Too High to Die
With the dismal commercial showing of Forbidden Places and the overwhelming popularity of Nirvana and grunge fresh on everyone’s minds, Meat Puppets set out to record their next album for London Records. The problem, at least from the band’s point of view, was that the label was dragging its feet on “letting” them record. The problem, from the label’s perspective, was figuring out an angle with which to market this eclectic band. What to do?
First off, indeed, the label did drag its feet. Meat Puppets dutifully turned in numerous demos, all of which were termed as not being radio friendly. Next, the label gave the band the go ahead to record an album of acoustic versions of previous “hits.” Finally, based on a series of fortuitous live performances, a cover of the Feederz “Fuck You,” the agreement upon an indie-hip producer, and the radio readiness of what would become their highest charting single, London gave the go ahead to record and opened their promotional coffers.
The experience with London, however, left a bad taste in the mouths of Curt, Cris, and Derrick. Their artistic freedom seemed to be squashed and their ability to work how they wanted with whomever and whenever they wanted was gone. The band was angry at best, hopeless at worst.
Context of the Record
As discussed in the previous chapter, in 1991 Nirvana’s Nevermind came out just two months after Meat Puppets’ Forbidden Places. Similarly, Nirvana’s next record, In Utero was released in September of 1993, four months before the January ‘94 release of Meat Puppets’ next album, Too High to Die. In the two years between the bands’ releases Nirvana became the world’s most recognizable rock band while Meat Puppets floundered to find an audience larger than they had while on SST and London Records struggled to find a marketing strategy for pushing their musically eclectic band.
So in the Spring and Summer of 1992 Meat Puppets did what most bands do after releasing an album, they toured. But this was their first time touring in support of a major label record, and the tour reflected this. For one thing, as they had required the band to hire a general band manager, London also required them to hire a tour manager. For a band that had been self-managed for the past twelve years, it wasn’t clear why another layer of management was necessary, but perceiving that they had little choice, they went along with it.
The Sociology of organizations suggests that businesses within the same industry tend to mimic one another structurally; this is known as isomorphism. Businesses mimic each other because (A) this is the way things have always been done and (B) this is the way everyone else is doing it. Structural isomorphism is often followed at the expense of organizational learning and change; businesses continue to mimic each other often to their own detriment.
The major label music industry of the early 1990s is no exception to the rule of structural isomorphism. With the huge success of Nirvana, as well as the successes of other punk/indie projects and bands like Lollapalooza, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Jane’s Addiction, “alternative” was born, and labels were putting big resources into packaging a set of disparate bands (some new and naive [i.e. Paw], some old and weathered [i.e. Sonic Youth]) as a marketing genre.
As isomorphism goes, labels sold these disparate bands in a way that suggested they shared certain sonic, visual, and lyrical codes (Weinstein): a hard rock/punk rock mix (think Black Sabbath mixed with the Ramones), ripped jeans/flannel shirts/long hair, songs of disaffection. Of course these newly found mainstream codes had been around for a decade or more, pioneered by punk and indie rock bands from the seventies and eighties. Major label executives simply tapped into, and sometimes bought out, the shadow indie industry discussed in the last chapter.
It was in this epoch of rock history that Meat Puppets and London Records found themselves after 1991, after the release of Forbidden Places. For one thing, it caught the attention of London executives that many of the money making bands in the post-Nevermind alternative market, especially Nirvana, were name dropping Meat Puppets as an important influence on their own art. For another, the general hard rock sound of Meat Puppets, especially in their live shows (a little less frequently on their records), was popular with grunge (alternative) audiences. And Meat Puppets’ long-haired t-shirt and jeans “look,” for what it was, was now hip. The executives at London decided alternative/grunge was the way to market the band, fit their gelatinous peg into a now well-established hole.
Another example of industry isomorphism, can be seen in the ways that London Records dealt with Meat Puppets in the first years of their relationship. They required them to get “professional” management, a professional producer, and a tour manager, among other things. They did this without much regard for Meat Puppets’ previous decade-plus of self-management. Why? Because it was the way it had always been done and the way that all the other major labels dealt with their bands.
London’s new marketing strategy for Meat Puppets meant a couple things. First, it meant that label executives would be pressuring the band to act alternative (i.e. make music that could be marketed to an alternative audience). Second it meant that Meat Puppets would need to find a way to make the art-based music they always had while also making it sound good to their alternative genre obsessed employers. For a band as fiercely independent as Meat Puppets, pleasing London Records while also following a “pure” artistic musical path was frustrating. Two early 1993 interviews I conducted with Derrick (January) and Cris (February) shed light on the frustrations the band was feeling during this time.
At the time of the interviews I was conducting research for my Sociology dissertation (1996) at Northwestern University, the topic of which was “selling out.” I wrote the band at the address they provided on their records. Derrick wrote back with his and Cris’s phone numbers, but not Curt’s. In the interview I asked Derrick why he didn’t give me Curt’s phone number as well. He said that I’d get a lot of “crap,” meaning information, from him and Cris, but that he didn’t think Curt would “particularly want to address himself to your particular topic” (personal interview). Later on in the interview Derrick tells me that Curt is “more into being a celebrity than he is being a straight musician. He’s into being a personality. Somebody who has a unique outlook on life that people find interesting” (personal interview).
