Curt Kirkwood of Meat Puppets
Getting name-checked as a favorite by Kurt Cobain is quite a nice addition to any band's resume, but the Meat Puppets received perhaps the highest accolade ever by Mr. Cobain: he personally invited Curt and Cris Kirkwood to perform three Puppets classics ("Plateau," "Oh, Me," and "Lake of Fire") on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged taping, which has gone down as arguably the greatest episode ever.
Singer/guitarist Curt Kirkwood has always been the group's primary songwriter. And in addition to appearing on fourteen Puppets studio albums over the years - including such classics as 1984's Meat Puppets II, 1985's Up on the Sun, and 1994's Too High to Die - he has also issued a solo recording (2005's Snow) and collaborated with Nirvana's Krist Novoselic and Sublime's Bud Gaugh in Eyes Adrift (who issued a lone, self-titled album in 2002).
I've interviewed Curt many times over the years, and quite thoroughly for my 2012 book, Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets, which covers the group's entire history. Featured are extensive interviews with Puppets members past and present, as well as quite a few renowned admirers/pals (Flea, Peter Buck, Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Kim Thayil, Lee Ranaldo, J Mascis, etc.).
On the eve of the release of the Puppets' latest album, Rat Farm (released April 16th via Megaforce Records) and forthcoming worldwide tour, Curt took the time out to discuss his approach to songwriting, who he'd be interested in collaborating with, and a peculiar encounter with Joey Ramone.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): When it comes to songwriting, is there any kind of formula you follow, or does it happen in all different ways?
Curt Kirkwood: It happens in different ways. I mean, I can look back and there's nothing that I consciously follow. But when I look at how I get stuff done, most of the time it's not very disciplined other than I don't just sit down to write. I've tried that before, and I can do that to fill stuff in, to finish something up or get the details, because sometimes it's kind of sketchy. But generally, it's just an extension of relaxing and hanging out.
This last time I had a good amount of time to try to get it done. I didn't mean to, but I thought I could get it done in about a month. I didn't have much written, and it wound up taking months and months. So I just sit around and... a bee is on me! Whoa! Hey, get away! Sorry about that. Fucker just landed right on me.
I had a couple of beers and then I would get a song, just a melody or some little piece of it recorded into my cell phone, and that's about it. A lot of times, if it's worthwhile, it'll stick in my head. Just something, a couple of notes going round and round, a little bit like OCD.
Songfacts: For the last few Meat Puppets albums, were the majority of the albums written in the studio on the spot, or were just certain songs written that way?
Curt: The fucker is trying to sting me! I'm sorry. He's landed on me twice now. Well, this last time I had the music pretty much done. I had very little of the lyrics. So a lot of the studio time was just me sitting there, people waiting on me to finish the lyrics up. Times before I had quite a bit more done. This time I just gave myself a lot of work. And I've done that before. I did it on Mirage [1987 album], had to write a lot in the studio. But I'll do that. It's fun to have that sort of deadline on you and see what comes out of it, and have so much time to think about it and edit and all that stuff.
Songfacts: But do you ever feel pressure as far as coming up with stuff in the studio, or is it pretty relaxed?
Curt: This time it felt like a pretty big load, because I was trying to do the production and keep everything straight. I watched the time and the budget and all that crap, got my guitar parts done and arranged the stuff. I gave myself a lot of work and by doing it that way, it definitely weeded me out.
Songfacts: Something that always sticks out for me with the Puppets' music is the vocal melodies between you and Cris. Does that come up in the studio on the spot or do you try to come up with vocal melodies beforehand?
Curt: A lot of times I'll have the melody. Sometimes that'll just be part of the first step of writing it - I'll come up with a melody over a chord change. There are a few things this time that I had to come up with a melody, like the last song on the record is called "Sweet." I had these working titles, just what they reminded me of. So the song "Sweet" doesn't have anything to do with the title. I just kept the working title. But I had to come up with the melody right there on that one.
A lot of times, I have the melody and then I'll come up with the harmony once we go to record it. That happened this time quite a bit, because Cris wasn't around. That's probably the most formulaic thing for me. I know there are a number of different harmonies, but when you sing with two voices, it's pretty obvious to me. And I think that's part of what makes the stuff what it is with some consistencies with choices for harmonies.
