Skype to Phone Interview with Cris Kirkwood
August 15, 2013
Matt- We’ll focus on the time period leading up to Monsters. I didn’t email you guys for Out My Way and Mirage and Huevos. I just kind of winged it based on other interviews I’ve read. If for no other reason I’m getting lazy, I didn’t want to put in the time to interview you guys four or five times more. So, today, maybe we can go briefly over those records you made in Phoenix and lead ourselves up to Monsters.
So you get done with Up on the Sun and then you do some touring. This is the story as I know it. Then, in 1986, you decide to do an EP. Why did you decide to do an EP with Out My Way rather than a full LP?
Cris- I can’t remember. I guess commercial considerations must have been foremost in our thinking. It was either artistic or commercial considerations. Some such thing. Honestly, I really can’t remember why the fuck. Maybe we wanted to go in there and get something into it. Maybe the artwork needed to be put on the cover of a record so we just went in and did that. Cuz that was as long as our attention spans were at that particular point.
M- Maybe you didn’t have enough material for a full record. Is that possible?
C- I don’t know if that was it. It definitely was its own idea. Out My Way is intentional.
M- What was the idea, as you remember?
C- To get it made and get it out.
M- How about artistically? What was the idea?
C- We don’t do that kind of stuff.
M- But you just told me it was intentional.
C- Yea, but that stuff is hard. It makes my head hurt. I’m a meat and potatoes kind of guy.
M- So you just went in and made a record.
C- I did what those guys told me to do. Considering the place I find myself at this point in my life, obviously Curt and Derrick were doing interesting and thoughtful things. I’m pleased with them. I’m grateful to have done it along with them so at least I can be at this point in my life, which is one way of looking at it. I don’t know what the fuck those guys were doing.
I can’t remember why we did Out My Way as an EP. That might of just been something to do. Here’s one thing: SST afforded us to do whatever we wanted at that point. It was really cool. We could do the kind of art that we wanted to do. We met Steve, the guy that we recorded Out My Way with, and found Chaton, the studio that we did it at. It might have been as much as we felt like doing at that particular point. It was definitely interesting to bring it back to Phoenix and do it that way. It was different.
It was a neat time. SST was . . .You gave them what you wanted to put out and they put it out.
M- So it was all based on a handshake, your contract with SST at that point.
C- That’s all business crap. That’s prying too deep. People can go fuck themselves if they’re interested in that kind of shit. Do they honestly give a crap? Why? Does it say something about the art that was made ultimately? It is what it is.
Here’s a story about Out My Way that’s about as much of it as I care about: The artwork on that is a painting that Curt did of a rug, a Mexican rug. What that is, is an eagle with a snake in its mouth, which is also on the Mexican national flag. It Mexican symbology, obviously. It was a rug that Curt had and he did a painting of it, the woven design on the rug, and that became the album cover for Out My Way. Just real briefly I’ll mention this because it’s recently transpired, a pal of ours that we met forever ago in Philadelphia, Howard Saunders, after the record came out, started getting new tattoos, and one of the first tattoos he got was that artwork on his upper-left arm. And awhile after that I one night decided I needed a tattoo and having no better idea than Howard’s decided to get the same thing on my upper-left arm. Unfortunately poor dear sweet Howard, my dear dear pal, had a motorcycle wreck a few weeks back and is now lingering in a coma and will hopefully pull out of it. It’s such a rough hand to be dealt, you know, an old pal of ours. It’s a touching thing. His picture’s on his mom’s website, with his kids. He still has some kids, they’re pretty young. There’s one shot of him holding the kid, you can see the tattoo that he and I share on our upper-arm. And old, dear pal who is in tough straights.
That’s an Out My Way story, specifically.
M- So you do Out My Way as an EP. You go out and tour on Out My Way. The story I hear is that it’d been awhile since you’d put out a record. So you do Out My Way fairly quickly thinking that in just a few months you’d do a proper LP. You go out to tour on Out My Way and at some point Curt breaks a finger. Apparently he got it slammed in a car door.