Derrick’s comments highlight Curt’s presentation of himself as above and beyond the frays of the major label business world. Whereas Cris and Derrick were more than willing to talk with me (as I’ll show momentarily) about what they saw as the evils of the music industry, Curt (at least back in 1993) preferred to stay out of that argument, at least practically. Instead, as I’ll show later, he would air his gripes more obliquely, in his lyrics.
1993 Interviews with Derrick and Cris. At the time of my interviews with Derrick and Cris in 1993 Meat Puppets were in the midst of a stalemate with London Records. Forbidden Places had tanked, therefore marketing them as a straight ahead rock band with country leanings wasn’t working. The band, of course, wanted to continue making records like they always had. This meant putting whatever mélange of musical styles on the album they wanted as long as it tickled their own collective fancies. London would have none of this. After all, marketing is about focus and accessibility, not flights of fancy and self-gratification.
The problem, it seemed, was one of art versus commerce. Meat Puppets wanted to make art (that might sell product), London Records wanted to sell product (they may or may not be art). But the bottom line, being employees of a major label, was that Meat Puppets would now have to view success not solely in artistic terms, but instead “view things in terms of success or failure on a financial level, which we never really had to do before” (Cris, personal interview). And the financial level they were being asked to aim for was much greater than anything they had achieved previously.
We’re talking’ about, even the Metro [in Chicago] would only hold, say, 500 or 600 people. And you can’t be setting your sites that low. You have to be lookin’ to shows for, like, 30,000 or more if you want to be big. (Derrick, personal interview)
It wasn’t that the band was against selling records or playing larger venues, it’s just that making art and commerce come together came as a new challenge in their career. As stated by Cris:
I’m not averse to selling a bunch more records. But it doesn’t drive me crazy or anything. It never has. The goal never was to only sell records. It was to have a band and to be able to make music for a long time. It was never something I wanted to get into and cash in on. It’s just one of the only things I found that interested me, making music. And that doesn’t mean being a rock star. It’s playing the music and trying to make the two align. It’s an interesting sort of conundrum. (personal interview)
Indeed, continues Cris,
I’d love to be huge. The gear that would come with it. All the little toys that you could get. Being huge to me means unlimited supply of tape. I could really lose myself to what I really love. (personal interview)
The problem, again, was that Meat Puppets saw themselves as artists first, commercial artists second.
Bands like us who get into it mostly for music have a harder time breaking through than people who are more oriented toward the business. (Derrick, personal interview)
They were hard to sell because, as Derrick states,
our music is uncommercial at its core. We don’t even care about what it sounds like. We just care about how it fits together in the connection to our brain while we’re actually doing it. (personal interview)
Cris concurred with this sentiment when he said that “we’ve always been willing to make music without anybody getting it.”
At the same time, Cris and Derrick both felt that Meat Puppets’ music was accessible to a general audience. It wasn’t so esoteric that they couldn’t be sold. Indeed, people did buy their records and go to their shows.
We basically feel that what we do, what we’ve always done, people can like. We don’t consider ourselves to be inaccessible. We never thought that our stuff was that far out. (Derrick, personal interview)
We do fill the Metro up fairly good with people that can dig our trip. We’re not that far out or anything. (Cris, personal interview)
Along with their feelings that their band was at least moderately accessible, Cris and Derrick also recognized that their involvement in Meat Puppets was a career choice. This was how they and, importantly, Curt and his kids, made economic ends meet.
Curt has a couple of kids that are almost ten. You have to start thinking about that. When you’re a kid it’s like “Pile in the van, let’s go to the next gig. How much you wanna pay me? $10? Great!” But you start to get older and you get more responsibilities and you have to think about it. (Derrick, personal interview)
Cris again concurs, “For my brother’s kids, I would like us to be more popular” (personal interview). He just wasn’t sure at this point in the band’s career that they knew how to make fully accessible commercial music, he wasn’t sure Curt could write a mainstream hit.
And what I think about them asking us to write hit songs is that I know my brother, who’s our main song writer, is a really unique and strong artist. But I don’t know how good he’s gonna be at taking his talent and imitating Bon Jovi with it. (personal interview)
The answer to the stalemate between Meat Puppets’ artistic ambitions and London’s marketing strategy, it turns out, was Nirvana and the suddenly hot alternative genre. Once a marketing category arose the label could, in a isomorphic fashion, push Meat Puppets as a band that was like something else. They were an alternative band.
They saw all that alternative shit getting popular and they were like “Alternative!” A name had arisen for it. (Cris, personal interview)
Cris, seeing the big picture of how business works, of how marketing genres come and go (and, consequently, how Meat Puppets eclectic style can only fit into a particular genre moment for a moment), recognized alternative for what it was, “ punk rock finally coming to the surface. It’ll be gone in a couple years. And what will be next? Booger rock?” (personal interview).
In looking at Nirvana and alternative rock in 1993, Cris made a distinction between the real thing (bands that had walked the same indie path as Meat Puppets) and newer, seemingly more surface oriented bands. His criteria for the Buttholes Surfers being a deserving band as opposed to some others seems to be (A) his personal relationship with the band’s members and (b) a certain level of talent and creativity.
