Music News & Reviews

Meat Puppets let instinct pull the strings

The current Meat Puppets lineup consists of Cris Kirkwood (bass), left, Shandon Sahm (drums) and Curt Kirkwood (guitar).
The current Meat Puppets lineup consists of Cris Kirkwood (bass), left, Shandon Sahm (drums) and Curt Kirkwood (guitar).

Throughout its 30-plus year history, the Meat Puppets have taken great delight in throwing stylistic curve balls.

Born at the height of pop's New Wave movement during the early '80s, the trio would shift course from ribald punk to folkish psychedelia to all manner of combo sounds that sprouted in between.

Sometimes the turns came between albums, like the way 1985's Up on the Sun, arguably the best of its early works, served up jangly, Byrds-like pop as a follow-up to the psychedelic meltdown of 1984's Meat Puppets II. That record, in turn, was a diversion from the punk onslaught of the band's self-titled 1982 debut. In other instances, styles would leapfrog within songs.

It was a stylistic course so jagged and unpredictable that one couldn't help but view singer/guitarist/ songwriter Curt Kirkwood and his bassist brother Cris Kirkwood as restless journeymen within a booming indie pop generation.

Today — three decades, a dozen albums and two breakups (and subsequent reunions) later — Curt Kirkwood revealed the genre-hopping punk imperative of the Meat Puppets isn't that calculated at all. In fact, with a new album, Rat Farm, due out next week and a concert stop at Cosmic Charlie's on Wednesday, he said the band's music — from songwriting to recordings to the sustained drive that continues to fuel its live shows — is a blend of instinct and immediacy.

"Yeah, that's the way it goes for us," he said. "It's always been that way. We never really plan too much. That's part of the cool thing about making a record to me. I mean, I'm not way into being in the studio. I like recording, but I'm not the kind of guy who likes to get hunkered down in there for too long. It's gets to be a little bit strange. You start picking at stuff. I like to go in and then sort of see what you get. That's a big part of the fun."

That's exactly what happened when the Kirkwood brothers began work on Rat Farm. Out went the comparative spit and polish of 2011's Lollipop. In came the trippy pop of Leave Your Head Alone, which could pass as an outtake of 1967-era Pink Floyd were it not for the modest country inflection in the vocals; the Up on the Sun- savvy Time and Money, and the trio rumble and pop undertow of Rat Farm's title tune.

"I'm kind of getting my head around the record now," Curt Kirkwood said. "I wrote a lot of it in the studio, so I just kind of let it go. Now I'm trying to learn it. A song or two a night, we're incorporating it into the set. But, yeah, I think it's pretty cool.

"One of the things we did was set up in the studio and played the basic tracks as a band and tried to get a sense of playing live in the way we recorded. We went for an analog sound that capitalized on what the band has going for it. We wanted Rat Farm to sound less like a studio project, which we've done quite a bit of recently — like with Lollipop. That was really a studio album."

The Kirkwoods have two key allies in bringing the music of Rat Farm to life. The record's trio sound is fleshed out by drummer Shandon Sahm, who has been a Meat Puppet on and off since the late '90s. The son of famed Texas musician Doug Sahm, the drummer has proven a vital addition to the Kirkwoods' wayward post-punk sounds.

"Shandom plays hard," Curt Kirkwood said. "He likes to be real deliberate. His playing is kind of simple, too. He likes to get things down to the essence. I may show him chord changes, and then if I've got a particular beat in mind, he'll play that. But a lot of times we will see what he can come up with. Shandom can play just about anything. But, primarily, I like to keep things simple — drum-wise, too."

The other contributor is another Kirkwood — specifically, Curt's son, Elmo. Though not featured on Rat Farm, he will flesh out the current Meat Puppets lineup to a quartet when it plays Lexington this week.

"He's got a magical approach to music," Curt Kirkwood said of his son. "He's really got his own thing going on. He's been around the band a lot and grew up with it, so he knows what it's supposed to be like. But he can also bring in a lot of his influences, which are a lot different than ours. I pretty much let Elmo do what he wants.

"That's how it was with me. I knew when I started to play music as a teenager that that's what I wanted to do. I knew that much. And nothing has come up since then that has made me feel otherwise."

If you go

Meat Puppets

When: 10 p.m. April 10

Where: Cosmic Charlie's, 388 Woodland Ave.

Tickets: $12. Available at