More than 30 years ago, Curt Kirkwood sang, “I don’t have to think / I only have to do it / The results are always perfect / And that’s old news.”
The Meat Puppets still perform that song, “Oh, Me,” and their singer remains an intelligent, skilled, and accomplished guitarist and songwriter who defines himself by indifference and indolence.
Born in 1980 as a punk trio, the ever-evolving Pups grew into one of America’s most popular indie bands through a surreal blend of distorted hard rock and country-fried psychedelia.
A decade after their album “Meat Puppets II” got a rave review in Rolling Stone, Nirvana played three songs from “II” on their “Unplugged in New York” album, accompanied by Kirkwood and his brother, Meat Puppets bassist Cris Kirkwood.
With the success of their 1994 album “Too High To Die,” and their radio hit “Backwater,” the Meat Puppets’ future looked bright.
Then Cris descended into drug-fueled misery and drummer Derrick Bostrom quit. The band went through various dissolutions and weird lineups over the next decade.
The Brothers Meat reunited (with a new drummer) in 2006 and released a new CD, “Sewn Together,” a shiny collection Kirkwood says is anchored by “Love Mountain,” a tune he calls “nice and light.”
“People always try to be so cool with their music – it has to be relevant or heavy or have emotion,” he said. “‘Love Mountain’ is like a commercial jingle for kids’ health juice.”
Kirkwood, an antihero for the ages, is cynical, sarcastic, dismissive of his work.
“Writing songs is utilitarian to me,” he said. “I have never been that precious about it. It’s kind of a drag that I have to write. I wish I could just cover the Beatles and Nirvana.”
“I’m not very disciplined. I’m not into practicing. I’m kind of a fake. I learn my part and then I just jam out and pretend I’m Steve Miller or Jimi Hendrix or something.”
He doesn’t have to try; the results speak for themselves.
He says “Oh, Me” is “a tribute to my correctness.”
“I’m beyond evaluation and judgment,” he said. “There’s a static point that’s untouchable and immutably perfect. That’s the nature of time. Live in the present. The present is the only thing that’s real.”
What are the most common questions you’re being asked in the interviews you’re doing to promote this album?
What TV programs did Kurt Cobain watch? What was his favorite color? Blah, blah, blah. If you really want to know the truth: That’s about the most common one. How’s Krist doing? Isn’t it a miracle that you guys have been around so long? Stuff like that.
I was actually wondering if it’s possible to do an interview without being asked about Nirvana.
Yeah, sure. It happens. That’s just a regular question throughout the past 15 years. That’s what comes to mind right away. And I don’t necessarily take it as something that my band is being picked on about. It’s just: There’s not that many people you can ask [about Nirvana]. Who are you going to ask? Courtney? That guy was pretty reclusive. People are curious.
I’ve hung out with Novoselic enough to see how much he gets asked. They’re not really asking about Novoselic, even though he was in the band. And he’s polite about it. He’s a gracious person. And it doesn’t bother me either. I like my involvement with that.
Yeah, obviously those songs came out phenomenally well on that record.
Yeah. They’re close to the originals.
Yeah. My girlfriend always says that the Meat Puppets’ versions of those songs sound like the Nirvana versions being played in hell.
Oh – that’s not a bad one, I guess.
I really didn’t know how to sing [when I was making “Meat Puppets II”], so it is pretty tortured, for sure. Not mentally – I was just tortured in the process of singing at all. I sucked.
Would that I could have come out with the tones of a Willie Nelson or a Celine Dion – I could have written my ticket to Hollywood right then and there.
You kind of did.
Yeah, you know. I don’t care if it’s on somebody else’s coattails as long as their coattail has a bathroom in it.
(laughs). One of the most distinctive things, to me, about the Meat Puppets is the vocal harmonies that you guys use. It seems like a really natural thing to me. So I’m wondering if you just come up with a main vocal part and Cris just comes up with a harmony kind of naturally.
No, harmony’s not arbitrary. I write those harmonies. That’s just a harmonic sequence that I use a lot, that’s why it winds up sounding similar from song to song. There’s a ton of different harmonies you can put on any melody line.
We took a long time to learn how to do that. It didn’t come naturally. We were both singin’, but then I started getting really interested in harmony – and it took use a couple of years to really figure out how to do that well.
You use that a lot on the new record.
Yeah. We like it. It’s just the same as doing a guitar overdub, to me. It’s all just another instrument to me.
Those harmonies are pretty distinctive, though. You say that it’s something you’re intentionally developing – is there some sort of musical theory behind it?