God, please let the Buttholes imitate Nirvana enough on this new record to sell a cajillion copies. ‘Cuz they’re sweet people and I’d love to see them make a lot of money, ‘cuz all of them have more talent, and more fuckin’ open-mindedness which, to me, equals talent to a degree, and more fuckin’ humor and a broader consideration of everything than 99% of the shit that’s on MTV. (personal interview)
Cris voices some of his band’s frustrations and his own bitterness toward Nirvana’s success and the rise of alternative in suggesting that these new bands were well thought out and isomorphically packaged , as opposed to Meat Puppets who, as artists, were a messy package of truly alternative music. To start, he suggests that Nirvana are
students of punk rock. You just distill out all the best elements of it, and it’s already getting more and more popular anyways, and you put on some cute little beads and some torn jeans and a jacket and you make it obvious how to get to it. (personal interview)
Cris went on to say that, although he liked Nirvana, he also recognized them as being a careful pop group that put out a careful record and played a “safe live show.
My point here is not to air Cris and Derrick’s dirty laundry from 1993. It is only to show how they felt about the situation their band was in. Meat Puppets was a critically acclaimed, musically adept, hard rocking band that London Records couldn’t figure-out how to sell. Then came Nirvana. Then came grunge. Then came alternative.
All of a sudden there was this new kind of hard rock which made dinosaurs out of just about everybody that was signed, that wasn’t wearing a punk rock sort of look and playing a little more aggressively. Suddenly this is the new thing, grunge or alternative. (Curt, personal interview)
Seattle became cool, a certain look (“cute little beads and torn jeans” says Cris) and sound (“a new kind of hard rock”) was selling. “All these things started adding up,” says Curt. “You could at that point say ‘Nirvana’ and it would turn heads.”
But, again, Meat Puppets didn’t see themselves as a grunge band. They may have had some grunge elements, but they saw themselves as much more. Yet they were committed to a major label path. They were committed to the challenge of selling records to a larger audience then they had before. In this respect, they were committed to playing London’s marketing game, to being a grunge band. “We were going to need to fit into a grunge bag,” says Derrick,” and “we were forced to play to this grunge audience” (personal interview).
Specifics Leading Up to the Record
It was within this context of ambiguity as to how to market the band and, ultimately, selling them as an alternative/grunge band, that Meat Puppets second album for London Records, Too High to Die, came to be made. In this section of the chapter I describe in more detail the details by which London gave the band a green light to make the record.
In the dog days between making Forbidden Places and the recording of what would become Too High to Die, Meat Puppets were running out of money. They toured the first half of 1992 and were ready to make a record, but London didn’t think they were. Rather than accepting and releasing whatever the band gave them, as had happened on SST, London would actively reject many of the demos Meat Puppets would send them.
There’s a lot of songs that are written, and once the songs are written the label generally won’t accept the first ten. We like to go in and record. On SST we’d get ten songs that we liked and then we’d go into the studio and record them and that would be that. London wants us to write three times that many songs so that there can be lots to choose from. (Derrick, personal interview, ‘93)
Or, as Cris put it, “They control you more by denial rather than trying to make you do shit” (personal interview, ’93). The band was doing what they always did, making music, and weren’t being allowed to release it on record and, thus, were not making any money. They found themselves in a situation in which they were trying to please the label, but the label wasn’t pleased.
The frustration of not getting to do what they wanted to do, of being on a label they felt wasn’t supporting their aspirations, led at least Cris and Derrick to have a bit of a defeatist attitude towards it all. Going back to 1993, both of these Meat Puppets told me they weren’t confident that London was the right label for them. Indeed, according to Cris, the gap between what the two entities wanted became so wide at one point that the band almost left London Records:
We almost got dropped. We just got sick of them. We almost dropped ourselves. Just like, “You guys don’t get it. You don’t want to try to get it. Go die. We don’t care. We’ll find somebody that does.” (personal interview, ’93)
Derrick reiterated Cris’s sentiment in equally adamant terms:
Great. Let them drop us. Who gives a shit? If that’s what it’s all about, fuck ‘em. I don’t give a damn. (personal interview, ’93)
Meat Puppets were on the back burner at London Records after the weak market showing of Forbidden Places. But in lieu of leaving the label, they took what was given them and that was to hire professional management, find an A&R person that both band and label were comfortable with, hire professional tour management (who took a significant chunk of the band’s tour receipts), and tour (with minimal financial support from the label). By the end of 1992 the band members were hurting for cash and this, of course, played into the label’s hands:
“Suddenly, here’s this band that’s been this pillar of fuckin’ idealism and ‘do it your own way’ being shoved around by the one stick that everybody gets shoved around by — financial,” Cris said. In effect, he felt the band was being told, “You can’t do your work at all. You can sit at home, or I hope you like your Circle-K job.” (A & I, 163-67)
But the band was determined to succeed; they always had been. Says Derrick,
We were committed because that’s all we did. We had committed to the path we were taking being three very strong-willed people. And it’s the same thing with sports teams who go for like the World Series or the Stanley Cup. They don’t take their eyes off of the prize. And so that’s what we did. We kept at it. (personal interview)
One thing the band did in the Fall of 1992 was record a couple of songs with Tom Werman, a producer who had scored big hits in the 1970s and ‘80s with the likes of Ted Nugent and Cheap Trick. In September they recorded “Things” (a different version of which made it on to Too High to Die) and a song called “Animal” (versions of which were released on a five-song London Records promo CD and featured on two movies, 1994’s Love and a .45 and 1995’s White Man’s Burden). However, for reasons Curt says he can’t recall, London didn’t like these demos: “It didn’t really pan out. The record company didn’t like it” (personal interview).
