Sunday, December 23, 2012

A "No Joke!" Interview with Cris Kirkwood, November 20, 2012

Skype to Phone Interview with Cris Kirkwood

Bassist/Vocalist

Meat Puppets

November 20, 2012

Matt- Last time we talked up to Too High to Die, Meat Puppets’ commercially most successful record. At what point, maybe it’s even a little bit beforehand, before the record even comes out, at what point do you believe that this is going to be a successful record?

Cris- It just started gradually happening. That was a long time ago, at this point. I remember when the guy told us, we were driving along on tour at one point, and we had a tour manager, and things had ramped up gradually, our crew was solid, Davo and Danny had worked with us for a long time, the gear was real snazzy, we were young enough to pull it off with aplomb, alacrity and aplomb. I do remember, I think it was Ben Martz, our tour manager at the time, he got a phone call as we were driving along and he told us, “Too High to Die has gone Gold! Certified Gold!” At that point I knew that the album had been certified Gold.

But it had been building up. I think we talked about that a little bit. The record company. . .these different pieces that go into making a record suddenly, kind of, get more attention. And people dug it, that’s the main thing. But with the Nirvana thing, people at the record company hearing it, being told this and that, different things, the show we did in South Carolina, things started to fall in place. We realized that the record company was focusing on the album. And then your realize that that’s what it takes if you’re signed, to have it work. You begin to realize that that’s why it’s the record “business.”

So it started to gradually move along and things were up ticking. It was cool, little things kept occurring. Certain things. It was neat to go on tour with Nirvana. That was fun. There was good timing with the record there.

M- So at this point you’re willingly working with the label, doing promotions and stuff?

C- Yea. That’s the stuff we’d always done. Mostly it’s like interviews and visits to radio stations. And we’d done that stuff for years already. That’s where the band got going at first, you know, critically, like, reviews and that kind of thing, interviewise and whatnot. The stuff we were doing for the major labels along those lines was stuff we’d done. But there was more radio, and the radio stations were suddenly less college rock and more mainstream local rock stations. And these different markets. There’s local reps involved at that point. The company had people that work in these different markets, they’ve got it broken down into markets. It’s like, “There’s the business of actually selling music.” They actually did it with that record. Or we did it in conjunction with them.

M- And you started getting some T.V. time, some MTV.

C- Yea. A little bit. That got on there some. The one video, Rocky Schenck made a video for “Backwater.” That actually got nominated for a Video Music Award for editing. It’s a beautiful video. It was a cool idea. He made these clear plastic tanks, filled them with water and floated. . .like three of them. . .thin, flat tanks. Big enough that you could get all the way underneath, and the suspended them over each other and hung a camera on top of it and shot down through them, and floated flowers and shit, had us get underneath them at different levels. It was a trip. Interesting stuff. And there’s some cool other affects, like shards of mirrors. Video stuff. All done “in camera” as he said. It’s pretty. A nice video.

M- How does touring change after that? You open for a number of different bands.

C- We had some support from the label. We had a bus. At a point it turned to bus tours. That was different.

M- You’re playing bigger venues.

C- Yea, on those shows that we’re opening for people.

M- You open for, who? Blind Melon. . .

C- Yea. That wasn’t that big of places. But we did the Stone Temple Pilots tour. A couple of those, a few of those. Those were the big places. Not football stadiums, but basketball arenas.

M- And how was that? Did you like that? Did you care one way or another?

C- It was fun. Definitely neat. Ultimately I like playing. I really get a kick out of our own shows that are at a bar cuz the thing that gets me off is having the music takes us places that are so. . .I like to get to. It’s almost easier doing your own show cuz this is our own little world here and everybody’s in on what we’re trying to get to here.

M- But opening shows you’re not able to do that, right? It’s much tighter.

C- You can. To a degree you can. Depending on the situation. It’s a different kind of thing. A bigger stage. You’re opening for somebody else. You have a certain amount of time. We did a lot. We played lots of opening shows, lots of our own headlining shows. They’re different. At that point you’re dealing with these bands that are like, “Fuck, you guys are just killing it!”

It was like, “Here’s what things can get to. If things go well enough. . .” Bigger crap, lights, and stuff like that. That’s that side of it. Fasci-fucking-nating.

M- How are you guys getting along as a band at this point?

C- I think I was always a douche bag and a pill in a lot of ways, looking back. But I was always exceedingly enthusiastic in all ways and wished the very best for us all. I think Derrick had been put off by the increase in attention and responsibility. He was always kind of an anti-social guy. Not anti-social, he just had his own reality. He didn’t necessarily need to be that much of a public figure. He was pulling away from it in some ways. That was my take on it. “Dude, aren’t you having fun? Can’t this still be a blast? We don’t even have to drive now.” And at the same time there I am, “Yee haw! It’s all a blast now!” To the degree of “Watch me turn into a human turd overnight,” or “Watch the real turd that I’ve always been really take a shine in the harsh glaring spotlight.”

