Meat Puppets / Mudhoney
Great American Music Hall
San Francisco, CA
Doors: 7:00PM | Show: 8:00PM
Tickets on sale Friday, 1/21 at 10am!
$38 ADV / $42 Door
Doors 7pm / Show 8pm
At their induction into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2017, the Meat Puppets, one of the most compelling, original and enduring bands in rock history, managed to both honor their story and introduce its next chapter.
On that night in August, at the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix, founding members Curt Kirkwood, on vocals and guitar; his brother Cris Kirkwood, on bass and vocals; and Derrick Bostrom, on drums, joined together onstage for the first time in over two decades. Throughout a set that included era-defining songs like “Lake of Fire,” “Plateau” and “Backwater,” the chemistry was more than promising, as Bostrom isn’t shy to point out. “It was so intense that even I couldn’t deny it!” he recalled recently. “It was just like, now I remember why we did this. It was magical.”
The white-hot enthusiasm he felt at that awards ceremony in Phoenix hasn’t waned. That rekindling has resulted in Dusty Notes, the band’s new Megaforce release and the first Meat Puppets studio album Bostrom has participated in since 1995’s No Joke! “This is a classic situation where the project took us over and we way exceeded our expectations,” he said of Dusty Notes, going on to call it the “best record we’ve ever done.”
Veteran Meatheads might scoff. After all, what could possibly top the warped, punk-infused country-rock of Meat Puppets II, the funky, jammy psychedelia of Up on the Sun or the hook-filled hard rock of Too High to Die? But Bostrom—and Dusty Notes—should be heard out. Since the band debuted in the early ’80s, Curt Kirkwood has continually proven himself to be among the most brilliant songwriters of his generation. Time after time, album after album, he’s demonstrated an extraordinary ability to draw upon various roots and rock styles en route to a unique new vision of what the Meat Puppets can be. His latest contributions, especially songs such as “Warranty,” “On,” “Nine Pins,” “Outflow” and the title track, evoke only the finest work by the finest American songwriters. Without credits on hand, you might take Dusty Notes for a covers collection that excavates forgotten gems from Nashville, Bakersfield and Laurel Canyon.
But with the exception of a reverent cover of the country standard “Sea of Heartbreak,” Dusty Notes is solely a testament to Kirkwood’s wise songcraft—and to the state-of-the-art Meat Puppets lineup that makes his new songs so vital. In addition to the newly reformed founding trio, the album features keyboardist Ron Stabinsky, a jazz-trained virtuoso adept at any style, and Curt Kirkwood’s son Elmo, whose old-school rock-guitar grit ideally complements his father’s spacier explorations. Intuitive, inspired and overflowing with genuine musicianship, it’s the sort of band that can transform what Curt describes as “simple yet engaging” songs into maiden voyages each night on the road. “I can ignore my vocal and listen to the other four guys play,” Kirkwood said, chuckling. “They’re all so good.”
Or as Bostrom put it, “Curt really wanted to do something that he could enjoy playing and the band could really sink their teeth into. This doesn’t feel like an oldies act; it feels like the culmination.”
For the Meat Puppets, the backstory that led to that peak reads like a kind of Great American Rock Novel. It begins with kids, enamored of music and immersed in the psychedelic drug culture of Arizona in the ’70s, who find their way to punk rock, painstakingly become one of the most important bands of the American underground and go on to achieve mainstream rock stardom. A hiatus and resurrection follow, as Kirkwood doggedly furthers the Meat Puppets’ legacy—first on his own, and then alongside his brother, who’d conquered profound personal demons.
Stepping outside the band again, Bostrom can only marvel at the brothers’ tenacity. “The Meat Puppets have just been a really, really deep font of creativity,” he said. “Love it or hate it, hit or miss, Curt is just prodigious. When I got to know these guys again, I realized that they are still living the rock lifestyle; they’re not doing it by half measures. They stayed on the road. These guys are uncompromising. I consider the Meat Puppets to be a national treasure.”
The Meat Puppets’ story begins with idle time spent in the wide-open spaces of the Phoenix area during the early 1980s. Friendly high school acquaintances, Bostrom and Curt Kirkwood were in the dawn of their twenties, unemployed and “starting to hang out because we were the only guys home,” the drummer recalled with a laugh. “Cris was going to school at the time, so we would lay around waiting for him to get out, and then he would join us as a trio. We began to make such a hellacious racket that we knew we were on to something.”
