Up on the Sun
Meat Puppets II was recorded in early 1983, mixed in late ’83, and released to the public in early 1984. Its follow-up, Up on the Sun, the band’s third full-length record, was recorded and mixed in just three days: January 26-28, 1985. It was released in March of that same year. Much happened in the two years between these two landmark albums. First, their living arrangements, and thus their playing arrangements, changed. Second, the songwriting, playing, and recording skills of the band and its members increased dramatically.
The result was an album, Up on the Sun, that showed a band that had made a clean cut, at least in the recording studio, from their hardcore punk genesis. It’s a musically solid record featuring intricate interplays between Cris’s bass, Curt’s guitar, and Derrick’s steady rhythms. Lyrically, the album finds Curt fully realizing his oblique writing style with a number of songs being ambiguous and/or nonsensical. Structurally, the songs are often psychedelic strings of metaphors mixing senses and colors to create surreal images. Topically, the most consistent theme on the record is one of escape from conventional reality into alternate places, reached through drugs and other ways.
The main factor that influenced the lives of the band members at this point was the birth of Curt’s twins in the Fall of ‘83: Elmo Isaac Dillinger Dean Samuel Sinbad Kirkwood and Katherine Louisa St. Elmo Amelia Violet Presley Kirkwood (http://meatpuppets.com/puppets/phoenix-new-times-weekly-october-1983/). According to Derrick, things began to get “a little bit more tense” and “a little bit weird” at the house out on the edge of Phoenix shared by he, Curt, and Cris as the twins’ births grew nearer. For the first few months after the release of Meat Puppets II but before the twins’ births, the band members hung-out, got stoned, and honed their craft, as before. With the impending births closing in, however, the Kirkwoods’ mother sold the shared house, bought a new one for Curt, Cris, their girlfriends, and the twins, and kindly informed Derrick he would have to find other living arrangements.
Moving houses was a regular occurrence at this point. As a band of young men who partied pretty hard, houses tended to take a beating.
We trashed that house and moved to another one. My mom was a realtor. She owned the house that we were living in when my kids were born, and we ruined that so she got us another rental which we ruined, and we got ourselves this nicer rental with a pool and horse pastures. I think they sold that. (Curt, personal interview)
At the break-up of the “party” house that Meat Puppets had been living in for the past year, Derrick moved back to his mother’s house on the East side of Phoenix in Paradise Valley, while the Kirkwoods moved into a “converted trailer kind of place” (Derrick) in a “not so good area” for awhile, and then to a house a few miles away from Derrick near the Paradise Valley Mall. This, of course, changed the practicalities of the band’s rehearsal schedule. For one thing, rehearsals happened at the Kirkwoods home and Derrick did not have a car, so he relied on rides from the brothers or his mother or, as often as not, he rode the bus.
According to Derrick, changing living conditions and practice spaces made for more focused sessions. While living together the three Puppets would rehearse haphazardly whenever they happened to be in the mood which, given their dedication, was quite often. Now that they lived apart, however, they had to make better use of rehearsal time. As time became more precious, says Derrick, “rehearsals got more intensified” (personal interview).
In the second half of 1983, after recording Meat Puppets II and its release, Meat Puppets never stopped working. Curt was in a fertile writing period so, instead of waiting around for the release of II they began working on new songs as well as gigging and touring. Says Derrick:
We’re just in an environment where we’re always working. Curt was always working on stuff. He was woodshedding and woolgathering as they say in the writer’s world. He wasn’t necessarily putting everything down on paper. We weren’t necessarily getting together and focusing on stuff. We were just learning songs, one at a time, and he was formulating his next moves (personal interview).
At this point the band was still benefitting from an inheritance left to the Kirkwoods by their grandfather (an inheritance that would last until 1986). Along with helping Curt support his new family, the inheritance allowed band members to eschew day jobs and continue to focus on their rock career. As Derrick says, in 1983 he, Curt, and Cris “basically sat around and smoked pot and worked on our music” (personal interview). Much of what would come out on Up on the Sun was conceived at this time. Curt’s vision for the albums was formulated here and some lo-fi cassette demos were made.
