25 years after Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged brought them global fame, Meat Puppets reunite for comeback album
The one-time underground heroes gained global recognition thanks to Nirvana covering three of their songs on MTV Unplugged
In 1980, three rebellious musicians got together in Phoenix, Arizona, to form what would become one of the most influential alternative rock acts of the decade - Meat Puppets. At its inception, the band comprised guitarist/vocalist Curt Kirkwood, his brother Cris Kirkwood (bass guitar/vocals), and drummer Derrick Bostrom.
Whether by choice or by fate, Meat Puppets remained the kind of band that always stayed at the fringes of rock, going through a host of lineup changes, disbanding twice, only to reform again.
Through their ups and downs and sudden left turns, Meat Puppets have released a total of 15 studio albums, with their most recent offering being 2013's 'Rat Farm'. Over the years, they've also influenced a host of bands including Soundgarden, Dinosaur Jr, Pavement, Sublime, and most famously, Nirvana.
In fact, hardcore Nirvana fans will remember the Meat Puppets as the single act which featured the most number of times on the many covers in the set list of Nirvana's now immortal 'MTV Unplugged' session.
The iconic stripped back performance saw Nirvana cover three Puppets songs - 'Plateau', 'Oh, Me' and 'Lake Of Fire', all taken from the Puppets' seminal 1984 LP 'Meat Puppets II'.
In fact, the not-so-hardcore fans will be pleasantly surprised to learn that both the Kirkwood brothers joined Nirvana on stage during the Unplugged gig, which was recorded in Nov 1993 and ultimately released the following year, making it the first Nirvana album to be released after Cobain's tragic passing.
In a strange twist of fate, it would ultimately by Cobain's suicide and the immortalization of Nirvana's 'MTV Unplugged' album that would ultimately get the Pups their first gold album. The story goes something like this.
Initially, Meat Puppets were an all-out punk band. A little over a year after their formation, they released their first EP, 'In a Car, on World Imitation'. At this point in their career, the band was at its noisiest, playing furious hardcore songs with experimental, avant-garde leanings. Greg Ginn, the lead guitarist for Black Flag and the head of SST Records (whose signees include alt rock legends like the Minutemen, Soundgarden and Dinosaur Jr), heard the EP and offered the Meat Puppets a contract. In 1982, the band released their full-length eponymous debut album on SST, which continued in the experimental vein of their EP.
Unlike their other labelmates at SST -- like Hüsker Dü or the Minutemen -- the Puppets didn't initially garner a cult following of fans. But they were able to carve out a long career unlike other hardcore bands, mostly because they always drew from conventional hard rock as well as punk.
Not only did they play hard, loud, and fast, but they blended elements of blues-rock, folk-tinged psychedelia, and even country rock. As the band matured musically, they developed an accomplished instrumental technique and moved closer to the traditional hard rock that always lay underneath their punk aesthetics. This maturity first showcased itself on their sophomore record 'Meat Puppets II', where the band created a fusion of punk and country that sounded unlike anything else in the American underground.
Through the rest of the 80s, the Puppets steadily cultivated a dedicated cult following across the US. Two more critically acclaimed albums followed and by 1987, Meat Puppets had established themselves as college radio stars, as well as popular attractions on the American underground circuit.
'Monsters', their final album for SST Records, was released in 1989, and its heavy rock attack foreshadowed the approach the band would adopt in the following decade. But the straightforward sound of 'Monsters' wasn't greeted favorably by the band's cult following and they soon disbanded, only to reunite in 1991, this time with London Records.
Meanwhile, a young group of Seattle rockers who would go on to become the godfathers of grunge were making their way up the rock world ranks, wearing their influences on their sleeve. Nobody really had an idea as to how big Nirvana would ultimately be, least of all the band itself.
But then came the era of grunge which hit the system reset button on the stagnating sound of hard rock, and by 1993, Nirvana were global rockstars and had scored a deal with MTV to play their famous 'Unplugged' session.
Nobody really knew what to expect out of a live acoustic set from the lound and noisy trio, with even MTV having no idea what they were dealing with.