I don’t know. We were getting along to the degree we were. The band was fucking good! There was, for sure, creepy shit. I’ll take the blame for all of it. Those guys had their shit together for years.

M- But the band has been together, at the point at which we’re talking, fourteen years or so. So you’ve had your shit together most of the time. Right? Most of the time you show up and you play.

C- Oh yea. I did that. Good for me!

M- Most of your career you were a responsible, professional musician. Right? That’s fair to say.

C- “Responsible Professional Musician.” That’s what it’s gonna say on my tombstone.

M- So, in reading Prato’s book, there’s quite a bit about when Troy comes in as the second guitarist.

C- Troy was fine. It was an idea tossed around. At points, you know, Frusciante came out and played with us. There’s that bit.

M- Did you just say “Frusciante” like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guy?

C- Yea.

M- When did that happen?

C- That’s not in the book? How John came out and played with us?

M- I don’t remember. I don’t think so.

C- I’d think it would be. Anyway, John came out. He quit the Chilis and he said in some newspaper article that the only bad he’d think about playing with was us. Something like that. And the record label saw it. And we knew John. And they were like, “Why don’t you ask him if he’d like to do that?” It seemed like an interesting idea, as I recall. I don’t know. Curt could tell you the details. But John came out and jammed with us a little bit. It was trippy. It was interesting.

M- Just in jam sessions, practices. Never in a show?

C- No. No shows. Just a couple of jams over a couple of days. Hung out at Curt’s house for awhile. Came out on a train, with his guitar only, without a case. And a bag of something. Barefoot. It was like, “Whoa! Far out!” He was really trippy. It was cool. He had one of my favorite lines. I asked him, “Do you want to use my tuner?”

He goes, “I’ll bend it in.”

I realized, “Oh, that’s an interesting approach to the arts.” John’s definitely an arty guy.

M- Musically, did you not like the idea of a second guitarist?

C- I’m into it, definitely. I think it’s really neat. These days Elmo’s been playing with us, Curt’s son, and it’s really something else when it clicks which it mostly does. A lot of it he’s just doing the guitar parts that Curt’s done on the records, but then something else will happen. These days with Elmo particularly. . .it’s nothing you can put your finger on, but he is Curt’s kid, and Curt and I are brothers so, at least genetically it’s pretty similar. There’s just a certain color of. . .a certain configuration of note choices. “Now that’s an interesting choice of a note. I approve of your note selection.” I like it. It’s very cool, musically, on a lot of levels.

There was a time, I think we were playing with Soul Asylum, those were some other guys we went out and did a bunch of shows with when they were moving up, had moved up to medium-sized things. . .And they had a guy, Joey Huffman playing with them, and Curt actually wound-up writing some stuff with him. And Joey’s still around and does stuff, and he’s a keyboard player. What’s that one song they wrote? Something about the rain?

M- I don’t know.

C- It’s real pretty. Maybe it’s on that Volcano record.

M- Curt’s Volcano record?

C- I think so. Something about. . .(sings) “Here comes the rain/Rolling all over”. . .Anyway, Joey jammed with us a couple of times, and we’ve had keyboards on records before. On Too High to Die.

But Joey jammed with us live a couple of times and that was really bitchen. And just now I got a text from a pal of mine that I’ve gotten to know since Curt and I got back up, from the Philadelphia area, named Ron Stabinsky, and he’s a keyboard player, he gotten good. It would be fun to go out into certain regions that I love about the band, the twinkly, the fay-bits, the twee-bits.

M- So sometime in here you start using heroin pretty heavily, right?

C- At a point, yea. It was after all that. It was before we started making No Joke!, in the interim in there, it kind of crept in. Vera got sick, my mom got sick. So it crept in. I let it. I let the dope in. And all hell was to be paid.

M- And this, of course, influences your relationships with the other band members as well as the rest of the world, right?

C- Yea. It was bad. I wasn’t handling things. . .I wasn’t handling Vera’s illness well. And somewhere in there Cobain wound-up killing himself and we were, at that time, working with the same people that managed them, Gold Mountain, and everybody was so burned by Kurt killing himself which was tragic. And it seemed like dope played a significant part in that. So any other apparent dope problems were not looked upon lightly at that point. So immediately our whole business reality was threatened. I just couldn’t get my shit together and it all came apart.

M- You weren’t the only one. It was prevalent in the scene, the bands your were touring with.

C- Not really. Everybody had their shit together that was touring. You can’t do drugs and be a real musician. Unless your Keith Richards. Or if you’re talking about people who got gigantic when they were kids and never had to lift a finger after that; hired professionals to shoot their dope up their butts for them.

There was partying going on but nobody was fucked-up. And once anybody got fucked-up it became an “item” and then they either died or their band fell apart.

