The meat of the matter

BY RYAN FOSMARK | JUNE 25, 2009 7:21 AM

Meat Puppets has spent its career breaking boundaries in music. The Arizona band members have never let themselves be defined by any genre; instead, they have made their own path.

“We’re the artists; we say what the art is,” said Cris Kirkwood, the group’s bass player.

Meat Puppets has been dedicated to its art since its start in 1980, with the members abandoning homes and jobs in hopes of making a life in music. The band played and recorded for years, garnering mild interest from the music community, until it landed in the national viewfinder in 1993 thanks to the songs “Lake of Fire” and “Plateau,” which were initially released in 1984 on Meat Puppets II. The tracks were made famous by the versions Kurt Cobain performed with Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets at a legendary “MTV Unplugged” show in 1993.

The Meat Puppets’ progression as a band since 1980 encompasses 12 full-length releases, national recognition, and indulgent times that nearly ended the band for good— not to mention almost ended Cris Kirkwood’s life. Now, having come to terms with shredded pasts, the Meat Puppets members are on tour in their 29th year as a band, supporting the May release, Sewn Together.

Meat Puppets will play Saturday at the Mill, 120 E. Burlington St., with local acts Birth Rites and Sam Locke-Ward and the Quiet Men at 9 p.m. Admission is $12 at the door; advance tickets are available for $10.

“I have a feeling it’s going to be very intense,” said Andre Perry, the Mill’s booking agent. “I think they’ve been making almost salvation music in the sense that they’re just happy to be alive and happy to be together again. I think that’s definitely reflective in the last couple albums, especially in this last album, Sewn Together, which is just so beautiful and blissed-out.”

Meat Puppets has had a knack for putting on noteworthy shows in some way or another over the years. Cris Kirkwood recalled a time when a critic in California heard some band called Meat Puppets and thought it was trying to make people actually dislike its music. After nearly three decades as a band, the trio has moved beyond these sorts of antics—after all, the brothers are nearly 50.

“The years have actually added up in a lot of ways to a little more musical finesse—maybe a little less chaos, maybe a little less youthful vigor,” Kirkwood said. “I notice that I no longer throw myself into the drum kit … or I haven’t in a while. I think more than anything, we’ve just gotten uglier.”

The Kirkwood brothers are a spectacle on stage with their long flowing manes sometimes tied up in raunchy-looking buns, sometimes waving around their heads to the beat of the music. They share a permanent sort of grimace on their faces, as if they are pondering whether to knock a security guard’s head in, which wouldn’t be the first time. Kirkwood once got into serious legal trouble after assaulting a guard with the latter’s baton after a confrontation over a parking space. After 29 years of touring and recording, the members’ distinctive features have become somewhat magnified as their roughhousing has diminished.

On the other hand, Meat Puppets’ sound seems to have found the cure for old age. The band’s time-tested approach to making music has produced what the group calls “good art” despite the weathering years. Meat Puppets is still pumping tunes in new and interesting ways, which is evident in the mature, smoothly powerful release Sewn Together—heralding the reunion of brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood.

“This album represents Curt and I getting back in the swing of things and [new drummer] Ted becoming a full-fledged member as well,” Cris Kirkwood said.

Sewn Together may come as a bit of a shock to familiar listeners—the album carries a more beautiful sound than the usual punk-laden freak-out that has been known to emanate from some of Meat Puppets’ earlier recordings.

“Beauty has always been a part of our trip,” Kirkwood said. “We’ve never shied away from that. It’s kind of cool to be somewhat different and make something new—to find a new place to go by simplifying and mellowing things out even more.”

The band’s sound has often been described as a psychedelic fusion of country and rock, but the band is continually blending genres and defying labels, ensuring an individual quality in its music.

“Like Willy Wonka said, ‘We are the dreamers of the dreams,’ ” Kirkwood said. “Where we were coming from, we were really careful to not paint ourselves into a corner, stylistically, simply, by just doing exactly what we wanted to do at any particular time. The parameters that we set for ourselves were broad-based enough that if we chose to, we could continue to make music basically indefinitely.”

While some bands define their sound from the get-go, the guys in Meat Puppets essentially just played what they wanted. Their apparent lack of a plan opened up doors that could stretch for an eternity.

“It was the kind of thing that could grow old real gracefully,” Kirkwood said. “Well, in our case, maybe not that gracefully, you know.”

The name Meat Puppets can be twisted and conceived in all different ways to mean a myriad of things, but Kirkwood suggested one interpretation to explain the band’s take on making music.

“It implies, to a degree, that we allow the music to play us, which is a pretty pompous sort of boofy, arty kind of a thing to say,” he said. “But it’s true in that we allow ourselves to make the music that we are capable of making at that particular point and then are satisfied with it.”

Meat Puppets’ lyrics are chocked full of visual imagery and clever wordplay, but they often take on a sort of metaphysical wonderment as well, which reflects the relationship Kirkwood and the rest of the band have with their craft. Perhaps it’s involuntary, but the experiences of their lives have colored their music in a way that only those exact experiences could.

“None of us are very religious,” Kirkwood said. “But metaphysical? I don’t know; does that mean, ‘Do we smoke pot?’ Yes. ‘Have we taken drugs?’ Yeah, lots of them.”

It’s no secret that he had something of a drug problem in the ’90s. His and his wife’s addictions led to a musical hiatus from the band and, eventually, the loss of his wife to an overdose.

“It changed me as a person. The years will do that to you,” he said. “There’s just no getting around it. Unless you off yourself and put an end to your life, then you’re going to continue to change, go through things, and accrue new experiences and whatnot. Those were experiences that I absolutely could have done without accruing, and I can only hope that, if nothing else, people can use my example of what not to go through. It was a mistake, and I did it to myself, and I regret it.”

The ordeal sent Kirkwood spiraling downward in a whirl of drugs and run-ins with the law. He said it seemed insurmountable. While he is back with his brother and making music like never before, the time still lives in his memory.

“I’ve managed to learn to live with the scar tissue, if you will,” Kirkwood said. “It’s healed over to the degree that it has, but it’s a scar, and I’ve learned to live with it, to continue on. Because I couldn’t for years ? I couldn’t get over it. I couldn’t get over what had happened. I couldn’t get beyond it. I was just lost to sorrow and regret and self-loathing and self-destruction.”

Now, things have turned around for him, and the band stands at two-thirds of the original lineup. That the band has survived for so long and through personal turmoil so deep is a testament to the “rejuvenative, rollicking power of rock,” Kirkwood said. It has reinvigorated the drive to create, leaving the curtain call for the Meat Puppets open-ended.

“I’d say the future is fairly wide open at this point,” Kirkwood said. “You know, [the band] is pretty goddamn indestructible. We were always about what we wanted to do, so as long as our desire continues, then it’s just dependent on our imaginations and our wherewithal to do it.”

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