In a 2014 interview with Billboard, Curt Kirkwood recollected what went down that fateful night. "I was in the crowd. I was just part of the audience up until our part. Then I knew when I was supposed to go on," Curt recollected.
"We had done a live rehearsal there at the stage before. It wasn't a real big place; it’s pretty intimate. Everybody there knew why they were there -- it wasn't like anybody had to be sold. By the time we got on it was a really good show. It was just going great so it was pretty normal. It was easy stuff, we played those songs a lot and acoustic stuff is just a lot easier for me because there's a lot less mystery to it."
Kirkwood also spoke about how the two bands befriended each other on the circuit and how he really had no idea that it would culminate in the 'Unplugged' session until it actually happened.
Coincidentally, Curt would go on to form a band with Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic called Eyes Adrift and it was only then that he learned how much the Puppets meant to a nascent Nirvana. "[Krist] would tell me that was just one of their favorite albums when they were younger before they were getting the band started," Curt admitted. "Those are pretty much the songs off of the record Meat Puppets II. There's half a dozen that we've done ever since then that have held up and we never got tired of playing them."
Admittedly, Kirkwood had no idea that the gig would turn into such a keystone moment in the rock world. He just saw it as two bands from the underground fringes doing something together to produce an evening of great music.
"We’d been outsiders up to that point, so I figured it was just par for the course. We're outsiders. They're outsiders, too," he said of the gig.
The exposure on MTV Unplugged ultimately helped set the stage for the commercial breakthrough of the Puppets' second major-label album, 1994's 'Too High to Die'. Released around the same time as MTV Unplugged originally aired, 'Too High to Die' didn't gather much attention at first, but after Kurt Cobain's suicide in April, the record and its first single, 'Backwater,' began to move.
This was in part due to radio's acceptance of 'Backwater,' but more importantly because of MTV's constant airings of Nirvana's MTV Unplugged. By the summer of 1994, 'Backwater' was a huge hit, climbing to number two on the album rock charts and just missing the pop Top 40.
None of the other singles from 'Too High to Die' performed quite as well, but the album was a success, becoming the group's first to go gold. Meat Puppets released 'No Joke!', their follow-up to 'Too High to Die', in the fall of 1995. However, this album received mediocre reviews and little airplay, and disappeared from the charts and radio a few months after its release, leaving the band back to square one - at the fringes where they first started off.
This November marked 25 years since the release of Nirvana's 'MTV Unplugged' album. Even today, it is undoubtedly one of the best live albums of last century. Meanwhile, over the last two decades, the legacy of Meat Puppets has endured through shifting lineups, Cris Kirkwood's drug addiction and ultimate recovery, loss of bandmates and not one, but two rebirths.
And now, for the first time since 1995's 'No Joke!', the Meat Puppets are back with their original lineup and have announced a new album. Titled 'Dusty Notes', the album is due out on March 8 via Megaforce. Joining the original trio will be keyboardist Ron Stabinsky, who joined the band in 2017, and Curt’s son Elmo, who’s been around since 2011.
For Bostrom, who left the band in 1996, returning to the Meat Puppets is a dream come true. “The band has been a really, really deep font of creativity,” Derrick said in a statement. “These guys are uncompromising. I consider the Meat Puppets to be a national treasure.”
The Meat Puppets promise that the album brings “a unique new vision of what the Meat Puppets can be.” The first taste of that concept comes with the first single, 'Warranty', a track described by Rolling Stone as a "quintessential Western stomp through a psychedelic haze of mesmerizing guitar lines."
Check out the new single below.
'Dusty Notes' is currently available for pre-orders. The band also plans to tour the US in 2019 to promote the album, although the dates are yet to be finalized. The Puppets are keeping things quite close to the chest for now, and even the tracklist is yet to be revealed, but something tells me that this is a sign of something spectacular arriving.
Also, in the wave of recent comeback albums and grand reunions, it's quite pleasant to see a band stay off the hype train and sneakily release a preview of what's to come. Maybe if the Smashing Pumpkins would have taken a leaf out of the Puppets' book, things would've probably turned out slightly better than they expected.