Meat Puppets may be a band that you’ve never heard of, but the stalwart Arizona rockers got what was arguably their biggest break thanks to a band whose name will certainly ring a bell.
In 1993, Nirvana covered the Meat Puppet’s ‘Lake Of Fire’ as part of their now legendary acoustic MTV Unplugged performance.
The result was that experimental indie rock outfit Meat Puppets, who had already existed as a group for over a decade, suddenly reached a whole new level of mainstream exposure. Their 1994 album Too High To Die, their eighth studio LP, subsequently became their most commercially successful record.
Too High To Die takes the band’s eclectic tastes and shapes them around 14 tracks united by a 90s grunge rock aesthetic. Twenty years on, it is still the Meat Puppets’ most accessible and most critically acclaimed record.
This ‘overnight fame’ could well have been the source of chagrin to a band who had already established themselves over the ten years prior as a cult favourite, thanks to an eccentric back catalogue that traverses hardcore punk rock, alt country, folk rock, and indie psychadelia.
But according to guitarist/vocalist Curt Kirkwood – who comprised one third of the band’s original lineup along with brother and bass player Cris Kirkwood and drummer Derrick Bostrom – whether the Meat Puppet’s success is seen as a direct product of that fateful Nirvana cover is neither here nor there.
“I take it all with a grain of salt,” says Kirkwood when asked whether he thinks Meat Puppets deserve more recognition in their own right. “I enjoy whatever attention we get, however we come across it,” he adds frankly.
This forthright outlook is also reflected in the band’s ethos regarding the hype that surrounded Too High To Die. For a group that in 1994 had been around for over ten years, it might have been fair to assume that the Meat Puppets had all but given up on achieving fame and fortune. But as Kirkwood reveals, mass commercial appeal was never the band’s foremost ambition.
“We never spent much time with the idea of mainstream success from the get-go. We always thought it was a stupid motivation,” the frontman states.“…we were having a blast purveying our crap to the mainstream”
Though Kirkwood asserts that mainstream success “wasn’t that important”, he does concede that “it was fun though, in some ways.”
“It was a fun time,” he continues. “I met a lot of new folks as the punk rock came out of the sewers into the limelight and we were having a blast purveying our crap to the mainstream.”
He may refer to it as “our crap”, but unlike many other artists who come to resent or revile their most popular works, it is clear that Too High To Die remains an album of which Kirkwood is still extremely proud.
“My favourite things about (the album) are the production and the diversity of the material…there’s lots of fun stuff to play from that record and the mixes sound pretty unique,” he says.
“I wouldn’t change a thing…I think it’s as good as it could be,” the singer goes on to declare.
And does Kirkwood feel that the album measures up against the many other records that were released in 1994 and are now regarded as ‘classic’ albums?
“I think it holds its own and stands shoulder to shoulder with most stuff from that year,” he says.
It’s a bold proclamation, but one that is not without merit. Too High To Die is liberally scattered with diamond-in-the-rough tracks, least of all the single ‘Backwater’, an upbeat, fuzzy anthem resplendent with Kirkwood’s squalling riffs, which reached the #2 spot on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
Fans may be surprised though to learn that the hit track didn’t initially take the form of a grunge rock staple.
“I think ‘Backwater’ was a hit because it’s really a simple gospel-like song at its core…at least that’s how I wrote it,” Kirkwood reveals. “The demo was a lot slower and organ based.”
So, would the artist agree that Too High To Die is Meat Puppets’ ‘best’ album?
“I think it’s one of our best,” he responds.
“(It’s) hard for me to say though because I go through phases of liking one more than the next…and I’m mostly into our stuff on a song to song basis.”
In that case, which of the tracks from Too High To Die is he most proud of?
“I like ‘Flaming Heart’, ‘Never To Be Found’, and ‘Why’…right now anyway,” confirms the frontman.
Then there’s ‘Roof With A Hole’, a fabulously bluesy, slow-burning track. With the plaintive lyrics “The roof’s got a hole in it/and everything’s been ruined by the rain”, is the song a metaphor for disillusionment, perhaps?
“‘Roof With a Hole’ is definitely about erosion…metaphoric and real,” Kirkwood relates.
“The introspective feeling is usually an accident,” the singer goes on to admit. “I’m just trying to come up with cool rhymes.”
It has been said that one could listen to a melodic, catchy song like ‘Backwater’ and then listen to some of Meat Puppet’s earlier albums, and experience the feeling of hearing two completely different bands. Does Kirkwood concur with this assessment?