M- So, No Joke!. You decide to record this in Phoenix. You toured all of ninety-four and into ninety-five and you record No Joke! somewhere around April or May of ’95. Did you feel like the label was working with you, that they were behind it?

C- The label would’ve been behind it. I just think in some ways it was tough. Our mom was suddenly ill. To have it come on the heels of when you want to be in a good place and bang out the follow-up to “Cherry Pie” so that maybe you can get to your “Every Rose has its Thorn.”

So my mom’s ill. That put up some life reality and our big fucking sand castle suddenly gets a big fucking turd dumped into it. The Death Head Moth/Sphinx, the Sphinx Death Head Moth. So it was necessary to make a record and at the same time it was a tough time to do it.

The record company got wind of the fact that I wasn’t doing that well. And that puts a stink on things. And yet they were ready to go. They spent a lot of money on that thing. They were ready to go.

M- What about the recording itself? How did things go in the studio?

C- There were parts of it that were really, really bitchen. It captures that time period just like all of Curt’s compositions do. It’s a trip. It’s like, our mom is dying, to me.

M- That’s what the record sounds like to you?

C- That’s what resonates from that whole time period for me. What’re you gonna do, that’s the kind of band we are. It’s not like Curt can turn on the “Backwater” tap and poop and out pops another golden egg.

M- Do you ever think that Curt writes songs about you?

C- You’d have to ask him. He told me specifically there was one thing he wrote about. . .what’s it called. . .It had a sense of it. But I don’t think he did before any of that. This one thing that he wrote at one point was nominally inspired, just a certain sense of it, maybe. I don’t know. I certainly hope not.

M- You’ve never felt that he did?

C- No. I don’t think he does repeatedly or anything. At best, what I could say about his writing is that who he is and the life that he’s lived definitely plays into the material he comes up with. I don’t know what goes into making an artist or a composer the composer that he is.

But, for sure, just having Curt in my life is what’s enabled me to be able to do this. The guy is a composer. I hope he’s not writing songs about me. He’s not. “Once upon a time. . .”

M- What about your two songs? You have “Cobbler” and “Inflatable” on this one.

C- That was neat. It was neat. There’s another part of it. It was a neat time on some levels. I was actually kind of growing up in some ways. And yet it was still the last little spurt of adolescence and retardation. A character flaw. I was getting to the point where I was starting to compose, myself. Like Curt’s always said, he just does it. The difference between him and someone that isn’t a composer is that he just goes ahead and does it.

That was fun. I had some cool shit going on with some art. There’s some people up at MTV that found-out about my drawings and invited me in. Things were moving along there. It was a delightful period in my life, as you can tell.

M- You had some money at this point, right?

C- Not really. I mean, more than I’d had, but not, like, money.

M- A few more dollars, anyway, off of the Nirvana thing and Too High to Die.

C- Some. I mean, the amount of money that gets invested in those things and all the people that are taking their percentages. The real money is in the business and the publishing, you know, Curt writes most of the stuff.

M- Was it taken-for-granted that Paul Leary would record this one? Was there any discussion of anybody else.

C- I can’t remember. Taken-for-granted? I don’t know. It was definitely something else to have our old pal Paul picked to be the producer on Too High to Die. It made it such a personable thing. And to have it blow-out like that and to have it make it so, like, “Oh look, Paul’s a producer now.” He already was. He did a great job on Too High to Die, we all did. It sounds like us. It’s neat. I would hope that there was some element of, “Neat. Let’s do it again and see where we’re at.”

M- So you do a little bit of touring after No Joke!. You did a tour with Primus.

C- That was the only tour I did when I was actually addicted to dope. It was hellish. Ghastly. That’s what I was saying. You can’t do that. You can’t tour and be strung-out unless you’ve got more help than we ever had and everybody in the band is cool with one of you being a fucked-up monkey. But it can only go on until, you know, you go to Japan and get arrested.

So, yea, we did that tour, and I think the last show we did with Derrick was a New Year’s show. . .

M- In Chicago.

M- That’s interesting what you say, and I don’t want to dwell on darkness either, but. . .

But the point you make that to be a junkie on tour you have to have support. Somebody has to be providing you with your dope, right? And if you don’t have that person, it makes it a lot more difficult to be that way. And our metaphorical Keith Richards, though, from very early on, could have somebody helping him be a drug addict. Which makes it easier.

C- I have no idea. And I don’t want to say that he actually did drugs, or any of it. But as far as the lore of the Stones, the guy did dope. The lore of having it been there and having it administered for him. And he got busted when he came to Canada. I just saw some new movie that came out called, I think, Crossfire Hurricane, that’s pretty neat. It’s like, “Fucking Stones! Wow!”

It’s interesting that Curt and I are still playing music. I think it says something about music itself. And that the Stones still are. The same thing is to be said musically there. Yet still I would gladly hand over the administration of the driving duties to a professional toot sweet. “Toot sweet.”