C- It was in the van door. It was horrible. It was back in the parking garage right behind First Avenue up in Minnesota. It’s the Purple Rain venue. It’s a place that’s been around for a long time. It’s still there, a venerable, cool old place in Minnesota; First Avenue and 7th Street Entry. And we played, and Curt was changing his pants, he was slipping out of his pants and had his hand on the doorjamb of the van and Darrel, our old sound guy, didn’t realize it and slid shut the van door and slammed it on Curt’s left hand and actually broke the middle-finger on his left hand. It was gross. He went to the doctor and later that night Curt went to see if he could play a chord and he tried to slide his finger up and it just bent over like one of those straws with a joint in it. I tell you what, that’s a good story, when Darrel slammed that fuckin’ door Curt made out a monkey yelp! I tell you what!
M- So he breaks his finger and, thus, Meat Puppets have to go on a hiatus for awhile for his finger to heal.
C- It ended the tour right there, yea that happened.
M- Did y’all figure it would heal some day or did it cross your mind that this might be it?
C- Fuck, I don’t know. It’s only a broken finger. Maybe at one point he went and sought medical help.
The questions that you’re asking, “What did I think?” Think of all the thoughts people have. How many thoughts people have.
It was definitely creepy that Darrel had broken his finger. It was an accident, but the way that it happened was a piss in the middle of the tour. We had to drive all the way home with an injury like that.
But as far as all the considerations of the specifics of putting out an EP and then an LP, I don’t know if it necessarily quite went down like that. It was more like things started to come together, you know, at the practice place new things would start to come up and then, eventually, it would be time to go into the studio and what was to be done was what was to be done.
M- What did you do while Curt’s finger was broken?
C- Fuck if I know. Who knows? I went on an alpine skiing adventure.
M- Or you worked on your bass.
C- I deep sea fished.
M- Or you worked on songs.
C- No I didn’t. I preened. Fuck if I know. I can’t remember vast expanses of my life at this point, quite honestly. If it weren’t for Curt I wouldn’t have a childhood at this point. Let me think. What the fuck did I do in there?
M- We’re talking ’86-’87.
C- One of the things, as far as the playing was concerned, it didn’t have to be all three of us. Derrick and I enjoyed playing together, and played together a lot, just the two of us.
M- And you had a rehearsal space attached to your house?
C- Not by then, no. We practiced in the living room of the house that I lived in at that point. I had a living room and we practiced in there. You know what? There’s video of that that exists somewhere. Somehow there is video of that, I’ve heard of it. Just us in that living room.
M- There’s some really early stuff out there from, like, ’84 or ’83 or ’82. I don’t even know where the hell you are. A little garage or living room. Maybe the housed you lived in for Meat Puppets II.
C- I’d have to see it. But eventually we moved into the house where we had the detached garage that we turned into a studio. And from that we started to get into recording stuff ourselves. And there was always demoing things and recording was a part of our own home process to the level of technical level that we had. Cassette decks at first. It all started with cassette decks. The cheesy kind that you took to school. We used to have those cassettes. And then on from there and eventually getting into multi-tracking and stuff. Then we got that 8-track. That was bitchin’, a half-inch Tasc 8-track. That allowed us to, allowed Curt to demo stuff. He’d have new songs and we’d record them on the 8-track.
M- So it’s time to do Mirage, cuz you’ve been hanging out. Curt’s been writing songs with his finger broken. You go in at the end of ’86, again to Chaton with Steve again to record that. It’s a much different record than Out My Way.
C- Is it?
M- I think it is. Lots of people who write about it think it is. It’s much more of a studio kind of album. What do you think about Mirage, Cris?
C- I love it. Are you kidding? I love all our records. They’re great!
M- I’m not asking you to compare it to the others.
C- I’m not even comparing it to the others. I really think they all stand on their own and I think they’re a testament to the band, as a band, in all its carnations at this point, including the later stuff. And definitely a testament to Curt as a songwriter. “Far out,” you know, “Whoa! Bitchin’.” So I love it on that level and then on its own level it’s a cool record. You can see the progression that we’re undergoing, on a personal level to see where I was at playing-wise. I haven’t heard it in awhile. I just heard something off it, I think. Is “Beauty” on that one?
C- I heard that recently and it just fried my shit! I’ll tell you that much. Gorgeous.
M- Any good Mirage stories?
