Very Human

After drugs, drama, violence and prison, Cris Kirkwood is back with the Meat Puppets

That a somewhat legendary and notorious musician from Phoenix was inspired to begin playing music after seeing Deliverance is somewhat remarkable on its own. But given the life Meat Puppets bassist Cris Kirkwood has led, the words "phoenix" and "deliverance" in this equation don't seem like mere coincidence.

Cris was 12 when he saw that film and was immediately drawn to the banjo. Eventually, Cris took up the bass, and his older brother, Curt, started playing guitar. As teenagers, the pair really weren't all that close, but they always had music in common, sharing a fondness for old country songs, bluegrass and jazz, as well as the usual rock stuff.

The Kirkwoods bought some drums and started hanging out with a group of friends who would jam in various combinations. It wasn't long before they realized that the combination of Curt on vocals and guitar, Cris on bass and vocals, and their punk-rock friend Derrick Bostrom on drums, was the one that was really starting to gel.

It wasn't long before Greg Ginn found them. As the de facto A&R guy for the label he owned, SST Records, Ginn had a discerning ear, releasing records by bands that played fast and hard, but also had a unique sound and aesthetic. His own group, Black Flag, provided the blueprint for a whole generation of hard-core bands; Minutemen were arty funk-punk; Husker Du played breakneck-speed pop songs coated in a sheet of noise. And then there were the Meat Puppets.

The Kirkwoods drew heavily from the complicated timing and structures of jazz and the Grateful Dead, who also provided country and psychedelic elements; they also drew from the straightforward, driving, shit-kicking blues-rock of ZZ Top. Meanwhile, Bostrom brought in a DIY ethos and punk spirit. In fashioning these seemingly disparate sources into some twisted hybrid, the Meat Puppets in the end sounded unlike anything else.

The band released a string of fine albums for SST, perhaps most notably 1984's Meat Puppets II, which was a breakthrough both stylistically and in terms of garnering them attention. By the early '90s, when bands were routinely graduating from micro-indies to major labels, the Meat Puppets followed suit, signing with London.

Their first real foray into the mainstream public's consciousness came in 1993, when the Kirkwoods were invited by Nirvana, who claimed the Meat Puppets as an influence, to perform with them on MTV Unplugged. That exposure, along with the single "Backwater," helped propel the Meat Puppets' next album, 1994's Too High to Die, into gold status. A follow-up the next year, No Joke!, didn't do much.

And then things turned really ugly, really quickly.

Curt moved from Phoenix to Austin, and Cris moved on from recreational drugs to stuff far more potent and addictive. By the time Cris moved in to take care of his mother, who was suffering from terminal cancer, he was regularly using heroin. Losing his mom only exacerbated things, and pretty soon, he and his wife, Michelle Tardif, had holed up, both full-blown junkies. Just when things seemingly couldn't get any worse, Tardif died of an overdose.

Tardif's death also brought with it yet another repercussion: Cris was now on the cops' radar. He went in and out of jail for possession, and during one of those "out" periods, there was the post office incident. Cris, who normally talks at a rapid pace, quickens the clip as he recounts what happened that day.

There was an argument with a woman over a parking space in the post office lot, and things got heated. There was yelling, and Cris told her to fuck off. "So she went and got the guard, and got him involved, and I told him to fuck off, too. And he pulled out his billy club and started hitting me with it, and I wrestled it away from him, and then I started walking away, and he shot me in the back."

By the time he began serving his 18 months in prison, Cris had ballooned in weight and lost most of his teeth.

Meanwhile, Curt had remained in Austin, estranged from his brother. He formed a new version of the Meat Puppets without Cris or Derrick. He formed a new band, Eyes Adrift, with former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and former Sublime drummer Bud Gaugh, then another band called Volcano, before releasing a solo album, Snow, in October 2005.

While in prison, Cris lost 150 pounds, and when he was released, his girlfriend and her family welcomed him back with open arms. A local dentist reached out to him "to give me some new chompers"; Cris reached out to Curt's son, Elmo, who told his father that Cris seemed to be doing pretty well; before long, Curt reached out to Cris to see if he was interested in playing music again. He, of course, was.

Since then, the Meat Puppets have recorded a new album, 2007's Rise to Your Knees; gotten a new drummer, Ted Marcus; and toured all over the United States and Europe.

"We're not kids anymore," says Cris, "but you take all that, what we were as a band originally, and who we are as musicians and shit, and you're helped by the longevity. It actually contributes to it in that way, because it is so much about, you know, music. And maybe there's not that youthful verve; maybe you lose that with time and experience, but you gain other things."

I ask if playing with his brother is more gratifying after all he's been through, and he says, "Well, it's definitely pretty amazing, that's for sure. And then there's something that resonates with just why I became an artist in the first place, and the kind of art that we've always made: very human. Very human. We're fragile, imperfect little strange, mysterious things, and victims of circumstance largely, yet masters of our own destiny and on and on. But definitely it's just like, 'Have I actually managed to fuckin' not only not die, but actually start playing music again with Curt, and actually playing music that's just kicking my ass? Is this really going on?' Yeah, it's fuckin' cool. Jesus, it beats the shit outta fuckin' corpses and pigs and death and the pokey--and getting shot. It definitely beats getting shot."

We both laugh, and I tell him I imagine most things in life are better than getting shot. Still laughing, he counters with, "It ain't the Ice Capades."