By the end of ‘92 the interested parties found A&R, and a compatible vision, that they both could work with and Meat Puppets went into a Phoenix studio with a local engineer and recorded a demo.
Once we finally got somebody in place who we were comfortable with, who they were comfortable with, who was in the position to reach the compromise that needed to be made and give enough assurances both to us and to them, we were able to get approval to make a demo, and we made a demo for Too High to Die in January of ’93. (Derrick, personal interview)
But the logjam didn’t end with this demo. For one thing, according to Derrick, the band went “way over budget” on the demos, which they spent a week recording. This, he says, led to a “bone of contention” with the label. Most important from the label’s standpoint was the lack of an obvious radio friendly single in the demos. They didn’t much like the sound of the original demos so they asked the band to rerecord a few of them: “Until they were certain that they heard a single that they liked, they wouldn’t give us the go ahead to write the record” (Derrick, personal interview).
London explored a few different marketing angles with the band in these days. One was to push them as a novelty band. In particular they had the band record one song four times, a song the band adamantly insisted was not to be taken seriously, at least not as a single.
We had this one song which was kind of a joke song, that was designed to be a parody of other bands, and it got sent to them as part of the usual submission of demos process, and they didn’t get that it was a joke. They just heard that it sounded like other bands. And we were like, “We’re not doing that song. It’s a parody of our contemporaries.” They made us do the song like four times before they finally gave up. (Derrick, personal interview).
Cris recalls this as a song that Derrick wrote called “Don’t Touch My Stuff.”
“(W)e recorded this song called ‘Don’t Touch My Stuff,’ with Derrick singing and playing guitar,” Cris said. “It’s a song that Derrick had written, who hadn’t written anything in years. He wrote this thing on a lark, and it was funny. He couched it in all this antimilitaristic cartoon drivel, that Derrick is wont to slant things as. It had this Nirvana kind of feel to it, like ‘Teen Spirit.’ It could have been on the record as a little Derrick song, but not as the fuckin’ single. (A&I 165, 1995)
Pushing Meat Puppets as a novelty act, of course, didn’t sit well with Curt, Cris, and Derrick who thought of themselves as serious artists.
“They wanted to push us as a joke, just like they pushed that song ‘Sam’ off the [previous] record. Like, ‘Oh, wow, listen! They sing fast!’ Well, yeah, but we’ve also got 15 years of musical history. What about us as a fuckin’ band? How about that shit that we actually do? I mean, if we were, I don’t know, the Dead Milkmen or something, it’d be one thing. But we’re not, you know?” (Cris, A&I 165, 1995)
When it became apparent that the novelty act angle wasn’t going to work, and with the band’s manager pressuring the label to let them get to work (they needed money), marketing Plan B was implemented: They were like, "Maybe we'll put out an EP of some of your older stuff done accoustically. We'll put it out on our indie imprint there at London, and not spend any money." That would have been in the Spring of '93. We were, "Okay, that's what that is. This is what they're giving us." (Curt, personal interview, 2012).
Plan B, have Meat Puppets record some of their “classic” older material acoustically and put it out on a smaller imprint of an already smaller imprint label. Band members were mixed in their enthusiasm for this project. On one end, Derrick felt “We’re screwed” (personal interview 2012). To him it seemed to signal a dead end, the label was throwing in the towel and marketing the band as an oldies act. At least one other band member agreed with Derrick,
“They asked us to re-record our old crap, said Cris, indicating that the band was fairly flabbergasted by the absurdity of this request. “They wanted us to do Up On The Sun, all acoustic. And we were like, ‘Oh, okay, so you’re gonna sell us as an oldies act? Whatever.’ It didn’t matter how we felt about it. We were broke and up against the wall. (A&I, 163, 1995).
Curt, on the other hand, went along with the idea more willingly. Indeed, he seems to give some credit to the executives at London for their prescience.
I thought it was a pretty cool idea to do these acoustic things, and they wound up later that year getting recorded by Nirvana, and they didn’t have any idea we were doing acoustic versions of those things. So maybe there was something to the record label’s thing. (personal interview, 2012)
It was during this time, in early 1993, that the band and label were still looking for someone to produce the next record. The band was suggesting all sorts of people who had produced their favorite records, people who produced Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd, producers who had recorded platinum records. But the label, inevitably caught by the gravity of isomorphism, was looking for someone “cool,” someone with punk/indie/alternative credibility. Into this void stepped Paul Leary, guitarist for Butthole Surfers, a band with unquestioningly solid punk and indie credentials.