M- Is there a point, for you, that you realize that you’re not going to be making any more records with Meat Puppets, at least back then? You couldn’t have envisioned that twelve or fourteen years later you’d be making music again. There must have been a point where, “Well, the band is over for now.”

C- I fell into such a trough before Michelle actually expired. Once she died the idea of ever doing anything except rotting away was beyond me.

This is the last time I’m gonna talk about this shit. I’m ready to move on from this. The only thing that makes talking about any of this in any way tolerable is the strength I get from in any way being able to repay and ease the heartache of the people that care about and continue to support me. Which means being able to make more records and not being a fucked-up pig.

M- And now you’re gonna go to Spain.

C- Yea. We’re gonna go to Spain, and we got a new record. Did you hear about that?

M- Yea. That’s coming out in the next few months, three or four months?

C- Yea. Something next year. Yea. It’s bitchen. It like, “Wow, fuck!” It’s more of the same, the birth of a new record out of Curt, through me and him, “Another record! Wow!” That’s a very special process.

M- I imagine that given the pattern you guys have you’ll probably touring pretty hard pretty soon.

C- There’s some international stuff in the works, South America, maybe back down to Australia, New Zealand. I think that’s being talked about. Yea, there’s some stuff coming up. And musically there’s some really neat stuff going on.

You know, we’ve talked about this before. The band is a bitchen art project. If anybody gives a crap about the arts. It has its own merits. There’s something there to look at and consider. All the time and work that’s been done. . .it’s its own thing.

M- I thank you for the interview, Cris. I have a class I have to go to here pretty quick.

C- Bitchen, Matt. Good deal. I’m sorry if I was grumpy there.

M- I understand.

C- We’ll move on from there when you’re ready.

M- Any interviews we have from now on will not be on this subject.

C- Now it will be into the “Flight of the Phoenix.”

Monday, December 10, 2012

A "No Joke!" Interview with Curt Kirkwood, November 6, 2012

Skype to Phone Interview with Curt Kirkwood
Guitar/Vocals/Songwriter
Meat Puppets
November 6, 2012

Matt- In this interview we’re gonna go from Too High to Die to No Joke!. Since we last talked I’ve had the pleasure of reading Prato’s book, so some things get filled-in there, not to mention some things I already knew.

Let’s start: When do you start to realize that things are starting to pick up, that you’re “taking it to the next level,” as they might say? Do you start to feel that you’re becoming more successful commercially?

Curt- For sure. We put out Too High to Die, went out all Summer with Stone Temple Pilots. At the same time, the more we toured it didn’t go up higher on the charts or anything. It did what it did on its own. Whatever we were doing wasn’t really helping that particular process. I was paying attention to it cuz everybody was all about that, you know, the record company was, “Oh, you got some success.”

And I was seeing, “Well, this isn’t doing that much.”

We toured a lot through ’94 and started in ’95 to do the next one. We had a big budget and they were still pretty into it. So ’94, ’95 was kind of like, “You’re gonna be huge.” Like, No Joke!, “It’s gonna be huge! Na na na.” I took it with a grain of salt cuz I knew how it was going. It hadn’t changed that much.

We put out No Joke! in ’95 and went out with Primus and nobody even knew we had a record out even though the record company was like, “This is getting a lot of adds” and all this stuff. It went away pretty quickly. They lost faith in us because the band was messing up with the dope and stuff. They could tell.

M- So you were playing bigger venues even though most of the time you were opening, whether it be for Stone Temple Pilots or Blind Melon. And you’re not just in a van. You had a bus for the first time.

C- Yea. We got bussed on that tour. That was two months, at least, maybe more like three months. That was nice.

M- I guess my point is that sometime in early ’94, after Too High to Die comes out and “Backwater” is doing well and Nirvana Unplugged is doing well, there must have been some excitement in the band that after toiling for ten years at the same place maybe things were happening.

C- For sure. It was a huge pick-up in a lot of ways. At our own shows we didn’t see a whole lot more. We’d been doing the same thing for a number of years as far as the size of places we were playing. But we were getting a lot of attention from the record company and from the press and the budget was twice what Too High to Die was, for No Joke!. They really threw-down for that. There was definitely a lot of internal hype there at that record company. So, yea, it seemed like stuff was going pretty good.

M- And you were doing bigger promo spots like, say, MTV, you popped-up once or twice there.

C- Yea. And expensive videos. They gave us a lot of money to do the “Scum” video. We got to do that with Dave Markey. He and I wrote it and they pretty much left us alone with that. It was a pretty exciting time, for sure.

But also, like I said, I wasn’t feeling like what we were doing on the road was matching . . .It seemed separate from all the radio airplay and all that stuff. It seemed like people knew the song but they didn’t know the band.

M- I remember in Chicago, before Too High to Die you were at the Metro and then you did a couple nights at Lounge Ax. But after Too High to Die you played the Vic, which was like a small theater rather than a club. So, it was a slightly bigger place.

