Bassist Cris Kirkwood likes to irritate guitarist brother Curt by using a Boss Bass Overdrive pedal in his touring rig. “It sounds like a horsefly stuck in a screen door,” Cris says. Photos by Jaime Butler
When did you first learn to play bass, Cris?
Cris Kirkwood: In the early-to-mid ’70s. I started with guitar lessons, but all I remember about that is that the guy used to put his hand on my knee and tell me that he really liked me, and that I shouldn’t tell anybody. Then I took some piano lessons from an old guy who would doze off in the middle of the lessons. I would sit there really quietly and wait for him to wake up and then I’d play the last few notes of the piece that I’d supposedly practiced, which I hadn’t. Neither instrument caught my attention. At that age, all I wanted was a monkey, which I eventually got, and I named him Abner. He eventually wound up on the back patio with his right arm missing, which was one of the great mysteries of my life. When we were reading A Clockwork Orange in English class, we were assigned to go see the film. It was a double feature with Deliverance. The banjo sequence just lit up my little noodle, so I wound up getting a banjo and taking some lessons. That was probably ’73. Shortly after that, I decided that bass looked cool. Fingerpicking was kind of like playing banjo, there was one less string, and they were farther apart.
At what age did you become aware that bass was different from a 6-string guitar?
Cris: I understood the difference as a kid because of The Beatles. One of my earliest memories is walking along between my grandmother and my mom, holding their hands, as they were singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” I just thought basses were neat, so just like I had to have a monkey, I had to have a bass. I decided to learn, went to Arizona Music Center, and rented one for a while. I had my eye on a Music Man, the first year they came out. I just thought they were bitchin’ looking. When I went to buy one, the guy grabbed a black Jazz Bass and said, “This’ll have more resale value.” I thought, “Okay ... whatever the hell that means.” I eventually used that on our first 7-inch and our first album. I found puberty to be unsatisfying and high school to be extremely alienating, so I got into some [heavier] rock music.
It took me getting laid to understand what rock and roll and some of these bands like Led Zeppelin were about: love and having sex. My younger self was thinking about bitchin’ instruments, a thorough knowledge of them, an applicable technique, and a background in theory, so that you could play whatever your imagination came up with. Then I realized no, that’s hard. That’s like math. I love Phil Lesh—a guy with a real schooled musical background who actually knows what he’s doing. Then the lysergic element adds something too, but he has all of his musical knowledge to bring to it.
I was really into Jaco [Pastorius]. The first time Curt and I ever smoked grass together was before seeing him play with Weather Report. The first time we ever worked with a producer [on Forbidden Places], Pete Anderson said “Let’s use an egg shaker on this thing.” He actually brought in a studio percussionist and it was Alex Acuña, who was playing drums the night we saw Weather Report! I told him about that night, hoping he’d break forth with the “Oh, let me tell you about Jaco …” stuff, but instead he goes, “Man, that was like 50 years ago! I can’t remember five minutes ago.”
Another bass player I completely love is Dusty Hill. He’s such a different player from Lesh and McCartney. He only stomps on the groove, hits the cool riffs with the guitar player, and then just stomps right back onto the groove. There’s no improvisational element involved. I really loved Mike Mills from R.E.M., John Taylor from Duran Duran, and Tina Weymouth. She had a different sense of things and played cool bass lines that had movement.
You started as a hardcore band, but between Meat Puppets and Meat Puppets II there was a radical shift. What happened?
Curt: Just curiosity. I always have the feeling that you should change from record to record. You do one thing and move to something else. With painting, if you use oil paints, watercolors, charcoal, or whatever, the medium is one thing, but the message really shouldn’t be the medium. Same with music. I figured that my ideas could be conveyed many different ways. Stylistically, I didn’t feel like being bound to anything, so that’s why Meat Puppets II turned out the way it did. Punk rock shows were fun, with everybody in the mosh pit, but they’d also spit, and throw crap at you. That influenced me to challenge the audience, and even find who our actual audience was.
