Phone Interview with Derrick Bostrom
January 22, 2011
I called Derrick at his Home
Interview transcribed by William Jergins
January 22, 2011
I called Derrick at his Home
Interview transcribed by William Jergins
M- We are now recording. Rock historians and critics talk about this great difference between Meat Puppets I and Meat Puppets II. Do you think it’s as drastic of change as critics claim?
D- I can’t speak for the critics claims but I could tell you why I think it’s a radical departure. We wrote the songs from Meat Puppets I before we had really gotten out into the world. We basically wrote a bunch of songs and then started performing them. We recorded the majority of the Meat Puppets I songs in early 1980 and in mid to late 1980 we started going out into the world. The majority of Meat Puppets II was written after we had already made our connections with the people from World Imitation and the people from SST. We’d already gone out on tours with the SST crew and gotten our feet wet both in the Los Angeles scene and also had done our first national tour. So Meat Puppets II was written with a view of what the band actually was, whereas the Meat Puppets I stuff was like, “Let’s just write a bunch of stuff and see what happens,” ‘cuz we really weren’t even a band when we wrote it. We were just getting started. It’s just us going like, “Let’s write some punk songs.” So Meat Puppets II represents us as the Meat Puppets whereas the Meat Puppets I songs were written before we had actually become, quote unquote, The Meat Puppets. So that is a reasonable point to make; that there is a radical departure. But it’s just the difference between, you know, just kind o’ fooling around and actually doin’ it.
M- The first record sounds like you’re younger; kind of derivative Germs-style hardcore. I read somewhere where you said The Germs were one of your favorite bands at the time.
D- We definitely liked The Germs. We never saw them, but that’s the other part of it of course is that once we started getting out into the world, and instead of just hearing the records, got to actually meat some of the people. On Meat Puppets I we may or may not have been attempting to, you know, imitate or measure up to what we had heard, but by the time Meat Puppets II had come around we had actually met the people we had heard on records and/or seen them and realized to what extent we were not really going to be part of that scene, and what was our own thing.
M- Another difference must be the fact that on Meat Puppets II all songs are credited to Curt Kirkwood, as opposed to the first one. On your reissue of Meat Puppets II you talk about the song “Teenager(s)” as a kind of bridge song which is part you and Cris and part Curt.
D- Well, it’s only a bridge in the sense that it was the first time that we tried to write something that was, uh, not punk. The first part was just one of our songs that didn’t make the cut on Meat Puppets I, ‘cuz it really wasn’t quite finished. Then we just tacked a jam onto the end. I think that the second part was probably a dub jam that Curt had done and we just decided we’d attach the two songs together.
M- I read an interview with Curt where he claims that you and Cris were a little bit resistant to go in the direction he wanted to go on Meat Puppets II. That you kind of wanted to stick to the punk rock thing and he wanted to start doing these psychedelic jam things.
D- I don’t know if that’s the case. I think more there was a point where Curt was writing a lot of songs and we were kind of trying to find that different way of doing it. So he would write maybe three or four songs in a row and we would pick the one that we really liked, because they all started to sound the same after a certain point, and some of them had lyrics some of them didn’t. So I wouldn’t say that I was resistant to the direction we were going in but more it was like, “Okay, you’ve written this song six times now. Which version of it do you want to keep?” We were kind of pushing him. He was trying a lot of different things. Some of them we liked, some of them worked for the band, and some didn’t. On Meat Puppets II you will find a pretty wide diversity, and that’s kind of the really astounding part of it. On the first album they all kind of sound the same. They’re really fast, high tempo, rock punk songs. On Meat Puppets II what I didn’t want to see happen was for us to do a whole album of country songs, everything sounding like “Lost” or something. ‘Cuz if you listen to the bonus tracks on the reissue you will find some of the bonus tracks are rougher sketches of a more country vibe, and then they all kind of fall in to that “Lost” groove. And that was the very earliest stage, that would have been the first batch of songs he wrote, and they were all kind of in a country thing. I do recall saying, “These all kind of sound the same.” He wasn’t wild about it but as he moved forward he was able to pull a greater diversity out of himself. They all kind of fall within that framework, but “Lake of Fire” and “The Whistling Song” and “Plateau” are all really quite different stylistically and yet we were able to pull that all together so that it works in a unified fashion. So it’s pretty awesome.