The collective influences in play ran the gamut—classic rock, British prog, the Dead, Zappa, Beefheart, fusion, the jazz avant-garde and, of course, punk rock, which had enjoyed a tightknit but robust scene in Phoenix since the mid-to-late ’70s. But the fascinating take on hardcore that can be heard on Meat Puppets, the band’s 1982 SST debut, had more to do with punk rock’s ethos of creative freedom (and Arizona’s psychedelic history) than with any calculated musical strategy. “Curt was trying to play in straight bands and getting kicked out,” Bostrom recalled. “I told him, ‘No—in this day and age you can be anything you need to be, and this band is going to support your weirdness.”
Throughout the ’80s, the Meat Puppets found a crucial advocate in SST. Founded by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn, the trailblazing indie label emboldened the trio to follow their whims from one artistically brazen record to the next, and spearheaded a national touring network that gave them hard-earned exposure. Still, the hardcore kids devoted to the likes of Flag didn’t always take kindly to three longhairs whose punk was infused with Neil Young. “I got spit on so much,” Curt said. “I would get spit in my open eyeball and come offstage with loogies dripping off the guitar. It was hideous.”
But the band persevered, and by the late ’80s a dependable legion of Meatheads had accrued. “It was the attrition of the naysayers going away,” Curt recalled, “and not bothering to come and waste their money and waste our time.” But the same nonstop cycle of touring and recording that allowed the band to gather their following was also threatening to burn it out. “We were trying to do this to make a living,” Bostrom said, “so we were definitely interested in new opportunities.”
Major labels had begun to pluck the best of what was then called college rock, but the Meat Puppets weren’t the easiest sell. “We were not punk enough, and we were too punk,” Bostrom said. Eventually a deal was struck with London, and the Meat Puppets’ second album for the label, Too High to Die, became a gold record with a breakout single, “Backwater.”
During the fall prior to that album’s January ’94 release, essential groundwork was laid. Nirvana, touring in support of In Utero, asked the band to open some shows in October. A couple of nights into the stint, Kurt Cobain told Kirkwood that Nirvana was taping an MTV Unplugged soon, and that he needed the brothers to guest at the performance in New York. “He said he couldn’t play the guitar parts,” Kirkwood said with a chuckle. And so “Lake of Fire” and “Plateau,” two of Cobain’s favorite tunes off of one of his favorite albums, Meat Puppets II, became staples of MTV when the network was still a taste-making behemoth. As Kirkwood saw it, his songs were being interpreted by a once-in-a-generation talent. “That’s a special voice,” he said. “That’s like a George Jones voice, somebody that’s immediately recognizable. A Neil Young voice.” A quarter-century later, the Nirvana association continues to be a catalyst for fandom. “It’s been the most constant vein that draws people in,” Kirkwood said.
Despite such achievement, the Meat Puppets hit a wall not much later. No Joke!, the follow-up to Too High, was strong, but lightning didn’t strike twice. The majors were quickly losing interest in the indie scene they’d been exploiting, Cris’ drug use had become a dire problem, and Bostrom was at a crossroads. “I needed to get a life,” he said. “I’d been on the road for 15 years.” Post-Nirvana sales and royalties had given everyone some savings, so we could afford to part ways.
Kirkwood and Bostrom remained on good terms. A computer enthusiast who built a thriving career in information technology, Bostrom became the band’s webmaster and oversaw their ambitious Rykodisc reissue campaign in 1999. By the time Kirkwood assembled a new Meat Puppets lineup for 2000’s Golden Lies, Bostrom was happily settled into his work and family life. Cris, once again happy and healthy, and Curt reunited for 2007’s Rise to Your Knees and three well-received subsequent albums. The Meat Puppets continued to grow and impress as a live act, though the set lists mostly acknowledged albums such as Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun, which had long been recognized as landmarks of alternative music.
Meatheads should go ahead and add Dusty Notes to the canon, on record and onstage. “When we had it pretty much done,” Curt Kirkwood recalled, “Derrick said, ‘You know what people are gonna do after they listen to this? Listen to it again.’”
