Too High to Die: an Interview With Curt Kirkwood

Photo:”Too High to Die:Meet the Meat Puppets” by Greg Prato      Photo courtesy of Greg Prato

An introduction by Greg Prato, author of “Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets”:

“I decided to write the book because I’ve been consistently listening to the Meat Puppets since the spring of 1992, and they remain one of my favorite all-time rock bands. And it always puzzled me as to why they seem left out each time a documentary or book comes out on either the ’80s punk/underground or ’90s alt-rock movements, as they issued some of the best all-time albums for both genres. I became friendly w/ Curt Kirkwood over the years, as I had interviewed him several times for sites/mags about his latest projects. After a particular intense Meat Puppets listening binge about 2 years ago, I decided that it would be great for my next music book to be about the Puppets. I got in touch w/ their manager, he dug the idea, and the rest is history.

Again, I can’t stress how great and timeless the Meat Puppets’ music is. If you’re not familiar with their music outside of “Backwater” and the songs Nirvana covered for ‘Unplugged,’ you really should check out the albums ‘Meat Puppets II,’ ‘Up on the Sun,’ ‘Too High to Die,’ and their latest, ‘Lollipop.’ That’s another mark of a truly great artist – they’ve been around for decades, but meanwhile their latest album (released last year) contains some of their best-ever songs. A definite rarity amongst most long-running bands. I’m really looking forward to hearing their next album, which I hear they are currently writing. I also saw them live last fall, and they can still deliver the goods live – in fact, I think the on-stage vocal harmonies between Curt and Cris Kirkwood may be the best they’ve ever been.

What has made all the hard work re: the book so worth it is that I’ve received nice notes from Curt Kirkwood, Cris Kirkwood, and Shandon Sahm saying how much they enjoyed the book after reading it, and actually learned things they didn’t know from it! Also what was awesome was that the group’s original drummer, Derrick Bostrom, had some really nice things to say about it on his site:http://meatpuppets.com/puppets/greg-prato-meets-the-meat-puppets/

Lastly, re: the book’s content, I tried to balance the group’s history for people that may not have been that familiar with it, as well as with interesting stories, facts, and insight from the band and from friends of other bands that was not well known. I think I’ve succeeded in doing so – I really believe that both the casual or new fan will get a kick out of it as much as a fan that’s been listening to them since 1982.”

Formed in January 1980 in Phoenix, Arizona, The Meat Puppets have influenced various high profile rock bands such as Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement. The group’s original lineup was Curt Kirkwood (guitar/vocals), his brother Cris Kirkwood (bass guitar) and Derrick Bostrom (drums). The Kirkwood brothers met Bostrom while attending Brophy Prep High School in Phoenix, Arizona.

One of the more notable groups on the roster of SST Records (who released most of their albums), the Meat Puppets started as a punk band, of sorts.  However, like most of their SST peers, the Meat Puppets established their own unique style:deftly blended punk with hints of country and even psychedelic, always showcasing Curt Kirkwood’s unique voice on lead vocals..

The Meat Puppets later gained prominent exposure when the Kirkwood brothers served as guest musicians on Nirvana’s appearance on the MTV program “MTV Unplugged” in 1993. The band’s 1994 album Too High to Die Too became their most successful release. The band broke up twice (in 1996 and 2002) but reunited again in 2006.

Last year, rock music historian Greg Prato, a long time fan of the band, published the bio Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets, giving fans something to celebrate: the very first official, definitive bio on The Meat Puppets ever written. Engaging, honest and intimate…and often just plain hilarious…it’s a must read.

From his bustling kitchen in Austin, Texas, Curt Kirkwood had this to say to The Los Angeles Beat:

Recently, I interviewed another artist who, when asked how he felt about the bio he had co-written, said that it made him feel like his life actually made sense for the first time ever. When you read your new bio (Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets by Greg Prato) did it have a similar affect on yourself?

No (laughs).  My life already made sense.  It doesn’t really affect me that way; it more makes me feel detached.  It’s surreal.

There’s a lot of talk still going on about a Meat Puppets documentary that’s in the works.  Can you tell readers what’s happening with that, and if you and Cris are involved with it?

Well, we were in it; we were definitely compliant. A buddy of mine and his wife were makin’ it, and then they got divorced, so it (the documentary) went into limbo.

