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Where's the Beef?

A humble Meat Puppet talks about why his band is so great

Curt Kirkwood likes to play with words. The Meat Puppets vocalist/guitarist is on the phone from his Tempe, Arizona home, enduring another round of interviews before embarking June 30 on a national tour as opening act for Stone Temple Pilots. I'm his third of the day, and there are two hours' worth of phoners lined up and waiting. It's the kind of P.R. grind most bands approach with a resigned sense of doom, but then, like I said, Kirkwood likes to play with words, and if most bands don't particularly dig the publicity chores that come with a tour, well, most bands aren't the Meat Puppets.

"Most bands are self-satisfied and arrogant and nominally talented," he says. "That's not fair to say, but fair's a sick concept in this world. The Meat Puppets are humble. Wizened. No, we're arrogant. We're shit. We're total shit, and we're immature about it, too. But we're good at playing rock music. That's one thing we're good at, and we make no bones about it."

The Meat Puppets -- Kirkwood, brother Cris on bass, and drummer Derrick Bostrom -- have been good at it for the better part of a 14-year career. But with the band's latest CD, Too High to Die, spawning a single, "Backwater," that's clogging AOR radio like a hairball in a dirty tub, the size of the audience that knows it has exploded to arena-sized proportions. Kirkwood thinks that's cool.

"It's really great, because our audience as a cult band has always been a lot of other artists and critics, very arms-folded-in-front-of-the-chest, and we strived for years to break them of that habit. We were always surprised that we were a cult/eclectic favorite, or cast as a punk rock band or alternative or anything -- we're entertainment. The kids that come out from radio and MTV are not very critical and they only come out to have a good time, and it's really fun, because we're not very self-critical. We really don't care what we do."

How the Meat Puppets -- who've toiled in a blanket of critical acclaim and popular obscurity since long before "alternative" became a marketing niche -- got their break is a story of timing. The late Kurt Cobain was a champion of Puppet rock, and when Nirvana's sales figures gave him the loudest voice in the rock landscape, he yelled for the Meat Puppets.

"He was our champion, our guardian angel, for a couple of months there, and he still is. I never had a champion, so it was pretty cool. It was all too Camelot-like."

Of course, without a strong song to back it up, the Cobain recommendation is just a blurb in a press kit, but according to Kirkwood, Cobain's stamp of approval helped push the Puppets over this latest plateau.

"We had this song ["Backwater"] that was getting momentum in the record company, and everybody was saying, "But how can this be? This song is so good, and yet, it's these fucking Meat Puppets," and all of a sudden Cobain comes through and he says, "You want to go on tour? You want to come on 120 Minutes?" and they just all shut up. They were being pulled by their instincts, but this thing really capped it off.

"I just try to put it in its proper perspective, because with all due respect, my 14 years means as much as anybody's endorsement. That's where I like to put the real credit. The credit goes to the band."

Ah, the band. The one that feeds on sandy desert imagery and psychedelicizes it with swashes of '70s rock and garish lyrical color (Kirkwood's favorite is purple). The band whose present alt-rock smash recalls nothing so much as .38 Special gone bad. (Which is, of course, what .38 Special was in the first place.) The band that's reported to glory in onstage acid-eating even unto this day.

Does Kirkwood care to comment?
"I wouldn't want to admit complicity in illegal activity," he says, before doing just that. "In my life, entirely subjectively, there is nothing negative to connote about my experiences with psychedelics. And there's everything positive. But people have been telling me, "Don't be so damn open about what you do, you're getting big. This shit will haunt you." So I've just come to sum up the thing as, well, I'm not on acid right now, I'll tell you that much. Although, umm... I wouldn't put it outside the realm of possibility to find myself in those circumstances again."

But if the band's fondness for altered states isn't a media misconception, the commonly described eclecticism of its music is.

"We're not eclectic. That's the key right there. We do a lot of different kinds of music, but in the same way that the Rolling Stones or the Beatles or Led Zeppelin did. We make them our own, and we always did. We're the Meat Puppets. Nobody knows why you die, or who killed O.J.'s wife or anything, so why try and figure out what the fuck the Meat Puppets are, you know?"

All of which vagueness is fine and dandy when you're listening to the music, which is some of the precious little in rock that doesn't require a hyphenated adjective. But that hasn't stopped anyone from trying, and the descriptive comparisons range anywhere from a crunchier Eagles to, as a friend succinctly put it, "the kind of country rock that goes over real well on the East Coast with people who've never heard real country."

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