Interview with Curt Kirkwood
Guitar/Vocals/Songwriter with Meat Puppets
February 21, 2012
Transcribed by William Jergins
M- This interview will focus on Up on the Sun. That’s my next chapter. Let’s get a little overlap first. You recorded Meat Puppets II in early ’83, it comes out in early ’84, and you release Up on the Sun in early ’85. What are you guys doing for those two years?
C- We were always touring. We didn’t really need an album to tour on back then. We just toured whenever we needed money, which was a lot. So we toured, put out Meat Puppets II, went out for six weeks with Black Flag while they were touring for My War. That was into the summer of ’84. Boy, I can’t really remember. I’m sure we toured more after that, and I don’t really remember when we recorded Up on the Sun, what the dates were. We went in pretty quick.
M- I do know some things that happened. For instance, you had kids right after Meat Puppets II.
C- About ’83. That was before it came out.
M- Right. Before it came out but after you had recorded it?
M- You and Derrick and Cris stop living together.
M- You and Cris, and Cris’s girlfriend, and the mother of your kids, and your kids all move into one place.
C- Yeah. I don’t remember if Derrick went back to his mom’s for a little while. He lived with us the last time in ’85. I don’t recall. I don’t think that he lived with us when Meat Puppets II came out in ’84.
M- I think he moved back with his mom, according to Derrick, so we’ll go with that. How does this change the dynamic of the band, because on Meat Puppets II you’re all buddies hanging out in one house? How do things change as far as the band organization?
C- Not much. We just lived together to make it easy, because it was affordable. And Derrick wound up moving back in in ’85 and we all lived there with the kids in this bigger house. Cris’s girlfriend and him and my girlfriend and me and Derrick. You know it didn’t really change. We were always pretty much hanging out together because of the band and we still had the practice place at the little house we lived in without Derrick. And we trashed that house and moved to another one. My mom was a realtor. She owned the house that we were living in when my kids were born, and we ruined that so she got us another rental which we ruined, and we got ourselves this nicer rental with a pool and horse pastures. I think they sold that. They decided to put it up on the market so we moved down to Tempe at that point. Let me think. I think Bostrom moved out at that point again. Oh I know. He bailed for a while. He quit in ’85 for like a month; went to New York City to work in a bookstore. He had a girlfriend up there, and then he decided he made a mistake and came back to Phoenix. I think at that point he may have started renting his own house in Tempe, too.
M- So do you have to start scheduling rehearsals? Where are you rehearsing at this point if you’re not in the same house.
C- Always where I lived. We never had a band rehearsal space. I never had one until I moved to Austin. Always worked at home and then, I think around ’86, Cris and I bought houses next door to each other in Tempe and Cris had a detached garage where we practiced for a long time. But we never had to schedule or nothing. It’s all we were doing. It’s all we ever really did after a time. None of us had jobs after about, I’d say, ’82.
M- Your other job, I guess, was raising kids. Did you schedule it around that?
C- I scheduled raising kids around my job. That’s the way this thing works, but it’s also just the way that I am. I figured I was doing it first. I wouldn’t be able to raise the kids without the job so that was my priority, and their mom stayed at home with them.
M- Were you ok with the fact that it took a year for Meat Puppets II to come out, were you frustrated?
C- There was a little bit of a mix up. The people that did Meat Puppets I, Ed Barger recorded that, and also the In a Car single. Actually, I don’t think he recorded. . . He was around when we did Meat Puppets I, but they kind of were possessive and they did a mix of it and we didn’t like it, or Ed did anyway, and we wanted Spot to mix it. So he mixed it and it was better. We kind of had to separate ourselves from World Imitation at that point, Ed Barger and them, and that took a little while. That was the first time we were experiencing something like that like from the outside. Our thing was always like, “We don’t do what anybody says, only us. And we don’t care what anybody wants, period. And nobody gets in.” So we parted ways with that group of people from Monitor and Ed Barger and started getting tight with SST, a little tighter there. So when we did Meat Puppets II, I don’t know why it took so long to come out. I don’t think I really had any expectations at the point. I don’t really remember it. I was fairly overwhelmed. I started getting more serious about making songs. Not trying to make better songs, but like, “Man, I gotta write because I have kids and we have to have another album.”
