It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a moment in rock history when the idea of combining progressive rock with punk was considered as far-fetched as the concept of Peter Frampton as a great artist. Influenced by the '50s revival of the early '70s, the early punks looked down their noses at Frampton, Yes and The Grateful Dead. Yet The Meat Puppets started out as a post-punk band influenced by such Los Angeles groups as The Germs, and became exponents of just the sort of rock 'n' roll that punk supposedly killed. They've always played their guitar-crazy classic rock faster than the Dead did, and their new full-length Rat Farm (out April 16 via Megaforce Records) lays out their post-hippie, post-punk worldview in all its psychedelic complexity.
Rat Farm finds Meat Puppets songwriter, singer and guitarist Curt Kirkwood joined once again by his bassist brother Cris, whose struggles with addiction and eventual incarceration interrupted his tenure with the band for a time. With Shandon Sahm on drums, the band sounds tighter than they did in the '80s and '90s, when original skinsman Derrick Bostrum kept time. Lauded as a guitar hero for his '80s work, Kirkwood has evolved — Rat Farm contains his psychedelic axmanship, but he's a crafty songwriter.
"I still just kind of write down what I have," Kirkwood says. "I've never been able to work real hard at it. I've tried to sit down and be more systematic, but sometimes I have to wait until I got ideas — I'm held hostage by this stuff in that way."
Born in Texas in 1959, Kirkwood grew up in Phoenix, where he absorbed rock and punk. The Meat Puppets' self-titled 1982 debut showed the influence of Los Angeles punk and hardcore, itself influenced by late-'60s avant-garde rock.
Signed to New Wave label SST, the band began to incorporate elements of psychedelic folk rock into their sound. Meat Puppets II, from 1984, is an amalgam of country-rock and The Ramones. That record's "I'm a Mindless Idiot" owes a debt to the approach of such early-'70s rock groups as The James Gang.
"The thing we got together around was doing punk-rock covers and Beatles covers," says Kirkwood. "You name it — Elvis covers. We liked The Ramones and The Damned and whatnot, the L.A. hardcore scene. As we started recording it, we would just move on and try to record some other stuff we were interested in."
With Kirkwood's psychedelic licks providing a link to rock 'n' roll's past ("I love Santana, and I liked Hot Tuna a lot," he says), The Meat Puppets cut 1987's Huevos. Featuring such rock hybrids as "Crazy" — a combination of jangle-pop and blues parody — Huevos stands with 1989's Monsters as the group's finest work.
In later years, The Meat Puppets signed to London Records, for whom they recorded 1994's Too High to Die, their best-selling record. These days, the Kirkwood brothers tour with Curt's son Elmo on guitar, along with Sahm, himself the son of famed Texas rocker Doug Sahm. Their sound hasn't changed: On their 2011 full-length Lollipop, there were more keyboards, but Kirkwood's psychedelic style remained intact.
Rat Farm sports the simple melodies the band is famous for — "Leave Your Head Alone" features a prog-rock chorus and subtly surrealistic lyric. Like any number of classic rockers, from Spirit to The Jefferson Airplane, Kirkwood writes about the pressures of conformity on American individualism.
"As we hear more music as we go on, some of that will get incorporated," says Kirkwood. "The general vibe of a more recent era might get in there, but I think that's kind of subtle stuff. We've still just been primarily guitar rock."