Forbidden Places, Meat Puppets’ major label debut, was released in 1991 on London Records. They were one of a generation of punk/indie/alternative bands to have such a release. The record is a typical mélange of styles that the band had become known for: country, heavy rock, psychedelic, breakneck instrumentals. But even before a contract was signed frustrations presented themselves. Breaking free from SST Records, for instance, turned out to be not as easy as the band would’ve liked. Additionally, extra layers of bureaucracy were imposed upon them from the label. Finally, a new way of professional recording was introduced to the band, a way in which Curt, especially, was required to step back and give up some of the studio control to which he had become accustom.
Soon after their last release on SST Records release, Monsters (1989), the band began having negotiations with people at London Records. According to Curt, sometime in 1990 they actually signed a contract to make records for the major label. Because of their fairly substantial producing experience, the band and London agreed that Meat Puppets should make their first album themselves. This recording method, after all, was from where their success thus far had come. So they recorded two songs, “Forbidden Places” and “This Day,” at Chaton Studios in Phoenix with Steve Escallier, a studio and an engineer they had worked with before. According to Derrick these demos were of inferior quality compared to the band’s self-produced records they had made for SST Records. Accordingly, the executives at London didn’t like it. "That was our entrance into this weird major-label thing,” says Curt. “They tricked us. They hired us and said we could produce our own stuff. When we got there, they were like, ‘Ha, ha.’” (A & I 197)
The rejection of this recording was a lesson learned by the band of how things worked at the major label level. SST Records was completely uninvolved in the making of Meat Puppets’ records. The band would make a record, hand it over to SST, and the label would release it. At London, however, things were a bit different. If the band made a record that the executives at London didn’t like, the label wouldn’t release it. The band would need to learn how to make records that both they and the label executives could agree upon.
It was decided that they would record at Capital Studios in Hollywood, a studio with a storied history in the music business. Pete Anderson was picked to produce the record. Somehow Anderson had got wind that Meat Puppets were looking for a producer, and having met them through his work (as guitarist and producer) with Dwight Yoakam (who had played a gig or two with Meat Puppets some years earlier) proffered his services for the project. All agreed, and he was hired on for the project.
Recording at a major studio with a major label budget (Curt estimates they spent between $50,000 and $100,000 on the record) was a new experience for the band. For Curt, especially, relinquishing control over what he perceived to be his product was difficult. Because of his stature as a big time producer, one who knew his way around a studio, Curt didn’t question decisions made by Pete Anderson. This was a first as Curt was used to producing his own records: "I work real hard on my craft, and it’s hard to work as much as you do on it and then have other people come in and do more to it when you think you’re done” (A&I 264). Curt says he felt a bit more like a worker in an organization rather than a creative artist while making Forbidden Places.
Of the three Meat Puppets, Cris, being someone who enjoys working in studios, seems to have enjoyed the experience of recording Forbidden Places the most. Whereas Curt and Derrick would come and go as they were needed in the studio, Cris was constantly there, if not playing bass and singing, then watching Pete and engineer Dusty Wakeman create a record. As for Curt and Derrick, the learning curve for Cris was steep, seeing how major label bands make records was a paradigm shift for him. He tells the story of a moment when Anderson felt some more percussion was needed on one of the songs. The band naturally thought one of them would do it. After all, that’s the way they had always made records. But Anderson brought in a guest musician, a professional percussionist, Alex Neciosup-Acuña, someone who unknowingly had played an important part in the Kirkwood brother’s musical (and otherwise) coming of age. Cris tells the following story:
The first time Curt and I smoked pot together was before this Weather Report concert in Phoenix in’75, and who should be the drummer on that gig but Alex Acuña. So I’m like, “How cool.” The guy comes in and does the shaker part completely spot on, one take. That was definitely perfect. And then he smells weed and he’s like, “Who’s got weed?” And we have good weed, so we go get stoned. And I’m smoking pot with the guy, and I tell him this story, that “the first time me and my brother ever smoked pot together was one of your gigs in ’75 with Weather Report, and now here you are playing on one of my records and getting stoned.” Charming. (personal interview)
All-in-all, Meat Puppets’ experienced the recording of Forbidden Places as an exercise in taking their craft to the next level, as they say. But it was also a bit intimidating for this group of Phoenician stoners to be walking the hallways of a Hollywood studio rubbing elbows with pop music royalty. Curt says,
We were at Capitol Studios, which was somewhat intimidating. You’re in this amazing studio. Lots of cool people have been in there, right in the belly of the beast in Hollywood. We still had our little hiding place area. We’d just hang out and let the stuff go on around us. “Ok, time for guitars,” and so we’d come out of the hiding place and do some guitar stuff.