M- Did you start doing that right away after you recorded Meat Puppets II; start writing specifically for the next record?
C- Pretty much. I always wrote. I don’t know that I was ever writing for a record. It’s just that you wind up with that many songs in enough time to put out a record a year. Also, after the first record, I was like, “Okay, what are we doing here? Everybody just wants to sit around and get high.” And we had had these songs. We were coming up with songs. We weren’t trying that hard for the first couple records. And then we started doing the Meat Puppets II songs. That’s the first time I was like, “Okay, I gotta write songs.” Nobody else was going to do anything. We put out this album. We put out this single and then the album and then it’s like, “Now what?” You know? We did our little thing with our garage band, it’s like, “We need more songs.” And I found out that I had kids and I was in the middle of writing these songs.
M- So at some point in here you made the conscious decision that (1) you’re going to be a rock n roll band and (2) that the career of a rock n roll band means putting out a record, at least at that point, every year. You put out a record, tour, put out another record, tour. You had to start thinking about that at some point, right?
C- I started realizing this is what we are. None of us are going to school. None of us have any other ambitions. It’s what we were doing, and we were neck deep in it by the time I had kids, and we’d been doing it for three years at that point, and just kind of got swept away in it. I hadn’t ever really thought about being a professional musician, so that’s when I was like, “Well, this is what you do. I have to come up with some new songs.” I pretty much, like, around ’84, quit using as many drugs. After my kids were born, quit messing around with my time so much. I was never really that into it, but we were wasting a lot of time with the little world we were treated to in our late teens of what the band came out of. I didn’t have to work that hard to do it. I just started to write songs and it was fun. I think I came to the realization that in reality my competition wasn’t in the same genre, or it wasn’t a genre, or there wasn’t any competition. I realized if you look at things that way, then what you’re really doing is throwing yourself out there with anything else that anybody records, and therefore it’s probably on a par with that in some people’s eyes and I started looking at it in that way in my own eyes. Like, “Well I’m not really writing punk rock songs, I’m writing songs the same way anybody else does, whether it’s Prince or whoever.” That opened my eyes up, made the playing field a lot bigger.
M- So you did record Up on the Sun in three days. You blocked out the same studio and Spot again, and you do the whole thing from beginning to end in three days. Do you remember much about that recording session?
C- Yeah. We knocked it out in the first day or two and we lived at the studio. We didn’t leave. Spot and I, especially, just hung in there and took little naps on the floor next to the sound board and it was done.
M- Were there any differences in the recording sessions for Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun?
C- We still didn’t know that much about recording when we did Meat Puppets II. We had done the first one, which we were just completely stoned during that time, during the first one. SST was, “Come to our studio,” and we did the same thing with the first single, Monitor said, “If you record this song for our record that we can’t play, then you can record two songs of your own and we’ll put out a little five song seven inch.” So the first two things were like, “Here you go. Here’s the studio.” We had no idea about the technology or anything. By the time we got to Up on the Sun, I realized that this is how this stuff works, to a degree. I mean, I didn’t know the recording process yet, that other people were doing so many different takes on stuff. It took us a while to figure that out, why people do so many different takes and punch in words and all this different stuff and just completely fabricate it. We recorded records the way we played them. That’s the way they came out and we did that until, probably, Huevos. So Up on the Sun was more like, “I get it. This thing is a tape recorder, this is a sound board, here’s a treble knob.” And Spot was always amenable to us. We would mix the stuff all together. Same with Steve Escalier. Back then there was no automation. No Pro Tools. When it’d come time to mix the three of us would stand at the board. And he’d roll through it and put it to half-inch. We didn’t put a lot of time into that because we had the ideal that no matter what it is, it is. It’s real. It is what it is. We liked that. That was as punk rock as we got. We were never really punk rock but it was always like, “Nobody gets to say what’s good. That’s one concession I’m not going to make.”
M- At one point you try recording this album on your own, right?
