Brothers Cris and Curt Kirkwood continue to redirect the roadmap of the proverbial long strange trip of American music. Bassist Cris and guitarist-vocalist Curt, along with drummer Derrick Bostrom, first started crackling music lovers’ neurons with their eponymously titled debut in 1982, a shambling mix of punk rock grunt mixed in with whacked-out LSD-splattered weirdness. Their subsequent releases on SST became signposts in what soon was known as the American underground music scene. Albums like Mirage,Huevos, and Up on the Sun, with their morphing of country, hard rock, and shimmering psychedelia earned the band a diehard following and the respect of peers like Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, and R.E.M., while turning on the next wave of musicians to the deepest possibilities of the burgeoning DIY ethic.
During the band’s second decade, they experienced some brutally intense highs and lows. A major label deal was inked with London records; their Too High to Die album from ’94 remains a jewel of the “alt rock/grunge” label feeding frenzy. Kurt Cobain issued his now-famous hosannas of the band, inviting them to participate on Nirvana’s Unplugged album. Sadly, it was also during this era that Cris’ forays into drug addiction intensified, with his eventually leaving the band altogether. While his younger brother drifted off into a crack-and-heroin fog, Curt continued to tour and record as The Meat Puppets.
After a stint in prison due to his addiction, Cris eventually cleaned up his act and rejoined the band in the mid-aughts. Since ’07, the brothers Kirkwood have been working with drummer Shandon Sahm (son of Texas music king Doug Sahm). In the last few years, Curt’s son Elmo has joined in as second guitarist, turning what was once one of the truly tripped-out bands of rock into a bona fide family operation. The Meat Puppets return to Northeast Florida when they open for Soul Asylum at Freebird Live on Halloween night, Oct. 31.
Cris Kirkwood was kind enough to speak with Folio Weekly from his home in Los Angeles; we talked about the band’s connection to famed local club Einstein-A-Go-Go, an unwanted onstage refreshment, and the freedom found within self-indulgence.
Folio Weekly: Back in the mid-’80s, you guys played here quite a bit at Einstein-A-Go-Go in Jacksonville Beach. Do you have any memories of those gigs?
Cris Kirkwood: Oh, yeah, I definitely do. That was always a fun little place to gig down to. I seem to recall having gotten some clothes from that boutique in the back. That’s back from when I was still young enough to look at myself in the mirror. [Laughs.] But Jax Beach was always fun.
Well, seeing you and bands like Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers were a real release here in the ’80s, as I know it was for a lot of kids everywhere. And it’s a lot better now, but this area was really pretty repressed 30 years ago.
Yeah. But you know, the whole world is still pretty repressed. [Laughs.] That’s what drew me to the arts in the first place. But there was something about those times. And like Einstein-A-Go-Go was definitely one of those little spots. We just made this little track around the country and visited these places repeatedly. And it just kind of built up to the point where … and not like size-wise … but the communication with people and where people would get where we were coming from. There were just a handful of spots around the country were we’d say, “Oh, we’re going there again.” There were a lot of years there were people who were really down with what we were doing. And definitely Einstein’s was one of the ones.
Yeah. You know, I just recently re-read Joe Carducci’s Enter Naomi and he kind of reinforces how disciplined, if not brutal, that SST ethic was. Being on the SST roster, did you feel a kind of pressure to tour even more than you may have wanted to at the time?
Nah, nah. But those Black Flag guys were funny that way, definitely. I can remember one time we were ready to go out on the road with them and they’d bought this milk truck kind of thing. And those guys were very fucking much like: [in high-pitched, elfin-like voice] “discipline!” [Laughs.] So they’re like, “Here’s the milk truck — climb in.” And we’re like “Climb in? Nah, we’re good.” We weren’t down with getting down on that trajectory like those guys were. We were most assuredly buzzed about our trip but I don’t think we were up against the same thing they were up against in a way. A certain segment of the punker scene demanded a certain something from Flag and that made a more high-pressure scene, in a way. But they also did that a little bit themselves as well. Whereas our deal was very focused and intent as far as what we were doing, but part of what we were doing, was having a good fuckin’ time.
You guys have always kind of moved upstream. I had one of those The Blasting Concept compilations with all of these punked-out bands and you covered a Foghat song. [Laughs.]Yeah. [Laughs.] And I guess we’ve always been like that. Fairly quickly, once we started touring, people got into it. And it seemed to last for years, but now, looking back, it was only a span of a handful of years, really. But it got to a point where we didn’t really get the same crowd; we no longer got that hardcore element and, after a while, hardcore became so specific. So those people weren’t really around.
Were you kind of pleased about that, since it was no longer “Give the skinheads what they want”?
Well, it didn’t bother me, that’s for sure. [Laughs.] And we’d played a lot of hardcore shows, but those people had a tendency to express themselves by, like, spitting on you and shit. One night we were playing the Mabuhay, that old place in San Francisco, and I’m standing there screaming my little noodle off into the microphone and in a split-second, I see this guy bounce up, hawk a loogie, and he watched as it flew and hit me in the back of the throat. And, you know, that’s just fucking gross. But it was interesting. [Laughs.] And definitely a fun time. But that was never really what we wanted to do and we were fortunate enough to find people who were into supporting what we wanted to do. But there were nights when it seemed like everyone was tripping – probably because I was tripping – and people wanted it to go as far as it would go. And it’s always been about letting the music get to where it can get to. It was never purposely “anti” anything.
You know that brings up a point … I think I’ve seen you guys maybe nine or 10 times since ’86. You might play a country rock show, then a straight-up hard rock show, then a concert of just spaced-out feedback … It’s never been like you’ve been posing and it didn’t have that “anti” vibe you were talking about. And watching clips on YouTube, you’re still, on some level, doing this kind of thing. How do you all get into this groove to shift gears like that in concert?
I think it’s one of the things that drew me to wanting to do this, music specifically, but just the arts in general. It’s the realm of the mind, you know? It’s very self-indulgent on a certain level. But since that same self-indulgence is what the world of the arts is, we just took advantage of that. It’s what we wanted to do, it’s what we found interesting, it’s what we still find interesting. It’s what we’re capable of doing. Back then, you’d see the breadth of our palette. That’s intentional, at least conceptually. But it’s never been like, “let’s do space noodling.” But if that idea comes up … it’s really a matter of, “this is the feel that’s happening right now, so let’s go in this direction.” This is why I do this. It’s our trip. And sometimes our tripped is totally fucked-up. [Laughs.]