The Meat Puppets, Such Good Students

September 01, 1992

An interview with Cris Kirkwood, bassist for the Meat Puppets

Foster Child #12, Fall 1992

In 1991, I interviewed Cris Kirkwood, bass player for the Meat Puppets, for a new music magazine. The Puppets' new album--their first for London records--Forbidden Places, had just been released (They recorded for SST for the previous nine years). The publicity rep allotted me 30 minutes of telephone conversation with Cris. After about 20 minutes I ran out of questions, and so, with one finger on the stop button, I asked if he had anything to add.

He did, about another 40 minutes worth.

I kept the tape rolling and fed him an occasional question as he outlined the fascinating philosophy behind the band. Later, when I finished my 600-word article for the new music magazine, I was disappointed by how little it conveyed of that rich post-interview interview. So I offered the full interview for my friend Tony's 'zine Foster Child. here it is. Enjoy.

FC: I heard of a poet who lived out your way (Arizona) who said he could tell the difference between poetry that was written out west and poetry that was written on the east coast. You could hear the openness of the land in the word choice and rhythms. Would you say that was true for music as well?

CK: Maybe. I guess it is [sounding doubtful]. You could talk in terms of that, but I really don't feel that way. My feeling is if it does, somebody hears it, then they do. But we never pointedly seen that.

The desert is an interesting place to live and does pretty interesting things to people. It's a good reflection of the way life really is; a short little stint of a thing that is aware of itself and really cares, and is put up against against this really adverse environment. Out there, you're not couched in a comfort-y sort of environment. It's just very stark, and all that living out there does is just strip away the delusions of this being Eden or anything, and maybe it gets you to [saying] 'What's the point of being?' It's somewhat alienating, in a good way.

FC: That's something I can't fathom, living on the east coast.

CK: Right, it's such a human environment out here. Man has really taken hold out here, but he hasn't as much in the desert, and you can see he doesn't have that much of a chance of it out there.

That's why we call ourselves the Meat Puppets, which can be taken as diminishing man's self-important view of himself. The things that really matter are like forever and ever. What really holds sway is time and how all-encompassing and entropic it is. It's like 'What happens to things eventually?' Well, they dry up and turn to dust and it's like 'eh, well, there you go.' Basically we're just a pile of walking dust. That's a comforting thought.

Modern man in the desert is a weird dichotomy. Man is so much about control and that place is so much about adaptability and compromise. Overall, man has so adapted environment to himself that he no longer recognizes himself. He's not even aware that the relationship exists. And it's causing troubles.

I don't want to go off on that shang-hi. It more relates to [the fact that] we're not Poison. We didn't want to be product rock.

FC: The paradox is that now you are product.

CK: We managed to get to it without conforming, without changing who we are. We didn't have to come to them, they came to us.

Most artists are just a bunch of fucking sluts. Here we are at the slag part of the interview. They're all just such dress-up-little-wannabe-mommy-didn't-love-me-enough [mocking] 'I need the attention and the affection of my fellow rodents.'

The poor press people are out there listening to this. I don't know what the hell they're about either. I mean I wouldn't want to have to interview some of these people for sure.

FC: We get a lot of the same answers.

CK: I just can't imagine interviewing some of these fucking people. 'What is your motive for this?' 'Money.' 'Why did you get into this?' 'Money.' 'What are you about?' 'Fucking money and pulling on my own little winkie.' It's like, oooh gross. Oh what else. Don't forget to plant the heel of your foot firmly in my eye socket as you thrust your way up. Gag, I didn't get into it from that side.

FC: But if you guys move from moderately successful, as you are now, to superstar successful, aren't there going to be situations that's going to force you into being that disconnected from the people around you?

CK: I think I already am. I'm not saying we're a band of the people at all. It's not like we're doing this as anti-that. All I'm saying is that it'd probably be boring to interview those people.

Maybe it's not, it would probably be fascinating. I know it is. I talked to Axyl Rose one time. He's a nice guy you know. He just happens to dress like that and he has a really nice body and he wears these cool pants and everybody loves him. So I don't happen to dress as nice so I'm not popular. Popularity, smopularity. I only want to break everybody's toys, wreck everyone's good times.

FC: How long did it take you to achieve that mind-set? Or were you always . . .

CK: Always. That's what the band started as. I'm proud, no I'm amazed that I put in the work. You can see it in my face. I can see it in my bones. It's a journey--it's as simple as that. But most people are so far from that these days, they're so disconnected. Most people aren't affected to talk in terms of that.

I wanted to do this for a long time. If you're going to make a lot of money, you are going to have a hard time doing that, because the fastest way to make money in this industry is to cash in on the latest trend. And if you do that, you're limiting yourself to a certain lifespan, until the next trend. And one of the things is to have this, to be the people we want. And that's all we've done. And it never had anything to do with not making a lot of money, but it never was specifically about making a lot of money.

FC: So you see the money aspect of it as just a residue of what you're doing?

CK: No, I think it gives people something to do. The human critter is a brainy thing, they need something. I just see it as what other people are doing. I give other people money and run. They can do whatever they want. I see life as a free lunch. And if someone else wants to pig out it's their business. Go ahead and stuff yourself, you might as well, they're only going to throw it away. I see it as something I never really set my sites on, just as I never really set my sites on being the world's fattest man.

Now that [success] has come around, there are some definite advantages. I've always been really glad we could make money doing this. And I think the industry developed out of people being really glad they could make money out of it, and that gets into the institution dynamics.

