This month, the storied band released Rise to Your Knees on local imprint Anodyne Records. The first new album under the Meat Puppets name since 2000, Rise reunites Kirkwood with younger brother and Puppets co-founder Cris Kirkwood, whose return follows an extended, much-publicized period of severe personal struggle that would likely have landed him in the obituary column had it not sent him to prison first (in 2003). The elder Kirkwood spends little sentimentality on Cris' tribulations.
"I treat all my detractors the same," Curt Kirkwood says. "He knows he can go back to being a fucking junkie if he wants to."
A man with full-on artistic determination, Kirkwood needs little provocation to go off. He speaks with such passion that to do him justice in print would entail pages and pages of type set in ALL CAPS. Obvious lines of questioning — the new album's mellow direction, the future of the music industry, the Meat Puppets' experiences on major labels in the '90s versus their golden years on SST, reuniting with his brother — dissolve in a high-velocity storm of piss and vinegar. (At one point during our interview, Kirkwood paused midsentence to order his barking dog to "fuck off.")
Formed in Phoenix in 1980, at the dawn of Ronald Reagan's America, the Meat Puppets became icons of the American punk underground, sharing influence with similarly DIY-minded acts such as Black Flag, Husker Du and the Minutemen. But, as Kirkwood explains, he was never interested in toeing the punk party line.
"The majority of the people that liked us liked whatever we did because we always did a lot of strange things," he says. "We had always gotten an adverse reaction from punk audiences when we tried to do stuff that wasn't hardcore. We recorded a punk-sounding debut record because we were young, but we weren't purists. We got spit on by a lot of these skinheads. That just steeled me to do more of what I liked to do anyway. I like punk rock the same way I like, say, dub or any style. I was always suspicious of any ilk."
The Meat Puppets dived into genre bending from the beginning with a peculiar fusion of punk with country and roots influences.
"That's why you get into this — to be free. Like Jimi Hendrix-style. Jam out! So many bands, even really cool ones, just get to play to their computerized intelli-beams once they're really big. 'Oh, here's your live show. This is your shtick.' But can you be a jam band and be R.E.M. at the same time, for instance? Can you then play a Budgie cover? Can you completely dip into Beefheart-style, angular, surrealistic blues? Can you get so messed up that you don't know what you're playing?"
Musicians, he is quick to point out, must be steeped in music. Even a Meat Puppets show, he suggests, need not be a lesson in raw nonconformist energy, and improvisation isn't a prerequisite for pushing boundaries.
"Bigger bands can pull it off with enthusiasm," he says. "A very effusive, charismatic individual like Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen is surfing a wave that's so far out, it's not about form. It may not be that outstanding in terms of musically going to some strange new place, like Prokofiev or something, but it's still reaching a newness in a realm of the humanities that only Mick Jagger can do."
Kirkwood, who witnessed a legendary chapter of music history firsthand, takes a somewhat dismissive view of today's music-industry infrastructure. However, he also insists that big business hasn't dimmed artistic merit.
"The innocence is gone with the Internet," he says. "There's a glut of things. Everybody has a band just to find out what's real. I'll blow my own horn — I like my band. I don't have any idea how good we are, and I don't think I'm great but I love playing music. But I'd just like to point out that, in history, there's one van Gogh — one. It's not like this shit's fuckin' bred. You don't breed these kinds of individuals, these creatures. Artists are not bred — they're born. So I don't care how much innocence is removed. In a lot of ways, bringing a magnifying glass on everything will, in the long run, only cause the cream to rise to the surface. Even posthumously, as it happened in van Gogh's case. That's a drag for him ... because he might have cut his dick and both ears off if he'd gotten famous. Who knows? But the fact remains: There's one Shakespeare, one da Vinci, one van Gogh."
Kirkwood's staunch refusal to compromise made his decision to work with Anodyne a no-brainer.
"They seemed to want to have us just be ourselves more than anybody else," he says. "That's always been a sticky situation for me. We got spoiled with getting to do what we wanted on SST. We still kind of got to on the majors. We consorted with producers, but that was part of doing what we wanted. This time, I didn't want to play demos for anybody. And Anodyne didn't want to hear any. They're nice guys. It's a small operation that enables me to keep track of it, and it's not this dumbass thing like most labels are where they don't know their ass from a hole in the ground."
So how does all this my-way-or-the-highway chest-beating translate musically? As restraint, strangely enough. Rise to Your Knees begins on a somber, almost defeated note that casts an ominous melancholy over the rest of the record. Largely devoid of the band's trademark heaviness, Knees offers an hour of naked, down-tempo introspection with only subtle shifts in shading and texture.
Whereas the band's scrappy attitude once gave the music grit, it's Kirkwood's willingness to let his guard down that seems gutsy in 2007. As much as Kirkwood may rant about sticking to his guns, he has — on record, at least — learned discretion and temperance. You'd never have guessed it in 1980, but the Meat Puppets have not only lived to reach middle age but aged gracefully to boot.