And they were tellin’ me about it, and I just said in passing, ‘Well, hell, why don’t you let me do it?’ And they went, ‘Okay!’ I fooled somebody into thinkin’ I was cool.” (Paul Leary, A&I 164, 1995).
Not only was Paul indie cool, he and the members of Meat Puppets were close personal friends dating back a decade or more. Additionally, Paul had a fair amount of studio experience that Cris, at least, was impressed with.
Paul had been into studio shit, into the actual gear, how it worked. He got so into it. I remember this one time, they had a neat little house and they were putting a studio together and we go in there and there’s Paul doing all the welding on a patch bay. (Cris, personal interview, 2012)
Paul had also recently finished producing the Bad Livers’ debut Delusions of Banjer (Quarterstick, 1992), which Curt and Cris both liked. So Curt and Paul had been discussing the possibility of working together. In March of 1993 Curt, Cris, and Derrick attended the Butthole Surfers’ album release party for Independent Worm Saloon at the annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. It was here that Paul agreed to produce the band’s acoustic record.
So in the Spring of 1993 Meat Puppets and Paul Leary met up in Memphis at The Warehouse recording studio. As Curt remembers it they recorded acoustic versions a few songs including “Lake of Fire” and “Plateau.” At some point in the sessions, however, the band decided to record some fully electric rock ‘n’ roll, for fun if nothing else. One of these songs was “Fuck You,” a song written by Arizona/California band the Feederz. Meat Puppets included “Fuck You” as part of a set of demos that included their acoustic songs as well. A full-on psychedelic rocker, London agreed to scrap the acoustic sessions in favor of a full-length electric rock album after hearing “Fuck You,” with Leary and Meat Puppets as co-producers.[i]
Before getting down to work in the studio, however, Meat Puppets went out on tour with Soul Asylum who were touring on their hit record, Grave Dancers Union. Curt liked this as it seemed to provide a natural sort of break between the now aborted acoustic record and the now schedule full-on electric rock record. He liked the laid back environment of working at The Warehouse in Memphis, too, which is where it was decided that the album would be recorded.
We were able to inhabit the place a little bit more. I wasn’t uncomfortable at Capitol, I was just minding my own business cuz in the other room there’s Donna Summer. (personal interview, 2012)
Cris corroborates Curt’s assertion that The Warehouse in Memphis provided a more relaxed atmosphere for recording than what they had experienced a few years earlier in Hollywood, with one exception.
I was staying right out on the mighty Miss, in an extend-a-stay kind of thing, kind of a slightly beat-upish looking one, but with our balcony overlooking the river. And the studio itself was in an old converted cotton warehouse. So a big old building with big old wooden beams and a couple of studios in there, and the whole time we were doing it in the ‘B’ studio, there were these Memphis rappers who were like, you know, I mean rap. The urban black experience. There was some fucking hard-core kids in there. It was like, “Alrighty then. You kids aren’t just rapping about guns, you have them.” (Cris, personal interview, 2012)
Curt, however, suggests that the band’s relationship with the rappers was congenial to the point of playing basketball together.
There was more rap, the Bar-Kays were in one room. In the others were local dudes, rappers, like Al Kapone and his posse, Skinny Pimp, and 211. We would play basketball with these guys, play a lot of ping pong, lots of basketball because they have basketball inside. It was an old cotton warehouse so the main area was this warehouse, and then the partitioned off studio spaces, but the main area was vast so you could play basketball in there. (Curt, personal interview, 2012)
Another advantage to being in Memphis with Paul at the helm was the lack of direct label supervision. The band and Leary were given money and told to make a record. There was the occasional visit by Laurie Harbaugh, the A&R person charged with mediating between the band and the label, ”So we had to be careful and not look like we were wasting time” (Curt, personal interview, 2012).
By the time the band went into the studio to record Too High to Die, in May of 1993, Cris, Curt, and Derrick were keenly aware that London Records would like them to make a grunge/alternative album. And they weren’t necessarily averse to the idea, either. They were, after all, professional rock musicians trying to make a living doing what they loved. The key, of course, was to make the record that they wanted while also pleasing the label executives. Curt, especially, was looking to make a Meat Puppets’ record that would fit in with the current genre du jour without compromising his indie ethics: “I was definitely aware of what was being played. And what could I do that wouldn’t hurt my feelings to make that happen” (personal interview, 2012).
The answer the above quandary, for Curt, was AC/DC and 1970’s hard rock:
I saw how those productions were mirroring the basic setup that AC/DC had done, or Deep Purple sort of stuff, seventies rock that we heard on the radio a lot. And I was just like, “That’ll be cool. That’ll work with this stuff.” (personal interview, 2012)
And Curt knew how that was done:
You layer these rhythm guitars, you know, not too many of them but definitely kind of pillar them on each side and make the drums and bass heavy. Pretty simple stuff really. Putting a rhythm here, and here’s your lead, kind of identical tracks, and splitting them for the rhythms and making it loud. I just made it a heavier rock album. (personal interview, 2012)
The result of a laidback studio, a producer who was practically a member of the band, the lack of direct label supervision, and Curt figuring out how to make a grunge/alternative record was, as Derrick puts it, “the best sessions we had ever done” (Derrick, personal interview, 2012). Cris agrees, saying, “The cool thing about Too High to Die is that it was completely the record that we wanted to make” (Cris, personal interview, 2012).