As far as resistance goes, I think it’s an unfair attempt to characterize us as resisting him. Maybe now he’s less interested in acknowledging the extent to which we collaborated on it, and he would like to take more credit for it, but really we were out there pushing him and challenging him. And part of that you’re going to see in the diversity of the material.
M- How conscious was it that you handed over the song writing reins to Curt? Was this decision made at a band meeting or was it more organic?
D- Cris and I didn’t write. I only got involved in song writing at the beginning because neither of those guys wrote. So we did a lot of covers, and then it became apparent that we needed originals. So I just got the ball rolling and said, “Alright here’s some lyrics, Curt, put some chord changes onto it.” Then we’d have a song. And he picked that up and started working on his own and I had no real need to continue to do it. It wasn’t so much that I stopped writing songs but rather that once I got him going he didn’t need a lyricist. He was perfectly capable of song writing and we were so delighted with the results that more and more as he got comfortable with it he didn’t really need as much collaboration. And that was fine with me.
M- Let’s go into the album itself, then. This is a lyrical analysis I’m doing, and I’ve talked to lots of English literary critics and I’m quite comfortable that I’m absolutely wrong in my interpretations of these songs.
D- Well, at least you have fun with that ‘cuz Curt always would. He never would cop to meaning anything in his material. So I would come to him saying, “Hey Curt you know what this song is about?” We used to have jokes on what the song might actually be about. And usually they weren’t actually really about anything so much as, especially with that album, it’s just very basic imagery. He was very into Shakespeare. So what he got off of Shakespeare was the notion that language could stand on itself with or without meaning. That it could have a lyricism apart from a concrete meaning, and obviously he was liberated by that form. ‘Cuz songs are so much about love and relationships, or so much about partying or protest or whatever, so what he found liberating about Shakespeare was that kind of notion of words as pure lyricism and pure poetry. He was able to apply the things that he was thinking about in a non-formulaic way through his focus on lyricism. So he might come up with a basic thing that he would write about but then he would change the words to fit his ear and not feel like the words to the song had to be about anything. So the process often tended to dictate the meaning of the words as they went forward, ‘cuz they would undergo transformation, ‘cuz his main focus was the plastic aspect of the words themselves.
Take a song like “Lake of Fire” which would have started out as a conversation about Halloween and maybe a dream that he had about going into outer space. That’s the beautiful thing about that album, especially. It’s an illustration of the notion that songs write themselves and that the muse works through us. That album really shows it. And of course that takes you back to why we ended up sticking with the name Meat Puppets was, ‘cuz we were really all about letting the muse work through us. Armed with a few of these ideas and using a lot of pot, and not having to have a day job, to really let the muse work its way through you. I think you really see that writing on that album especially. Once money enters into it things change, you know.
Shortly thereafter he had kids. That really changes a man’s head. Meat Puppets II is the only album that he wrote when he was not a father. ‘Cuz children came at the end of the recording of that record.
Now whenever I think of Meat Puppets II the first thing that comes to mind is the house we lived in. We lived out on the edge of Phoenix in a typically ugly suburban tract. It wasn’t anything desert-like or anything like that. It was just a nasty fucking suburban tract out where no home should ever be allowed to be. And we didn’t have to pay rent ‘cuz the property was owned by their mom, and so we didn’t need much money. Those guys had got had an inheritance that we were living on. I had no money, and we literally did nothing but vegetate in that house for a year or so. There was a couple of other places we lived in at the time, but predominately that material was worked up in that place where we did nothing but work on our art. Aside from practicing and making music we were free to pretty much do what we pleased, and there was no real sense of where the band was going to go. We didn’t have a lot of success under our belt that we felt like we had to live up to. We weren’t making any money. So it’s a pretty pure expression of flat out opening yourself up to where the art is going to take you.