Cris: Curt started out writing completely straightforward guitar things. Then, around the time of Meat Puppets II, he just started writing lyrics that were far out, and he blossomed into a songwriter. Then he just kept doing it album after album after album. It’s allowed me to make records for years, and be the Meat Puppets and whatnot. It let us keep going. He’s just a composer. It’s always neat to watch the songs come out of the guy.
Curt Kirkwood has been rocking this 1981 ’burst Les Paul ’50s reissue (complete with epic cartoon-animal stickers) for about 20 years. Photo by Jamie Butler.
Did you feel like you were part of an emerging desert scene, along with Giant Sand and Sun City Girls?
Curt: I knew those guys, but I was just doing my thing. I went to school for a year at U of A, so I met Howe Gelb, in ’78, when he was still with Giant Sandworms, and I knew the Bishop brothers [of Sun City Girls]. I didn’t really feel too connected to anybody, though we played with Sun City Girls, Killer Pussy, JFA, and other area bands. I think it was more the point of view of people from other parts saying, “Oh, it’s desert stuff.” I had never been to New York City, or the East Coast, until ’82, when we started touring. I did notice it was different from Phoenix, which was the middle of nowhere.
At some point you started experimenting outside of typical Meat Puppets territory. You used a guitar synth on Mirage, right?
Curt: Yeah, they were new, looked cool, and seemed like fun. So we bought a Roland 700 series guitar synth and used OctaPads for drums, just to see what we could do with them. We even used them a little bit on tour. I didn’t use that for the whole guitar sound. I had a Jackson at the time, and I played the Ibanez Roadstar that I used on Up on the Sun.
Cris: There was a period where I got far enough away from the need to pretend like I was, you know, Keith Richards or whatever, and I was actually playing a seriously not-cool looking Steinberger. I was really into that new string sound, and I’d change them nightly back then. These days there’s just so much good TV that I have a hard time getting to the music store. I don’t even know what brand I use. James Jamerson didn’t change his strings, you know? Then again, I guess you don’t need to change your strings if you’re James fucking Jamerson!
Curt, is it true you retired the Les Paul for a little while? What made
you decide to do that?
Curt: My original Les Paul got stolen, so I got a ’72 goldtop, which I still have, then I got the Jackson and the Ibanez. I did Meat Puppets II with the goldtop, and then I did Up on the Sun with the Ibanez. I was into Prince and Duran Duran at that time. I was kind of experimenting.
Due to legal issues, there was a period of several years when the Meat Puppets continued without Cris, but eventually he returned to the band. Did the break introduce a new dynamic?
Curt: Playing with him is like riding a bike. He had to get his chops together a little bit. He’d been playing in prison, but he hadn’t done live shows. Playing with new people had been cool, and it gave me some perspective. Even back when Derrick, Cris and I were starting with cover songs we just had a mind meld, and an off-the-cuff way of doing stuff. That element slowly disappeared, though not altogether. There are things you just can’t go back to.
Where did you record Rat Farm?
Curt: At Yellow Dog Studios, here in Austin, on South Congress, in the middle of the shopping strip. There are a lot of places to eat. You’re not stuck! Dave Percefull, who recorded Rat Farm, started it a few years ago. He had a place in Tulsa, and worked at Abbey Road, basically commuting to London, but he started his own thing. He had the little gizmo that binds Pro Tools to the 24-track, CLASP, and I wanted to check that out. John Plymale mixed it.
Cris: This is how we prepared: I asked Curt, “Hey, do you want to send me some of the songs?” He said, “Nah, it’s no big deal.” I went down to the airport, got on a plane, and flew to Austin on a Thursday. Friday, I went to Curt’s house and he showed me some songs, then Saturday we went into the studio. That probably just meant there would fewer curlicues and noodly bass lines.
As far as recording guitars go, do you have one that you go to most of the time?
Curt: I’ve had a lot of guitars over the years. I used my ’65 Telecaster on almost all of Huevos. Sometimes I’ll just use whatever’s sitting around in the studio. Too High to Die is mostly my ’81 ’50s reissue Les Paul sunburst that I use on 90 percent of Rat Farm, too. I played it through a 100-watt Marshall, which has a cool, crunchy sort of sound. It’s got [Genalex] Gold Lion tubes in it, which are just awesome.