C- Here’s a good Mirage story: Chaton was at these kind of wealthy folks house, it was in the back of their house. The wife of the couple liked the symphony. And they actually bought an RV and, full-bore, turned it into a mobile studio to be able to record the symphony. Paul McCartney maybe used that. Maybe Steve helped him with that. Either way, they had this studio in their back yard. It was in a nice part of town. There are parts of Phoenix that are very ritzy, it was in a nicer part of town. She was real neat. She’d bring out these lunches during the day. Fancy little. . .cut into little pieces. Until one day she smelled grass or something and then she never came out again. So that forced us to go to whatever food was around. I remember going to Jack in the Box and I got myself a delicious salad and I was eating it and bit into something that actually chipped my tooth and it was a gold ring, a gold wedding band.
M- From a Jack in the Box salad?
C- Yep! Awesome.
M- While at the studio, or were you at Jack in the Box when you did this?
C- We got all the food to go, came back, and were sitting in the studio, at Chaton.
M- What did you do with the ring?
C- I called Jack in the Box and spoke to the manager and he goes, like, “I’m gonna send you a bunch of free hamburgers.” He never even did that. The ring as fallen into the depths of time. I’m sure I kept it for as long as something like that would be kept around.
So there’s one Mirage story.
M- You actually took quite a bit of time, for you guys, doing Mirage. Like, six weeks.
C- Well, that’s a cool record. Interesting. It was definitely a different kind of thing. If it took us that long it would have been us having some fun in the studio with some of the toys that we’d gotten ourselves, for sure. That’s one of the things there. It’s kind of like with Sergeant Pepper’s they went ahead and had all these different little things, the Beatles did. Curt and I so grew-up on the Beatles! So that record has little added doodads. We really cut loose with doodadary on that one. We had a Roland guitar synth. This grey guitar that was angularly strange. It had a MIDI out. You could MIDI out it to any synthesizer that had MIDI. It was all MIDI shit back then. So that’s all the horn parts and those kind of things are that thing.
We would give ourselves that kind of leeway. That definitely had to do with the fact that it was in town.
M- Cuz you could come and go as you pleased.
M- But then, the story seems to be, it was such a studio album that it was difficult and/or you just didn’t enjoy playing much of it live.
C- No, no. A lot of that stuff was real fun to play live. Definitely. A lot of that stuff was real fun to play live. I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t remember.
M- I’m telling you the story as I’ve read it in interviews through time.
C- Oh. So then we decided to do Huevos which would be more easy to play?
M- Yes. That’s the story, exactly.
C- I don’t know about that. Huevos is a motherfucking physical effort. It wouldn’t necessarily have been easier to play. That certainly wouldn’t have been the case. We wouldn’t have gone, “Oof, Mirage. That isn’t easy to play live. Let’s do a record that’s easier to play live.” We just didn’t work like that, you know. Songs don’t come from there. It wasn’t that specific to be able to be so concisely put like that. Each of the records is an extension or representation of where we were at that particular point and what went on then as far as playing it all or not playing it all and then go on to the next record. It wasn’t nearly that specific. But, you know, different studio. Different songs, for sure. Different kind of approach to the making of a record. Fun.
M- Same engineer, different studio.
M- Did that have to do with the marijuana smells?
C- Not necessarily. It was a cool studio. Slightly bigger room. Just different. The folks at Chaton were very gracious. It was a fun place to record. In any situation I’m the lout.
M- Another part of the story is that coming into Mirage there were just too many songs to put on one album, and some of the songs that go on Huevos . . .Huevos comes out just six or eight months after Mirage. . .
C- Here’s as much as anything. Nominally, ever so nominally, Huevos was an expression of . . .it’s Mexican slang for “balls,” and we were conscious of the fact that we didn’t do anything other than what we wanted to do. So the underlying message and connotation wasn’t entirely unintended.
M- Of naming it Huevos.
C- Yes. Curt had already painted that painting. It was just cute as the dickens.
M- You did Huevos in three or four days as opposed to six weeks with Mirage.
C- Is Huevos the one that has little black and white drawings of Curt’s in the liner notes?
M- I don’t know.
C- I remember Curt drew those when we were sitting at a rest area somewhere in the Midwest.
M- I know Mirage has a bunch of little squiggle drawings on the inner-sleeve, along with the lyrics.
C- Does it? Maybe it was that one.
M- I don’t have the LP of Huevos, I only have a CD of it.