Derrick Bostrom (original Meat Puppets drummer) was quoted years ago as saying about the band: “We’re not hardcore but we have a hard core.”  Do you agree with his assessment?

Yeah, I always thought that was a great thing that he said that.  He said that really early on, because then it was kinda a requirement to be “hardcore” as a punk rock band, and we liked punk rock but we weren’t really “punk rockers” or anything; we just liked the music.  So we weren’t really “hardcore.”

You’ve been quoted as saying: “I feel that living in Phoenix and coming out of there allowed us to be ourselves, no matter what.”  Can you elaborate/explain what you meant by that statement?

Phoenix is kinda like an island in the middle of nowhere really, even though it’s big. So it’s enclosed: you get to the edges and it’s done. In that sense, culture comes in but it really also doesn’t have much of a culture because the desert scene seems to be the culture there, if you really pay attention. It’s not much of a human culture; you have to make your own.

Besides your band, who else was prevalent on the Phoenix music scene at that time and how did they compare with what you saw happening on the LA music scene?

They were interwoven to a degree.  There was a band called Monitor that had a hit on KROQ.  Kind of a novelty band I would say, but they were really good and we liked them; they were friends of ours.  Then there were The Feederz that we liked too.  It wasn’t a huge scene but it was pretty tight; it was a small group of people.  A bunch of them had gone over to LA like Don Bolles (drummer for The Germs) and then David Wiley from The Human Hands. Our friends from LA started getting us to go over there to do shows right away, so we’re still pretty tight together. We love the LA punk scene like Black Flag and Fear.  There’s a lot more going on there than in Phoenix. We kinda made our rounds, then started going there pretty early to play shows with all the bands that were there in LA.

With so much of the band’s early songs, drugs always seemed to have a strong association. How much did the drugs actually play an active part?

Well…I would say with us being so young they were definitely a little bit there, but it wasn’t a requirement (laughs). It was just a…you know, something kids do when they’re young and starting a band.

How did you originally hook up with SST Records?

Well, um…let’s see, well actually…(Curt’s dog suddenly begins barking loudly) hang on a second, he’s trying to jump! I hate it when they do that when I’m trying to do this! (to his dog) Cut it out!

Well, we opened for Black Flag when they came over and played The Phoenix and we played with them. Then pretty much right about then Greg (Ginn) asked if we wanted to make a record. It was pretty simple.

What was the biggest impact on the band when it signed with a major label?

Well, umm…well right away it wasn’t apparent because the first record didn’t do that great. The second record on a major did really well. For starters, we were getting a lot of money just to make a record and we got to experience having a real producer for the first time and seeing the result and that was a real eye opener. Then we started to see what it was like to actually…have someone really push the stuff and try to go for getting it on the radio and getting big sales.  Just seeing inside the big corporate music thing was an eye opener.  Then we started…when the second record came out…um…it just kinda started really getting a lot more…getting a steady amount of attention with that one. It was like “Okay, now you are more famous!” and I wouldn’t say it was overwhelming but it was definitely just…consumed!

As you look back, how was the band affected when Nirvana took the Meat Puppets on tour and on MTV Unplugged?

That definitely…I think…initially the effect there was it got people…umm…it was right before the second record came out and people were liking it at the record company. Once we had an association with those guys and they took us on their show the people at the record company were like “Oh! This must be cool and they must not be the freaks that we thought we were dealing with!” You know, it gives you some instant credibility at the label. It didn’t have a huge impact on us in the public eye right away because the thing didn’t come out for awhile and it wasn’t a record until after Kurt was gone. So that was the initial impact: the record company took us more seriously and allowed us to have the success that we did with the second record; got ‘em  focused.

Of all your many albums, which is your favorite and why…or do you even have a favorite?

Yeah, it’s kinda like that. I don’t really have a favorite. I have things I like about all of them. I’m too cloe to them to be able to say whether they are even any good. I just have an affinity for them because I worked on them and a lot of the time I don’t even remember the work I put into them. So that’s kind of cool because I’ll listen and go “WOW! I made THAT?” but I’m not that sentimental about them.

What is your advice for up and coming musicians who want to achieve the best possible sound from their instrument?

Well, you gotta practice! That’s the best advice I can give: practice.  And relax; you gotta relax. That doesn’t mean you can’t be energetic, but just relaxed in your mind about it and be able to approach it objectively and get the most out of it. That’s it, really.  It’s such a subjective thing, the tone and all that stuff too.  So what some people think sounds great…it’s kinda hard to give advice. I’m not a very good teacher, either.