Meat Puppets considered their eponymous debut to be successful and, given the obvious creative strides they made on the second record, had every reason to believe that II was even better and they were eager to promote its release. To this end they went on a six-week American tour with SST label-mates Black Flag and the Nig-Heist. This tour served to solidify band members’ vision of themselves as unique and distinct from the hardcore punk crowds and sounds for which they were playing. Meat Puppets II, for one thing, was released in the midst of the tour to strong reviews, including a four-star rating in Rolling Stone magazine. Yet they weren’t seeing many of their records in stores around the country while Black Flag records seemed to be stocked in abundance. Similarly, they were feeling artistically constrained by being lumped in with the heavier sounds of Black Flag and sophomoric antics of the Nig-Heist. With the tour at an end, Meat Puppets were “looking to move as far ahead of the pack as we could” (Derrick interview).
It was in the Summer of 1984 that the Kirkwoods moved to Paradise Valley, near the mall, just a few miles from where Derrick was living with his mother. In the Fall the band rented an RV and did a headlining tour of their own (they had been the support act for Black Flag). Upon returning to Phoenix sometime after Thanksgiving of ’84, they decided it was time to record the follow-up to Meat Puppets II. In an attempt to avoid replicating the long wait that occurred between recording and mixing Meat Puppets II, and in true DIY fashion, they began recording at the home of Darrell Demarco, their soundman, with the intent of doing the entire album themselves.
The Kirkwoods rented the tape deck from a local music shop. Our sound man already had the board, mikes, available space, etc. so we set up there (Derrick interview).
The band spent about a month at the end of 1984 recording. However, they weren’t getting the sounds they wanted down on tape. Derrick, for instance, didn’t like the way the drums were sounding and, overall, the band was feeling that the sound was too lo-fi and muddy. The final nail in the album’s DIY coffin was when the recorder was taken back: “The music shop sold the tape recorder some time around New Years, thus ending the project” (Derrick, email). They did, however, get some “very good” demos out of the sessions and, importantly, an idea of how the songs should be arranged.
With the DIY recording sessions over the band decided to go back to the familiar, they would record with Spot at Total Access Studios in Redondo Beach, California; the same engineer from their first two albums and the same studio used for Meat Puppets II. This time, however, to avoid the delay between recording and mixing, they blacked-out the studio for three days, Friday through Sunday, January 26 through 28, 1985, with the intent of finishing the entire album in this time. And they had reason to believe they could do it. By virtue of having attempted to record the album on their own, they knew the songs well and they rehearsed the songs well before going to California.
There were a few hitches in the recording process, though. Most notably, as he encountered throughout his career with the band, Derrick had trouble getting the sounds he wanted out of his drums. Curt and Cris grew impatient with this. At one point Derrick left the studio in frustration (he says for half an hour, Cris remembers it being more like five hours). In the end, Derrick had to simplify many of his drum parts in order to get consistent audio quality. Because of this streamlining of arrangements, however, says Derrick, the record has an immediate and up-tempo feel to it. In the end, they finished the record in the three days.
We were able to get the whole thing done by the end of Sunday night: basics, overdubs, vocals, mixing, cutting, sequencing and it was done. That was definitely an incredible thing for us to do. (Derrick, personal interview)
Up on the Sun was released in March of 1985 to, again, critical acclaim. Critics and band members alike saw it as yet another creative step forward, leaving behind the country punk of Meat Puppets II and embracing a poppier, possibly more accessible, set of songs.
What Others Say
After the nearly unanimous critical praise that accompanied Meat Puppets II there were great expectations awaiting Meat Puppets’ third album, Up on the Sun, and, for the most part, the band didn’t disappoint. Joe Carducci, author and one-time co-owner of SST Records (the label that released Up on the Sun), saw the record as “fully realized” (A&I p. 204) while Greg Prato in the All Music Guide to Rock calls it “another masterpiece” (All Music Guide, p. 719).