Systems develop where somebody has a really cool idea about how to live life or how to approach life or how to consider life and some other people really get into it and formalize it, and then everybody gets into it and it becomes dogmatic and bullshit and it doesn't mean anything anymore.

You can apply that to church. There was Christ, the disciples, Chistianity and Tammy Faye Baker. The same thing for rock n' roll. Who do you attribute the initial inspiration to? Probably to Elvis, the Beatles, Bob Dylan. The whole '60s thing is the church in the fervor stage. Then came disco and now . . Oh God it's my favorite band, Color Me Badd.

FC: Never heard of them

CK: There's four guys, one is a George Michael. One is a Milli Vanilli. Just complete product, four male models that somebody got together. So we're to the point where it's product. You say you're just one thing, but you're not it at all, you're just the husk of it. And somewhere in there the church exists, the music industry exists. Basically, it's not an evil malicious thing, but by the nature of the thing they figured out a way of selling a lot of records. I think if you're smart enough you can see where it's at and take advantage of it.

I don't think it's bad. It's just the way it is. Look what runaway consumerism has done.

FC: Is it consumerism, or is it just basic human nature?

CK: It's human nature. That same system of institutional decay can be applied to the individual in that each individual of that group undergoes the reaction of the system. At an early age, a young [man] has this idea that he's going to change the world, and by the time he's old, he's a slumped up old bastard who doesn't give a fuck and just wants to rape and pillage and that's that.

I do think that's how people work. And its effect on the music industry has been to make music not quite as fun as it once was, not as experimental.

FC: I don't know if there was ever an age when full-blown experimentation was hugely popular.

CK: Yeah, I think at a few different points that the fringe element of the music people, the most creative hardworking people, have been made popular. Like the big band era, when you had the really hot players, like Duke Ellington, the best players on the farthest side of experimentation, being real popular. Then again in the 60s; when the wheels went around in human awareness and then pop music came to be something where you could take a lot of drugs and still be popular--but its' not right now.

Things might as well be as going the way they were because if they weren't, our band couldn't be the way it is. If things weren't like this, if it were a really cool environment, I'd probably just be anybody else. If things hadn't been like 'God you want me to do this for my money, are you fucking kidding?' then I wouldn't have ended up being who I am.

FC: If you accomplished everything you set out to achieve, the band wouldn't be necessary?

CK: No, then I think the band would be hugely popular.

FC: As role models?

CK: Yeah, that, and as something celebrated as being really fucking cool, really broad reaching and if people weren't still so into classification and separatism and nationalism and all these -isms, if ism-matic wasn't such as human thing that needs so much to cling to lizard-like tendencies. . .

FC: But isn't that clinging the very basis to forming popularity?

CK: Yeah, but we don't support any of these particular-isms, other than ism-less-ism. And it's not like a goal we set out [to do]. We're not trying to change the world or anything. We're just this way. And if we were massively popular-and we're pretty darn popular-I think it would mean that tendency in human nature-to seek out and to boldly go where no man has gone before-would be holding a little more sway. And I think it probably will.

FC: Congratulations!! I see your album got an A+ in Entertainment Weekly.

CK: Yeah, I saw that. Such good students.

FC: Except I don't see how you can be compared to ZZ Top.

CK: Can't understand that? I think it's the three-piece thing. People are hung up on that. They call us that or the Grateful Dead, and I really don't mind, because both bands have been around for a long time, and they both are different from each other, but they're both really similar in a way too. They're both like 'What do you want to get out out of your music and how do you want to get it?' They realized 'God, you go far enough around something and you come back to the other side of it.

The serpent, she is our friend.

FC: Been to any Dead shows?

CK: Oh yeah, I actually dug the Dead at a certain point, and I still do. I think as a band, they are unreal. I know just from being in my band for as long as I have been with the same three guys that we're really flexible musically. They've been together twice as long and, damn, they're very fucking agile, musically.

They played two shows down in Phoenix and the second day they were just fucking stomping. It's like well, there it goes, there's that magic thing, there's that thing that just for some reason is really bitchin'. Wheeew!

Our band relies on that same thing, but we also rely somewhat on the ZZ thing, where you go 'Man it's just the beyond. It's always great, just fake it, it's all fake.'

So it's like that Hendrix thing. 'So Jimi do you rely on gimmicks?' So you get this big long answer on basically how everything is a gimmick.

That's why people like Hendrix die young. 'I don't give a shit, I'm so in tune with the fact that nothing matters that --prick--I'm gone. Then everybody else worships him, just like Christ. 'No, I won't back down, fuck you, kill me. That doesn't mean anything.' Man that's some balls. I actually worship that, the ability to relate to the beyond.

FC: Society usually discourages thoughts like that.

CK: Oh yeah, but they still worship it. It's all basically what Christian society is. It's completely based on the fact that Christ was so in touch with God, with the sense of what life really is, that he could let it go rather than compromise his ideals.

Yeah, we're pretty good little creatures, we do what we do. Yeah, so-and-so's powerful and so-and-so's a bum and he's rich and he's not and either was we all end up in the same place. We're the walking dead [sings:] 'Tombstone shadow . . .' So I should let you go, I guess.

FC: Yeah, I got enough for the article and a couple of 'zines . . .

CK: yeah, and a couple of books. So as soon as you get the first church done, you are Joseph and upon this pancake, I shall build my ham and egg stack.