The Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood Talks About His Love for Disney and Old Musicals
"I still like Rodgers and Hammerstein and listen to the Cabaret soundtrack, the one with Liza Minnelli."
The Meat Puppets emerged from SST, the LA punk label founded in 1978 by Black Flag's Greg Ginn. SST built its legendary status by releasing material from bands like the Minutemen, Dinosaur Jr., Saccharine Trust, Sonic Youth, and Hüsker Du. The Meat Puppets, however, stood out from the rest of their labelmates because of their weird blend of punk, country, and folk that's been referred to as "cowpunk," whatever that means.
Take SST's 1983 compilation record, The Blasting Concept. On it, the Minutemen yell about Reagan, Black Flag yell about teen angst, Saccharine Trust yell about identity politics, and the Meat Puppets just yell for the fuck of it with a slacker twang that still sounds original and unique almost 30 years later.
The Meat Puppets are still soldiering on after 14 albums, multiple labels, bouts of rehab, and some mainstream exposure thanks to an appearance on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged show in 1993. Their long career is all due to the autonomous creative vision and attitude of founding brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood. The band was never plotting any sort of trajectory. They just worked hard, as they still do, on whatever they want, enduring on grit alone—which is way more punk rock than what most self-identified punks do after they turn 30.
I recently talked to Curt about all of this and other things, but mostly we talked about Disney movies.
VICE: Are you guys working on any new material?
Curt Kirkwood: Yeah, it's coming along. I don't have much of a discipline for that. I just wait for ideas to pop up and get them on the tape recorder. But it's coming along. I'm thinking about doing it a little at a time instead of just going in for a session.
Would you say your songwriting process has changed since the early days?
Not much, actually. It's always been about the same. I'll generally get a melody or some chords and put words to it, that's it 90 percent of the time.
Are there any influences on the process that people might not expect?
It could be anything—something rhythmic like windshield wipers, or a little string from a commercial that I start spinning off of. I think most good pop music evokes the feeling that you've heard it before because you probably did. You just have to make sure that it's not too close or you'll get sued. I'm sure I'm pretty derivative, but I edit a lot. Ultimately, a lot of my influence aesthetically comes from Stephen Foster and other early songs like that. He was the first American pop musician, in my opinion. And then you mix that with a really heavy dose of Disney.
Yeah, that's my primary influence—Disney. I watched the Wizard of Oz, and Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights. And I always had the records of music to Pinocchio and Peter Pan. Dumbo also has a super great soundtrack. And Bambi is great, too.
I always go back to those records. And other soundtrack stuff too. Early on I listened to the soundtrack for Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, and Planet of the Apes, Ennio Morricone's scores for Sergio Leone movies, and then on into stuff like Close Encounters. I still like Rodgers and Hammerstein and listen to the Cabaret soundtrack, the one with Liza Minnelli. The King andI is great. So is South Pacific. That's where a lot of my influence comes from.
You're probably the only SST band that cites Liza Minnelli as an influence.
There are a ton of influences. John Fahey, Leo Kottke... The first concert I ever went to was Bowie, and then Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Walsh, Led Zeppelin, and Sabbath. I liked the idea of being in a rock band. We were way into prog, too. I still love Jethro Tull.
Has your philosophy toward music changed considerably since then?
I'd say that's pretty much the same. I do it because I like it. It's like a hobby in that sense. It's always fun to see how something turns out. I've never had much of a vision. It's fun to just do it and see what you've got. In that way, I like shows. You can't really get the buzz any other way than by shows. You can play all you want around the house and record all you want, but it's still about the live stuff.
It seems like the only way to organically build an audience, even with the internet, is to constantly play shows. People look up to the SST crew still because you guys pioneered what's now called the "DIY ethic." It's a term that has now been beaten to death, but it still holds true. Do you see any of that old attitude still?
It's similar to how it was then, but back then you really had to have an independent record company to do it yourself. It was mostly college radio and fanzines and people in each town that liked your stuff. It's easier to get your name around now with the internet. But back then, there wasn't any money on the horizon and nobody at SST was thinking about it that way. It was about doing shows or having a big label pick you up to start footing some of the bill or making you more popular or whatever.
The way things are now is pretty similar to how they were then. All we did was tour, and we liked it, and it kept you afloat if you did it enough. We were just left to our own devices, which was cool. It's the same now—nobody's expecting a hit song or whatever. You've gotta love it from every angle and enjoy everything, including the business.
Are there any younger bands that you've seen in recent years that stand out as embodying that?
I mostly only see bands that we play with. I've never prowled around much. I get turned on from my friends. I'm not much of a connoisseur. I was lucky on SST, I just got turned on to all kinds of stuff on the scene. Now, there's just a shitload of bands, but I've always got my ears open. I'm always waiting to go, "Man, that's pure magic." I like to be floored.
Are there any records that you find yourselves coming back to again and again?
Sure, I think the last thing I heard was Ray Charles. Slim Whitman... Love the old-timey stuff—the stuff I grew up on. I love George Jones and I can listen to a shitload of that. I still really like Burl Ives. Once in a while I'll go back to my teens and need to hear some Led Zeppelin. I don't have much of a record collection, though.
I love these Sublime Frequencies records. One of my buddies from Sun City Girls put out a Sublime Frequencies compilation where they go to a bunch of different countries and get obscure pop music. Those are great records and I have a number of those. I like music with lyrics I can't understand.
Do you run into the old SST guys besides Mike Watt?/
I've seen Chuck Dukowski over the past few years, over at a festival in Belgium. I still see the Sonic Youth guys. We did a tour with Soundgarden a little bit ago. I see Rollins, always good to see him. They're like old high school alumni friends—good buddies.
You're still doing a fair amount of visual art?
I don't do a lot, same as always. It's just a past time, scribbling a bit when I'm sitting around. I don't keep a studio or anything. It's just for fun.
Your whole deal just seems like "art for art's sake," and you've managed somehow to make it work for yourself for so long. It's great.
I've been very lucky. I'm not really ambitious and I don't network very well. I've never really had a vision but people have always managed to include me, so I bring my stupid act to the party.
Keep up with the Meat Puppets by visiting the band's website.