Since the late ’80s, Mudhoney – the Seattle-based foursome whose muck-crusted version of rock, shot through with caustic wit and battened down by a ferocious low end – has been a high-pH tonic against the ludicrous and the insipid.
Thirty years later, the world is experiencing a particularly high-water moment for both those ideals. But just in time, vocalist Mark Arm, guitarist Steve Turner, bassist Guy Maddison, and drummer Dan Peters are back with Digital Garbage, a barbed-wire-trimmed collection of sonic brickbats. Arm’s raw yawp and his bandmates’ long-honed chemistry make Digital Garbage an ideal release valve for the 2018 pressure cooker, its insistent rhythms forcing movement and Arm’s sardonic lyrics offering a funhouse-mirror companion to the ever-more-ridiculous news cycle. “My sense of humor is dark, and these are dark times,” says Arm. “I suppose it’s only getting darker.”
Digital Garbage opens with the swaggering “Nerve Attack,” which can be heard as a nod both to modern-life anxiety and the ever-increasing threat of warfare. The album’s title comes from the outro of “Kill Yourself Live,” which segues from a revved-up Arm organ solo into a bleak look at the way notoriety goes viral. “I’m not on social media, so my experience is somewhat limited,” says Arm. “But people really seem to find validation in the likes—and then there’s Facebook Live, where people have streamed torture and murder, or, in the case of Philando Castile, getting murdered by a cop.”
“In the course of writing that song,” he adds, “I thought about how, once you put something out there online, you can’t wipe it away. It’s always going to be there—even if no one digs it up, it’s still out there floating somewhere.”
Appropriately enough, bits of recent news events float through the record—”Please Mr. Gunman,” on which Arm bellows “We’d rather die in church!” over his bandmates’ careening charge, was inspired by a TV-news bubblehead’s response to a 2017 church shooting, while the ominous refrain that opens the submerged-blues of “Next Mass Extinction” calls back to last summer’s clashes in Charlottesville, although Arm’s brutal delivery helps twist it into an indictment. Arm also went back to the pre-Mudhoney era for the titular insult of the stinging “Hey Neanderfuck.” ”National Lampoon made several comedy records in the 70s, and in one skit someone gets called a ‘Neanderfuck,’” Arm laughs. “I’ve always loved that insult and wondered why it never became a part of the American lexicon—it’s so brutal. It was high time to use that.”
Mudhoney’s core sound—steadily pounding drums, swamp-thing bass, squalling guitar wobble, Arm’s hazardous-chemical voice—remains on Digital Garbage, which the band recorded with longtime collaborator (and Digital Garbage pianist) Johnny Sangster at the Seattle studio Litho. The anti-religiosity shimmy “21st Century Pharisees” builds its case with Maddison’s woozy synths. “It adds a really nice touch to the proceedings,” Arm says of Maddison’s synth parts. “And Guy has really learned his way around his machines playing in a synth trio the past few years.”
The shuffling “Messiah’s Lament” is the band’s first song in 6/8—and it’s told from the point of view of a world-weary Jesus. And Digital Garbage closes with “Oh Yeah,” a brief celebration of skateboarding, surfing, biking, and the joy provided by these escape valves. “I would’ve really just loved to write songs about just hanging out on the beach, and going on a nice vacation,” says Arm. “But, you know, that probably doesn’t make for great rock.”
Mudhoney, however, know what does make great rock—and the riffs and fury of Digital Garbage will stand the test of time, even if the particulars fade away. “I’ve tried to keep things somewhat universal, so that this album doesn’t just seem like of this time—hopefully some of this stuff will go away,” Arm laughs. “You don’t want to say in the future, ‘Hey, those lyrics are still relevant. Great!’”
At their induction into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2017, the Meat Puppets, one of the most compelling, original and enduring bands in rock history, managed to both honor their story and introduce its next chapter.