As might be expected, most of the reviews of Up on the Sun used its predecessor as a comparison. Prato, again from the All Music Guide, praised the new record as a move forward from their previous masterpiece while Sputnick Music hails it as “an amazing album and just as good as its predecessor” (http://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/47362/Meat-Puppets-Up-on-the-Sun/). There are those, however, such as Precious Roy from the blog Dead On, who see Up on the Sun as “discombobulating” and “out of place, a “lateral move” rather than a progressive one (http://deadon.wordpress.com/2007/03/27/upon-further-review-meat-puppets-up-on-the-sun/). For avid fans and critics, Up on the Sun and Meat Puppets II remain, as blogger Mike states, the band’s two essential recordings; they debate over which one “is the band’s strongest” (http://brooklynrocks.blogspot.com/2012/01/meat-puppets-up-on-sun-cd-review-mvd.html). Up on the Sun was a turning point in Meat Puppet’s musical career. It “cemented the band’s reputation as sonic chemists and maturing songwriters” (Linblad, A&I p. 3), they were a band that “had learned to work as a unit” (http://www.allmusic.com/album/up-on-the-sun-r709034/review).
If Meat Puppets took a step away from punk and hardcore on Meat Puppets II, they made the break clean with Up on the Sun. The material on this record is a “jazzy, jam-based trip-out” (A&I p. 6), lush and “psychedelic” (Rough Guide), proving that “not only weren’t they punks, they could easily pass for hippies” (http://www.allmusic.com/album/up-on-the-sun-r709034/review). Influences identified on the record range from Captain Beefheart to “proto-Phish” (http://deadon.wordpress.com/2007/03/27/upon-further-review-meat-puppets-up-on-the-sun/), “almost Rush level” (http://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/47362/Meat-Puppets-Up-on-the-Sun/), a punk “Jerry Garcia” (Trouser Press) and “the Grateful Dead” (http://brooklynrocks.blogspot.com/2012/01/meat-puppets-up-on-sun-cd-review-mvd.html). Hardcore punk or not, Up on the Sun, is cited as “the most impressive record any hardcore band. . .has made” (A&I, p. 298).
One thing Meat Puppets did learn from punk rock, writes Mark Deming, and carried through on to Up on the Sun, “was to get to the point” (http://www.allmusic.com/album/up-on-the-sun-r709034/review). The album, he writes, is “remarkably tight” and “full of energy and purpose.” Most of this tightness and purpose, of course, can be attributed to the band having prepared and rehearsed the songs before entering the studio.
The songwriting on the record is praised as being “unbelievably smart” (http://www.markprindle.com/meatpuppets.htm#uppie), filled with “memorable melodies” and “musical unpredictability” (A&I p. 42) while the production creates an album that is “beautifully textured” (http://www.warr.org/puppets.html), making “them shine” (http://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/47362/Meat-Puppets-Up-on-the-Sun/).
It was with the release of Up on the Sun that a consensus developed concerning the musical prowess of the members of Meat Puppets; they were good. Specifically, the interplay between Curt’s guitar and Cris’s bass is often singled-out for praise, “it’s some of the best i (sic) have ever heard” (http://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/47362/Meat-Puppets-Up-on-the-Sun/) is not an uncommon sentiment. Derrick was keeping pace with the Kirkwood brothers, “pumpin’ out the uptempo beats left and lefter to keep such mature music moving quickly” (http://www.markprindle.com/meatpuppets.htm#uppie).
Taken as a whole, the original (1981-1995) Meat Puppets’ catalogue of music leans toward the darker side of the human condition: hard, grungy music accompanied by lyrics focused on the existentially meaningless nature of being alive. But with its up-tempo, jazzy, finger-picking guitar, melodically noodling bass-lines, snappy percussion, and fanciful lyrics, however, not a few have pointed to Up on the Sun as the band’s happy album: it is described as “frequently beautiful” (A&I p. 298), “joyous,” “their most purely pleasurable work” (http://www.allmusic.com/album/up-on-the-sun-r709034/review), “one of the best feel good albums ever made,” “happy music for great ass times,” and, well, and album that “just makes me really happy as ***, like i have to start dancing” (http://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/47362/Meat-Puppets-Up-on-the-Sun/).