C- I don’t remember that. The Metro I remember, and a couple nights at Lounge Ax. I don’t remember the Vic one. Did we open for somebody?

M- No. You were the headliner. It was October of ’94, on your own. I don’t remember who opened for you. It was a little bit bigger than the Metro. It had a balcony.

Briefly, again, to Too High to Die and the marketing. We talked a little bit about it last time how it seems they were trying to mimic Nirvana, they meaning your record label executives and marketers, in the fact that you had your picture on the album instead of a drawing, but also you had a secret track at the end, like Nirvana. Was that a label decision?

C- Probably.

M- And, importantly, and there’s a lot of time spent on this in Prato’s book, you added a second guitarist, Troy. Was that something suggested by the label?

C- No. I just thought it would be fun. We could afford it. We had room, getting the bus and that kind of stuff. It was something to add a little bit more of the element that we had on records in the live thing. That was my idea.

M- So it didn’t have anything to do with Nirvana having a second guitarist?

C- No.

M- Even in your mind, thinking that Nirvana sounds better with two guitars rather than one.

C- Did I think they did?

M- What did a second guitarist bring to the band, live?

C- You could play the stuff that you overdubbed on the record. It’s the same reason I take my kid out now. It also gives me a little bit of a break, I can kind of quit, you know, if I feel like it, work more on the vocals and have somebody hold down the rhythm. It’s just a different trip. It doesn’t get stale, but definitely a three-piece is a lot of work. It’s just something that we could afford there.

M- It seems, in reading Prato and talking with Derrick, that some of the problems in the band might begin with the adding of Troy. According to Prato, Cris really didn’t like the idea.

C- Well, Cris is a tool at this point. It doesn’t matter what the fuck Cris likes, at all, at that point. He didn’t like Troy cuz Cris was a junkie shit already by that point. He was having problems. He might not have been using drugs, but he was definitely mental. Troy wasn’t that big of a problem. It was fun. The problem was largely Cris’s, whatever that was. I don’t think Derrick minded him that much. I don’t think it was anything that sparked anything there, having Troy around.

M- So, you begin to notice Cris having problems when?

C- Uhm. . .

M- I mean, it’s accurate to play upon the assumption that a big part of the end of the first Meat Puppets is Cris, right?

C- Yea. I would say the big. . .There’s a variety of things. I think Derrick was bored with it. His heart wasn’t in it that much. I think he was just going through the motions. I was definitely hard work for both of us being around Cris once he started doing too much dope. That all started, like, in ’94. I don’t know exactly. He was getting a little bit more and more disturbed there.

You know, really the reason the thing came to a halt for awhile was because I just didn’t do anything about it. I quit talking to Derrick and quit talking to Cris. I was like, “Well, maybe this will work itself out.” And it didn’t. There wasn’t anything that was, like, an event or something like that. I tried to get Cris to go to rehab. He wouldn’t do it. I figured he’d get over it pretty quickly if I quit doing anything. I moved out to California mid-’95 before we started doing No Joke! But it didn’t get any better. So time just went on.

In hindsight I see how, if I’d had known the depth of the problem there I might of gotten somebody else to fill-in right off the bat. But I just didn’t. And then time went by. And then Universal went over to Bronfman and this and that. There was a good number of years where I couldn’t do anything after No Joke! It was in corporate flux. That was out of my hands. They weren’t touching anybody. There was no motion. It wasn’t anything against the band so much.

Even when I got the guys out here involved. . .I moved out here in ’97. . .that was still going on. There were, like, two years where there was nothing happening at Universal while they were trying to figure-out where they were gonna be.

There were a number of things that were a little bit over my head. Just the general feeling that the band was good but Cris was too messed up to be fun to play with and Derrick obviously wasn’t having too much fun.

M- Do you recognize Cris’s drug problems before the label does?

C- I think so. I’m pretty sure. He wasn’t hiding it too much. It was something that got around to everybody. We all got privy to it by-and-by. I didn’t hang around with him that much. I just would see him do stuff that was obviously dope related. Or he’d just be overt about it sometimes. Being around the wrong people and eventually they’d be. . .

And it was part of the times, too. Gold Mountain was our management and they didn’t want to have anything to do with anything about dope because of Cobain. It was starting to be seen as something that was a hands-off situation. So Gold Mountain didn’t want to work with us anymore. They didn’t want to work with my brother. I went out with the guys that ran it and they were like, “We want to work with you but you gotta get rid of your brother.” That didn’t sit well with me, so they got rid of us all. Well, they got rid of us first and then got me out to lunch and said, “This sucks, but we will work with you.” But, once again, I wasn’t smart enough to see that it was gonna be an ongoing thing.

I was like, “That’s a rotten way to approach this. I can’t just ditch my brother.” But I had to, too, shortly thereafter. They were just a little bit more on it. They were saying, “We’ve seen this before. It’s the same bad movie. It’s not gonna go well.” I was just na├»ve.