I don’t know theory, but it’s just that I chose that harmony. They’re not that unusual. They’re fairly standard. The melodies have some quirkiness to ’em. I’ve been pretty influenced by the Beatles. They have really cool harmonies. Also George Jones, watchin’ him live – his backup singers follow the turns in his vocal lines real carefully. And a lot of it is that, too: to write stuff with some different turns in it and then have the harmony follow it.
But I don’t know theory at all. I have no idea what I’m doing. I just pick out the harmony that sounds cool with a three-piece, basically.
As far as not knowing any theory at all – is your guitar skill just based on practicing and playing a lot over the years?
Really, I’m not very disciplined. I’m not into practicing. I don’t like it very much at all. I mean by myself: I kind of like practicing with the band.
But I put some thought into it.
You know, one thing I can do is hear stuff. I don’t have to record it. I can hear a melody line and I can hear a harmony. I can sort through harmonies in my head. I wait for melody lines that stick out so I don’t forget ‘em. That way, I don’t have to write much down or record it. I just collect those things. I have a lot of shit that goes through my head and a lot of it I don’t care for. And then every once in a while, something will stick and I’ll be hummin’ it the next day. So, that’s how I do it.
You mess around on guitar a lot, right?
I don’t play very much. Now and then I mess with the guitar. I’m kind of a fake, really. I learn my little part and then I just jam out and pretend I’m Steve Miller or Jimi Hendrix or something. It’s really air guitar with an actual guitar underneath your fingers.
I mean, if you play guitar for a couple years, you don’t have to practice that much. It’s like riding a bicycle.
For “Sewn Together,” it seems like on most of the songs there’s a number of guitar tracks. There’s at least three guitar tracks on most of the songs, right?
Oh, sure. I cut the basics and then pretty it up a little bit.
When you have so many guitar tracks on a record, how do you duplicate that live?
I hire the E Street Band.
I don’t – I just play the basics. It gives me incredible room. I can drop from the rhythm track into one of the weird little overdubs. I’ve done plenty overdubs on different records throughout the years and you just figure out a live version of it – which basically turns out to be the rhythm chords.
What I figure is that: The reason you do some of those things on a record is that there’s not the energy and the bombast of a live show which makes up for what’s missing from the actual arrangements, whereas when you’re listening at home, if it were just the basic tracks, those would sound pretty naked if you were listening carefully.
Any interest in getting another guitarist in the band?
Well, we’re pretty much on a budget, you know? It’s cost-prohibitive. That’s not the only reason – I really like playing with a three-piece, too. But I’d love to have a multi-instrumentalist: somebody who can play guitar and keyboard and whatnot.
What was your son Elmo’s role in the production of the album? I saw that he’s credited on the album.
He’s just another set of ears and an opinion – somebody I know I can trust, objective ears, somebody without a stake in it who can tell ya, “I think that’s embarrassing. I wouldn’t do that.”
I want to ask you your thoughts on the evolution of the music business, in a general sense.
I don’t think it’s evolved at all. It’s the same business it always was.
The only thing is: There’s no secure way to monetize internet commerce, really – not in the same way that you could with an album sitting on the shelf. So, in the cyber world, that’s the whole key – not just the music business, but plenty of other things.
That’s the only difference: There’s some missing revenue. In our case: not much. We never made a penny off of any records. It’s always been off of publishing and touring.
I’m actually really surprised to hear that.
Well, I shouldn’t say we never made any money. Maybe on the SST records, because they cost so little [to make] and the [reissue] deals with Rykodisc probably yielded some up-front money, but in terms of album sales generating profits? Not many people do.
The people in our realm, I would say very few people have made money off of it, especially if it’s on a major, because after their first couple of records, they [owe the label] a million bucks and if they haven’t sold a million records, they’ve not paid that record company back. You have to sell a lot of records.
Those bands then are totally screwed and are in debt to a major label, right?
Well, it can go a number of ways: They can be in debt; they can be freed from their contract and the record label writes it off on their taxes. That’s why they don’t mind doin’ it: It works for them whether the bands fail or not, in a strange way. And then, if the band goes over to another major label the previous label will have some kind of a kick-back from any future success or a buyout of the contract, something like that.
Mostly, bands never really get held to too much. They get signed. If it doesn’t go over, they get released.
In my case, I talked to Universal. They were being sold, there was too much going on and nobody was really interested in holding us to our contract, so I got off pretty much scot-free.
You know, I’ve always found that a human touch works. Disregard the contract, state your needs and find somebody who has a heart and, if you haven’t really taken ’em to the cleaners and been pestering ’em – if what’s been advanced is basically fundamental recording costs, et cetera – then there’s less on the table for them to look at and go, “Well, half of this is us giving you a monetary advance that you guys bought cars with.”