C- Maybe Huevos did go a little quicker. You can hear the difference in the songs in some ways and obviously different guitars, different studio. A different side of the band at that point.
M- It’s a more straight-forward rocking album. Don’t you think? Can’t you agree with that one?
C- Do you think I’m being disagreeable?
M- I don’t know. I’m just trying to pin you down on something.
C- Trying to pin me down? I’m being unpindownable?
M- You’re amorphous! You’re like a jellyroll.
C- It’s a good way to be, man. That’s how you stay cool.
M- We don’t even have to talk about the fact that everybody calls it the ZZ Top record, unless you want to talk about it as a ZZ Top record.
C- I think, as far as being the ZZ Top record, definitely ZZ Top was a conduit for us, in the same way as the Grateful Dead were, to a rich vein of American music. We definitely were mining that particular vein at that point. Curt was. He was obviously exploring the boundaries of writing. And ultimately we’re gonna be talking about Monsters, and there you go again. A guy like that, with the ability to . . .First to have the desire to express himself in these particular ways and then to use these various fields. They were always just fields for us. It’s not like I’m going, “That’s our ZZ Top record. That’s our chublit record.” Or Monsters is like, you don’t need to get too specific about it, you can’t really pin that on one particular band, but it just has a slightly different feel as far as I’m concerned. All of which the band were adeptly able to follow, visit, and make our own. I think they’re all a testimony to Curt as a songwriter. As far as Huevos is concerned that’s where he was at at that point, checking-out what it was like to take the band to that point. We’d been playing for awhile at that point. We were young men that had been doing it for a minute, you know, and could kick a fuckin’ tassel full of ass.
M- And you getting, at this point, a bit of notice from, at least, the critical industry, which you may or may not care about, but you knew about it.
C- We were already old news by then. We were already old news. We were critically acclaimed off of our earlier records and that kind of faded back and we became yesterday’s news. A whole other wave of cool hipsters came along and redefined what it was to be groovy. We just went off on our own fuckin’ trip like we’d always done. At one point people decided that it was neat enough to give it attention and we sprangboard from that. And we’re now in our forth decade of music. We had gotten to the point that we’d gotten, that was the bitchin’ thing. There was a whole batch of cool music-making that was going on that we’d all got to. It was a very alive, creative, album spitting-out machine. Us and our compatriots, who we can’t forget, at that time were just banging shit out. Record after record. That speaks to the fact that our little batch of bands had started in the first place, and then the ones that had gotten to the point that they had gotten to by that point had started to evolve a body of work. Now here we are talking about it cuz it was so interesting and productive and creative time for us and other folks as well. Just like any time is at a point that it’s at. We just happened to be around.
M- Both Curt and Derrick suggest that at this point you guys were and had been keeping your eyes open and seeing if there wouldn’t be a chance to make the move to a major label. Curt had a career plan at this point, I think, not just to make little art projects, but to make a serious living out of doing this. And you get to Huevos and you still haven’t got that great deal that you might get in a couple more years. Do you remember this activity of trying to get to the major label? How do you feel about that, Cris?
C- If those guys are being that specific about it. . .We weren’t adverse to any forward momentum in terms of the business side of the band in any way. We started going in to visit with the majors as early as the Meat Puppets II years. It was a question of them coming to us. We continued to make that art that we were making. As far as trying to specifically gear it towards those people we weren’t not being the most sick fucking band that we could possibly be that ultimately led to us being signed. It started to happen in there somewhere.
M- And your friends are getting major label deals at this point, whether it be Hüsker Dü or, I don’t know, fIREHOSE pretty soon or. . .
C- But you look at what happened to the Hüskers, you know, and it wasn’t the end-all and be-all. That’s the side of it that’s just what it was. It had to take care of itself to the degree that it did. Some bands really just fit the mold. I’m reminded of REM, you know, those early records just fucking rule. It’s like, “What in the living God, you guys?” It’s just really bitchin’ shit. And it has such a personality of its own. To be able to go on to really connect with people to the degree that they were and make such solid shit again and again and again that rides like that, that’s a different kind of a scene. Sick. I saw that going on and wondered about it. That’s the business side of things. Some people are really, obviously made for it.
M- Do you think, and I know that you know them at least a little bit, that the REM guys were very conscious about “this is what we need to do if we want to get on a major and sell a lot of records,” or did they just do art and not care.