On that night in August, at the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix, founding members Curt Kirkwood, on vocals and guitar; his brother Cris Kirkwood, on bass and vocals; and Derrick Bostrom, on drums, joined together onstage for the first time in over two decades. Throughout a set that included era-defining songs like “Lake of Fire,” “Plateau” and “Backwater,” the chemistry was more than promising, as Bostrom isn’t shy to point out. “It was so intense that even I couldn’t deny it!” he recalled recently. “It was just like, now I remember why we did this. It was magical.”
The white-hot enthusiasm he felt at that awards ceremony in Phoenix hasn’t waned. That rekindling has resulted in Dusty Notes, the band’s new Megaforce release and the first Meat Puppets studio album Bostrom has participated in since 1995’s No Joke! “This is a classic situation where the project took us over and we way exceeded our expectations,” he said of Dusty Notes, going on to call it the “best record we’ve ever done.”
Veteran Meatheads might scoff. After all, what could possibly top the warped, punk-infused country-rock of Meat Puppets II, the funky, jammy psychedelia of Up on the Sun or the hook-filled hard rock of Too High to Die? But Bostrom—and Dusty Notes—should be heard out. Since the band debuted in the early ’80s, Curt Kirkwood has continually proven himself to be among the most brilliant songwriters of his generation. Time after time, album after album, he’s demonstrated an extraordinary ability to draw upon various roots and rock styles en route to a unique new vision of what the Meat Puppets can be. His latest contributions, especially songs such as “Warranty,” “On,” “Nine Pins,” “Outflow” and the title track, evoke only the finest work by the finest American songwriters. Without credits on hand, you might take Dusty Notes for a covers collection that excavates forgotten gems from Nashville, Bakersfield and Laurel Canyon.
But with the exception of a reverent cover of the country standard “Sea of Heartbreak,” Dusty Notes is solely a testament to Kirkwood’s wise songcraft—and to the state-of-the-art Meat Puppets lineup that makes his new songs so vital. In addition to the newly reformed founding trio, the album features keyboardist Ron Stabinsky, a jazz-trained virtuoso adept at any style, and Curt Kirkwood’s son Elmo, whose old-school rock-guitar grit ideally complements his father’s spacier explorations. Intuitive, inspired and overflowing with genuine musicianship, it’s the sort of band that can transform what Curt describes as “simple yet engaging” songs into maiden voyages each night on the road. “I can ignore my vocal and listen to the other four guys play,” Kirkwood said, chuckling. “They’re all so good.”
Or as Bostrom put it, “Curt really wanted to do something that he could enjoy playing and the band could really sink their teeth into. This doesn’t feel like an oldies act; it feels like the culmination.”
For the Meat Puppets, the backstory that led to that peak reads like a kind of Great American Rock Novel. It begins with kids, enamored of music and immersed in the psychedelic drug culture of Arizona in the ’70s, who find their way to punk rock, painstakingly become one of the most important bands of the American underground and go on to achieve mainstream rock stardom. A hiatus and resurrection follow, as Kirkwood doggedly furthers the Meat Puppets’ legacy—first on his own, and then alongside his brother, who’d conquered profound personal demons.
Stepping outside the band again, Bostrom can only marvel at the brothers’ tenacity. “The Meat Puppets have just been a really, really deep font of creativity,” he said. “Love it or hate it, hit or miss, Curt is just prodigious. When I got to know these guys again, I realized that they are still living the rock lifestyle; they’re not doing it by half measures. They stayed on the road. These guys are uncompromising. I consider the Meat Puppets to be a national treasure.”
The Meat Puppets’ story begins with idle time spent in the wide-open spaces of the Phoenix area during the early 1980s. Friendly high school acquaintances, Bostrom and Curt Kirkwood were in the dawn of their twenties, unemployed and “starting to hang out because we were the only guys home,” the drummer recalled with a laugh. “Cris was going to school at the time, so we would lay around waiting for him to get out, and then he would join us as a trio. We began to make such a hellacious racket that we knew we were on to something.”