C- That’s true. That’s how we learned about it really. Our friend was starting to learn how to do it, our sound guy, so we borrowed a little sixteen-track that recorded to cassette. I’m pretty sure it was to cassette. It was a Fostex or something. We got it all recorded and that’s what made it easy when we went into the big studio. We had already done it. I knew all the parts. I knew what I had done exactly, it was just a blue print that we followed.
Well, the dude that had loaned us the thing had a music store in Phoenix, he had to take it back, to sell it. They were kind of rare, that was the only one around, and I don’t think we knew that much about mixing. “What do we do now?” We recorded it on sixteen-track and he took it back. We just went over to Total Access and redid it.
M- Was there any improvising on Up on the Sun?
C- No. What we did at home was about exactly the same. I wish I had it because it’s probably pretty cool. There might be a lead here and there but not a whole lot. I knew exactly what to do.
M- What about the record itself? It’s poppier, happier, cheerier than anything you’d done before, maybe even since. It doesn’t sound heavy.
C- No. It’s definitely not that. I don’t know what accounted for that really. I don’t think it’s something that we were going for that much. I was pretty into Prince at the time, and Bruce Springsteen, and REM, stuff that was popular at that time. REM was getting popular. Stuff that I was always into that wasn’t so punk rock, just less grungy guitars. We recorded the whole thing direct guitar. I don’t think we used an amplifier on that whole album. But I don’t think it was supposed to be intentionally poppy or anything. I was just trying to get outside of style if anything. You couldn’t really say what it is, that album.
M- We know it’s not punk rock.
M- Meat Puppets II has a little punk rock on it but Up on the Sun, there’s nothing anywhere close.
C- That’s true. The Minutemen were around a lot at that time, good buddies of ours, and Hüsker Dü, too. And having those three trios on the same label you’re always arm wrestling with all the good natured, “Ah, look what we did, look what we did!” I think D. Boon and I were especially influences on each other, so you get some Minutemen on Up on the Sun. And then he’s turning around with Three Way Tie or Double Nickels, I forget which one, and he’s like, “Look! It’s Up on the Sun.” And I’m like, “N,o Up on the Sun is a rip off of you.” We were around a lot of cool music at the time so a lot is bleeding through.
M- You called this your Beach Boys record.
C- Oh yeah, that’s another one. You have your Pet Sounds and all that fun Beach Boys melody stuff, and The Who is in there. It definitely started like, um, early Who.
M- You’re putting a lot more layers in this record than previous.
C- Oh yeah. There was maybe one or two overdubs on Meat Puppets II. That was pretty much just a straight take, and put on a few acoustic guitars or a lead here and there. Up on the Sun had three, four, five guitars on a song, at least two or three on a lot of them. That was fun, understanding they don’t do all of this at one time. I didn’t know. We started figuring it out on Meat Puppets II. We had our own little tape recorder and another little cassette thing, like a four-track or an eight-track, another Fostex thing. So I started figuring out how to do stuff and “Up on the Sun,” that song itself was the first time I started trying to do original songs with harmonies.
M- Did you think about your vocal style much?
C- I didn’t know what to do on Meat Puppets II and, also, that’s just the way I sounded. Then I started figuring out how to sing. I had never sung much before the band, not at all actually. I had been in bands but I had never sang until we’d been playing for about a year. Derrick was the singer, and he wrote a lot of it too. Then I started singing since we decided it wasn’t cool to have a singing drummer. His lyrics were more sociopolitical opinion punk rock type stuff, and it was cool stuff, but I figured if I’m going to sing I’m going to start making up some stuff I don’t mind singing. But I just didn’t know how to sing. So by the time we had gotten to Up on the Sun I was starting to remember how much I really liked stuff like George Jones, and how some of my favorites who had idiosyncratic voices had figured out how to do it, so I was just flying off the handle. I felt like you can sing good even if you’re a bad singer. That’s what I figured. And I think it got a little monotonous and boring. I think it hasn’t changed much since then. I can’t fake not knowing how to sing. People go, “Oh, Meat Puppets II. They sang out of key purposely.” No, it wasn’t on purpose.
M- Did you ever consider having a lead singer?
C- Yeah. When we started out we tried out a number of our friends, some different people, and everybody wanted to be Joey Ramone. It didn’t work.
