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Left: Curt Kirkwood’s live soloing is something to behold, enabling him to take entire songs hostage with his experimental bending, stompboxing, EBowing, and other techniques. Right: Bassist Cris Kirkwood plays Fender Precision basses, following in the footsteps of two of his favorite players—James Jamerson and Dusty Hill. Photos by Jaime Butler
There was no shortage of punk bands in America’s suburbs as we entered the ’80s, but very few of them continue to make music today. The Meat Puppets, however, are very much alive and well, and have just released their 14th album, Rat Farm.
Formed by brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood, and their high school friend, Derrick Bostrom, the band fused hardcore punk, classic rock, AM radio country, and more than a little of Doc Watson’s influence into a unique sound that only could have happened in the Arizona Desert. But their survival, both as a band and as people, was far from guaranteed. After years of hard living, the band found itself in disarray in the late ’90s, with Cris eventually serving two years in prison in 2003 after an altercation with a security guard. Tough times for a band that had a gold record (Too High to Die) under its belt, a successful tour supporting Stone Temple Pilots at the top of their game, and joined one of its biggest fans, Kurt Cobain, onstage during Nirvana’s now legendary MTV Unplugged in New York performance, which included three songs from Meat Puppets II in the set.
Though Curt continued the band as the only original member during Cris’ absence, 2006 saw a reunion of the brothers, followed by the release of Rise to Your Knees and a well-received performance of Meat Puppets II at All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival. If there were any remaining questions about the band’s legacy at that point, Dave Grohl selecting them to open the Sound City Players evening at this year’s South By Southwest probably answered them all. Sharing the stage that evening with Stevie Nicks, Chris Goss, Lee Ving, Rick Nielsen, Rick Springfield, and other legends, The ’Pups took a much-deserved victory lap.
Though busy preparing for an upcoming tour that’ll take them around the U.S. and Europe, Cris and Curt took time to chat with Premier Guitar about the group’s humble beginnings, the new record, and the unsolved mystery of Abner’s arm.
When did you start playing guitar, Curt, and who were your early influences?
Curt Kirkwood: I started taking lessons in fourth grade, so I was about 9. I loved The Beatles and The Monkees. What really made me want to play guitar, though, was my friend and I were taking clarinet, and decided the electric guitar was cool because it looked like you didn’t have to push down on the strings—like you barely had to touch them. The clarinet was … I dunno, I liked it, but it seemed a lot easier to play electric guitar. I quit playing the clarinet, and Mom said, “You’ve got to take an instrument.” So I picked guitar, and started learning fingerstyle from a classical and flamenco guy named Juan Cordoba, at Central Music in Phoenix. I didn’t like it very much at first because, unlike what I thought, I had to push down harder than with the clarinet even. But I kept going, because my mom was strict about it.
I guess once you changed instruments you were committed.
Curt: Yeah. I felt kind of foolish because I’d made a stink about the clarinet, and dodged it, then guitar turned out to be even harder. I took lessons throughout grade school and into my freshman year of high school. Eventually I started lessons with a guy named Don Brewer. I think he lived at the YMCA, and he may have even been a dope addict. He came to our house and gave lessons to both my brother and me. Then I took lessons from Joe McClarty in Phoenix, who had a music shop and had played with Barney Kessel, so he played these colored leads. He was cool, encouraging, and taught me quite a bit. Then I quit lessons. Later, in high school, when people were carrying guitars around, trying to be cool, I realized that I could kinda play. I brought my guitar to school and started playing with this other guy a little bit. He always said I sucked, and I kind of did. I was rusty, and I hadn’t played in a while. My mom wasn’t happy, because I started getting into it and was slacking off with other things.
When did you make the transition to electric guitar and what did you get?
Curt: I got my first electric when I was in eighth grade. It was a knockoff of a Gibson 335 that I played through a bass amp. I started playing stuff like “Iron Man,” “Satisfaction,” and other heavy riffs. That’s what I worked on in my last lessons. Our house burned when I was in high school, and I lost the guitar and amp. Then I got a Les Paul for high school graduation from my mom, even though she didn’t like it.
Music was transitioning around that time. What steered you towards heavy music?
Curt: Just hearing Black Sabbath. When I was in seventh grade, The Beatles broke up, so my friends and I were looking around for other music. I heard “Whole Lotta Love,” then “Iron Man.” I loved all of that, and I tried to figure out “Day Tripper.” It was just what was on the radio in Phoenix, pretty much. I loved the guitar on “Let It Be.” Later, I definitely got into Robert Fripp. His sound on the record he did with [Brian] Eno, Evening Star, was fantastic. He’s just a great guitar player.
It’s a pretty big jump from learning Beatles songs to putting out the In a Car EP! How did that happen?
Curt: I’d been going to see concerts for a few years at that point, so I saw what real players were like live. I saw David Bowie first, then Rod Stewart, Foghat, Joe Walsh, Lynyrd Skynyrd. I started getting into just about anything really, from jazz-rock fusion, like Mahavishnu [Orchestra], to Leo Kottke and the Grateful Dead. I saw Return to Forever and Gentle Giant my senior year of high school. Then I saw Iggy Pop, with Brian James on guitar and Glen Matlock from the Sex Pistols playing bass. That led to The Damned, Stiff Little Fingers, and The Fall, which led to The Germs, The Ramones, and other punk rock.