drug use really picked up, Derrick took it as an opportunity to quit,” continues Kirkwood. “I think he liked the concept of the Meat Puppets, but he’s more of a heady, intellectual kind of guy and I don’t think he ever liked the touring or the whole rigmarole of it all.
“However, that sort of stuff will hopefully give you a little wake up call, and in our case it did—so once it was all said and done, we were tight so we were able to say to each other, ‘Okay, the last few years don’t exist, let’s pick up where we left off.’”
Well, not exactly. Prior to the Meat Puppets’ hiatus, the band enjoyed the wide distribution that major label London Records afforded and, for the brief period following the Kirkwood brothers’ appearance alongside Nirvana’s Unplugged performance for MTV and before said hiatus, the band was riding the surge of notoriety that the appearance had afforded. Now, twelve years later, the logical question for any band would be if any of that fan recognition would hold water in the wake of so long an absence. Going back to an independent label may have signaled a return to form and be a very tantalizing idea to those diehard fans of the band, but Kirkwood’s reasoning for signing to Anodyne Records for the release of the Meat Puppets’ new album, Rise To Your Knees, was far less about reclaiming past glories than audiences might expect, according to the singer, and even signing to a larger label like London as they did back in 1991 was a matter that the singer had under complete control. “Back when we first signed to London, I had my jones for being self-absorbed so requited, especially at that point, that I was willing to take the ride and see what we could get out of it,” says the singer matter-of-factly. “What we found out though, is that all that a major can do for us is use our name to get good press just like we got before we were getting before we were on a major,” continues Kirkwood. “Starting back with Meat Puppets II, we always got great reviews—we’ve always been critically really able to get tons of press—that’s when we got everything we could hope for and more and it was always on the band’s name. All the label does is hang their own shit on your coattail and then they’ll want to throw a little more money into it if a fluke happens and the music catches on.
“What you find out over time is that, once they figure out whatever fluke works, they’ll start throwing money at it, but it’s still a fluke. That said, if a fluke happens with Anodyne, they’ll throw money at it; they’ll hook up with larger distribution or whatever they figure will work for them. The difference between labels is merely in the label that they hang upon themselves and what makes a label a major would be that it’s funded by a corporation perhaps. We knew this going into the corporate structure; SST was a corporation even though their battle cry was that corporate rock sucked and all that stuff.
“We knew the difference, everybody’s the same; there are no majors, there are no indies, that’s crap. Everybody’s on their own—now especially. It always was that way too—all it really is, is the difference between big time and small potatoes and that has to do with quantity. Because we’ve always had the opportunity to be as artistic as we want—and we gave ourselves that opportunity, we took it—it’s been much simpler for us from a business standpoint; we do what we want, and whoever comes along for the ride, comes along for the ride. That said, we’re always going to do things the way we feel is best for us. We don’t have to think about that stuff because we’re so self-absorbed and self-contained—especially these days because I’ve really made sure that the band is locked down and tight this time.”
“Tight” is an excellent description to use for the sound of Rise To Your Knees as well. While the album is most definitely a “back-to-basics” record, anyone expecting something as fast and loose as II will be sorely disappointed; while Rise To Your Knees is a return to form, it also has the benefit of hindsight. “Fly Like The Wind” instantly recalls the wide-open surrealist spaces of vintage Puppets certainly, but the improvements in musicianship over the last couple of decades make the images that the band conjures more vivid and, while still abstract, less hazy. Brief measures of arresting musicality (banjo plucking in “Tiny Kingdom” for example) surface subliminally and vanish in a way that makes listeners wonder if they’d dreamed them up themselves. Kirkwood is clearly reveling in the rejuvenation offered by Rise To Your Knees as well as he turns in some fine melodies (“New Leaf,” “On The Rise”) and, with that stage set, the additions of more diverse sounds (the reggae-via-Southern Delta of “Enemy Love Song” among others) as well as the addition of new drummer, light-handed but solid, Ted Marcus further drive the dream-like feel of the album that never jars, but has an unsettling quality in that it’s as difficult to pin down as the static that bookends “Vultures.” That mirage-like quality is the most compelling part of the album; like the best magic eye pictures, if you focus on one spot, you might not get it—but if you stand back, relax and take the whole record in, the intricate beauty of it will reveal itself. “I think this album is as good as anything we ever did in a lot of ways,” says Kirkwood of Rise To Your Knees. “I like it better than the last album that I did with Cris. As players, we’re as viable as we’ve ever been and I think it’s pretty heartening that we’ve gotten to that point after only a few months of doing it. We did it initially simply because we could, and it just happened to fall into place.”
According to the guitarist, the response from fans has been overwhelmingly positive as well. Now having wrapped up their first tour in support of the album to very well-populated shows with enthusiastic audiences, plans are already in the works to head back out again as soon as possible. “It’s really hard to pin our crowds down these days because there’s lots of younger people: the new alt-rockers and the disenfranchised,” says Kirkwood of his observations of the crowd from the stage. “And then there’s the older fans as well that have been coming out, but the reactions have been the same throughout; it’s interesting that we’ve been able to hit the old fans where they want to be hit and the new ones where they need to be hit.
“That’s always been the trick and you can’t pull it off thinking about it, it’s just something I’m noticing that’s making these shows really, really good.”
Rise To Your Knees is out now on Anodyne Records.