C- It’s not like we were just doing art. It’s not like we were sitting there in diapers having yet another be-in. Curt had a family, absolutely we wanted to be making a living off of it, we had been making a living off of it. We were open entirely to whatever could possibly happen with the band as far as the business side of stuff was concerned and always had been. We’d always just had stuff come our way. When we didn’t wind up getting signed back in the early days, and Hüsker did, and were some of the first dudes out of our scene to get signed, you could see that some of the majors were around. And then those guys, you know, it didn’t go as well as it could. There’s that side of the majors thing. Being signed is one thing and then whether you do anything with it.
We’re talking about the past. The business side of stuff. It’s probably me, honestly. I take responsibility for why we didn’t manage to get our records. . .I obviously am a completely and utterly wrong kind of person to be doing this. As witness my eventual behavior.
M- But that’s years off. You’re still okay in ’86.
C- Oh yea. We were all okay. And at that point it’s just down to, who knows? And we’re still playing. It all winds-up that we’re still here playing.
M- So after Huevos you do quite a bit of touring. The story seems to be there was some frustration in the band that you weren’t getting signed and some of your buddies were.
C- It wasn’t like that. Frustration in the band? As far as frustration in the band, MTV started shortly after we did. You see these guys getting real popular, some of it is like when a whole movement that suddenly gets popular. Some of it is so far away from where we were at. The “New Romantics” came in. It’s just too hot to wear a wig here, unless you’re a real trouper, and I was not down with the program. Certain things, you know. And then the metal stuff. Some of the metal shit blew-up. The guys in Metallica are our age, you know. You could see people connecting at a different level. There was always that kind of a thing. But down deep it was always just doing the art. I don’t know if you can ascribe a group mindset to, you know, “We’re frustrated because we haven’t been signed.” I was stunned by the fact that anybody wanted to. . . When the first 7” came out, I gotta tell you, because it was just such a personal release, to make the noise that we made, for me, the idea that we recorded for other people to listen to just seemed spurious at best.
M- There is suggestion that Monsters is a bit more . . . for instance, you use the electronic, preprogrammed drums on Monsters. Derrick suggested that was purposeful because that was what was selling at the time and that would get you a better chance at the major labels.
C- Definitely not having Bostrom on the record helped our chances at success, I’ll agree with him there.
M- You do a bunch of demos first, in Phoenix, before you record Monsters proper. And you shop these around to the major labels.
C- Ooh la la! Big business in rock and roll land! Fuck if I know, dude! Oh, we shopped them around?
M- “Shopped the demos around.” I don’t know. Is that the term? Is that what people say?
C- Who said that? Did Derrick say we did that?
M- Derrick said that. And there are some interviews from the past where Curt suggests that same thing.
C- I agree. Whatever the fuck the current history is, those guys definitely remember better than I do.
For sure, through all of it, at points what do you do? Go commercial and have commercial intent? You can to the degree that you can. We managed to continue to put out records.
M- What do you think about the drums on Monsters?
C- They’re great. They’re neat. I love all of our records, like I told you. Each one stands on its own like a reminder of that particular period of my life. We made them. It’s neat to listen to where we’re at and to hear the stuff. It’s sluggin’! There’s some bitchin’ shit on that. “The Void,” that’s fucked, man, that’s an evil song! And to see Curt be able to wander into such a . . .metal is kind of bitchin’ to play, you know, it’s all, like, cool riffs. I think Derrick programmed. . . they’re his beats. A lot of it was the beats, too. A lot of the stuff Derrick did. At points it was our beats, Curt’s beats, depending on what he wanted out of the song. Derrick was his own wonderful thing and I think he contributed to the programming of that stuff. It was, what’s his face, the Drum Doctor whose tones those were, and did the programming. And then it was, what’s his name, Eric, E.
M- Who’s the Drum Doctor?
C- You can figure it out. I can’t remember. He’s an L.A. fixture, for real. A studio dude that goes around and delivers kits to studios for drummers and tunes them. A lot of people use him. He was the go to guy for a show back then. I’m not sure where he is about now, but I imagine that you will easily be able to find out who he is on the computer.
M- The one person who had bit on the shopping around is Peter Koepke, who is at Atlantic at the time.