Songfacts: I remember for the book I asked you who your favorite guitarists were, but I didn't get a chance to ask you who your favorite songwriters were.
Curt: Oh, gee. Roy Orbison, Bob Marley. Let's see, I love Hank Williams. The list goes on and on. Tons of obvious stuff. I think the Rolling Stones write great songs. Marty Robbins is really good. Gosh, [T. Rex's] Marc Bolan was really good. There are so many. The stuff that I like, when I say it's my favorite stuff, is stuff that's singsong type. I like a lot of different music. Like, I listened to [Mahavishnu Orchestra's] Birds of Fire the other night and it's a great album, but I don't know that it's some great songwriting in terms of a different kind of song. So when I think of songwriting like that, I think of almost like folk stuff. And you can get back in time and I think Woody Guthrie is a great songwriter. And you go back even farther, Steven Foster is a great songwriter.
Songfacts: Something that I don't think you've ever been asked is back around the time of Nirvana Unplugged, did Kurt Cobain ever mention to you if he'd want to collaborate on anything together?
Curt: No. He was always in the moment. Kind of had to dig what came out of the moment out of it, in a way. It was just a strange space whenever I was around that. And I wasn't around a lot. I did have a week where we practiced for that thing in New Jersey and we'd go over there every day. But Kurt would just show up some and play with the other guys some. We'd wait a lot, and then he would show up.
He wasn't very conversive, just really, really casual. And I didn't feel like it was anything where I could go, "Hey, you want to do something?" I was pretty blown away by the whole thing, just on the level of how it was and wasn't, like my concept of it. It was a strange thing to be around, because there was so much attention at any point coming from every direction. And you had to keep your head or it could make you uptight, I think.
Songfacts: I remember hearing in the press after Cobain died that he was planning on working on something with Michael Stipe, so I always wondered if maybe he reached out to some other songwriters he admired.Despite never obtaining mainstream commercial success, Milwaukee natives the Frogs became a hip band to namedrop in the 1990's - especially if you were one of the era's top rock names. Case in point, Kurt Cobain listed the band's 1989 release, It's Only Right and Natural, as one of his favorite all-time albums. The Smashing Pumpkins included a showcase for the band in the middle of their 1994 home video, Vieuphoria, Pearl Jam included The Frogs' cover of "Rearviewmirror" as the b-side to their "Immortality" single, and Beck used a sample of The Frogs tune "I Don't Care If U Disrespect Me (Just So You Love Me)" on his hit song, "Where It's At." The Frogs were long-led by the brother duo of Jimmy and Dennis Flemion, until Dennis' death in 2012 after drowning in a Wisconsin lake.
Curt: Yeah. I know that right before he died, some time around there, I think it was after Unplugged, pretty sure, he quit the band and moved to Milwaukee and joined The Frogs. I don't know how serious a thing that was, but that's what I remember someone told me. That's how I got turned on to The Frogs.
And yeah, I heard about the Michael Stipe thing. I might have even heard about that before he died. They'd been talking and stuff. And that made sense to me. I always liked REM and could equate Nirvana and REM, especially lyrically. But I would have done that, would have been fuckin' cool.
Songfacts: Looking back at the albums Meat Puppets II and Up On The Sun, when it comes to the instrumental songs on those albums, what made you decide what was to be an instrumental song and what wasn't? Because a song such as "Seal Whales," I could picture that having lyrics.
Curt: "Seal Whales" actually had words. I might have sang it in practice a few times. But they were pedestrian to me, and they just followed the tune that the guitar was doing didn't put that much thought into it. A lot of times it was just like, Oh, we've been playing this without singing it. And it just turned into an instrumental. It's kind of like a revelation. Oh, we don't have to have any lyrics. One of my favorite Beatles songs is "Flying," and I thought, "You could do that."
Songfacts: Cool. I'd like to name a few songs, if you just want to talk about some memories of either writing it or things that pop into your head about the song, that would be good.
Songfacts: "Lake of Fire," what do you remember about that?
