SST area- Cris, Derrick, Curt; photo by Joseph Cultice
Derrick Bostrom interview by Peter Crigler
One of the most notable bands to come out of the amazing scene built around the now legendary SST Records, Arizona's Meat Puppets made their name known with dynamic songwriting in the '80's and a musical drive that was unparalleled, even amongst SST bands like Black Flag. Leaving SST amid acrimony, the band entered the major label world and got an immediate boost from Kurt Cobain. Back then, whatever Cobain liked either was signed or singled out for immediate praise. The band reaped the rewards of a Nirvana trifecta on their 1994 Unplugged disc but soon ran asunder with massive drug problems. Leader Curt Kirkwood picked up the mantle and carried on until, eventually, the original line-up, including his brother Cris on bass and drummer Derrick Bostrom, came back together for good in order to reclaim their title and legacy as one of the defining SST era bands as well as one of the fiercest and strangest bands of the '90's and beyond.
PSF:: What got you interested in playing drums?
DB: Oh, God, believe it or not, I first got interested in music from the fake rock and roll bands that used to be on the local kids program here in Phoenix, and then I first got a drum kit because I liked The Banana Splits.
Keep in mind, I was born in 1960, so the Banana Splits were right at my age group, and my mom caught me beating on coffee cans, so she bought me a small drum kit, which my younger brother then proceeded to destroy.
Then I got into punk rock, and my mom bought me another shitty drum kit for Christmas when I was 17, and I just kept at it, so really, I'm not as much into music as I am into the pop experience, you might say.
I don't play much music now, but I really liked punk rock and when I got the drums, I played with several of my friends, and I found that I really actually wanted to do it, like I wanted to pursue it ambitiously as a thing.
Most of my friends just wanted to get together and jam, but once I met Curt Kirkwood, he was as passionate about it as I was, and when we brought his brother in, we realized that the three of us had a really unique energy, which we would now call 'transcendent,' and we realized that we were cosmically attuned musically, and our minds were freaking blown, and so we just... We committed to it and doubled down, and we were lucky enough to be able to keep doing it through the lean years, until we started getting enough success to work, and that was our main thing; that's what we did throughout the '80's and '90's.
PSF: How did you initially come to hook up with Curt, and then later, Cris?
DB: Through mutual friends. In truth, we were all pursuing the best connection for the best bud in town, so we all would meet each other, it's like if one person got... Found a really good connection to really good bud, we would all gravitate towards it, so it was this loose network of heads.
This would be mid to late '70s, and I got to know those guys, and those guys were, like myself, they were the most out there folks in our little scene. We were the biggest freaks and we just gravitated to each other.
PSF: What was it like signing with SST?
DB: Well, we originally signed, made common cause with the group, Monitor, and put out a record with them, and their bass player, Laurie, took us under her wing and began to manage us, and she knew a couple of guys who had a label in San Francisco who had put out a record with Monitor.
She had talked them into putting out a record with us, but their label was very small, and one of the guys was getting ready to go to work for SST, so he actually made the jump to getting us on SST, because we were working with this other label, Systematic, I think Thermidor was the label, and Systematic was their distribution wing, and when he went to go to work for SST, he brought us along.
Obviously, this was during a time when SST was looking to expand, and we were really the first group outside of their circle of friends that signed on the label, but largely, we came on board due to Joe Carducci.
PSF: What was the impetus for changing the sound from pure hardcore to a little bit of everything?
DB: I would probably say saliva is generally the reason. As we started playing more and as more and more... because when we got interested in punk rock, it was much more of the original LA and Phoenix scenes, as it went along more, the suburban non-Hollywood kids came along, they were a much straighter.
As it became hardcore, they started insisting upon a certain formalism, because that's what appealed to them. We hated that. We didn't like playing for those people, we didn't like getting spit on.
In the meantime, like I said, we had gotten into this initially for punk rock, but we had realized that we had something special, so our interests started to branch out and we started wanting to try everything, and the punk rock was just one brief phase of it, we found ways to make transcendent psychedelic music without just having to thrash.
Obviously, there were other bands that were stretching out as well, but again, our focus was always akin to psychedelic rock.
PSF: What was early '80s success like? Did it start changing the guys any?
DB: You have to keep in mind that the label that we were on was Black Flag's label so being successful on SST has its downsides, because they get the lion's share of the interest. So while we were out on tour with them, they were promoting My War, which was their big cross-over from thrash, and we were doing Meat Puppets II in the middle of that tour. Rolling Stone gave us a four-star review, and it was amazing for us, but the SST guys were a little put off. What I came to notice was you could not find Meat Puppets II in the stores; as we would go through these tours, I would go to the local record stores and there would be tons of copies of My War, and no copies of Meat Puppets II comparatively, so we began to get a little concerned.
Then as our career started, as we began more focus on our career and making it succeed, we realized that we had a different agenda than our label, and of course that only magnified itself once we got on majors, but success causes...