M- I’m sure you’re aware that one of the early criticisms of the band was your voice, right?
C- I’ve been given so much crap all through the eighties and I still get it. Like, “It’s flat.” I still see it from time to time. I definitely saw that. It’s just one of those things. Some people don’t like being made fun of and some people don’t like being criticized, but I’ve always, especially back then, thought anybody who had an opinion about me good or bad was an asshole, and I really didn’t care. “Who the fuck asked you? You know what about me? What about you? Fuck you! Oh you like me? Who the fuck asked you?” It’s like, “Oh, validation. Wow. Thanks, God.”
M- When you were on London didn’t you actually take some voice lessons?
C- I did. I took them from the dude who did Axl Rose, Ron Anderson. Ron’s a good guy, he taught me tons of stuff. I didn’t take them for very long. I only took four or of them, because they’re kind of expensive, but the record company paid for it. And, yeah, I was glad cuz I was in the dark. Really all he did was tell me, “You got a cool voice, just relax.”
M- So let’s get back to Up on the Sun. What about the lyrics? They seem like you’re getting into what you called last time I talked to you, the “oblique approach.” There’s a lot of imagery.
C- Yeah, that’s the Eno side coming in, oblique strategies. I’m sure that’s where I got that, and also William Burroughs and cut-ups, intentional cut-ups. I wasn’t letting it fall the luck of the draw. I took Latin for three years in high school. I think that started to come into play. The ability to take sentences apart and still have them be the same.
M- Lot’s of escape songs on this record. “Away,” for instance, or “Animal Kingdom.”
C- That’s all art is in any case. It’s all a departure or an escape. It in no way realistically draws you closer to its subject matter, not art. Art’s a way around that stuff. It’s artificial. I think it’s supposed to be. Some people say, “Write about what you know.” I never really have and I don’t think I was trying to escape anything. It was flights of fancy. Idylls with a ‘y’ type stuff. It’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. I love Shakespeare and I love Van Gogh. Those are the two biggest influences, even though it’s not so stylistic and Van Gogh’s not a lyric writer. It’s more how can you make the trivial magnificent and majestic? How can you take something ordinary and give it the perspective, or the aspect of something more than what it really is? That’s why I like Van Gogh. He could paint a chair and you go, “Whoa, that’s awesome! It’s a chair.” I’m just trying to come up with stuff that sounds cool and go, “Ooh, what’s that supposed to mean?” Everybody comes up with their own ideas. I very very rarely will write about anything that I have done or that I’m actually feeling. That’s something that I got more into, writing more and more to the point of having it sound like, “He’s singing about this,” but it’s not.
M- Some seem pretty straight forward, like “Creator” seems like a fairly straightforward comment on religion.
C- I think that one is probably true.
M- So sometimes you do write songs that seem pretty obvious.
C- Yeah. I imagine I do.
M- I imagine you and I could probably agree on what they’re about.
C- They happen now and then. I’ve written a couple of romantic things, but they’re not straight forward. A lot of times I’ve written something like that for somebody else, like on Snow is a song called “Here Comes Forever.” That one and a couple others I wrote for Willie Nelson.
M- Did you give them to Willie?
C- I gave them to his nephew Freddy who runs his studios. I don’t think that Willie by that point was learning many new songs. I think a lot of people probably write songs for Willie Nelson.
M- Some songs on this record are like children songs. Have you ever thought of your songs as children songs or songs that children might like, lyrically?
C- Oh sure. That was the other influence, “Disney from nine to ninety” sort of thing. It’s for everybody. It’s one of the reasons why I made a conscious decision not to use to much foul language back when punk rockers were doing it and then when rap came into style. I never really liked it. It felt like shooting fish in a barrel. Let’s say, “Fuck. That’ll get attention.” It’s too easy, and it thrills kids too much and it also puts a spin on it that takes it into a realm that might not be for kids whereas, and not to dumb stuff down or anything like that, but from the writer’s perspective, I wasn’t pointing at one age group. That’s those little walls that I put up for myself. One way or the other you choose a direction, walls go up. That’s the nature of the game. You’re not gonna tackle it all in one song in one album. You gonna find guidelines that you’re following somehow. Although, like I said before, a lot of times it’s oblique. I don’t know and I don’t really care to know. The more I think about the stuff the harder it is to do and that’s something that I think I initially got off of Captain Beefheart when I read a quote where he said you can’t think about it, it stops the flow. I still feel that way. The stuff at its best I just don’t remember anything about it. I don’t know why a lot of time I wrote stuff. I don’t remember writing it.
