Nothing if not purposeful, Meat Puppets leader Curt Kirkwood didn’t have a very difficult time deciding to work with Anodyne, a small Kansas City-based independent label, for the release of the Meat Puppets’ latest album, Rise to Your Knees.
“I didn’t want to deal with anybody that in any way made me feel funny,” Kirkwood explains bluntly via telephone. “I mean, even down to five seconds of funny. Anodyne really seemed to want to have us just be ourselves. Every other label I talked to asked ‘So, do you have anything I can hear?’ What, so you can judge me? So you can decide whether or not you can make money off me, ya f**kin’ pimp?”
Kirkwood could afford to negotiate from experience. In the ‘80s, the Meat Puppets enjoyed a long run of making albums with complete creative autonomy on legendary underground label SST. It was that output, as well as the band’s extensive national touring on the fabled punk circuit of the time, alongside acts like Black Flag, Hüsker Dü and The Minutemen, that made the Meat Puppets legends. Like many of their peers from that movement, the Meat Puppets never adhered to strict punk codes. From day one, they sought to hybridize punk with country and roots elements, and doggedly stuck to their own creative agenda, determining set lists on the spot from night to night and expanding on their material via intense improvisation.
As time went on, the harsher punk aspects gradually receded. The band signed with a major label and briefly skirted mainstream success, thanks to Nirvana’s including them on its MTV Unplugged performance. Kirkwood stands behind the band’s work from that period.
“I never felt like our major-label stuff was compromised at all,” he says. “We got to work with people we liked. [I didn’t choose Anodyne] because it’s a small label. I don’t believe in major or indie. It’s just the size of the corporation and how they do business. There’s not an us-and-them situation going on.”
By the mid-‘90s, after high-profile tours with Stone Temple Pilots and Primus, Kirkwood’s younger brother and Meat Puppets co-founder Cris Kirkwood’s life began to unravel. This precipitated Cris’ prison sentence after being shot in the back and Curt’s relocation from the band’s native Phoenix to Austin. The elder Kirkwood assembled an all-new lineup and released an album under the Meat Puppets name in 2000, but has focused on solo work since.
In fact, the material on Rise to Your Knees was originally intended for another solo release, but that all changed when Curt reconciled with his estranged brother. While the brothers’ reunion (which does not include drummer Derrick Bostrom, though Curt approached him first) might trigger nostalgia among old fans, Kirkwood doesn’t exactly feel warm and fuzzy. He does express appreciation at having his brother back in the fold, but he makes his terms boldly clear.
“Yeah, I love you, but I don’t need to take sh*t for being productive either,” he says. “He has to get around that now. He can go the f**k back to prison. He can go back to the f**kin’ gutter where he’s lived for the last 12 years and f**k himself—and he knows it. I’m this way with anybody who’s my detractor.”
For all of Kirkwood’s blustery determination, Rise to Your Knees sounds wearily resigned, even fragile at times. “You can run,” Kirkwood sings as the album opens, with birds chirping delicately in the background, “but you’ll never get away from the smell of the garbage.” Unsurprisingly, Kirkwood doesn’t mince words when expressing his opinion on the current social and political climate (which he compares to the Reagan era), and he says it has galvanized him musically.
“The mainstream becomes your target,” he explains. “That’s kind of what punk rock was, rather than it being a style of music. It was, ‘Our culture is obsolete; it’s irrelevant, bloated and hideous, and I want to cut its head off.’”
[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance music writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]
The Meat Puppets play The Orange Peel on Thursday, Sept. 13. 9 p.m. The Comas open. $17. www.theOrangePeel.net or 225-5851.