M- Let’s so we can start with “Split Myself in Two”, which obviously has a Rumplestiltskin theme in it, but it also has like a Faustian “deal with the devil” kind of theme.
D- Well that’s Rumplestilskin too. I mean Rumplestilskin is a Faustian fable as well.
M- Do you think that the whole song is just Rumplestilskin? Or just that last verse?
D- I don’t think when you say just Rumplestilskin; I think you need to give Rumplestilskin itself more credit because the gist of the story is there and it’s still a powerful fable. But, yeah I think it’s essential a retelling of the Rumplestilskin story. It’s obviously supposed to be humorous.
M- Right. The whole album is kind of funny.
D- Yeah, the whole thing is whimsical. That whimsy is really where we were coming from. That’s what we were trying to express on the record. We were heavily into things like Beefheart at the time. So, it was our outlook.
M- It can be pretty darn deep as well at the same time.
M- The next song is “Lost.” It’s pretty obvious, I guess, wandering and searching for the meaning of life kind of theme. Do you see that?
D- “Lost” is an attempt to write a country song. You don’t want to discount Curt’s mainstream aspirations. You could easily see “Lost” as being covered by your Merle Haggard or your George Jones. There were periods when he was just writing for several weeks, maybe a month, where he was obviously trying to come up with and distill what he considered to be -- what does David Allan Coe say? -- the perfect country song. I think “Lost” is his attempt to write a real country song in his aspirations as a songwriter.
M- And “Climbing” is kind of in that same category too, don’t you think?
D- Pretty much yeah.
M- It’s a country song.
D- I think “Climb” is a little deeper. I mean “Climb” kind of key’s into the same sort of things that “Plateau” key’s into. That aspirational aspect. “Lost” is definitely not aspirational. That’s kind of an adrift kind of a thing, whereas “Climbing” . . . You know, “We’re Here,” that title doesn’t match the content of the song so much. That title came before the song.
M- “We’re Here”?
D- Yeah. It was just one of the things we used to say. But you’re gonna definitely see that aspiration theme in some of the material. But “Lost” does not have it. “Lost” is more kind of its own thing and that’s why I say it’s just an attempt to write a mainstream country song.
M- I see “Climbing,” if anything, as the one song that’s like a relationship kind of song. “You tried to see me through/ honey I’m still having trouble” It seems like it’s a love song of sorts. Or a lost love song.
D- Sure, but it’s aspirational. You’re talking about people who are in there early twenties trying to come to grips with adulthood in terms of career and relationships, and money. All that stuff was going on. But we had a nice distance from it because it was basically back at the house with girlfriends and nobody working. So we all just used to get up in the morning and wake and bake and do our shit. None of us believed that was going to last forever, and it wasn’t particularly easy because A) we were living together with no money which meant we were all in each other’s faces and we weren’t the band we wanted to be yet, but we were starting to get a sense of where we wanted to go. So it wasn’t all fun and games. The girlfriend was pregnant with twins at the time, so if Curt had relationship aspirations it wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
M- “Plateau.” You mentioned it already once. Are there criticisms of religion in there?
