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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Meat Puppets Work Fast

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For someone who remembers all the details, Curt Kirkwood is a terrible historian of the band he fronts. He knows the facts (the Meat Puppets have been meat-puppeting since 1980) but puts no weight on the context. And there is a lot of context.

The Meat Puppets played grunge before there was grunge and have been an active participant in every phase of the alternative rock movement. They were signed to indie front-runner SST Records when punk was still underground. When punk broke, they were in the wave of bands that moved to major labels—and in the wave of bands that moved back to indies when the movement broke down. They were a key influence on that other Kurt's music and to countless other bands throughout the nearly 30 years since the release of the magnum opus Meat Puppets II.

Yet Kirkwood says he doesn't hear his influence on other bands. At least, it takes him a bit of effort and guidance to hear it.

“When Nirvana played our songs, I could put two and two together. But from their own material, it wasn't readily apparent to me,” Kirkwood says.

It seems a little hard not to notice the connection. If Nirvana and their ilk learned about distorted guitars from Black Sabbath and Iggy Pop, they learned about song structure, harmony and tempo from the Meat Puppets. It took only the most blatant evidence to convince Kirkwood of his influence—Nirvana seamlessly integrating his songs into the live album Unplugged in New York with the Meat Puppets called onstage as guests, playing the backing instruments.

Kirkwood's inability to hear his own sound in others isn't a slight at any bands, or a sign of general thickheadedness. It's from a lack of perspective on his own band.

“It's hard to know exactly what you sound like,” he says, something that would seem more reasonable had he not followed it up by explaining that it's actually closer to impossible for him to know what he sounds like.

“When I hear my band on the radio, I think, 'Hey, that's an interesting song,' before I realize, 'Oh, that's us,'” he says.

Maybe he'd have a better recollection if he gave himself more time to ponder the songs while recording. The new Meat Puppets album, Lollipop, was recorded in only eight days—not for lack of caring, but because that's just how the Meat Puppets do things. Their seminal album, II, was recorded in five days. The longest they've ever spent in the studio was a still-very-quick 10 days for Monsters (“The concept was to make an album that didn't sound like a Meat Puppets record,” Kirkwood says).

“I always like the spontaneity of the first takes,” he explains.

The Meat Puppets' audience likes that spontaneity, too; Monsters is often seen as a lesser album among the 13 the band has recorded. And there will be spontaneity: When Kirkwood hands out the songs, the band rehearses no more than a couple of days before recording. It has always seemed to work.

So maybe it isn't so important that a band approach its music with importance. The Meat Puppets have 30 years of fans to say otherwise. And while Kirkwood may not be weighted by his band's own gravity, that gravity still seeps its way through.

The Meat Puppets play Summerfest's U.S. Cellular Connection Stage at 8 p.m. on Saturday, July 9.