. . .
I wasn’t uncomfortable at Capitol, I was just minding my own business cuz in the other room there’s Donna Summer. At one point Steven Seagal showed up with Kelly LeBrock, and across the hall was Etta James. (personal interview)
It wasn’t that Meat Puppets really held any ideological bent toward staying with SST Records. They would have made the move to the majors earlier had the chance arose. Indeed, in 1986 they had a meeting with Geffen Records executive Gary Gersh, the man responsible for signing Nirvana a few years later. He decided not to sign Meat Puppets. Curt and Cris like to tell the story. Here’s the way Cris tells it back in 1993:
Years ago we went into Geffen and talked to the guy, Gary Gersh, who sat there and told us how he signed Gene Loves Jezebel without even hearing them play. He just met the brothers. Just by the way they looked. And this is in like ’86. And we’re goin’, “That’s really nice Gary.” He’s sittin’ in his socks in his gajillion dollar office on Sunset and the Geffen Company which is just so exciting. He tells us he doesn’t sign us then ‘cuz we’re unfocused. (personal interview)
So at least from 1986 Meat Puppets were willing to entertain the idea of leaving SST for a major label, and they had reasons for doing so. According to Derrick, at least, the band wasn’t happy on SST: “We weren’t happy there and I don’t think we were treated fairly there” (personal interview). The main reason, it appears, that the band wasn’t happy at SST was lack of distribution. As Derrick tells it, the band would be touring with bands on major labels and,
We’d get into these major market towns, Boston, New York, etc., and find out that our opening band’s records were completely all over the record stores and the label was stocking the stores and making sure the promotion materials were there. They were doing lots of interviews and lots of people were going to see them. And we had real trouble, especially with our last release. So we knew that there were advantages that SST couldn’t have. (personal interview)
Curt backs up Derrick’s claim: “I could definitely see how it’s hard to meet the supply and demand on the indie label at that time. We weren’t seeing our records in stores as much as we’d like to and started to see the difference there” (personal interview).
Derrick also suspected band favoritism at SST, a label owned by members of Black Flag, an SST band: “SST was owned by somebody that was in a band that was on the label. We always suspected that that band would get preferential treatment” (personal interview). Derrick offers the following as evidence of SST’s preferential treatment toward Black Flag:
When we toured with Black Flag, we both had a new record out at the same time. Their records would be in the store and ours wouldn’t be. SST was obviously more interested in pushing My War compared to Meat Puppets II. (personal interview)
Coupled with the band’s feelings of suspicion toward SST was another reason for wanting to move to a major label, they were feeling like they were outgrowing their hometown scene. Derrick continues from his remarks about SST:
We’d come off of a tour and find that most of our old scene bands were broken up, drug abused, married, or dead, or drunk, or whatever. . . just basically moved along in one way or another, and we were surviving. The next step was alienation from the scene that started us. (personal interview)
Derrick’s point here, I think, is that Meat Puppets were still around, but their Phoenix punk rock scene, even the Los Angeles punk scene, in which they had begun had evolved into a new scene, with new bands and clubs. By the mid-eighties Meat Puppets were a playing within a national, even international, scene rather than a local one. They felt the support personnel a major label could muster could help them succeed in this larger scene more than SST Records could. Derrick again,
We wanted to sign with a major label so that we could get help doing these things, and not have to do it on such a shoe string. We needed to get a lot of our business practices straightened out. So we hired professional management and accounting and stuff like that to make sure we could be a more efficient organization. (personal interview)
After all, this is what a career in the music industry meant, moving to higher levels: “If you don’t move on then you’re stagnating. Standing still is still going backwards” (Derrick, personal interview).
Curt, Cris, and Derrick, then, were ready and willing to embrace the support a major label could provide. The record itself shows the willingness of the band to play along with practices that purportedly make an album marketable. The longest song on the disc, for example, is four minutes long, the shortest is 3:04; perfect lengths for “radio friendly” songs. Lyrically, though still comfortably within Curt’s realm of psychedelia (hallucinations, discomfort with reality), the songs on the album come close to making sense, rather than being oblique. Also, there aren’t any signature musical “meat puppet moments,” those spots on other recordings where Curt takes fantastic extended guitar adventures. These features of Forbidden Places make for a more audience friendly, accessible, recording. It isn’t a coincidence that they chose to make an accessible recording for their major label debut.