C- This is all stuff, you know, it’s so ugly to talk to me about it because whatever the band managed to get to business-wise, the best I can say is that we were always open to any forward movement in terms of the business of the band. And certainly everybody was welcome to come to the shows. If millions of people wanted to come to each show that would’ve been fine with us. If Proctor and Gamble wanted to get in bed business-wise it would’ve been fine with us as long as we could continue to make music. That’s what we wanted to do. That’s the most I have to say about it. As far as talking to you about the business stuff, it’s just creepy, cuz I’m the one who eventually quashed the forward momentum that we were rolling along, and the details of which we’re trying to specify here. So whoever said anything else about how the fuck it went down, use their version.
We can talk about the records and the making of the records all day long. Those things I don’t think I sullied. These other things are just whatever.
M- The vocals on Monsters are really cool.
C- A lot of that is probably Curt with himself. That’s probably why it’s good. It doesn’t have me wrecking it.
M- How about the keyboard stuff on there? Is that you or is that Curt? Like on “Light.” There’s like a little Casio something.
C- That was probably still that guitar synth, it would’ve been something like that. “Light”’s got that little horn thing. That’s a little too accurately played in my memory, so maybe that was the guitar. You can tell when it’s one of us playing keyboards, it’ll be very simple.
M- It’s pretty simple stuff on “Light.” It’s not Elton John.
C- Everything we do is simple. And for Curt, he more and more likes it to be about as Flinstones as you can get.
M- Who does the parts on the end of “Monsters” and at the end of “Like Being Alive,” somebody says “It’s like being eaten by a giant doo doo log with teeth.” Do you remember?
C- I can’t remember. Curt would remember that shit, definitely.
M- “Take this and shove it down your throat! Hope you don’t choke on it,” at the end of “Monsters.”
C- That would probably be Curt. And the “giant doo doo log with teeth,” I would say those are probably both Curt. He would remember it more than I would.
M- Fabulous discussion, Cris.
C- How about this? Is this a real thing? Or is this just something that my memory has supplied me with, my faulty memory. If I’m not mistaken, on the vinyl, maybe of Up on the Sun. . . Didn’t they, for sure they did, inscribe little messages sometimes.
M- On the inside next to the label.
C- Yea. I think, and I’m pretty sure it really happened, Up on the Sun came out, and I thought this was just one of Curt’s funniest turns of phrase, it said “World in turmoil” on one side, and then “Turd in wormoil” on the other.
M- I’ll have to look. In fact, I just, two weeks ago I was in Salt Lake City and I picked-up original vinyl versions of Up on the Sun and the first record. I’ll have to look.
C- It might be on there. I wonder.
M- There’s something on there. I did read something, but I can’t remember what it was.
Well, Cris, I think I have what I need here.
C- I hope I’ve been helpful. It’s an interesting progression that the band went through. Really, I think I feel most comfortable with, what I said, to talk about the band’s aspirations, especially leading up to what happened, it’s not really anything I’m that into talking about.
M- I’m not purposefully ignoring your recent history. I have all your records and I go see your shows. When I started writing this book, I didn’t think the band was ever going to get back together, so I stopped it at that point.
C- But just as far as, really like, to join in terms of what we were trying to do, I don’t really feel I deserve to have much of a say in it. My feelings about it are some of what drove me nuts in the first place. I think that I have by far the weakest ego of the three of us, and the most fragile character and was, obviously, the most susceptible to myself.
The records are bitchin’. All those records are cool as fuck. It’s fun looking back on it. The parts I remember specifically, the guitars I used. I try to remember the way the guitar felt in my hands at the time. Stuff like that. Seriously, the other day hearing “Beauty” was just like a crack in the sky. A wonderful thing.
M- I’m gonna try and catch you guys in Flagstaff on Halloween. I’ll try to stop by and say hi.
C- Cool, man! I’m just now working on these promotional paintings for that show. The promoter wanted some crap. They’re supposed to be Halloween themed, but I don’t think they are. But I tried.
M- Do you guys do funny things on Halloween, on stage? Do you dress-up?
C- I think we pretty much dress-up and do funny things every time we get on stage. Fuck no! These days? I, personally, need to dress-up like a zombie. No make-up needed. Fuckin’ Jesus Christ! “Hey, look! Cris came as Golem!”