“It’s true”, he agrees. However, it seems that this was less a conscious decision to do with the writing of Too High To Die, and more an evolution guided by the band’s live performances.
“The live thing is much better and more diverse than the records in ways,” the frontman explains. “We never tried to make the shows sound like the records…we always thought it was boring and confining.”
Though Too High To Die is a record that flits between solid commercial offerings and some less cohesive tracks, the one consistent element is the consummate musicianship. Kirkwood’s guitar work in particular speaks of a musician in his prime; electrified album opener ‘Violet Eyes’ smolders fairly with Kirkwood’s frenetic notes, racing along in tandem with the drum beat.
“We’ve always been just plain old players at heart and it’s fun to see how much you can tear it up,” he responds modestly.
“My biggest influence on that song was probably the same old…Jimi, Jimmy, and dirt bikes.”
According to Kirkwood, Too High To Die was “written in about three months and recorded in three weeks”.
“It was recorded in Memphis in a studio that was once a cotton warehouse…on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi,” he explains.
“It was very rustic and had a cool old feel to it, as the building was well over 100 years old.”
“We played a lot of ping pong and slunk around Memphis after hours exploring and meeting people. We worked pretty hard on it and Memphis was a great place to unwind after work.”“The introspective feeling is usually an accident…I’m just trying to come up with cool rhymes”
Songs like ‘Comin’ Down’ and ‘Station’ certainly echo the sense of fun that Kirkwood describes. There’s a light-hearted tone evident in the content and delivery of the lyrics, the buoyant basslines, and the whistled outro of ‘Station’. Does Kirkwood agree that there is an obvious humour to Too High To Die?
“I think there’s some funny stuff on that album…probably not intentionally funny but definitely intentionally throw-away,” he muses.
“All good music is serious, funny, and throw-away at the same time…after all, it’s just sounds and noises.”
This sense of irreverence apparently extends to the Too High To Die album cover, on which Kirkwood is photographed in a pink gingham dress. “The outfit on the cover was purchased at a thrift store in Phoenix…I was trying to look beautiful,” he deadpans.
Though when asked about the LP’s title and its jocular reference to The Ramones 1984 record Too Tough To Die, Kirkwood is less tongue-in-cheek.
“Holy shit! I didn’t know the Ramones had an album with that title…how embarrassing!” he exclaims.
“We were just trying to be silly and thought it sounded cool…I love the Ramones…always!”
A sense of humour is no doubt an indispensible trait for a group who have survived numerous break-ups, reformations, and lineup changes in the 20 years that have passed since Too High To Die.
With a current lineup consisting of the Kirkwood brothers, drummer Shandon Sahm, and Curt’s son Elmo often lending a hand on rhythm guitar, Meat Puppets are in Australia this month to play Melbourne’s Cherry Rock festival – and there’s good news for fans eager to hear Too High To Die in the flesh.
“We play a lot off that album,” the musician says. “I still love playing a lot of those songs…good songs are timeless.”
In terms of classics, Too High To Die is not a flawless album; the record suffers from a lack of consistency, and though it remains the group’s most commercially successful output, it is not exactly replete with radio-friendly offerings.
However, as Kirkwood correctly surmises, the good songs are indeed timeless, and Too High To Die’s legacy lives on in those tracks that have both cemented Meat Puppet’s longstanding reputation, and have served as inspiration for some of the most iconic bands of the 90s.
Meat Puppets 2014 Australian Tour
Saturday 24th May 2014 – HOBART, The Void – MONA<
Tuesday 27th May 2014 – MELBOURNE, Ding Dong Lounge – VIC – JUST ADDED
Acoustic Set and Meet ‘n’ Greet, 7.30pm
TIX: $20 @ Door Only
Wednesday 28th May 2014 – MELBOURNE, Ding Dong Lounge – VIC – JUST ADDED
Full band set
Thursday 29th May 2014 – ADELAIDE, Fowlers Live – SA
Friday 30th May 2014 – BRISBANE, The Zoo – QLD
Monday 2nd June 2014 – PERTH, The Astor Theatre – WA
Also headlining at
CherryRock 2014 Melbourne
Sunday 25 May – Cherry Bar, AC/DC Lane Melbourne
Tickets from: www.cherrybar.com.au
CherryRock 2014 Sydney
Saturday 31 May – The Factory Theatre
Tickets from www.factorytheatre.com.au