M- So the management confronted you directly? Is this before the recording of No Joke!?

C- It’s right after it came out. I was living in California at the time. So it was right after it came out. It came out. It started getting a lot of adds on the radio, and it seemed like it was going good. They were telling me, “This is gonna be huge!” And then, all of a sudden, boom!, they weren’t interested. It was really obvious that they had discovered that we had a major problem in the band. I was just too close to it to see it. I think other people saw it a little more clearly.

I hadn’t really been around that. I’d been around plenty of drugs. I didn’t realize, in my own situation how it would affect anything. I was like, “Once he realizes he is wrecking stuff and the record company is pissed-off, then he’ll get better.” But it never did.

M- And he’s your brother, not just your band mate. Nobody wants to abandon their brother.

C- Yea. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt as much as I could.

M- So, to No Joke!. You say you had a bigger budget. Coming up on No Joke! how was your relationship with the label? I remember that with Too High to Die they kept putting it off and they weren’t sure what to do and there’s an acoustic album and, finally, “Fuck You” and then you get to put out a record. Was that kind of thing going on leading to No Joke!? Or did the success of Too High to Die help out?

C- It helped a lot. No question there. They let us go and do whatever we wanted. They gave us a big budget. We got Paul in there again. They were right behind it. Everything was fine.

I don’t think they really knew. I knew there was a problem lurking for about a year, like from the Summer of ’94. But, once again, I didn’t hang around with Cris. I didn’t know it was getting more deeply imbedded. It was during the recording of No Joke!, too, where it was like, “Okay, he’s nodding out while he’s playing. Is this guy messed-up?” But up to that point they were really enthusiastic about it cuz Too High to Die did so well. They didn’t have any problem backing us.

M- So from a business standpoint, London records said, “Go ahead, here’s some money.”

C- Yea.

M- A lot of money. A lot more than Too High to Die?

C- About twice as much.

M- Why did you choose Phoenix as a recording place? You must have had choices, with the money.

C- There was a really nice studio there. It seemed like it would be cool. I always like to be close to home. I didn’t know anywhere else, really.

M- Was there any question that Paul would be the producer, co-producer?

C- No. We wanted to do that.

M- What did more money allow you to do in the studio?

C- Not a whole lot more. We got into a more expensive studio as much as anything. Maybe took a little bit longer with this and that. We got Cris Shaw involved, we got him out there. He came out from New York to engineer. We had had Stuart Sullivan go out to Memphis with Paul to do Too High to Die.

It was just that everything overall was more expensive. The studio was quite a bit more expensive. Where we recorded Too High to Die was a place that the record company was getting a deal on. I didn’t do a whole lot more work, though, with No Joke!. A more expensive place. I didn’t really pay attention to that stuff that much. The record company was doling out the money.

M- Listening to the record it sounds like there might have been a bit more tinkering with the songs; strange background vocal here and there, almost Butthole Surfers sounds coming in once in awhile.

C- Paul got more comfortable and it was the first time that there was a computer hooked-up to the console. It wasn’t quite Pro Tools, but it was a forerunner or something. Definitely, he and Cris Shaw went to town on it, which I thought was pretty cool. I was just getting frustrated cuz Cris was getting to be a pain in the ass in the studio, so I was just doing my work and trying to provide an even keel.

M- At one point in Greg Prato’s book, Troy says that Cris’s parts end-up all getting overdubbed. Is that right? Or is that Cris’s bass that we hear?

C- It’s his bass. I don’t think anything like that happened.

M- You end-up going to L.A. to finish it, right?

C- Geez. I’m trying to remember.

M- Well, that’s the story. Let’s see: Recorded in Phoenix and at Westlake Studio in Los Angeles.

C- Hmm. Maybe we did go out there.

M- The story, at least in the book, and I’ve read this elsewhere as well, was that at some point Paul comes to you and says, “We have to get away from Cris.” And you don’t even tell Cris, you just go out to L.A. to finish it.

C- Uhhh. I guess that’s true. We’d done that before. We did it with Monsters, too. Cris was drinking a lot and being obnoxious, so Derrick and I went out there and started Monsters, got a whole lot of it done before we had him come out. So, yea, I guess we probably did. I’m starting to recall that now.

M- That’s interesting. It wasn’t that much in the forefront of Derrick’s mind, either, but in the book it has this central spot as if you’re fleeing from Cris and trying to keep it secret from him so he doesn’t find-out you’re out there.

C- He was getting on Paul’s nerves pretty good, I think. And getting on my nerves pretty good, too. So we did it. We had it pretty much down. We went out there and did mixes.

M- So the vast majority of it is in Phoenix?

C- Oh, yea.

M- At Phase Four. And some of it gets mixed out in New York, it says here. Electric Ladyland. “Mixed at Westlake and Electric Ladyland.”