There were eight months in between the recording of To High to Die and its release and the band kept busy by playing live shows in and around Phoenix and touring, and London Records kept busy by finding ways to market the record. During this time there were a few events that led to what would end up being Meat Puppets’ most successful commercial album. Two important things happened in October of 1993 that got the ball rolling. First, the band played Wavefest, a one-day rock music festival put on by radio station 96Wave in Charleston, South Carolina that drew in the tens of thousands. And not only did they play Wavefest on October 3, 1993, they headlined with Hootie and the Blowfish opening.
The record company got independent radio consultant types to come down. And here’s where you start seeing how the in-house thing works. They outsource these people who have a reputation. They get paid. They go back with their endorsements to radio stations and go, “You should push this song.” They get paid for each station that adds it, and they make a lot of money. They came to that show and we blew it out so they hopped on to endorse what we were doing. That was a big thing. (Curt, personal interview 2012)
Here, then, is where the label starts to get behind the new album in a real way. Independent radio promotions people, hired by the label to check out the band, gave a big thumbs up, telling London Records that Meat Puppets were a band worth pushing.
Serendipitusly, one month before Wavefest, in September of ’93, Nirvana released the follow-up to their smash-hit Nevermind, In Utero. Just as Forbidden Places and Nevermind were released within two months of each other, the bands’ next two albums were released within four months of each other (this time, though, In Utero is released first). Meat Puppets and Nirvana’s paths cross again right after Wavefest when Nirvana invites Meat Puppets to open a week’s worth of concert dates on their tour. For this tour Nirvana invited a number of their favorite bands, bands that had undoubtedly been influences upon Nirvana, to open for them. Breeders, Half Japanese, Jawbreaker, Mudhoney, and the standup comedian Bobcat Goldthwait each spent roughly a week with Nirvana. Meat Puppets time began on October 27 in Kalamazoo, Michigan and ended November 5 in Amherst, New York. This invitation to tour with Nirvana was another sign for London Records that Meat Puppets might be a band worth pushing. If the world’s most popular rock band gave Meat Puppets a thumbs-up, then their fans might also chip in and buy some records.
What comes after their stint on the Nirvana tour, however, elevates Meat Puppets to full-push level. The stories about how it happens vary a little, but they all suggest that during some after show partying (A) Kurt Cobain asked Curt and Cris to teach him to play some of their classic Meat Puppets II songs so he could play them on Nirvana’s upcoming MTV Unplugged special, but (B) Curt and Cris convinced Cobain that it would work better for them to actually show up to the show and play the songs with Nirvana. Cobain thought it was a great idea. The songs were technically challenging and he didn’t have a lot of free time to learn them, he would sing and Curt, Cris, Krist Noveselic, and Dave Grohl would play. However it was arranged, rumor has it that MTV wasn’t happy with Kurt’s choice of performers, Curt and Cris went on stage with Nirvana and played three songs (“Plateau,” “Lake of Fire,” and “Oh, Me”) on November 18. A month later, on December 14, the show aired on MTV.
A final piece of the puzzle for London Records in deciding to embark on a full-on marketing campaign for Meat Puppets’ new record was the discovery of a radio friendly single, “Backwater.” The push for the song as a single, according to Cris, began back in early October of ’93 at Wavefest, the show mentioned earlier at which some big wig radio promoters caught the band’s show.
These guys saw the set and said, “These guys are rockstars!” And they made the record company take another look at us, made somebody else at the record company come and take a look at the record. One of them heard “Backwater” and decided that song was something. So they made that the single. (personal interview, 2012)
“That started spreading a little bit,” agrees Curt, “like, ‘Yeah, “Backwater”.’ That’s when our manager was like, ‘Oh, that’s radio ready’” (personal interview, 2012). Derrick concurs:
Then they started putting out “Backwater” to DJs and started getting feedback from them. They liked it. And they began to call in their various and sundry favors to get us airplay. (personal interview)
And that was it. The combination of industry consultant types pushing “Backwater,” a strong performance at Wavefest, and slots on Nirvana’s In Utero tour and MTV Unplugged sealed the deal. London Records moved Meat Puppets’ new record to the top of their Spring ’94 promotion queue.
All these things started adding up. You could at that point say “Nirvana” and it would turn heads. We had the consultants on board and the promoters, and then everybody at the record company in their kind of herd-like fashion was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s ok to go over here. The herd is going over here. You don’t want to be stuck out there by yourself.” So by the time it came out in January ’94 everybody was pretty into it. (Curt, personal interview, 2012)
With a firm decision made to push the record, London Records came up with a couple of promotional ideas that, in the first instance, was unique for a Meat Puppets’ record and, in the second, rubbed the band the wrong way. First, Too High to Die is the only Meat Puppets record to this day that prominently features photographs of the band on its cover. All other Meat Puppets’ records feature pieces of art by the band or relatives of Curt, Cris, and Derrick. And though most of their records do have a picture of the band somewhere on the cover or inner sleeve, the close-up pink-tinted image of a dress-wearing Curt on this record smacks of an idea whose genesis was at an administrative level higher than the band itself.