“Whirlpool” is a perfect example of Curt’s attempt at commercially acceptable psychedelia. It has a fairly accessible lyrical theme (anxiety about leaving our comfort zone) and a dose of animated animalia and, with the main character, animated water. Curt’s psychedelic guitar noises are here, too, but they are layered back in the mix and are buttressed by the structure of the song as guitar solos.
What Others Say about Forbidden Places
The general critical consensus about Forbidden Places is that it is a good, if not great, album that was drowned in the grunge tsunami that washed ashore in the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Wilson and Allroy, for instance, suggest it to be a “Nearly perfect” album that “Should have gone platinum!” (Wilson and Allroy). John Rausch, on Bondolik, places Forbidden Places among Meat Puppets best when he writes that it is “One of the four great Meat Puppet albums” that can “hold its own with any of the more celebrated Meat Puppets albums” (Bondolik).
As evidence that I’m not the only one who recognized the significance of Forbidden Places as Meat Puppets move from to the next level of the music industry, many writers began their reviews by mentioning this as the band’s major label debut:
First album on a major record label. . .(Wilson and Allroy)
. . .their first with a major record label. . .(Bondolik)
London Records is a major label, right? If so, this is the Meat Puppets’ major-label debut. . .(Prindle)
Others wrote of Meat Puppets “leap to a major label” (A&I 48) and their “shift to a major label” (A&I 299).
The move to a major label was rightly seen as evidence of a band “apparently aiming for a more mainstream rock community” (Satan), a band willingly leaving the artistically pure realms of indie and punk rock for the now blossoming commercially profitable realm of alternative rock. Others, perhaps foreshadowing the bands demise in the next four years, saw this move to the mainstream as “death for a band that has built its reputation on going against the grain” (A&I 299).
As for the album itself, many writers applauded the improved production that a major label budget and big-time producer brought to the songs. Mark Prindle writes of “production so great, they actually sound like a REAL BAND” (Prindle). It is seen as an album that is “much slicker” (Bondolik) than their more famous earlier records like Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun, that shows Pete “Anderson’s influence” (A&I 162-63).
There were, of course, those who praised Curt’s guitar work as “exceptional” (Satan), “accomplished” (Entertainment Weekly), and “awesome” (Prindle), and even a few who appreciated his new well-produced voice: he “shed the off-key singing for a more comfortable listening experience” (Satan), he actually hit “all kinds of beautiful notes in a calm, friendly voice” (Prindle), and, throwing Cris into the mix, Forbidden Places “suggests that the Kirkwoods may yet learn to sing” (Rolling Stone).
There are those who criticized the album. John Chedsey, for instance, wrote that much of the album is “red hot,” but when it’s not, it is “a complete lame duck” (Satan). Others suggested the entire album is “tired and unimaginative” (Rough Guide), and David Fricke, writing in Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock calls it “so-so.”
The consensus on Forbidden Places, however, is that it came out at the wrong time, the moment of Nirvana. As John Rausch writes, “With all of America focusing on Seattle, Forbidden Places wend completely unnoticed” (Bondolik) in “grunge mania” (TP90). Greg Prato writes of how it got “lost in the shuffle since it was released just prior to the Seattle explosion” (AMG). The result was a decent album that “was largely ignored” (A&I 3) and, because “sales figures didn’t materialize” (A&I 162-63), “bombed” (A&I 299).
So Curt, Cris, and Derrick were happy with the finished product that was Forbidden Places, and so it seemed was London Records. It had a good single, “Sam,” and a decent enough video, “Sam,” too. But the record flopped. A big reason for this flop, I contend, was the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind just two months later. Everything changed. Grunge was in. London (and all the other rock music labels, for that matter) wanted a grunge band. They no longer wanted Meat Puppets to be their trippy self-indulgent selves, they wanted an alternative friendly Curt, Cris, and Derrick.
The desire to put forth a more grungy Meat Puppets led to delays in the recording and release of the band’s next record. Different producers were tried in different places, for instance. Different projects were started and stopped. But then Kurt Cobain publicly announced his fondness for the band, and Meat Puppets made a demo or two that sounded awful grungy, and Too High to Die was given the green light. In the next chapter I’ll discuss the making of the band’s second major label release.