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The Meat Puppets Bring Their Mastery to Santa Barbara

Bassist Cris Kirkwood talks about the band, a career boost from Kurt Cobain, and a return to the stage

The Meat Puppets bring their unique blend of punk, country and psychedelia to SOhO Restaurant & Music Club on Thursday.
The Meat Puppets bring their unique blend of punk, country and psychedelia to SOhO Restaurant & Music Club on Thursday.

The Meat Puppets formed in 1980 when brothers Curt (guitar, vocals) and Cris Kirkwood (bass guitar, vocals) teamed up with Derrick Bostrom (drums) in their hometown of Phoenix. Their earliest recordings fit closest with the fledgling hard-core scene, but already their 1982 self-titled debut album, released on legendary indie label SST Records, hinted at a broader musical outlook with covers of Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Doc Watson’s Walking Boss.

Their next album, 1984’s Meat Puppets II, was completely different, with a strong country influence and more accomplished musicianship. One can argue if this or 1985’s album Up on the Sun is better, but it’s really a moot point — both are undisputed indie classics.

The Meat Puppets released more albums and eventually were signed to a major label, hitting their commercial peak with 1994’s album Too High to
, which featured the hit “Backwater.” Their visibility was helped immensely around this time by Kurt Cobain proclaiming the Meat Puppets to be one of his biggest influences, and by Curt and Cris joining Nirvana onstage for their MTV Unplugged performance of three songs from Meat Puppets II. But things crumbled shortly thereafter, in large part because of Cris’ escalating substance abuse problems. Sadly, Cris’ wife had similar problems and died of a drug overdose in 1998.

Curt and Cris did not play together for many years, and Cris even spent time in prison for assaulting a security guard at a Phoenix post office, an incident in which he ended up getting himself shot. Happily, and some might say miraculously, Cris has pulled it together in recent years, and the Meat Puppets are on tour with brothers Curt and Cris joined by Ted Marcus on drums. They are playing at 9 p.m. Thursday at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, 1221 State St., Suite 205, with opener Benji Hughes. Click here for advance tickets. It will definitely be a show worth checking out!

The following is an abridged transcript of a phone conversation with Cris about the Meat Puppets and their upcoming show:

JM: How has the Meat Puppets’ music evolved over the years.

CK: Ultimately, it’s always been just the Meat Puppets’ music. The way that it has evolved is in the way that art can develop as an artist grows, as a person grows. So it has grown up with us in a lot of ways. We have gotten old and ugly, and hopefully so has our music (laughs).

JM: Did the band ever make a conscious decision that “we don’t want our next album to sound like the last one,” or did that just happen naturally?

CK: We didn’t do that. We were just trying to get the record done that we wanted to do at that particular point. They each stand on their own. Yet they each stand as a link in this wretched little chain that we managed to sew together over the years.

JM: You and your brother, Curt, played with Nirvana at its MTV Unplugged performance. How did that come about?

CK: (The late Kurt) Cobain was a big music fan, and I think he got way into the SST thing. There were a few tours (by bands on SST Records), like Black Flag and us, definitely The Minutemen and others, that I think influenced the Seattle thing. At least him, I know that. He was definitely very much into SST and very, very into the Meat Puppets as a younger guy.

Then suddenly he was in the position of being a huge pop star, and had been asked to do that Unplugged thing. (He was the) kind of artist who would want to use his newfound celebrity to expose his legions of fans — at they point they were the biggest band in the world — to stuff that he’d really been into. He asked us to do it, much to the chagrin of MTV.

The funny backstory that I heard later about this was that Nirvana told MTV that they wanted to have guests come on, and MTV was thinking someone like Eddie Vedder (from Pearl Jam) or somebody else that at the time was huge. The Meat Puppets were never that much of a commercial entity, not to that degree, definitely.

JM: How does it feel to be playing and touring again with your brother?

CK: It’s just f***ing miraculously wonderful for me. It was entirely my fault (that we stopped playing together). We don’t need to get into the specifics of that. But I professionally deconstructed myself, and now I feel very grateful to have been allowed to reconstruct myself to the degree of actually playing with my brother.

We give each other a lot of room, and we both push in similar directions and we pull in opposite directions. There’s an interesting dynamic that goes on when Curt and I play together, absolutely. It’s still very much in evidence, more than ever as far as I can tell.

Music can age, like a fine wine, or in our case, like a fine cheese. The older it gets, the more it stinks. We’re good and stinky.

JM: On the current tour, what are some of the songs that you’ll be playing?

CK: We’ll play a smattering from a lot of the records. We have such a big back catalog, so we’ll see.

What I think we’re going to do on this West Coast thing is Curt’s going to be playing an acoustic guitar rather than an electric, but through his effects board so he can still get dirty when he wants to, and have some of the little buttons that he likes to push to make the guitar do the various things that Curt likes to make the guitar do.

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.

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