C- Maybe Cris and Paul went into Electric Ladyland. I wasn’t there in New York.

M- So that’s near the end.

C- I think so. Maybe after it was wrapped. They had a number of different mixes, the record company did, that they did for “Taste of the Sun,” after “Scum.” It could have been some of that stuff, too. There were four or five other people who did mixes for that. They had me try to pick one out. But they never released it as a single. They were done with us by then.

M- And, again, they’re done with you because of what they see in Cris.

C- Probably. Largely. I think it was just cutting losses in their eyes. Record companies are complicated. Getting everybody on board is a real feat. They don’t do it on their own. They have to be corralled and in some magical way they all sort of convene the different departments. And if it gets loose you’re done for. But if you can manage to stay in their focus, in all the different departments’ focuses, get them all working together, then it works. It’s not like they start doing it as a matter of course. It’s a mysterious thing. You almost need a manager in there keeping them coalesced. I don’t know. It’s a mysterious thing. Having any success like that is pretty mysterious. It’s hard to see how it happens. I don’t think they even know. They throw a bunch of stuff at the wall it seems, sometimes. They have their tried and true, of course, but with us I don’t think they really knew how.

M- I think that in the whole grunge, after Nirvana, they did throw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see, “How can we capitalize after Nirvana? Which bands will make us a little bit of money?” And some of them stuck and some of them didn’t.

So the record itself, the songs themselves. You may not remember, but back in January you and I exchanged a couple emails and you wrote me that “No Joke! is probably the album most affected by the music scene since the first twelve-inch with the baby on the cover.” What does that mean?

C- It’s what we were around a lot. Heavy bands like Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots. The grunge scene was louder guitars. Just like back then, when we were in the punk rock scene. It was working on the fly, in the scene. I’ve always been pretty susceptible to whatever is going on. Sometimes I get a little more isolated and have the presence of mind to detach myself from what I’m hearing. But I can be pretty affected by the stuff I’m hearing, too. I’m a music fan. It seems that with that album we were playing a lot of big, loud shows, so the record came out more rock, or heavy rock.

M- Do you think it is similar to Too High to Die?

C- It’s a pretty different record to me. Too High to Die is a little bit more. . .sounds a little bit more like the band. It pretty accurately nailed how the band sounded at the time. No Joke! was a little bit more of a process in the recording to where it sounded like a record more than the band. It’s a cool record. It sounds great. But not necessarily what the band would be live. It’s pretty heavily produced.

M- Do you think it’s a darker record? Lyrically? Musically?

C- Maybe. It’s hard for me to tell. There’s a few things on there that are probably affected by, influenced by what was going on around, the different stuff in my life. At the time I didn’t really, I just thought they were cool songs. I don’t know if I thought of it as being darker necessarily. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say sometimes. I don’t really analyze my stuff that much. I just parrot the stuff I write sometimes. It’s my style.

M- Were the songs written specifically for this album? I know sometimes you’ll bring out a song that’s years old.

C- There was some stuff that was hanging around from Too High to Die and maybe for a little while. But generally for that album. . .I’m trying to remember.

M- “Nothing,” you said, was written for a movie.

C- Yea. That was. I pretty much wrote that album for the recording.

M- Do you write when you’re on the road? Or do you have to be at home? Does it matter?

C- Stuff will come up on the road when we’re doing sound check, stuff like that. But I’m generally at home. It’s been hard to do stuff on the road. I don’t get any solitude.

M- Are you one of these people who carries around a little notebook, and if you think of a line you jot it down?

C- Nah. Not really. I have notebooks when I’m actually writing and I’ll try to put stuff together. I’ll keep it around. But I don’t keep it on me. I’ve taken a notebook out on the road before and had the acoustic guitar on the bus, but nothing gets done. There’s just too much other crap going on.

M- So you don’t have it in your pocket all the time and say, “Hey! That’s a great thing I just said!”

C- No. I remember stuff if it’s cool.

M- So I’m gonna try it a little different this time. In the past I’ve told you what I thought about a song, this time I’ll just ask what you think. So, “Head.” What about that one? It’s a very different song from anything else you’ve ever recorded.

C- That was just. . .I came up with some cool chords. I thought they were different. The main chords themselves there for the verse parts seemed to lead to the song. Mostly that’s what different is those odd chords. I don’t know what they are, but, “See if I can make something out of that.”

M- What about the lyrics?

C- Uhh. .

M- Do you recall the song?

C- Oh yea. There’s not much to it. A lot of times the music makes me want to set a certain tone with the lyrics. It seems like it is already set and no matter what you write, it’s gonna be that. It seems like the music to me always says a lot more: the notes and the chords, the melodies. And then pick words that sound cool over that music which is what “Head” was. It was an introspective sort of song.

M- It can be interpreted in a few ways. A “head” is a guy that does drugs with you. “He’s a cool head.” And “eight ball” is not just a ball that you ask questions to, it’s an eighth of an ounce of whatever, cocaine.

