In crafting musical compositions, trusting one's own instincts is a vital element. Trusting one's own instincts largely rules out outside influences corrupting works, causing the art to be arguably purer in spirit. Lacking trust in such instincts inspires self-doubt, making it quite more difficult to write great material. Meat Puppets claim to have begun trusting their instincts once more, a promising sign that future quality material could be imminent.
Recorded at Spoon's HiFi Studios in Austin, Meat Puppets' thirteenth studio album "Lollipop" was issued on April 12th, 2011 via Megaforce Records. Vocalist / guitarist Curt Kirkwood yet again handled production duties. The full-length marks the return of Shandon Sahm on drums, who previously drummed on September 2000's "Golden Lies" and the tour in support of that album. Sahm received a telephone call from Curt in October 2009, with Meat Puppets being scheduled to support the Stone Temple Pilots. Only having one day to practice, Sahm's inaugural returning show was in Mobile, Alabama at BayFest. Rounding out Meat Puppets' lineup is Curt Kirkwood's brother Cris on bass.
Entering the studio to cut "Lollipop"'s compositions, Meat Puppets didn't work out the song arrangements beforehand or even rehearse extensively together. Written as something which "would be good for Elvis or Engelbert Humperdinck in the sixties", the track "Incomplete" was penned by Curt back in 1983. Also included are acoustic numbers "Baby Don't" and "The Spider And The Spaceship", as well as the ska-tinged "Shave It". At the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Minehead, due to be staged between May 13th-15th, the group are scheduled to perform third album "Up On The Sun" (1985) in its entirety.
On April 15th at 18:00 GMT, Hit The Lights' Robert Gray telephoned Meat Puppets frontman Curt Kirkwood to discuss "Lollipop".
Curt Kirkwood: Hello?
UG: Hello. Is this Curt?
This is Curt.
This is Robert Gray from Ultimate-Guitar.com. How are you Curt?
I'm doing great. How are you doing Robert?
I'm doing well. Would it be ok if we began the interview?
In making 'Lollipop', Meat Puppets didn't rehearse or learn its tracks before entering the recording studio as such. What was the reasoning behind that?
For two reasons. Cris doesn't live here - Cris lives in Phoenix - and Shandon and I live in Austin, so to get him over here for rehearsals is kind of a pain in the ass. He's a fast learner anyway. I just figured "Well, why get together and rehearse all together?" because it's a way to develop some bad habits; as you practice and you get more proficient with the song, you might miss stuff because the whole band is playing together rather than just developing the song from the ground up and saying "How's this supposed to sound?". I had a pretty good idea what would work as we laid down the tracks - it's just a three-piece, so it's pretty simple to arrange. It turned out much simpler though to do it that way than actually trying to arrange it and practice.
Did 'Lollipop''s tracks end up with a more natural flavour as a result?
I was surprised. I thought they sounded pretty upbeat and pretty natural considering that we built the album like a Lego toy.
You've said how 'Lollipop' hearkens back to the eighties in terms of Meat Puppets trusting their instincts more. What did you mean by that statement?
We tend to be pretty easily influenced, though it just depends on what's going on and what we think's going on musically around us, and what we think we should be and all that stuff. Really though, we've always just had a way that we do stuff. We don't think about it; we just play and try to be real simple, and we've just gotten to that again. We've made a few records now again. Cris and I are back to trusting doing just what we want more than thinking about it, and getting these feelings and going on them. That's kind of what made the albums. "Let's make an album." "Well, we haven't practised and we don't have enough songs." "Well, let's do one anyway."
Was there a certain time in Meat Puppets' history where the band didn't trust its own instincts?
Oh definitely. We've been led along by the nose by promises of money and this and that or whatever from time to time, and that's what being in the major label bracket was about in the nineties. They gave you a lot of money, but they demanded results so you started thinking about stuff like that. They'd tell you what they liked all the time, which is a pain in the ass. I tend to stick to my guns, but nonetheless, if you have an open mind about things then it's really hard to just shut off that part of it because you might miss something. You have to be very open-minded I think to do good artwork, so you open your mind up and in comes everything, things like "Oh, you need another hit", "You need to do this", "Listen to this band", and "These guys are doing good. Why aren't you doing good?". We went a little wayward, for sure.
Was that as a result of Nirvana citing Meat Puppets as an influence, and that whole thing?
