Arizona’s Meat Puppets are a noted influence for many canonical rock acts – not least Nirvana – but as is commonly the case with outsider art, the band’s significance surpasses its commercial achievements. Nevertheless, this hasn’t hindered vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Curt Kirkwood’s creative spirit. In fact, since Meat Puppets’ resurrection in 2006, they’ve released four new LPs. Speaking on the phone from his home in Austin, Texas, Kirkwood clearly feels no anxiety about living up to the band’s legacy.
“I just figure that whatever I do becomes another part of it,” he says. “I don’t look at the past that much. It’s always been a fleeting thing. Something like Meat Puppets II  to Up On The Sun  – the transition there was like, ‘How did we do that?’ I don’t know, that’s just what we did.”
Kirkwood started Meat Puppets in Phoenix in 1980 with younger brother Cris on bass and drummer Derrick Bostrom. Since then, amid various highs and lows, Curt’s written the majority of the band’s 14 records. Yet he wasn’t always intent on becoming a prolific songwriter.
“Growing up in Phoenix it was just boring out in the desert, so I liked to play guitar and ride dirt bikes,” he says. “Once we started playing as the Meat Puppets it was like, ‘Well, we need songs to play.’ At first we all pitched in a bit – on the first album. We started to get a little popular and it was like, ‘We’re in a fun band here, let’s party!’ But then it was like, ‘If you’re going to make it a career somebody’s got to write songs.’ So I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll do it.’”
Before the call of rock’n’roll became too strong to ignore, Kirkwood toyed with a variety of disparate vocations. “I wanted to be an animator. I loved Disney when I was growing up, and Charlie Chaplin. I went through a period of time where I wanted to ride motorcycles. And then when I graduated high school I moved to Canada and I wanted to be a fishing guide. I wanted to live in the wilderness and drive boats around for rich people out in the sticks. My brother came up and we just camped out for a couple of months all over the place.
“Then we started realising, ‘This is great but it’s really great to play electric music too.’ When we got back to Phoenix we just dove in again with the music.”
It didn’t take long before songwriting became second nature for Kirkwood. After signing with iconic punk label SST Records, Meat Puppets released their debut self-titled record in 1982. Although scarcely experiencing the success they were warranted, they proceeded to issue a new record almost every year; finally receiving minor commercial recompense with 1994’s Billboard charts entry Too High To Die.
Despite the constant workflow, the band members weren’t exactly leading staid lifestyles. The most calamitous tangent in the Meat Puppets narrative is Cris Kirkwood’s degenerative battle with heroin addiction. His fierce drug habit not only excluded him from the band for over a decade, but in 2003, after physically assaulting a police officer, Cris was shot in the back and subsequently imprisoned for 18 months. While 2000’s Golden Lies is the only Meat Puppets studio LP without Cris, Curt didn’t cease activity in the ensuing years – going on to release records with Eyes Adrift (featuring Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Bud Gaugh from Sublime) and Volcano (also with Gaugh), as well as a solo LP.
In 2006, a penitent and rehabilitated Cris was welcomed back into the fold. “I was ready to make another electric record,” says Curt, “and my son told me, ‘Your brother’s acting like a human being again,’ so I gave him a call. It worked out great and it definitely was a motivator. I’m glad to have him back around.”
Meat Puppets’ impact rears its head in the work of Pavement and Beck, as well as contemporary acts like Parquet Courts and Sun Kil Moon, but the band’s most famous fans are Nirvana. At Nirvana’s legendary MTV Unplugged In New York performance the Seattle heroes invited the Kirkwood brothers onstage to help out with cover versions of ‘Lake Of Fire’, ‘Oh, Me’ and ‘Plateau’, all from Meat Puppets II. The concert recording shows Kurt Cobain competently channeling Kirkwood’s vocal style, but there’s no band anywhere that effectively mirrors classic-era Meat Puppets. Their unprecedented combination of punk rebelliousness, Bakersfield country, unhinged vocal wailing and masterful finger-picking shows Kirkwood is always searching for something new.
“If I hear that I’m ripping something off inadvertently, or ripping off my old self, generally I’ll fix it,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any harm in something being evocative of something else but I like the stuff that makes you go, ‘Hey! That’s a new one.’”
Indeed, the Puppets’ recent releases feature a decidedly relaxed power-pop and folk flavour, far removed from the volatile character of their earlier material. Even so, there are still plenty of ’80s classics included in their live show.
“[The songs] update themselves,” says Kirkwood. “I never really had a formula for them, I just had the chords and the melodies. I do them in my present form. We’ve never really stuck to the recorded forms.”
Any creator as prolific as Kirkwood, especially one whose output consistently brings pleasure and meaning to other people’s lives, is a source of wonder. Techniques and circumstances obviously vary from one individual to the next, but it’s generally true that enduring creations stem from a reasonable amount of doubt and naivety. The sage words of Australian art critic Robert Hughes – “Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize” – ring true when it comes to Kirkwood.
“I’ve spent half my career going, ‘Jeez, I don’t know how to write a song – I have no idea what to do or what I want to do.’ Right now I’m even looking at the last album [2013’s Rat Farm] just going, ‘Wow, I came up with a whole album?’ Right now I have jack on my mind.
“I don’t really push myself – I’m not that disciplined,” he adds. “I think I’m actually pretty lazy by nature, but I like doing this and when I get a good idea then I’ll chase it.”
Over the years Kirkwood has frequently noted that he’s not a sentimental guy and doesn’t include feelings in his lyrics. However, this doesn’t cloud his simple appreciation for the songwriting procedure.
“It has to be fun for me,” he says. “Even if it’s something that’s borne from some shitty emotion, I’ll still make the thing a good time. It’s my retreat, the whole music thing. It’s something that was originally borne from alienation and I just wanted to fuck off and not live in the real world so much. I keep it fun and try not to challenge myself too much. I was always surprised that I could do it in the first place.”
Meat Puppets will be playing at CherryRock014 on Saturday May 31 at Factory Theatre, alongside Brant Bjork, Redcoats, Gay Paris, Beastwars, Drunk Mums and more. Tickets available online. Rat Farm is out now through Megaforce.