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Chief Puppet keeps high-wire act going

The Meat Puppets have survived three decades of the circus that is rock ’n’ roll. They’ll play in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
The Meat Puppets have survived three decades of the circus that is rock ’n’ roll. They’ll play in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
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If the Meat Puppets have on more than a few occasions over their 30-year career been a circus, then Curt Kirkwood is the undisputed ringmaster.

And the lion tamer. And the guy who walks behind the elephants with a shovel.

In other words, the glue that held the band together.

How does one accomplish that, even during the wildest of times?

“Oh, just stay away from the wild people and the wild stuff,” Kirkwood, the guitarist, singer and songwriter, said by phone from his home in Austin. “Keep it in my head, just keep a place there for it. And a lot of luck, there’s always luck. …

“I believe in luck. You might as well throw a handful of rocks up and see where they fall in this world. But then you throw those handful of rocks up enough times and sometimes they’ll fall in places that you want them to. A little stubbornness, or a lot of it, in my case, goes a long way.”

The Meat Puppets have always shown a stubborn side, especially in refusing to conform. They came out of Phoenix in 1980, a three-piece with Curt’s younger brother, Cris, on bass and Derrick Bostrom on drums, playing punk fast and loud and, a lot of the time, sloppy. The beauty of it was, in those halcyon days of the punk movement, it didn’t matter.

Signed to SST Records, the label started by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, the Puppets soon became one of its high-profile trios, along with Hüsker Dü and the Minutemen.

“It was like boys’ club,” Kirkwood said of the SST days. “It was a big YMCA. … There was the occasional female allowed in as long as they had short hair, and if you could take a punch in the arm, I guess.”

Those were heady times, fueled by musical innovation, chemical indulgence and a spirit of camaraderie that survives today.

“SST was part of the LA scene, we were also part of the LA Free Music Society thing concurrently,” Kirkwood said. “… We got absorbed by the South Bay crowd because we played fast, and everybody wanted to be punk rockers and they played fast, and stir up the suburbanite malcontents. We played faster than just about anybody, that’s why they liked us. It really was a huge support group where everybody was really friendly, and those are still some of our oldest friends in the business.”

The Puppets’ first album, released in ’82, was all thrash and fury; their second, in ’84, incorporates a wide range of styles and is considered by many one of the most important albums of the 1980s. “Up on the Sun,” which came out the next year, is a classic of psychedelia, so much so that the band played it in its entirety last month at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England at the behest of Animal Collective, the event’s organizers.

The Meat Puppets made six albums for SST, the last being “Monsters” in ’89. The band signed with London Records, which released three albums, including the 1994 “Too High to Die,” which was its biggest commercial success and yielded a hit in “Backwater.” Things were peaking; Cris and Curt had appeared on Nirvana’s classic MTV “Unplugged” session and their popularity was at its highest.

So, unfortunately, was the bass player.

Cris’ well-documented battle with drugs brought things to a crashing halt. He battled his demons and legal problems for the better part of a decade but emerged clean and healthy.

During the hiatus Curt participated in a variety of bands and recording projects, some under the name Meat Puppets. In 2006, with Cris ready to go again, Curt brought his brother back into the fold and, with a new drummer, recorded “Rise to Your Knees,” which was followed last year by “Sewn Together.”

This year the band recorded “Lollipop,” its second with drummer Shandon Sahm; it was released in April.

Where “Sewn Together” was jam-oriented and loose, “Lollipop” features mostly straightforward tunes that show off Kirkwood’s songwriting skills. That, he said, was by design.

“With ‘Sewn Together,’ I did a lot of different overdubs, and just made it kind of cool sounding, I thought,” he said. “With this one, I wanted to make it simple, make it easier to play live, so I just didn’t put so many bells and whistles on it.”

For a band that has survived three decades of the circus that is rock ‘n’ roll, Meat Puppets are doing quite well. There’s the tour that began last month in Europe and runs through July. The new album is getting good reviews. Kirkwood reacquired the rights to the band’s early material, which is being reissued on vinyl. And most important, it’s still enjoyable.

“I’m obviously staying current with it,” he said. “It’s fun to look back and stuff, but I don’t really look back.

“It’s as fun as it ever was.”

Meat Puppets
With Flamingo
WHERE and WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, June 9, at Sol Santa Fe, 27 Fire Place, Santa Fe. Doors open at 6. Also, 9 p.m. Friday, June 10, at Launchpad, 618 W. Central. Doors open at 8
HOW MUCH: $13 for the Sol Santa Fe show, $12 for the Launchpad show. For tickets, visit www.solsantafelive.com or www.launchpadrocks.com

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