Any criticisms of the record tended to focus on Curt’s vocals, something that has followed him throughout his career. No less than three times in one three-paragraph piece for the Rolling Stone Album Guide, for example, J.D. Considine mentions Meat Puppets’ “haphazard vocals,” the fact that “they can’t” sing, and that, in the end, “the Kirkwoods may yet learn to sing” (p. 465). Mark Prindle uses language that is no less direct in referring to the vocals on Up on the Sun:
unfortunately the vocals are pretty abominably hideous as either Curt or both Curt and Cris have given up warbling and screaming to attempt actual SINGING which they aren't too good at yet and generally sing flat and miss lots of notes, to such a degree that my wife made fun of them during the first song (which incidentally features by far the worst vocals on the album, so don't judge it on that track alone!) (http://www.markprindle.com/meatpuppets.htm#uppie).
While most comments and criticisms of Up on the Sun focus on the musicianship of the band, some people do mention Curt’s lyrics. As with the comments about the lyrics on Meat Puppets II, the comments on this album skip any detailed analyses for rather superficial mentions of their weirdness. Wilson and Allroy, for instance, suggest that “the lyrics run the gamut from the ridiculous (‘Swimming Ground,’ ‘Buckethead’) to the engagingly poetic (title track, ‘two rivers’)” (http://www.warr.org/puppets.html). Similarly, Sputnickmusic suggests that the lyrics are good, but it’s the music that makes the album: “the lyrics are crazy and cool but who cares about the lyrics when the musicianship is this good” (http://www.sputnikmusic.com/review/47362/Meat-Puppets-Up-on-the-Sun/).
What Puppets Say
So there were two years between the recording of Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun. During this time the band went on a few tours, the most notorious of which was the Spring of 1984 tour with Black Flag and the Nig Heist. Also, Derrick, Curt, and Cris moved around the Phoenix valley a few times, sometimes living together, sometimes apart. But the band kept rehearsing, Curt kept writing songs, and, most importantly for the creation of the new record, they attempted to record the album on their own, which allowed them to become familiar with the songs. The result was an album completely recorded and mixed in three days at Total Access Studios in Redondo Beach, California.
We knocked it out in the first day or two and we lived at the studio. We didn’t leave. Spot and I, especially, just hung in there and took little naps on the floor next to the sound board and it was done. (Curt, personal interview)
It was during their Spring ‘84 tour that the members of Meat Puppets began to formulate a conception of themselves as truly separate from the hardcore punk scene that was building around Black Flag. As opposed to the more arty punk scene in Los Angeles where Meat Puppets first began, where the emphasis was on individuality and creativity, the fans that followed Black Flag at this point become uniform. As Cris says, a “batch of kids suddenly came up who were all into Doc Martins and skanking and being bald.” (personal interview). Additionally, these fans were into a “hardcore” type of music: loud, fast, and aggressive. And although Meat Puppets could play as fast as anyone, they envisioned themselves as something more, as a rock band generally, not just a punk rock band.
Even with this broader vision of themselves as a rock band, Meat Puppets were still playing the hardcore punk circuit, playing to hardcore punk fans and, not going over so well: “The punkers always hated us. But those were the only places we played shows.” (Cris, personal interview). And, to be honest, Curt, Cris, and Derrick did harbor a certain amount of punk attitude even if they saw their music going somewhere else. To this end, they began to goad their audiences, affectively punk rocking the punkers. One example of this was at a show from this time period at which the band opened for Suicidal Tendencies, a band which epitomized the new louder-faster rules type of hardcore/speed metal hybrid. As Suicidal Tendencie’s fans called for Meat Puppets to play faster and harder, Curt started singing a mid-tempo rambling ballad about his daughter, a slowdown of the music in direct response to the fans’ wishes. The song, of course, was “Up on the Sun,” the title track to their upcoming album. “So,” says Derrick, “Up on the Sun has its core in that tension between us and the punk audience.” (personal interview).