D- Well, I can’t speak to that. He could speak to it but just in terms of our, you know, what we were doing, I would say part of “Plateau” it’s basically just supposed to be lyricism. If you wanted to address the theme, success is often a series of plateaus. The line that speaks to me the most is “looking for the next plateau.” I don’t know about you, but every time I reach one of my goals I am simultaneously upbeat and also nervous because now I don’t have one. So I am always on the lookout for the next goal. Once I’ve hashed out the things I don’t like about my current plateau that’s when I begin to start formulating in my mind what the next one might look like. So aspirations are creative. Creative visualizations get you to where you want to go. Obviously this is a fifty year old man talking about his twenty year old self. But that’s what’s so interesting to me about it and that’s why it holds up, is that you’ve got a group of these twenty something stoners, and when I say stoners I mean we were smoking pot all the time. We were punkers, we were artists, and we were layabouts, and we were spoiled upper-middle class kids. I don’t know about you, but when I was a teenager instead of going to college I decided I wanted to have a successful band. And I managed that and I had a gold record by the time I turned thirty-five. In my mid-thirties I had achieved my life’s goals. And I went on to my next act, which I’m currently in. So it’s interesting to me looking back at what I’ve achieved in my life. To listen to these old records. Especially that one ‘cuz that really is the one that speaks so loudly about goals and climbing and all that stuff and striving and it’s kind of an interesting statement from a group of young people who had gotten the sense to just start a band. Most bands play a couple of gigs and they go away, and what your seeing is us at a point when we realized, “Fuck, we can do this!” We are, suddenly realizing we’re good. We’re better than most. We deserve to start thinking about ourselves as deserving, and we need to start thinking about our career as something that can actually happen. So from that point on until the very end we always were having tension about pushing each other to be better, more professional, better at the instrument, more realistic about what we were doing, more careful with our health, with our lives, you know, to varying degrees.
M- (laughs) To varying degrees.
D- Yeah, well you know, that’s part of it. That’s the reason I stopped doing it, ‘cuz I was like, “You know what? This isn’t going in a direction that works for me anymore.” The point is once you realize at a certain point of your life that you are capable, you can do shit, then it changes things. I work with a lot of people who get up, punch the clock, try to stay out of trouble, and try to find a way to get home so that they can drool in front of the T.V. until it’s time to do it all over again. But some people look at their lives and go, “I could fucking really accomplish something.” That’s one of the reasons why Meat Puppets II is going to resonate and why it’ll continue to, and why it got the four star review in Rolling Stone and why we were so jazzed to have written the songs. Then we start to get taken seriously. We got a four star review in Rolling Stone, which had a huge effect on us. We were amazed. We were out there touring with Black Flag on this record, and suddenly our record get’s a four star review, and the next thing we know they’re resenting it. It just continued to fuel our feeling that we were doing something special. And when you want to do something special you have to be prepared to back it up. To defend it. To fight for your vision.
M- Do you hear the conversations that you were having sitting around your house vegetating?
D- The songs are all based on the conversations we had sitting around our house. Like I said, “We’re Here” was a phrase that we used before the song was written. It was actually a phrase attached to a melody line and then with words that were kind of extrapolated based on the concept of “We’re Here,” which was a very stoner concept. I can’t even remember what it was about. It was just a joke. Like every time you walk into the room you go, “We’re here!” And if you remember, Do you remember the movie Buckaroo Bonzai? I believe there was a line in there that kind of speaks to that which is like “no matter where you are there you are.” “No matter where go there you are.” And that’s “We’re Here.”
M- That song is one of the more disturbing songs to me. It seems either about LSD or mental illness hallucinations.
D- They’re all about LSD and hallucinations.
If you want to speak to what was on our minds at the time and what might have motivated the song writing, the songs are always just going to be snap shots of whatever you care to write about at any given moment.
M- What about “New Gods?” I talked to Cris a couple months ago and he mentioned the Jack Kirby comics. He said that’s where the title comes from right?
M- I went out and got myself Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus Volume One, though I haven’t read it yet. So I don’t know if the song has anything to do with it.
D- Well the song itself doesn’t really have that much to do with the comics, but we were reading the comics at the time and it sounded like a good title.
M- Was Curt a comic book reader?