No. It was the result really of our first involvement with the majors. We were game, but the first record that we did didn't do very good on London. We thought it was a really cool record, 'Forbidden Places' (1991). Pete Anderson produced it. I know the record company liked it and I still love the record, but it didn't do very good. So at that point they said things like "We are gonna put you guys out on our indie imprint", "Just do a six-song acoustic EP or something", "We just don't know what to do", "You're not pop music", and this and that. "Backwater" - the song that became a hit from 'Too High To Die' (1994) - we started recording in early '93. They said "Maybe we can use this for a hit", and the Nirvana thing came right about that time. They were getting ready to crank up the whole 'Too High To Die' / "Backwater" thing, and that really helped actually. It made everybody go "Maybe these guys are worth doing something with", so from there the pressure eased a little bit because we had the song that they needed to run to the radio with, and then we had the approval of the biggest rock stars and all that stuff. They backed off a little bit and 'Too High To Die' did its thing, but once they let that lots of publicity from Nirvana and a good amount of being in the public eye take its course, they said "Ok, let's go back to the thing. What's the next hit?". It was a different kind of pressure because they said "Ok, you guys had a hit. So now we're gonna give you more money for 'No Joke!'". 'No Joke!' cost twice as much money to make as 'Too High To Die'. It was good and everything, but by that point my brother was using and once the record company found out they pulled the plug on us, so it was a different kind of pressure, like "Hey, no junkies". I tended to agree with them, so it was a kind of stalemate.
That attitude sounds a bit hypocritical in a way, especially considering Nirvana's Kurt Cobain - who had cited Meat Puppets as an influence - definitely wasn't clean. The record company likely had no qualms with Nirvana citing the band as an influence.
Yeah, and they knew it, and they didn't like it. We had the same management back then. I could see what was going on. They were making a lot of money. They needed to say "Hey, chill out - get clean", but they were making a lot of money so it was swept under the carpet to a degree considering he definitely probably had a pretty bad habit. When the whole thing came to a bitter end though, then people were saying "No junkies". They never said "We just milked this junkie that's dead" - they would just wash their hands of it. There was a lot of drug use going on probably, and I knew a fair amount of it. I don't really like it, but it is hypocritical though. From my point of view, I thought "I'm not gonna tour with Cris. I'm not gonna make him go around sick like this just because we got this thing going." I needed to address his problem, so it was definitely an influence on me that way. I thought "Before it gets too bad, we have to stop. Who cares about making money or anything else? Let him deal with it."
'Lollipop' is self-produced, a duty you've handled many times in the past for Meat Puppets. What is your view on bringing in outside producers, something the group did in the nineties in particular?
I liked it. I loved working with Pete Anderson and Paul Leary. They're the only people we ever really worked with, Pete Anderson and Paul Leary. We did something with Pat McCarthy who did Butthole Surfers' 'Independent Worm Saloon' (1993) - we did a song or two which never got released. We did some demos with Tom Werman - the guy who produced Cheap Trick and Ted Nugent - but I really liked working with both Paul and Pete. It was a lot of fun, but it's a whole different thing. They make you work, and they make you do it and do it until it's the way they want it. The difference is I get there a lot quicker. What I want is a lot simpler to achieve than it is for a producer (laughs). I'm not real lazy. I just do it a little differently.
Would you say you prefer to be the captain of your ship?
I prefer it, for sure. It's hard to weigh it against the other one because it's just different. I did a solo record (October 2005's 'Snow') with Pete a few years ago, and I knew from working with him on 'Forbidden Places' how he liked to work. I just surrender; I say "I'm your man. What do you need? Guitar? Vocals? I'll just be around so let me know what you need". I just don't have to think about it, and in that sense it's a lot of fun. You then watch what he makes. I love the outcome and I love the input too, because I can't do it their way myself. I don't know how.
Is there a story behind 'Lollipop''s title?
Yeah. My girlfriend was sitting there messing around with the painting that I did, put it on the computer and just swirled it around like that. I had been thinking about what to call this thing for a long time and just out of nowhere, once I saw the drawing for the cover I said "Oh, it's a lollipop."
How did Shandon Sahm come to return to the fold?
(Ted) Marcus had obligations about a year and a half ago with his other job. He's an audio designer and he was stuck, so he couldn't go out. We had a couple of weeks with the Stone Temple Pilots to do, and Shandon has been around. He let me know that he'd play drums any time I needed somebody to sit in or whatever, so I just called him up. He was ready to go, and he knew a good amount of our material from playing with us before. We were able to come in that way from three different directions once again without any practice. He just came right in, and we started up with that tour. It worked out so good we decided to stay with him.