Furthermore, the members of Meat Puppets came from different backgrounds and expressed a different view of the world than many of their hardcore brethren. As Henry Rollins, lead singer for Black Flag at the time of their 1984 tour with Meat Puppets, states in his journal from the period:
4.2.84 New Orleans, LA: The Meat Puppets are a great band but they are children. They think that everyone owes them something. It’s funny to see them deal with things as the rich kids that they are. (Rollins, p. 84)
Curt doesn’t disagree with Rollins’ assessment of the influence Meat Puppets’ middle-class upbringings had on their music; they weren’t interested in playing exclusively loud fast punk rock: “We just weren’t that aggressive, we weren’t that pissed off. I mean, we were more than pissed off—it was psychosis full-bloom—but it was just beyond emotion” (Curt, A&I p. 307).
If Curt was beginning to show his leadership role on Meat Puppets II, his position is undisputed among the members by the time they get to Up on the Sun. As Derrick says,
I wouldn’t even say it’s a leadership role because for Curt it’s really about Curt. To him, he wouldn’t say that there’s a difference between Curt Kirkwood and The Meat Puppets. He wouldn’t say, “I’m a member of the Meat Puppets.” He would say it’s one and the same. (personal interview)
Although Cris does have two co-writing credits on the album (“Maiden’s Milk” and “Animal Kingdom”) Curt is responsible for the final arrangements, it was Curt who wrote the songs, it was Curt who didn’t leave the studio during the recording session.
As for the finished product, Up on the Sun is generally seen as Meat Puppets’ lightest record. The reasons for this are varied. One reason, Curt suggests, might have to do with the drugs he, Cris, and Derrick took during the recording session. Rather than LSD (Meat Puppets) or MDA (Meat Puppets II), Up on the Sun was made primarily under the influence of nothing stronger than beer and pot, drugs that Curt feel give it a more relaxed feel.
Another, probably more realistic, reason for Up on the Sun’s lighter feel had to do with the band’s conscious movement away from hardcore punk and into a more mainstream competitive market. Curt, especially, began to see himself and the band as members of something beyond punk, as members of the larger rock and roll music world and, thus, as a songwriter, as someone who wrote songs for a broad audience.
I came to the realization that my competition wasn’t in the same genre, or it wasn’t a genre, or there wasn’t any competition. I realized if you look at things that way, then what you’re really doing is throwing yourself out there with anything else that anybody records, and therefore it’s probably on a par with that in some people’s eyes and I started looking at it in that way in my own eyes. Like, “Well I’m not really writing punk rock songs, I’m writing songs the same way anybody else does, whether it’s Prince or whoever.” That opened my eyes up, made the playing field a lot bigger (Curt, personal interview, pp. 4 & 5).
Meat Puppets’ influences at the time reflected their desired movement into the realm of popular rock music and away from the confines of hardcore punk, and these influences, as Curt, Cris, and Derrick say, can be found on the more pop oriented sounds of Up on the Sun. Eighties contemporaries such as Prince, REM, and Duran Duran, for example, are mentioned multiple times by the band. As Derrick suggests, the band made a conscious decision to make a pop oriented record:
We were like, “We’re going to make indie dance music with Meat Puppets flair. And were going to be clean sounding and we’re not going to be alt-country. It was a post-Duran Duran, post-REM kind of record, Up on the Sun is (personal interview).
These same bands influenced Curt as the songwriter in the band: “I was pretty into Prince at the time, and Bruce Springsteen, and REM, stuff that was popular at that time (personal interview). Similarly, Cris points to Mike Mills of REM and John Taylor of Duran Duran as direct influences upon his playing on Up on the Sun:
I really dug what Mills was doing in REM. It was a cool use of the bass that was reminiscent of the bassists that I love. There was the McCartney element there. It was singing bass lines. Melodic bass lines that are a little sub-melody support thing within a standing chord that the guitar players arpeggiated. And you know who else I really dug was John Taylor from Duran Duran. So you listen to some of that funkier octaving, you know, I’m going for root octave and I’m going “[makes bass noises].” There’s a bit of John Taylor in there (personal interview).