Curt: I actually do remember that. A lot of times I don't remember writing songs, I can't remember anything about like, how did I come up with that? But "Lake of Fire," we were all living together and everybody decided to go to a Halloween party, and they were all getting in costumes. And I thought, "Man, this is one of the stupidest things - adults getting dressed up like we did when we were little kids."
I had actually got pretty wasted on something and told everybody, "No, I'm not going." And then once I was alone, I just started messing around. I wrote a couple of songs that night. I wrote "Magic Toy Missing" and "Lake of Fire," maybe one more. But I was just really trying to make fun of my friends for going out to a Halloween party. [Laughing]
Songfacts: And then with the song "Up On The Sun," is it true that the first line from that song came from when the Meat Puppets were opening up for Suicidal Tendencies, and it wasn't going very well?
Curt: Yeah, that's true. That was the Ritz in New York City. They had a big curtain, and as soon as they pulled the curtain up, that's what we kicked into. And people were being rowdy - they immediately didn't like us. So I started making fun of them. That song was an instrumental at first, and then I sang some stuff. And once again, it came from just sort of poking fun.
I was just trying to sing stuff that I thought would really piss them off. I wasn't saying anything about them, really. I was just trying to be kind of "mock tender." And that's what came out. So then I finished that up later. I didn't have it all, but that's where the germ of that came from.
Later that night, I met Joey Ramone. After everybody was gone, the club was empty, we were waiting for the van to come around from wherever it had got parked, and I was alone on the steps of the Ritz. And Joey Ramone got out of a cab and came up. He was totally wasted. "When does the Meat Puppets start?" It was like 1:00 in the morning! It was really awesome. And then he sort of passed out sitting on the steps there, and I went and got in the van, and we drove off. He was just sitting there. [Laughing]
Songfacts: I remember you once told me an interesting story about the song "Attacked by Monsters," that the verse's vocal melody is based on a certain famous song."Kokomo" was a surprise #1 hit for The Beach Boys (minus Brian Wilson) in 1988. Mike Love told us that he wrote the "Aruba, Jamaica" part when he found out the song was to be used in the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail.
Curt: I just started singing it and it had this sort of rock riff. After I'd been doing it for a while, I realized that I was completely ripping off "Kokomo" from The Beach Boys! Just in the way that the rhythm of the vocal goes. I don't know that the melody line is exactly like that. And I don't remember the lyrics to "Kokomo," but you can kind of see how it's like, "Na na na, na na na." It inspired me to follow the bouncing ball with that kind of vocal rhythm.
Songfacts: And with "Backwater," that started out as a slower, bluesier version?
Curt: Actually, I always liked Elvis' gospel albums, and I like gospel in general. Those are the Elvis albums I grew up on, because my grandmother had them. Kept some of the first stuff. So I thought it would be cool to write a gospel, or try to. So that's what that was. It wasn't really supposed to be religious, like gospel, but it was real slow. And I pretty much started out with the organ, the demo was based mostly around the organ. And it was a lot slower. It was hymnal slow.
Songfacts: And if you want to talk about the song, "For Free," I've always heard rumors that the song's lyrics are about Kurt Cobain.
Curt: Oh, gee, I forgot about that. You know, it might have been inspired by that. If I think about it, that does ring a bell if there was something in there. I don't think I would have written especially just about Kurt Cobain, but I think more about the ultimately free nature of music, of how it can be attributed. And there's a lot that goes on in terms of the connection between the song, the songwriter, and the adulation and all that stuff. But ultimately, the song is just working independently in anybody's head, actually working.
Songfacts: And then I remember you told me an interesting story about the song "Incomplete" from Lollipop, that it was a song you wrote many years ago.
Curt: I went to Mexico, I went to Acapulco and stayed down there for a month or so. I think that would probably be the summer of '83. I was getting ready to have kids, and I just kind of freaked out and went to Mexico, because I didn't like being around the tension. Just having kids and we're getting ready to have kids [Curt is the father of twins], you get kind of tightly wound. And I purposely went into denial for about a month. I was just sitting outside up on the hill above the Costera, maybe a quarter mile. But back then, certain time of night, traffic's kind of still down, you could hear a lot of different music coming up from different places now and then. I tried to capture that mood of once again trying to write something for somebody else. In that case, it would have been for Elvis, sort of like a "Fun in Acapulco" or "Blue Hawaii" sort of motif, Elvis movie song.