While Curt confirms this, that the label was against using an art piece for the cover, he also says that he wasn’t upset by the labels request to use a photo. For one thing, the label, says Curt, “spent an arm and a leg on that session,” using Michael Halsband, a credentialed photographer Curt would turn to again ten years later on his collaboration with Bud Gaugh (Sublime) and Krist Novoselic (Nirvana) called Eyes Adrift. And while Curt remembers the dress wearing to be Halsband’s idea, Cris says it was the band’s.
That was us. That was us just farting around. That was a photo shoot we did up in Sedona. They didn’t ask us to do that. That was just a photo shoot we had done farting around with dresses on. (personal interview, 2012).
It was the record label’s idea, though, says Cris, to tint the cover image pink.
Overall, though, as Curt states, the band was okay with putting a photo on the record. After all, the band was allowed to choose the final picture and the label was showing all signs that they would push this record harder than any other Meat Puppets had released, and this commitment showed in the professionalism of the photo shoot.
I didn’t really mind because I was glad the record was coming out, and they let us pick the photo. We spent a lot of money. We spent probably a week shooting all around Phoenix and then went up to Sedona. It was definitely a whole shit load of pictures taken and some really cool stuff. (personal interview, 2012).
A second promotional strategy employed by the label was to solicit testimonials from prominent rockers of the time as to Meat Puppets’ influence upon them. Pasted on the jewel box of every new Too High to Die disc were the following two quotes:
“THE MEAT PUPPETS GAVE ME A COMOPLETELY DIFFERENT ATTITUDE TOWARDS MUSIC—I OWE SO MUCH TO THEM.”
“THEY’RE MY FAVORITE F**CKING BAND.”
The purpose of quotes from Cobain (Nirvana) and Pirner (Soul Asylum) was, of course, to promote Meat Puppets as progenitors of alternative rock. London put these testimonials on the record without consulting the band, and the band wasn’t too happy about it but, as with their acquiescence to the album photo, at this point they were committed to doing whatever the label thought was best to market the band: “We were disgusted by the label putting quotes from other artists on our records, but at that point we were going to do whatever” (Derrick, personal interview , 2012). Curt sums it up well when he says that he voiced his concern to the label, but was convinced it was in his band’s best interest to play along:
I think that’s the only time I ever said anything. I was like, “Oh really. That’s so cheesy.”
And they were like, “No. It’s just respect and don’t tell us how to do our business.”
And I was like, “Oh I get you. You’re trying to sell it.” (personal interview, 2012)
What Others Say About the Record
Meat Puppets made the record they wanted and they made some compromises with London in order to get their record to the market and have it promoted at the highest levels. Too High to Die was released on January 25, 1994. It was certified Gold nine months later and is still the band’s best selling record. As with most records that sell well, critical response to Too High to Die was mixed, more so than any other record they had made.
On the positive side, there are many who consider Too High to Die to be a “perfect record” (http://performermag.com/2012/02/06/file-under-unjustly-fogotten-meat-puppets-too-high-to-die/) and “the perfect album” (http://www.teenink.com/reviews/music_reviews/article/7185/Too-High-To-Die/). These are reviewers who judge the record on its own terms, as opposed to comparing it to the band’s entire catalogue. Some consider it to be “almost flawless” (http://www.epinions.com/review/musc_mu-124760/content_190394896004?sb=1), having “very few flaws” (http://sputnikmusic.com/review/429/Meat-Puppets-Too-High-To-Die/) with “not a bum note on the album” (http://performermag.com/2012/02/06/file-under-unjustly-fogotten-meat-puppets-too-high-to-die/). It’s “superb” (http://www.warr.org/puppets.html), an “amazing feat” (http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/reviews/compact_discs/meat_puppets/too_high_to_die/index.html), and “epic” (http://www.teenink.com/reviews/music_reviews/article/7185/Too-High-To-Die/), a record “No Modern Rock enthusiast should be without” (http://www.warr.org/puppets.html). One writer suggested the album’s semi-precious nature when he wrote that, “I would just wig out if my copy was lost or stolen. Nothing else, just completely flip” (http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/reviews/compact_discs/meat_puppets/too_high_to_die/index.html).
While some writers positively reviewed Too High to Die on its own merits, others compared it to their output of the last thirteen years. For instance, Jed Leigh Mosenfelder writes that the record is the band’s “most solid effort to date” (http://www.warr.org/puppets.html), while another reviewer suggests Too High to Die is “the best work you’ll ever hear out of the Meat Puppets” (http://www.epinions.com/review/musc_mu-124760/content_190394896004?sb=1). Finally, Benjamin Ricci tells us that the album contains the bands “most listenable. . .songs to date” (http://performermag.com/2012/02/06/file-under-unjustly-fogotten-meat-puppets-too-high-to-die/).