M- Some of the lyrics remind me of Pink Floyd back in the Syd Barrett days and Pipers at the Gates of Dawn. At one and the same time they can be an LSD trip or they can be a song that you can play for your four-year-old and they’ll get it, too.
C- Definitely. And there too you want to go with somebody like Rimbaud where it’s like, “Okay, this is beautiful but might not be for kids.” But he can write in that same style and have it in a dialect that anybody can get and understand; take out some of the loftier stuff, the fancier words. I could probably use a lot more words but I think that’s one of the walls that I’ve always put up. I’m not going to go out of my way trying to find flowery ways to say this. I’m just going to try to make the syntax different enough to make it on its own. I’d love to be able to write stuff and not just have it be what it is. I’m not a story teller.
M- Was the swimming ground a real swimming ground? Was there a place you used to go and float around?
C- It wasn’t that I wasn’t writing it about that, but any place where there’s a puddle of water around Phoenix is a place where we’d go. There’s a place called The Flumes where there’s a flume that went over a canyon and there was this concrete drain that ran down to it that was about a hundred yards long. It was flat-bottomed and ended on the sides and it was just a couple inches of water and had scum on the bottom. It was angled real good so you could slide down that on tennis shoes. Or we used to slide, kids would slide, take big wheels out there and ride those down it. And once you got to the bottom there was a little box that we’d swim around in and some kids would drown in it now and then. We lived out in the desert outside of Phoenix. It was in the middle of nowhere. So you get out and there was nobody around.
M- It’s not close to any town.
C- Yeah, yeah. Then you’d float across the canyon in this flume that was like a half pipe. And there was a place up in the mountains, up in the middle of town, a reservoir that nobody knew about. It was a reservoir in Squaw Peak City Park and it’s built into a canyon, covered with corrugated aluminum, and not many people knew about it. It was massive, the size of like about five or six Olympic-sized pools, all covered with a sheet of aluminum held up by these beams coming up out of the water, and the water was drinking water. You could slip under the fence that was around it. Somebody peeled up one of the corners of the corrugated tin so we could slip in there. And we had pools and stuff, too. We were always looking for something to do. So it’s a possibility that that’s that. All that water stuff comes from, that’s all environmental.
M- There are drug references in the album, you can see how some of us might see drug references in the album, they seem more youthful and exuberant and happy than what will come later in Too High to Die or No Joke.
C- I don’t know. I’ve always been careful about that stuff. Hang on a second.
[Curt goes and quiets his barking dogs.]
C- I love Pink Floyd. I like Jimi Hendrix, and stuff but I was always really careful. The drugs are somewhat of an influence, but I think they’ve always been an easy way to look at stuff with us. Like, “Oh, they smoked pot, they’ve dropped acid, so this is psychedelic.” Honestly I’ve written a lot of stuff after I’ve tripped or while I was tripping and later I look at it and go, “No way! That’s retarded! It sounds like somebody who’s on drugs.” I think there’s a line there. It’s a fine line. “Too high to die” is really supposed to be funny. It’s something that our sound man said one time. I just thought it was funny. It’s like, “party ‘till the world obeys” is another thing that he screamed at some people one time. I just thought it was funny. There’s always been drugs around since I was a kid. There’s still always drugs around. And it’s definitely an easy way to get some stuff done, but it sounds like that’s what you’ve been doing. The Stones, for instance, is a really great example. When they put out Satanic Majesties Request and they went “No. Not really for us.”
M- So why do you think that other people point to Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun as your classic records. Whether you think so or not, what is it that you think other people see in them? You’re aware that these are the two albums people talk about?
C- Oh yeah. They have been for a long time.
M- Even records you put out now compared to these two.
M- “Curt’s back to his Up on the Sun days.”