The collective influences in play ran the gamut—classic rock, British prog, the Dead, Zappa, Beefheart, fusion, the jazz avant-garde and, of course, punk rock, which had enjoyed a tightknit but robust scene in Phoenix since the mid-to-late ’70s. But the fascinating take on hardcore that can be heard on Meat Puppets, the band’s 1982 SST debut, had more to do with punk rock’s ethos of creative freedom (and Arizona’s psychedelic history) than with any calculated musical strategy. “Curt was trying to play in straight bands and getting kicked out,” Bostrom recalled. “I told him, ‘No—in this day and age you can be anything you need to be, and this band is going to support your weirdness.”
Throughout the ’80s, the Meat Puppets found a crucial advocate in SST. Founded by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn, the trailblazing indie label emboldened the trio to follow their whims from one artistically brazen record to the next, and spearheaded a national touring network that gave them hard-earned exposure. Still, the hardcore kids devoted to the likes of Flag didn’t always take kindly to three longhairs whose punk was infused with Neil Young. “I got spit on so much,” Curt said. “I would get spit in my open eyeball and come offstage with loogies dripping off the guitar. It was hideous.”
But the band persevered, and by the late ’80s a dependable legion of Meatheads had accrued. “It was the attrition of the naysayers going away,” Curt recalled, “and not bothering to come and waste their money and waste our time.” But the same nonstop cycle of touring and recording that allowed the band to gather their following was also threatening to burn it out. “We were trying to do this to make a living,” Bostrom said, “so we were definitely interested in new opportunities.”
Major labels had begun to pluck the best of what was then called college rock, but the Meat Puppets weren’t the easiest sell. “We were not punk enough, and we were too punk,” Bostrom said. Eventually a deal was struck with London, and the Meat Puppets’ second album for the label, Too High to Die, became a gold record with a breakout single, “Backwater.”
During the fall prior to that album’s January ’94 release, essential groundwork was laid. Nirvana, touring in support of In Utero, asked the band to open some shows in October. A couple of nights into the stint, Kurt Cobain told Kirkwood that Nirvana was taping an MTV Unplugged soon, and that he needed the brothers to guest at the performance in New York. “He said he couldn’t play the guitar parts,” Kirkwood said with a chuckle. And so “Lake of Fire” and “Plateau,” two of Cobain’s favorite tunes off of one of his favorite albums, Meat Puppets II, became staples of MTV when the network was still a taste-making behemoth. As Kirkwood saw it, his songs were being interpreted by a once-in-a-generation talent. “That’s a special voice,” he said. “That’s like a George Jones voice, somebody that’s immediately recognizable. A Neil Young voice.” A quarter-century later, the Nirvana association continues to be a catalyst for fandom. “It’s been the most constant vein that draws people in,” Kirkwood said.
Despite such achievement, the Meat Puppets hit a wall not much later. No Joke!, the follow-up to Too High, was strong, but lightning didn’t strike twice. The majors were quickly losing interest in the indie scene they’d been exploiting, Cris’ drug use had become a dire problem, and Bostrom was at a crossroads. “I needed to get a life,” he said. “I’d been on the road for 15 years.” Post-Nirvana sales and royalties had given everyone some savings, so we could afford to part ways.
Kirkwood and Bostrom remained on good terms. A computer enthusiast who built a thriving career in information technology, Bostrom became the band’s webmaster and oversaw their ambitious Rykodisc reissue campaign in 1999. By the time Kirkwood assembled a new Meat Puppets lineup for 2000’s Golden Lies, Bostrom was happily settled into his work and family life. Cris, once again happy and healthy, and Curt reunited for 2007’s Rise to Your Knees and three well-received subsequent albums. The Meat Puppets continued to grow and impress as a live act, though the set lists mostly acknowledged albums such as Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun, which had long been recognized as landmarks of alternative music.
Meatheads should go ahead and add Dusty Notes to the canon, on record and onstage. “When we had it pretty much done,” Curt Kirkwood recalled, “Derrick said, ‘You know what people are gonna do after they listen to this? Listen to it again.’”