“When in doubt, fudge it.”
On September 19, 1990, perhaps with an eye on the daily news reports of US forces massing in Saudi Arabia in preparation for an assault on Iraq, Mark Arm recorded a version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” at Reciprocal Recording studio in Seattle. Mudhoney fans might have been surprised to learn that the voice of such mindblown anthems to oblivion as “If I Think” and “In ‘n’ Out of Grace,” was now taking on the definitive antiwar song. The times were indeed a-changin’ – both for the world, and for Mudhoney.
During the same Reciprocal session with engineer Jack Endino, some further work was done on a recording from earlier that same year. On May 19, Mudhoney had taped five songs at Music Source, a large studio in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district. Endino was behind the desk then – as he had been for 1988’s catalytic debut double-A side “Touch Me I’m Sick”/”Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More,” the Superfuzz Bigmuff mini-album and 1989’s self-titled LP – and this session was notionally the start of the next Mudhoney album. But the fact that nothing had been done with these recordings after four months told its own story.
“We decided we didn’t much care for it,” Steve Turner says today. “It didn’t sound right to me, it sounded a little too fancy, too clean. It didn’t have the dirt.”
Mudhoney hadn’t gotten where they were by sounding a little too fancy. “Touch Me I’m Sick” made a virtue of its tactile grubbiness – and in so doing, ignited a generation aesthetically jaded by pop culture always equating sophistication with progress. Yet now Mudhoney were apparently acquiescing to the same principle. During the few months which separated “Touch Me”/”Sweet Young Thing” from Superfuzz Bigmuff, Reciprocal had upgraded from 8-track recording to 16, and it was on this higher spec machine that Mudhoney had recorded both their mini-album and debut long-player. Granted, in the context of songs like “Here Comes Sickness” and “Flat Out Fucked,” ‘sophistication’ was a relative term. But as Mark Arm subsequently observed: “There was a grittiness to that very first single that never quite got recaptured.”
The Music Source session utilised 24 tracks, distancing Mudhoney even further from their raw essence. Unhappy with the recordings, Steve Turner instigated a change of direction. He noted that Thrillsphere, the cool new album by Tacoma WA garage rockers Girl Trouble, had been released by PopLlama, a record label run by Conrad Uno out of his house in Seattle’s U-District. In the basement of that same house, Uno had a recording studio, named Egg after the cartons pasted on the walls in an optimistic attempt at sound-proofing, which also boasted a ’60s vintage 8-track Spectra Sonics recording console, originally built for Stax in Memphis.
In the two-plus years since Mudhoney’s official inception on January 1, 1988, Turner had become worn down by the routine of what increasingly felt like a career as a professional musician – something he’d never aspired to. One benefit of the band’s frequent visits to the UK in 1989/90, however, had been the ready availability of cheap original era punk singles, which Turner brought home by the box-load. He proposed a twin-pronged palate-cleansing operation.
“My idea was, why don't we go check out Egg Studios, go in there for a day and record a bunch of punk covers, and see what it sounds like. I called Conrad, and said, ‘This is Steve from Mudhoney. We want to come in there and record with you.’ He started laughing, and just said, ‘Why?!’ I figured that bode well for Conrad!”
Over a couple of days at Egg in October, Mudhoney celebrated their love for punk of all shapes and nationalities, cutting versions of The Adolescents’ “Who Is Who,” Angry Samoans’ “You Stupid Asshole,” The Damned’s “Stab Yor Back,” Devo’s “Gut Feeling,” The Milkshakes’ “She’s Just 15,” and Void’s “Dehumanized.” Loose plans to release a punk covers album were abandoned when it emerged Guns N’Roses were toying with a similar notion – ironically, as GN’R’s The Spaghetti Incident wouldn’t appear until 1993, and turned out more a heavy rock smorgasbord than Mudhoney’s lean’n’lethal concept. Nonetheless the exercise was vindicated, as Uno’s funky basement joint both felt and sounded right.
“We felt instant kinship and friendship with Conrad,” Turner says. “He’s a really laid-back, funny, easy-going, nice guy.”
