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The Meat Puppets first played together in their hometown of Phoenix in 1980 when Curt and Cris Kirkwood joined up with straight-faced drummer Derrik Bostrom. All three were attracted to hardcore’s energy but opposed to its rigid dictums. Though the band’s been working for the better part of three decades, casual fans know them best for a short stretch from 1993 to 1994: Kurt Cobain invited the Kirkwood brothers to perform a trio of Puppets tunes (“Lake of Fire,” “Oh Me” and “Plateau”) during Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged special. Cobain died six months later, and the taping is a landmark. The Pups’ second album for major London Records, Too High To Die, was released two months after the MTV appearance. Buoyed by that notoriety and the Top 40 success of riffy, mid-tempo single “Backwater,” the album went gold. The Meat Puppets were briefly darlings of the alt-rock scene.
But the Puppets have long been more than those three songs or their minor radio hit. They’re one of the most influential bands to emerge from the underground scene of the early ’80s, andfrom their classic seven-inch EP In A Car and their heyday at SST Records into their mid-’90s popular flirtationthe Kirkwoods sidestepped categorization. Combining high-lonesome country, full-throttle punk, scattered psychedelia, improvisational guitar-rock and dashes of gonzo comedy, they did something far left of simple punk or alternative. Dwight Yoakam producer Pete Anderson, for instance, recorded 1991’s Forbidden Places. Butthole Surfer Paul Leary produced its follow-up. But 13 years and two break-ups later, that’s not good enough for Curt Kirkwood. In fact, he hopes people don’t judge them too much by the records they made.
“It’s always been the live, three-piece muscle that we’ve had to deal with. We’ve never gotten that on a record. We just tried to get the songs down,” he says from his home in Austin, Texas. “Right now, we’re back to where we were. Anyone who’s seen us this year can attest to that. We’ve got over 25 years of playing together.”
Well, not exactly 25: The Pups broke up for the first time in the mid-’90s unexpectedly. Curt relocated to Austin during the five-year break, while Derrik settled in N.Y.C. and Cris struggled with drug addiction in Phoenix. A Curt-led version surfaced as Rykodisc released the definitive, remastered Meat Puppets SST Records catalog in 1999, but it soon disbanded. With a rejuvenated and cleaned-up Cris, though, they released Rise to Your Knees in July, the first new Pups release with both Kirkwoods since 1995’s No Joke!
“This new record is very much a return to our ’80s approach,” Curt says. “It cost next to nothing to make, and everything on it is a first take. I refuse to spend a lot of money on this. I refuse to overthink it, and I refuse to let other people impose their own agendas.”
Rise to Your Knees relies on the band’s new timekeeper Ted Marcus. The band met Marcus when he was in Texas doing audio production work for filmmakers Joseph Cultice and Soo-Hyun Chung.
“There’s so much going on, it takes a certain type of drummer to keep up. Ted kind of understands that ‘let go’ thing as a three-piece,” says Curt. “You can’t teach somebody that. You just have to know how it is. We don’t practice it…. It’s chemistry. Our music has to do with our own personalities and the characters of ourselves.”
The Meat Puppets share the stage with The Comas at the Cat’s Cradle Monday, Sept. 10, at 8:45 p.m. Tickets are $15.