You always hear those stories about band being held to these contracts and not being able to put out records and being in debt to these labels, but of all your peers and friends over the years, I guess that hasn’t really happened to many people you’ve seen.
No, I really haven’t seen that very much. I don’t know that anybody’s contract has been that valuable.
The only time I’ve ever been held up is when: The reason I wanted away from Universal/Polygram is because they were sold to Seagram’s and then to Vivendi and there was a clampdown on any work being done by any of the contracted artists. It was really hard to sneak a record out and this lasted a year-and-a-half, two years. It wasn’t personal. That was just a stalled motion because a huge corporate transaction.
Nonetheless, it was oppressive. It was an obstacle that had to be dealt with. I think Universal could understand my position: I was at a stalemate, due to nothing I had fostered.
And you were able to find someone sympathetic.
Yeah, I found the president. I found the head of Universal. I went to the top of the ladder and pleaded with him as a poor guy to a rich guy, both of whom have families. I said, “You know the story: This is my life. I support a family off of this. Can’t make a living this way. I need out.”
Most of the records that you sell now, are they sold at your shows?
No, it’s probably internet and stores. I haven’t really been keeping track. The last one, “Rise to Your Knees,” was totally under the radar. “Snow” sold jack shit.
You know, we never sold that many records, so I never really paid attention. “Too High to Die” sold close to a million. That’s tougher to do these days.
We sell some at the shows. People are buying a lot of vinyl these days.
I don’t know really know how they’re doing these days. I could find out pretty easy, but it’s not my angle. I don’t like hawking merchandise. I just don’t want to do it. It’s not really anything other than being lazy.
It gets sold sometimes.
I’ve always been kinda lazy there. We forgot to bring our t-shirts in last night.
I want to ask you about the song “Oh Me.”
That song was supposed to be a tribute to my correctness – that I’m beyond evaluation and judgment and trial and tribulation and that there’s a static point that’s untouchable and immutably perfect
Do you think that’s true for everyone?
Sure. That’s the nature of time. Live in the present. There is no such thing as remorse or the past or anything like that – the present is the only thing that’s real. That’s all there is.
As far as the lyrics on the new album, I guess you could say they’re highly impressionistic. I’m a fan and I don’t want to offend you in any way, but some could even call them “nonsensical.” How would you respond to someone who saw them that way?
I’d say they’re probably right, because I don’t have a message. I’m not trying to connect with anybody. I’m not trying to write an edict – they’re just supplemental to the music that’s already there, supplemental to the melody line and a necessity in pop music.
So you approach them as something you don’t put a lot of effort into? They’re just words to fit the notes that you’re trying to get?
Largely. I mean, it’s not random. I’m trying to have syntax and a bit of flow without having a connection with anything that’s personally relevant to myself – any emotion, logic, anything like that. I’m not trying to be confusing. I’m just trying to amuse myself.
Some people write from personal experience. I figure a lot of people are doing that. I think commonality – that’s already intrinsic in the music and the rhythm and all that. I feel like it would be a little bit too confining to write about my own personal experience.
So if I were to ask you what the song “Nursery Rhyme” is about, how would you respond?
That’s about the scientific process of creating humans from straw and clay and rubber. I don’t know – it’s fuckin’ stupid. It makes no sense at all. It’s absurd.
… I don’t want to write the same stuff. There’s a conscious effort to try and not repeat myself and cover new ground. You better move the outhouse now and then or it’ll become a swampy area on your property.
… I wrote “Love Mountain” before I wrote “Oh, Me.” That’s an earlier song.
How come “Love Mountain” hasn’t seen the light of day until now?
I thought it was a nice song. It’s nice and light. People always try to be so cool with their music – it has to be relevant or heavy or have emotion. “Love Mountain” is like a commercial jingle for a tampon or something.
Writing songs is utilitarian to me, just like buying a guitar. Well, I don’t make guitars – I have to buy this. I don’t have to buy the songs. I can write ’em.
I honestly have never been that precious about it.
I think it’s kinda a drag that I have to write. I wish I could just cover Beatles and Nirvana songs.
… I’m a reanimated dead fish.
… I’m not into labeling myself. I call it “shit,” like I call my other stuff. And I’ll bend over and chew my own dick off if it goes anywhere.
It’s a rock trio, like Cream or Jimi Hendrix or the fuckin’ Knack, you know?
It’s disturbing to think of yourself with too much gravity. And labeling lends itself to gravity, unless you say, “We’re clown rock.”