C- Right. There’s nothing that direct in that song. Sometimes I do that, but not with that one. The head there is more like your brain. The thinking head. That’s one of those songs that’s like a sound sculpture as much as anything. I do that a lot. You make up what it sounds like. There’s a poem in it or whatever, but really it’s so loose that the interpretation is everything. And that’s up to the individual. I dig that. I’ve never been one to write too much directly about my feelings.

It goes back to being just a guitar player. I never really thought of myself as a songwriter. I just wound up in that situation where we had to have songs to play. Especially since it’s a pop band, you need to have something. I’ve always just liked making up a bunch of words. It’s fun to see people get something out of it. They become stuff to me, too. It’s a certain feeling that it evokes. But it doesn’t really have that much to do with the actual lyrical content a lot of times. It’s just the overall feeling of the song.

I went a long time not recognizing the importance of lyrics to the listener. I started seeing that people really did pay attention to the words, that they take it at face value like that. Not reading into it like, “Oh, to make it a pop song you put words on it.” But that’s what I do. Kind of like cut-ups, in a way. Like Burroughs stuff.

M- So are you, especially on this album, specifically thinking of Cris when you write a song?

C- No. Honestly, there isn’t anything on there that’s like that. Nope.

M- But you can see how they could be interpreted that way.

C- Oh yea.

M- Whether it be “Head,” I don’t need to read you the lyrics to “Head,” but “You’re so special/You’re my only friend.”

C- Yea. That’s not about Cris. I’ve never done that, specifically about, you know, one person. Nothing like that. Especially not back at that time. That’s a pretty arty record. I think maybe “Taste of the Sun” might be something like that, but it’s more about the irony of trying to make yourself feel better, reach for something a little bit more substantial in your life by fucking up, which seemed like a lot of people around me were doing at the time.

M- What about “Chemical Garden?”

C- That’s just playing with the idea of . . .I know that one could sound like it’s about drugs. I think it’s just more about chemistry, internal chemistry. It’s actually a little more science inspired.

M- On Paladia the other night they had the making of Quadraphenia. Did you see it?

C- No. I’ve seen it live. I saw them do that in L.A. in the late nineties with Billy Idol and Gary Glitter. Pretty awesome stuff.

M- I’m laughing. Last time I told you about seeing the Bruce Springsteen thing, and here’s Pete Townsehend. Some people are a lot easier to get meaning out of their lyrics than you are. Pete Townsehend is quite willing to tell you exactly what his song is about.

C- He intends it that way. Different generations. So totally steeped in art-rock and the surreal. I grew up with his band and the Beatles and Zappa and Beefheart and all that stuff. Led Zeppelin where it’s obtuse a lot of the time. I still don’t know what “Stairway to Heaven” is about. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I just didn’t grow up with the stuff that was as straightforward early on. Early rock, before, like, Pink Floyd and Beatles art-rock. I just didn’t get that much of it. My early stuff would have been some Elvis, “Blue Suede Shoes,” or “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” the Beatles or the Monkeys. Stuff on AM radio.

Again, I wasn’t that inspired as a lyricist or as a songwriter. I didn’t feel that I was compelled to do it. I never wrote anything until I was in the Meat Puppets and I’d already been doing that for about a year before I really wrote anything. My first serious effort at writing was Meat Puppets II. It was like, “I’ll try and write some songs here because nobody’s doing anything.” We were all just partying too much. I realized that we came up with these early punk rock songs. That was easy. Derrick was writing a lot of lyrics. And then it just quit happening and I realized that, “Oh, we gotta have songs.” So I just started doing it.

I purposefully make stuff that way. I’ll go through and edit if stuff seems too apparent, or if I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve too much. It doesn’t really suit me to sing that kind of stuff. So it really is hard to explain what they are about a lot of times, cuz they’re not really about anything to me. I let the music do the talking rather than try to enforce something on it with cohesive lyrical strands, even though I do try to make it readable. It’s not just a hodge-podge. That’s part of the fun of it is to throw in that Jabberwocky side of stuff, and not by using made-up words. If you can get it to where you can read it as a sentence then somehow it will have some sort of meaning. Not so much meaning even, a lot of times, but just a feeling it can evoke. It is hard to explain. I’d be more forthcoming if I could, but a lot of it is just words.

M- So what influence did your mom’s death have on the record, on the songs? When did she die?

C- Late ’96. December of ’96. She was pretty sick by then, so you have stuff like “Predator” which I think might have been inspired by that. It wasn’t the happiest of times, personal life, you know. People using drugs and there was illness. But I moved to California. I detached myself from just about everything in mid-’95 cuz it got to be like that. I felt like it was messing me up a little bit. So I moved over there. I could get a little more perspective, not feel so overwhelmed. But, yes, I think something like “Predator” always seemed like it kinda came out of that.