Skype to Phone Interview with Cris Kirkwood
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?
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.”