So it was that Mudhoney went back to Egg in the spring of 1991 to record Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. Turner’s notion to reboot the group’s energy by foregrounding its brusque garage rock roots was collectively embraced. Arm bought a Farfisa organ, belatedly applying the skills acquired from childhood piano lessons: he cooked up a satirical psychedelic storm for opener “Generation Genocide” and added vital garnish to “Who You Drivin’ Now?”, an instant Mudhoney classic that began life as a tribute to the Pacific Northwest’s original garage rock kings. “That was originally written for an Estrus label compilation,” Arm noted. “We were like, ‘Oh we’ll just write them a fake Sonics song.’ And once we did, we thought: ‘Man, this song is too good to give away, this needs to be on our next record.’”
“I’ve always been way into the ’60s garage,” Turner says. “Me and Dan lived together at the time, so I was feeding his interests, while me and Mark had always been into the Pebbles records. I guess something like The Lollipop Shoppe’s “You Must Be a Witch” was a huge thing early on, and it’s not too different to The Stooges. And The Sonics, obviously. To me, it was still in keeping with some of those other mid-to-late-’80s post-hardcore bands that I was into, like Drunks With Guns, who had a real garage rock aesthetic but just put through the blender.”
Dialling down the self-titled album’s heavy wah-wah longueurs brought other deep rooted influences to prominence, most notably Neil Young on “Broken Hands,” a masterful mid-album mood piece which imagined the guitar coda to Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” as the basis for a separate song: Mark Arm’s wracked vocal detailing a doomed love affair, the group’s steady grind building to Steve Turner’s solo and finally a crazed electronic outro that suggested Hawkwind’s “Brainstorm” infecting Roxy Music’s “Out of the Blue.” The closing ”Check-Out Time,” meanwhile, was Mudhoney’s second stellar Spacemen 3 hat-tip, following “When Tomorrow Hits” on the previous album, albeit this time with a bonus sideways nod to “Did He Jump” by Zounds. The quartet’s special personal alchemy meant these fond homages to those who had previously served never slid into pastiche.
“I remember in the early days thinking to myself, I could exactly copy a riff from some obscure record, and by the end it wouldn't sound anything like that because the other guys wouldn't know what it was I was ripping off,” Turner says. “Like, OK, now it’s completely different!”
The fifth element was Conrad Uno and Egg’s warm tonal ambience, which lent these trenchant ensemble performances a startling sense of immediacy. “Let It Slide” all but spat slivers of wood and steel at the listener, as the Matt Lukin-Dan Peters rhythm section ploughed headlong into the yammering guitars and Arm’s degenerate preaching: “They own you to the grave, nobody’s here to stay…”
Ultimately, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge epitomised the very best of Mudhoney: here was a band reconnecting with its purest instincts, and in the process reinventing itself. This 30th anniversary edition, remastered by Bob Weston at Chicago Mastering Service, stands as testimony to the intense creative surge that drove them during this period. The album sessions yielded a clutch of material that would subsequently appear on B-sides – notably the stinging “Ounce Of Deception,” easily worth a place on the main record – or were scattered on various compilations and split-singles. It’s great to have these gathered together here. There’s also: the non-album single “You’re Gone” plus its flipside, the early version of “Thorn,” recorded in March 1990 during the band’s legendary first Australian tour; an unreleased version of “Paperback Life,” the Billy Childish tribute that possibly toppled into wholesale larceny; and a new Johnny Sangster mix of “Overblown,” Mudhoney’s contribution to the 1992 Singles movie soundtrack.
The sweetest gravy for keen Mudhoney anthropologists, meanwhile, is the Music Source session in its entirety. Only one of these tracks has been released before (“Something So Clear,” on a Reflex magazine flexidisc), but now all five are available newly mixed by Jack Endino, offering a fascinating glimpse of an alternate historical path. Or, as Dan Peters puts it: “These are the 24-track demos for our 8-track album.”
By going back to basics with Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, Mudhoney flipped conventional wisdom. Not for the first time – or the last – they would be vindicated. A month after release in July 1991, the album entered the UK album chart at Number 34 (five weeks later, Nirvana’s Nevermind entered at 36) and went on to sell 75,000 copies worldwide. A more meaningful measure of success, however, lay in its revitalisation of the band, casting a touchstone for the future. This album is a major chapter in Mudhoney’s ongoing story, the moral of which has to be: when in doubt, fudge it.
Meat Puppets / Mudhoney