Skype to Phone Interview with Curt Kirkwood
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?
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?
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 naïve.
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.”
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.