Puppet Master

Curt Kirkwood tries to win back his old fans with a new Meat Puppets lineup and record.

The Meat Puppets, with Damnations, TX Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights 10 p.m., Wednesday, February 14

$10 advance, $12 day of show


Once "too high to die," the Meat Puppets have come - back down to earth.
Once "too high to die," the Meat Puppets have come back down to earth.
In Curt Kirkwood's mind, it was an easy decision. The Meat Puppets' singer-guitarist could have kept plugging away with the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra, the band he formed while the Pups were officially put on hold in 1996 after he moved to Austin, Texas, and left behind the other two founding members (bassist Cris Kirkwood and drummer Derrick Bostrom). But with the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra, he'd have to completely rebuild his career and kiss the notoriety he achieved with the Pups goodbye.

Or he could rechristen the Royal Neanderthals as the Meat Puppets, taking the name of his former band. Sure, he hadn't (and still hasn't) heard from his brother -- a heroin addict who, at one point, had a warrant out for his arrest and could be lying face down in the desert somewhere. And Bostrom, who wrote the liner notes to the Rykodisc reissues of the band's oeuvre and kept the website up and running all these years, wouldn't be involved, either. But the Meat Puppets were always driven by Curt Kirkwood's egomaniacal guitar workouts and lackadaisical vocals. So, for Kirkwood, using the Meat Puppets moniker was a no-brainer. Yet the reaction from fans and critics has been quite different from what he expected.

"I wind up getting off the phone with these people and feel like I'm the one who's done the insulting," Kirkwood says. "It's like who do I kill, and when do I serve my life sentence in abject prostrate contrition? Which baby do I fuck in the ass? It starts coming back on me. I don't know sometimes -- that's what happens when you go up against such noble powers. You're up against the Jolly Green Giant, and you have to use as much clout as you can. I still have the name. I just wanted the same fans to come back and get started there. If they don't like it, tough shit."

What the fans will be coming back to is Golden Lies, the band's first album in five years and first for Atlantic Records. Originally, it was supposed to come out on Sire/London (which quietly released an EP as a promo item last year in anticipation of the full length), but Atlantic won the tug-of-war that has left Kirkwood, who once tried to sue SST Records -- the indie label that released the group's early albums -- even more jaded and disillusioned about the music business.

"I'm still trying to figure [the music business] out, and ultimately it's the material -- and how big or not big my titties are," he says. "There's some unsympathetic behavior that goes on in situations like that, and it's got nothing to do with the band. It's corporate. This wasn't a run-in between me and the label. It was a pissing match between label heads, and we got caught up in it. It wasn't about helping me out, and in that sense, fuck them."

Whether Golden Lies -- which features only one song (the single "I Quit") that carries the Pups' trademark cowpunk sound -- will appeal to old fans is another matter. The album's certainly not as good as the band's second album, simply titled II, or even its follow-up, the jam band-friendly Up on the Sun -- definitive records that established the group as more than just punk rascals out to shake the foundations of classic rock. In fact, the Pups' self-titled debut, released in 1982, made the Phoenix, Arizona-based group out to be nothing more than a group of scrappy kids willing to crank their amps to 11 and scream their lungs out. Only the cover version of "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" suggested that it was up to something different.

"Once you've made a record like the first one, you don't need to make another one, or you won't be able to tell them apart," Kirkwood says. "I did it on purpose, to set a precedent. I had to clear the air and have catharsis on a personal level, as well. It's an art piece in the purest form. It's a lesson. Regardless of the fact that people like to buy albums to bolster their personal fantasy collection and prettify their lives and [to have them as] a wonderful screensaver in between jerking off, there's also the idea that the artist has the opportunity to piss on it, too. It was kind of punk rock. It was like 'Wow. We can do this? We can put this out, and people deserve it?'"

The Pups then refined their sound, alternately sounding like a punk version of ZZ Top on 1987's Huevos and eliciting comparisons to Dinosaur Jr. with 1989's Monsters. Eventually, the group would leave the indie imprint SST and sign to London, which released 1993's Forbidden Places, 1994's Too High to Die, and 1995's No Joke. Too High to Die yielded the single "Backwater," the closest the band has come to having a hit, and the album went gold -- thanks, in part, to the fact that the video was in heavy rotation on MTV. After touring outdoor amphitheaters with Stone Temple Pilots, the band saw its popularity at a peak until two things -- the death of the Kirkwoods' mother and contractual problems with the label -- sent the band on hiatus. After he grew tired of waiting for his brother to kick his drug habit, Kirkwood debuted the new Meat Puppets at last year's South by Southwest conference in Austin, and Golden Lies was released just last month.

Recorded with guitarist Kyle Ellison, drummer Shandon Sahm (son of the late Doug Sahm), and ex-Bob Mould bassist Andrew Deplantis, Golden Lies is better produced than the band's other material. Opening with a sample of music by the Baka Forest People of Southeast Cameroon, it features occasional string arrangements and multiple tracks of frenetic guitar work. It's also darker than most of the Pups' material. Kirkwood admits that the frustration and anxiety expressed in the track "I Quit" represent the culmination of the last five years of coping with a variety of problems.

"'I Quit' has to do with how I feel after everything I do these days," he says. "I think people are looking for the answers to why something so bitchin' would have such a strange turn of events. And maybe they'd like to pin it on some fallibility that I have personally, which I'd be glad to supply them with, if I could find it myself -- besides being a fucking shitty songwriter.

"I had such a great run, and now, whatever I do, things just start turning up weeds," he continues. "I kind of start blaming myself. Maybe I'm just fucked. Maybe I should just not say anything. It's not like it's been that bad. I'm being somewhat self-critical. When weird stuff starts happening, that's the other side of it. It's incumbent on me to do that, because I can't blame other people. It's too much. Some of the stuff that's been happening has been so overwhelming that it would be a mistake -- and wind up worse -- to blame other people, than to just stick it on myself."

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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