So Shandon is a part of Meat Puppets for the foreseeable future then?
Yeah, yeah. We love playing with him - he's awesome.
In discussing Meat Puppets' previous two albums prior to 'Lollipop', 'Sewn Together' (2009) and 'Rise To Your Knees' (2007), you said they didn't lend themselves very well to a live setting. Is there a reason why you feel that way regarding those two respective albums?
I can never figure out why that is. It's probably just personal taste and impatience on the stage sometimes. Some of that material I think was contemplative, and just nice pictures. They're like good wall hangings to me. I like both of those records; I like them quite a bit, and I especially like 'Rise To Your Knees' quite a bit. I just couldn't find many songs that I thought had an easy way to approach live because there were a lot of overdubs, and just some meticulous stuff. I don't know... It's just one of those things. I've had it happen a number of times with particular records where I liked the record, but I just don't wanna play mostly any of it.
In your opinion, does 'Lollipop' lend itself well to a live setting?
I think so. This one is just fun to play for me. I've been playing along to it. That's my way of practising - just seeing which parts I can pick out. The parts which need to be played live are the obvious parts, because there weren't a whole lot of overdubs - there's actual main guitar parts. From song to song I enjoy playing them, and there's a simplicity to that too. I'm learning to do 'Up On The Sun' (1985) again - the parts that I don't remember - for the ATP Festival in Minehead. We're supposed to play that whole thing, and there's parts on there that are tough; they probably were tough when I did 'em at first, and they're tough now. I have to track myself from where I'm at and go "Ok, now here comes that little part... Oh, ok. Did it", and then you come back. It's like sneezing or something, where you're just not there for a minute. I like it to a degree, but I really also dislike being able to lay back and play something that doesn't require much thought to where I can just surf it. A lot of that has to do with just my natural abilities; sometimes I've written stuff that's a little beyond what's natural for me as a guitar player.
So you prefer to strike a happy medium?
Yeah, for sure. There has to be a little bit of a challenge, but I can do a lot with three chords. You just focus on the notes and the sonic parts of it, and not worry yourself with "Oh, here comes this bumpy part". This record doesn't really have that, except just a couple of little parts that I had to stitch together a little bit. It's really a joy to play, and it's what I like the most; sitting there with the acoustic and just playing without any expectations and just having a good time, and then taking that to the stage. Of course it sounds a lot different then, but that's my approach.
As you said, Meat Puppets are scheduled to play all of 'Up On The Sun' at the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival in Minehead in May. Was that requested by the festival's organisers?
Yeah. The curators are Animal Collective, and it was their request.
Looking back, how do you view 'Up On The Sun'?
I'm liking it a lot right now, and I've always liked it. I've always thought it was a pretty different album for us, one that stands out. Playing it back and getting on top of these tough little parts again, and seeing what we did, is a lot of fun. I love the sound of it, and trying to do that as a whole. I'm enjoying it.
Is there a certain album in Meat Puppets' discography which the fans particularly enjoy? A staple album, maybe?
Well, definitely. 'Meat Puppets II' is always the perennial favourite, and then you find that you have different fans from different eras. People that got into us through Nirvana, a lot of whom got 'Too High To Die'. It kind of has to do with an age group. There's people that like 'Up On The Sun' and then there's the people from the early days, the hardcore purists that don't like anything after our first record (laughs). I don't know. I talked to a guy yesterday who told me he interviewed one band, and that they really liked 'Rise To Your Knees' (laughs). So that band likes 'Rise To Your Knees', and Animal Collective must like 'Up On The Sun'.
The track "Incomplete" was written back in 1983.
Yeah. I was in a state that was down in Mexico for about a month, just trying to avoid responsibility. I wound up in Acapulco for a good part of the time, and I wrote that song just imagining what it would be like to write a song like that for a movie for Elvis to sing, or a cool, romantic Roy Orbison song or something. It wasn't really for the band. I've done that a lot, stuff that I just don't think the band can do. Sometimes we wind up doing them, but I write them specifically for a different artist. It just sat around - I never even really tried to do it until now.
So you never recorded "Incomplete" and shopped it around to artists, or anything of that nature?
No, no. It's just material that I've been writing since I was a kid. It's kind of how I learned to write, going "Hmm, I'm going to write a song for The Monkees." I think that was one of the first songs my friend and I wrote when we were about twelve. It's not like I wrote a lot when I was a teenager, because I was way more into motorcycles and fishing and stuff when I was a teenager. We liked The Monkees and those kinds of bands though, and we wrote a silly song. I've written material that I've wanted Diana Ross to do, material that I thought would be good for Willie Nelson, just that kind of thing. I never have shopped them though, no.
