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.