C- These would be people who have a more extensive knowledge than the average record buyers. I never wanted to think of all my fans like this or that. You don’t want to be preaching to the choir so much. I think people like those records because a lot of the people who were aware of them at the time and continue to be made aware of them are sort of more bohemian life style college student artsy folks. Cuz they sound homemade. Yet at the same time they don’t sound like they were necessarily crumby. But it’s hard to make records like that. I know how we did it, but there’s a couple of things. First of all, you can’t repeat yourself. It’s really hard to do that for me. It’s just like, “Let’s do that again.” I was still learning at that time. That’s why Up on the Sun sounds so much different than Meat Puppets II and I’ve said it to just about everyone I’ve worked with since then. “Oh, you like Meat Puppets II. Well then let’s get it done in a couple of days and let’s get out of here.” One of the things is that critically you can achieve acclaim by being completely insane and having no commercial potential, and you wind up kind of limited. We were like, “We don’t want to just have these other artists listening to it. We’re trying to expand ourselves and our audience.” Why else would we tour. It was forcing us to look ourselves in the mirror and go, “Why are we out here? Are we just showing off? Are we just self indulgent? No. I don’t have to do this. I could stay in my bedroom and do it.” Something that we realized right around that time of Up on the Sun was playing music at all commercially is the sell out right there, and that’s when I started to have an intellectual schism with the SST thing. I gave them Up on the Sun and they were like, What the fuck is this?!”
“Well, it doesn’t have to be loud and fast.”
And they were like, “You guys are into the dream, you know, getting big.” It’s not a dream, it’s not an ambition, it’s just facing the reality that you’re a commercial musician every time you step up on the stage, period. You take money for it therein lies the dirt. I don’t care what your intentions are. What your mind set is. How pure you believe you are. How gifted. You accept money for it you’re a whore, period. So there you go. We’re whores. Do whatever we want. Also as soon as somebody, being young and impetuous, as soon as somebody says they like it I was like, “I’m doing something else.” So I left those things behind. I think you can say that for many different artists. With The Who, their early records were this thing and then they became an arena rock thing. Or people try different things just to shake things. But time and place is a big part of this stuff too. As it turns out no matter how much, and I think this is the cool thing about it, the external influences, no matter what my intentions are you get what you get. Whether it’s how the album came out or a reproduction of a painting on a record and it doesn’t look quite like the painting, but that’s the cool part. It’s like the fun house mirror part or the reproduction of an idea or this is my take on my idea or this is the reality of how the idea turned out. I just always liked that stuff, but to get back to that has always been nearly impossible. You wind up in the music world and technology starts to get to the point and even people that are technically anachronistic, say people that use vintage gear and vintage recording equipment and stuff, they still don’t sound like their just taking a shit into it these days. Sounds like a vintage guitar but they’re playing it really good. To get to the point where you have these concepts like Meat Puppets II, “Look, let’s get a bunch of ecstasy and let’s record this thing.” Which is what it was. It was a concept. The first album was, “Let’s do it all on acid.” We thought that our heroes did. And I always thought, “Wow, the Grateful Dead and Jimi were trippin’,” and so we did it in the studio, Meat Puppets I sounds like that because we really are on drugs. Meat Puppets II we had MDA: lots of it. Really good MDA. We just had a ball with the stuff for about four or five days and recorded the record, but nobody is going to do that again after that. It’s like, “This record depends on this.” Well, it kind of does. Up on the Sun is just a big pot and beer album. “Now this one we’re going to go smoke pot and drink beer.” Then we go do Mirage and Huevos and snort cocaine. Out my way. I don’t know.
M- Right on. Well, thanks Curt, I appreciate your time. Am I missing anything here, do you think I’m getting it all?
C- I don’t know. I think there’s a lot there. I think you’re getting a lot. Once again it’s so long ago and my ideas about it are somewhat patent at this point.
M- They are. I know you’ve answered all of these questions dozens of times in the last thirty years.
C- Yeah. Sometimes I wonder. Stuff get’s joggled loose. I think it more depends on the questions you ask and how you feel about the answers. Because it’s pretty loose in there. It was a long time ago.