Songfacts: And something else I'm curious to hear your thoughts about: what do you think about modern day studio tricks, such as Auto-Tune? Do you think that's a good thing for music or do you think that's killing off the real authentic sounds of rock music?
Curt: Well, I think it's a cool effect sometimes. The only way I've ever used it, I did a version of "I Will Always Love You" with the other Meat Puppet guys back right around the time of Golden Lies. And we put the real heavy Auto-Tune on there so that it sounded like Cher, you know. And it's like (singing) "Do you believe"...
Songfacts: [Laughing] Right.
Curt: It's pretty heavy. And the record company just flipped. They loved it so much that I didn't put it on the album. I realized, "Oh, crap. They're going to try to run with this." So I wound up not using it. But it was just an effect.
I can't tell a lot of times when people use it, because if it's used tastefully, then it just sounds like they sang it in tune. So you can't really tell. You can get so intricate with it. And it's just a computer in general, you can arrange stuff that it's hard to tell. Even with tape, you can go back. Once we started making records for the major labels, we started doing something that we'd never done, which was what Pete Anderson showed me: you do a pass at the vocals, and we go in and punch in anything that's not good. You get a good line there, and then do another one that's the same way and another one. And then you comp those three together. You make a compilation of the best parts of the three for that line. And then perhaps even take the chorus line out and drop that in the same one for all three, the best one.
So that was considered OK. People have been doing takes back when there weren't so many tracks and it wasn't so "high tech" in the '60s, even. I know bands like The Stones, for instance, which would come out sounding pretty natural, would have to go through and do, I don't know, 50-100 takes of a song before they could get it right. So usually you're doing it right or you're trying to come up with that. One way or the other, it's manufactured.
It's pretty rare outside of when there was one microphone and the band would gather around it, and there was a time when people were just better singers, because that's what was required, I guess. I'm sure there are people that can do that today, but it always blows my mind to see Marty Robbins and those guys, you can see an old film or whatever, they're all around one microphone and just doing it. That's the way it's coming out.
For me, I was really used to the SST stuff [the Punk label SST Records, early home of Meat Puppets] all along. And although I wish I could sing better, it's kind of a fine line. I want it to be sterilized and it comes out sounding like the New Christy Minstrels or something. Especially when you've got Cris and I in there. I mean, people have always tried to make it like the Everly Brothers or whatever. Like, "No, it's not the Everly Brothers, there's no singing like the Everly Brothers." That's some kind of weird music balloon by itself.
But I do think that there's something, like on Rat Farm I made it a point to really stay away from that and try and just capture the way that it really is.
Songfacts: Were there any other musicians or songwriters that you'd like to collaborate with at some point?
Curt: Oh, boy. There are probably quite a few of them. I thought last night it would be fun to collaborate with Eminem. I wanted to collaborate with Dr. Dre earlier. Back when I first heard NWA, I thought, "Man, this guy's like Todd Rundgren. He's just versatile and badass in the studio."
But I never reach out. I would do stuff with just about anybody. But it's not something that I've ever really tried to do too much. I don't know why.
Songfacts: Let's discuss the new Meat Puppets album.
Curt: Well, it's called Rat Farm. And it's going to be kind of like little blown up folk music. I tried to write stuff that would be easy to learn and easy to play, just try and make it stand on its own that way with just the chords and the melodies. And then just play it kind of straight. That was the guiding boundaries that I gave myself, I didn't want to get too complicated. In the past, Cris would go, "That's all this is? Let's put a prog rock part in the middle," but I tried to hold it off as much as I could.
I'm always trying to do that, just be as simple as possible. It tends to make something stick for me a little bit better, because I don't have to think about it that much when I'm playing it. And then I might actually wind up playing it live at some point. I make a lot of records and then it never sees the light of day at gigs. Just turns out to be something that doesn't feel that natural to play. So we'll see. I'm going to try to learn it.
Greg Prato is author of Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets. The band's website is themeatpuppets.com. February 14, 2013.