Too High to Die also received its share of negative reviews, probably more so than their other records because of its popularity. While some reviewers simply did not like much of the record, calling it “real tripe” (http://www.warr.org/puppets.html), and others didn’t like it because, well, “Alternative. Sucks.” and “a band like the freakin’ Meat Puppets defines everything bad about that broad genre” (http://metalexcess.com/2009/04/15/meat-puppets-too-high-to-die/) the most common criticism of the record seems to stem from reviewers’ disappointment at its general lack of creative material, a criticism that probably comes from the reviewers’ high expectations of the band’s creativity based on its previous seven LPs. Mark Prindle, for instance, writes that the album has “few surprises” and is “generic” (http://www.markprindle.com/meatpuppets.htm#forbidden) while another writer suggests songs on the album are “formless” and draw on “aimlessly” (http://www.epinions.com/review/musc_mu-124760/content_190394896004?sb=1). Again, it seems logical that many of these negative reviews stem from the fact that the album sold many copies; it’s a valid hypothesis that many of the reviewers had never heard of Meat Puppets before Nirvana Unplugged and “Backwater.” C’est la vie.
Some reviews mentioned Curt’s guitar playing on Too High to Die. Curt’s guitar on the album is described as “buzzing,” “moody and atmospheric,” “rugged and dark” (http://www.epinions.com/review/musc_mu-124760/content_190394896004?sb=1), “blistering” (http://performermag.com/2012/02/06/file-under-unjustly-fogotten-meat-puppets-too-high-to-die/), and “a guitar flavor that can’t be described” (http://www.teenink.com/reviews/music_reviews/article/7185/Too-High-To-Die/). But even Curt’s guitar suffers criticism on this album. Mark Prindle states that the record is full of “(j)ust a bunch of over-‘heroic’ guitar riffs that are okay, I suppose” (http://www.markprindle.com/meatpuppets.htm#forbidden).
There were still, of course, the usual jabs at Curt’s vocals, even though he took a few voice lessons in preparation for the record. One reviewer, for instance, writes that the song “Why?” might have worked, “if Curt could sing” (http://www.warr.org/puppets.html), while another mentions how his vocals “rasp and crack beyond forgiveness” (http://www.epinions.com/review/musc_mu-124760/content_190394896004?sb=1).
As per the discipline, reviewers did their best to fit Too High to Die into an already established and easily recognizable genre. But it wasn’t easy to do. On the one hand, in line with the contemporary popularity of grunge, the album is seen as a “competent alternative album” (http://www.epinions.com/review/musc_mu-124760/content_190394896004?sb=1). On the other hand, numerous writers recognized a definite country and/or folk element to the record. It is variously described as punk-country, country rock, having a country twang, folk rock, folk pop, pseudo folk, it has songs that “lean very much to the folk side” (http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/reviews/compact_discs/meat_puppets/too_high_to_die/index.html) with a folk harmony and folky twinge.
Finally, some reviewers fell back upon the only solid, although admittedly general, genre classification that any Meat Puppets’ record can accurately have, “rock.” It is reviewed as solid rock, terrific rock, hard rocking, having hard rock songs.
Some reviewers point out the record’s commercial success, mentioning that it went gold while others paid special attention to those testimonial stickers placed on the CD jewel cases. Still others focused on the influence that Meat Puppets’ appearance on Nirvana Unplugged had on the solid sales of Too High to Die.
“And then, God said ‘Let there be Backwater’” (http://www.epinions.com/review/musc_mu-124760/content_190394896004?sb=1). This statement represents a main focus of many reviewers, “Backwater.” Almost universally writers praised this song. Some focused on its “beautiful guitar work” (http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/reviews/compact_discs/meat_puppets/too_high_to_die/index.html), while others mentioned its “super-trippy video” (http://performermag.com/2012/02/06/file-under-unjustly-fogotten-meat-puppets-too-high-to-die/). Whatever the focus, most reviewers liked “Backwater.” Even Metal Misfit, from metalexcess.com, the writer that mentions how much he hates alternative and how Meat Puppets are a prime example of his hatred of alternative, states that there is “ONE positive thing about this album, “Backwater” is a really good song.” (http://metalexcess.com/2009/04/15/meat-puppets-too-high-to-die/)
Despite the delays in making the record and the frustrations Curt, Cris, and Derrick felt toward the executives at London Records, all three Meat Puppets agree that Too High to Die was the record they wanted to make. Once the recording began they were largely left alone. The studio and lodgings were comfortable and they made the record with an old friend, Paul Leary. As already mentioned, a month before the record’s release Nirvana Unplugged aired on MTV. Shortly after this Kurt Cobain killed himself, no doubt influencing sales of Too High to Die in a positive direction. These events, combined with tours with Stone Temple Pilots and Blind Melon and the radio success of “Backwater” led to the best selling record of the band’s career. Too High to Die went Gold in October, 1993.
But success wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. These same tours and the success they engendered brought the band into contact with the dark side of rock and roll groupies. After show parties were filled with the worst kind of “fun,” and Cris chose to indulge wholeheartedly in the omnipresent drug taking that accompanied them. It was during this time also that the Kirkwood’s mother became seriously ill and, eventually, died. Cris was her main caretaker and her death hit him hard. He chose even more drugs as his companion in her wake.
The ups and downs of these last couple years of the original Meat Puppets are evident in their last record together. Darkness, death, and “no fun” permeate No Joke! like no other record they made prior to or after. The next chapter looks at these last turbulent months.