"We tend to be pretty easily influenced, though it just depends on what's going on and what we think's going on musically around us."
So you have other unrecorded material lying around, material you wrote with different artists in mind?
Yeah (laughs). Yeah, definitely. I don't tend to distinguish them anymore. Now I'm a little more brave, going "Who gives a crap? Just do it yourself". I do find a use for them now and then, but now they're just a part of what I have sitting around.
That definitely makes Meat Puppets have a varied sound then, really.
Yeah, for sure.
"Baby Don't" and "The Spider And The Spaceship" are two acoustics tracks on 'Lollipop'.
"Baby Don't" is another one of those that's probably not really written for us, necessarily. I just thought it was kind of cool. I just wrote that right before we did 'Lollipop'; I was just listening to a lot of older rock music from The Beatles all over, listening to it on the road. I think that's probably where that came from.
What can you reveal about some of the other tracks which feature on 'Lollipop'?
"Vile" I wrote while we were recording the record. Cris and I were just sitting there around the table in the kitchen. I started just beating on the table with my hands and we recorded that on the phone, and then we played along to it on an acoustic. We played that back on the phone and then recorded all of it on another phone (laughs).
In the past, Meat Puppets has split but reunited twice. Has there been any difference within the group the third time around?
Well, yeah. Yeah, definitely. I've been forced to look at it as reuniting. My mind always thought "We're on hiatus" until say Cris got better. I moved to Austin and another bass player (Andrew Duplantis) we had quit, so I thought "I have to wait until Cris reappears." It's real hard for me to put a band together, and so I was just in denial. It took Cris ten years to get back together with the group, so once we got back together - especially this time - I realised how far things can go in terms of public perception and how easily people forget. It was a lot like starting over, so then I was forced to realise we had split up. I actually have quite a bit of respect for it now, and don't think so much like "I can just keep this going". I think it's pretty odd that Cris would get better and get through what he's been through, and that we can... I mean, it's wonderful. It's just amazing that somebody could get through that, and then that we could actually be doing stuff that we think is good and not just trying to patch up our ill feelings or anything like that. We're actually productive, and we're digging it.
So Meat Puppets disbanding twice has all been for the band's well-being then really?
Yeah, for sure. I've always been complicit with the hiatuses. That always forced me to be strong and say "No, the band hasn't broken up", even if it's just in my own head. It's something that I like too much to just let go that easily. I needed time. There's been a reason for it. Sometimes you feel like you've been kicked in the stomach no doubt, but who's to say what a career in the arts is supposed to mean when you look back on it? It can be a twisted path.
Is your brother Cris doing well at the moment?
Yeah. He's been doing well since... Really, once he got put in prison that forced him to rehabilitate, which was kind of the worst situation but... He was in a federal penitentiary for eighteen months for assaulting the guy who shot him. He's not a user now; he quit that in prison, he's healthy, and he plays really good. We have a blast doing this stuff, so pretty normal I guess you would call it. He still has a bullet stuck in him though (laughs).
With Cris being a recovering addict, are there problems in terms of touring? Drug users can be at shows, and he could be potentially offered drugs.
You'd have to knock him out and force it on him - he's way beyond that. This is a guy who went through ten really hard years during which he lost his wife and then one of our best friends at the same house six months later through drugs, and wound up seriously addicted to heroin and drugged out the whole time until he had that tussle with a cop and got put in prison.
What do you feel the future holds for Meat Puppets?
Gee, I don't know...
Is there potential, would you say? Is the future looking bright?
Yeah. We have a lot of shows set up. The record's out and seems to be doing okay, and that's pretty much enough. That's all I've ever had, and that's what I started looking forward to early on. As long as we get to make another record, and as long as this record leads to further art. I love doing it; I love making music. I don't have any huge ambitions - I don't move and shake anything really. I just like being offered the continued ability to do it.
Thanks for speaking to me Curt.
Thank you. You're welcome.
All the best with 'Lollipop', and Meat Puppets and everything.
Thank you very much Robert.
Have a nice afternoon anyway.
Photo credits: Jaime Butler
Interview by Robert Gray
"They gave you a lot of money, but they demanded results. They'd tell you what they liked all the time, which is a pain in the ass."