D- I was the main comic book reader of the group. New Gods are terrific. Kirby is pretty esoteric and he’s kind of clumsy in his own way. He perhaps is an acquired taste for somebody who is not into comics. It’s not like you’re going to receive wisdom from the comics themselves. If you take Kirby’s career as a whole. We don’t need to restate everything I’ve just said for the next twenty minutes but there’s another strongly aspirational artist who lived inside his own head, and was very uncompromising, to his own vision and sometimes it served him well and sometimes it didn’t because he was kind of a goofball.
M- So the lyrics and stuff you don’t think are directly, it’s mainly just the title for that song?
D- Yeah. The song isn’t about the comics.
M- The song seems to have some more hallucinations in it like there’s people talking to the singer.
D- There’s definitely somebody talking to the singer.
M- In my own head I tie it back to “Split Myself in Two” where Rumplestiltskin’s coming back for his money and they’re saying, “Remember what we told you. You owe us the money.”
D- Sounds good to me.
M- Sounds good to me too. Then there’s “Oh, Me” which is a pretty deep song.
D- It’s supposed to be a joke on ego. It’s supposed to be like, “I can’t see the end of me. I’m the greatest thing that ever walked the earth” kind of thing. It’s supposed to be kind of a humorous description of our feelings that we can do no wrong. That we can’t be touched. And all others but us suck.
M- I tied it back to some kind of deep existentialism and our only pure self is deep within ourselves.
D- It’s mostly about ego. We were mostly writing about our strong sense of self entitlement.
M- We get to “Lake of Fire” which is a song many people like. I read an interview somewhere, and you just told me, it was Halloween night and Curt didn’t go and you and Cris went out and partied and he wrote this song.
D- I think the humor of that song would come from the idea that the Fourth of July and Halloween are similar. So part of the joke would be that the singer is getting confused as to which holiday is which.
M- Then “The Whistling Song,” which I like in the sense that it’s the only song that fades out. That must of been a conscious decision with the whistling and it fades and the album ends.
D- Well it wasn’t a conscious decision when it was written, we decided to fade it out when we were in the studio.
M- It’s a confident, cocky kind of whistling that he’s doing there towards the end.
D- There’s a sense of trying to be audacious by putting whistling into a punk record, which we continued on the next record.
M- So then, those are all the songs. Lastly, Meat Puppets II and maybe Up On the Sun are the two records rock critics and historians tend to mention as classic records. Do you think they are the ones that deserve to be there?
D- Well, first of all I don’t think much of rock criticism. But yes. I kind of have left the rock world behind I think that it’s got a lot of catching up to do with reality. It seems like such a narrow focus. It doesn’t address the world that I need the way it did when I was a young person.
M- It’s a young person’s music
D- I don’t know how well it fits the needs of young people today and I don’t know how it’s gonna last. But I think that as a piece of art it works really well and I don’t really care what rock critics think of it. But if you want to talk about it, I’m more than willing to do so. I can think of tons of things to say about it. But in terms of just whether or not it suits the needs of the rock audience, uhm, I’m an old school guy. I’m an old person. I think that there’s been such great rock music made in my life time and I haven’t heard any recently so I tend to view it as kind of a dead form. In that sense I believe that when people decide a hundred years from now what rock music was, what it was for, what it meant. Yeah I think that Meat Puppets II will fit the story line real well. It doesn’t fit well within a punk context, but I think it fits well within a rock context. Its theme’s are mainstream rock themes and I think that it if you leave punk rock out of the equation entirely I think it still is relevant and I’m not quite so sure that punk rock is relevant.
M- Okay, Derrick, thank you for the interview.
D- If by any chance you ever manage to transcribe your tape into MP3 or into a digital format that can be easily shared I’d love to have a copy.
M- I’ll definitely make sure you get a written copy anyway.
D- I’d love to see the written copy, but I’d also like to hear the interview because I guarantee you there are parts of the shit that I’ve just said that you won’t have any use for that I might. ‘Cuz my view is probably different from yours so if you do ever digitize this interview I would love to get a copy.
M- Absolutely. Thanks, Derrick
D- Thanks, good luck with the project.