As you look back over your career, is there anything you would have done differently?

I really try to avoid that.  It’s really just another one of those pits that you can fall into with that type of stuff. I really don’t have any type of regrets. There was a time or two I turned money down because I felt it really wasn’t a good fit for the band, and had I looked back I could have said “Nah, that wouldn’t matter because the money would have been alright!”

How would you like future generations to remember you as both an artist and a man?

Ahh…well…I guess that I was a decent sort in both realms, lol!

 

  New Book, Too High To Die: Meet The Meat Puppets, Traces
Legendary Rock Band’s Entire Career
For the first time ever, the Meat Puppets’ story is told in book form, with the authorized band bio, Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets, released on June 1, 2011. Journalist/book author/long-time Puppets fan Greg Prato wrote the book with full cooperation from the band. In addition to featuring interviews with band members past and present, many renowned rock names were interviewed for the 407 page book, including Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Peter Buck (REM), Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), Henry Rollins (Black Flag/Rollins Band), Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat/Fugazi), Scott Asheton (Iggy & the Stooges), Dean DeLeo (Stone Temple Pilots), Doug Martsch (Built to Spill), Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), Mike Watt (Minutemen/fIREHOSE), Chad Channing (Nirvana), and Paul Leary (Butthole Surfers), among many others.Set up in an “oral history format,” the book is comprised entirely of never before published interviews, which were conducted solely for this book. Also included are 15 rarely seen and/or never-before-published photos of the band from throughout the years. All eras of the band are covered, including the writing/recording of such classic albums as ‘Meat Puppets II’ and ‘Up on the Sun,’ the group’s appearance on Nirvana’s classic ‘MTV Unplugged’ episode, the story behind their breakthrough hit single “Backwater,” and how the Kirkwood brothers reunited in 2006, after being apart for nearly a decade.As the group’s singer/guitarist/songwriter Curt Kirkwood says on the book’s back cover, “It’s a very strange, wonderful experience to read…I love the way it flows…a linear time capsule compendium of the band’s past…so many perspectives tied together so well. I feel like I’ve been hanging out in these scenes just yesterday. Folks I know well and folks I’ve never even met giving me insights and perspectives on the band and myself that I’ve never considered or been aware of. Eerie and fun to find myself so captivated reading about something that has held me captive for my entire adult life…sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. This is giving me a glimpse of the forest…thanks for the bitchin’ experience.”The book is priced at $24.99 and made available for sale via Lulu.com, with a pre-order currently set up via the Meat Puppets official website.For pre-order info (and for more information about the Meat Puppets), visit www.themeatpuppets.com. Later this summer, look for Meat Puppets to bring their pioneering legacy into the interactive world, as the band helps launch a new interactive music app called JamBandit. Fans will be able to experience Meat Puppets as never before, feeling the rush of genuinely playing in realtime with Cris, Curt, Ted, and Shandon, regardless of musical ability or training. To sign up for a sneak peek, visit www.jambandit.com.

 

Shirley Pena

About Shirley Pena

A native of Southern California, Shirley Pena began her career as a music journalist over a decade ago, writing for her websites "Stars In My Eyes:the Girlhowdy Website" and "La Raza Rock!" and progressed to creating various fan sites on Yahoo, including the first for New Zealand singer/songwriter Tim Finn. From there, she became a free agent, arranging online interviews for Yahoo fan clubs with various music artists (Andy White, John Crawford, Debora Iyall, John Easdale, etc.). She also lent her support in creating and moderating a number of Yahoo fan clubs for various music artists from the 1990s-today. As a music journalist, Shirley Pena has contributed to a number of magazines (both hard copy and online), among them:Goldmine, American Songwriter, the Fresno Examiner, The Blacklisted Journalist and UK-based Keyboard Player (where she was a principal journalist). A self-confessed "fanatic" of 1960s "British Invasion" bands, Classic Rock and nostalgic "Old Hollywood ", she also keeps her finger on the pulse of current trends in music, with a keen eye for up and coming artists of special merit. Shirley Pena loves Los Angeles, and is thrilled to join the writing staff of The Los Angeles Beat!
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2 Responses to Too High to Die: an Interview With Curt Kirkwood

  1. Afropix Afropix says:

    very nice piece!

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