As a result of these pop music influences upon the members of Meat Puppets, and also as a result of the band being well-rehearsed (as a result of their aborted attempt at self-recording), Up on the Sun is a surprisingly light (as opposed to heavy) record. According to Derrick, the move to lighter and poppier was gradual and can be witnessed by listening to earlier self-recordings of the songs that make it onto Up on the Sun:
The songs on Up on the Sun underwent a lot of transformation. If you listen to the bonus tracks you can tell that the songs started out as a kind of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath vibe and they were more slowed down, a little grungier, a little heavier, and then once we ditched that and honed them down to a three piece core that was more up tempo and not quite so heavy. It was conceived to be heavier than it ended up being. We were listening to a lot of Zeppelin and guitar seventies bands and then, again, the more danceable sound of the mid-early eighties. Your Duran Durans and Michael Jacksons begin to penetrate more (personal interview).
This movement to a more pop oriented sound is evidenced in the structure of the songs.
The songs are short and have more of a pop structure. They have intricate parts but they’re not designed to showcase. It was better integrated so you got interesting instrumental parts budded to songs that they fit in rather than having a five minute solo song (Derrick, personal interview).
In typical nonchalant fashion, Curt suggests there was no intention to have Up on the Sun be of any particular style or genre, it was simply him trying to be idiosyncratic, to make a record pure to his vision: “I don’t think it was supposed to be intentionally poppy, I was just trying to get outside of style if anything” (personal interview). All-in-all, then, Up on the Sun is a relatively light record by a band known to explore some fairly dark themes throughout their career. As both Curt and Derrick suggest, maybe the answer is as simple as the drugs (or lack thereof) the band members were taking (or not) during the recording process
It’s funny. You think of The Meat Puppets as quirky and you think of some of the records as darker than others, but they’re all pretty dark. And that one seems to be lighter in a lot of respects. Certainly we were probably taking a little less acid with the infants around. You have to assume that the biggest drug that Curt was on during that period was lack of sleep (Derrick, personal interview).
Another important distinction between Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun that shows the band’s progression in the studio was the recording process itself, especially Curt’s guitars: “We recorded the whole thing direct guitar. I don’t think we used an amplifier on that whole album” (Curt, personal interview). Additionally, Curt learned something about overdubs in making MPII and attempting to home record Up on the Sun. The result was a thickly layered album:
There was maybe one or two overdubs on Meat Puppets II. That was pretty much just a straight take, and put on a few acoustic guitars or a lead here and there. Up on the Sun had three, four, five guitars on a song, at least two or three on a lot of them. That was fun, understanding they don’t do all of this at one time. I didn’t know. We started figuring it out on Meat Puppets II (Curt, personal interview).
So the band’s third album was the one on which “we kind of figured it out. . .how to mess around with production when we produced Up on the Sun” (Curt, A&I p. 123). Curt credits the record’s engineer/producer Spot with giving him the room to find the sound he wanted. Spot was hands-off, which was to Curt’s liking: “He made it really easy to get exactly what I wanted. He had no opinion” (Curt, A&I p. 108).
As a result of the band’s intense preparation and of their accumulated familiarity with studio recording and understanding of the recording process itself, Up on the Sun is a more coherent set of songs than either of the band’s previous records, which isn’t to say it’s better, though it is consistently mentioned as the favorite album of Meat Heads. "And that's like [most] people's favorite record of ours. Whereas Meat Puppets II was more varied, more difference from song to song, in instrumentation and arrangement. On Up on the Sun, each cut is arranged real similarly, to streamline the process" (Derrick, A&I p. 157).
In the end all three Meat Puppets are fond of Up on the Sun. It's a record that is unique in their repertoire for its pop structures and technical virtuosity. Curt has "always thought it was a pretty different albums for us, one that stands out. I love the sound of it" (A&I, p. 247). In discussing the musical abilities of the band at the time, Cris says, "the band is an entity unto itself" (Cris, personal interview) at this point, an entity with few peers.
Up on the Sun found Meat Puppets continuing their push through new artistic boundaries. Touring with Black Flag, the success of Meat Puppets II, and changes in the band members’ living situations (Curt becoming the father of twins, Derrick moving back home with his mother) served to light a fire of purpose under the band. The album, voted Meat Puppets’ best by an online survey, is musically and lyrically stunning. These are musicians who have found a voice playing songs written by a songwriter/lyricist who is on top of his game.