I mean, it also caused friction within our band, because we all saw a little bit of success, and then by '85, and of course we did Up On the Sun, and in that case, we had put out a record that was pretty ambitious, and suddenly the media, the people that were paying attention, were expecting us to be like that record, and of course we weren't.
By beginning of 1985, half of our show was covers, many of songs of which we didn't really know. We would just jam them out, and we started getting bad reviews, saying that our singing wasn't good, our show was sloppy.
Here we had this great record out, and we weren't prepared to... It was a false representation of what we were about. We began to feel a lot of pressure and varying degrees. Meanwhile Curt had had two twin children and the pressure on him to make a living was increasing, and we wanted to keep this up, so we had to make it pay.
Every time we got negative feedback, it hit us a little harder than it might, if we were just doing it as a lark.
Then your Replacements and your Husker Du's, and so and so on and so forth, began to get signed, and the next thing you know, the pressure within the band becomes much greater, where it's like your singing's not good enough, your drumming's not good enough, you're not writing commercial enough songs, and we began to second guess ourselves.
In the meantime, we got into a cycle of put out a record, go out on tour, put out a record, go out on tour, just in order to make ends meet, and we were sliding, backsliding, and not living very frugally, so by the end of the '80s...
Meanwhile, as this style gets more and more popular, and bands start to get signed by the majors, what would happen was these small labels would take their good sellers and use them as pressure wedges to get their lower seller into stores.
As their good sellers jumped ship onto the majors, they were left with artists that didn't have as wide an appeal, and it began to hurt their business model, and it really began to hurt the business model of our independent distribution network, many of which went under.
Many of these distribution companies went bankrupt and wound up owing some of these smaller labels a lot of money, and by the end of the '80's, as we go into the period of the '90's, which sets the stage for the collapse of the independent network as the indie network starts to die off, because the bands are getting these deals, which obviously turned out to be short-term.
Not good for some of the more freewheeling bands like myself, and indie turned into alternative, and it didn't get any better.
PSF: When did the band start paying attention to major label offers?
DB: Well, obviously in 1985, Husker Du and The Replacements got signed. We were getting compared to bands like REM and... Crap, what's the name? Violent Femmes, so we began to paying attention to the majors about 1985.
Even to the point of listening to mainstream music, wondering what is so different about them as us? We had various go-betweens who had major label connections to try to get us into people's offices, and to have them come to our shows.
Two anecdotes illustrate this period. One was when we went and saw Gary Gersh, who I can't remember the name of the label he was on [Geffen], We went into his office and he didn't have his shoes on, he had his stalking feet propped up on his desk, and he basically told us, in so many words, he likes the band, but he couldn't think of any way to sell us, and so he was going to pass. Then he said he pointed out to some bands, which was just this loathsome duo, God, I can't even remember who they were, but they were two long haired guys that he said, "now there's an example of a band that I can sell, because they're good looking guys, they both have long brown hair" or whatever, and we were aghast.
Then worse, several months later, we arranged to have some major label people come to see us when we were playing with fIREHOSE at, I want to say the Roxy, and by some mix-up, they got there too early, so they saw fIREHOSE. The report came back to us that, yeah, they didn't like us so much. They thought fIREHOSE was pretty good, but they didn't like us so much, and my poor bass player just flew into a rage, because of course George Hurley is so great, and I'm so comparatively weak, and he was like, "I'm being propped up by the spindliest legs in rock and roll, Bostrom, you've got to get better!"
That was in late '86, which proceeded a crisis in the band, where at which point we basically doubled down on what we were doing, began rehearsing a lot fucking harder, especially me and Cris, my bass player, and put out Mirage, which was a record that we really wanted to try to put our best foot forward with. Unfortunately, we couldn't actually play those songs on stage either, so we quickly released Huevos, which was something that was more live oriented, but we were basically trying to say, "all right, we are putting our commitment into the independent market, into SST, we're going to try to do the best job we can here."
However, by the end of 1988, we were exhausted, and we were at each other's throats; we just didn't have enough resources to do this, we were having to work constantly, we were living in each other's laps, so we started working on another demo, which we would shop around to majors.
This would have been the summer of '88. We began shopping it around through the fall of '88 and into '89, a lot of passes. Nobody bit, so we went back to SST, and we began working on Monsters in 1989. Again, and you can hear it in Monsters, that the attempt is clearly for us to try to please the fucking mainstream market with a much more Guns 'N Roses-y style of sound, as much as we could fathom it, so with Mirage and Huevos, we were trying to be ourselves more, but with Monsters, we were, again, trying to play the game.
Well, at this time, Atlantic Records came knocking, and said, "we're interested in doing this," and Curt said, "we would love to have you release this new album that we're working on," and Atlantic was like, "great, we'll get together with SST and make a deal." Well, SST was not interested in making a deal, so we had to pass on that opportunity, and we released Monsters on SST. Meanwhile, our guy at Atlantic said, "I'm making an arrangement to go over to London Records," because basically once we were done with Monsters, we were like, "fine, we're done with SST, we want to go with you." He's like, "I'm leaving Atlantic, I'm going to London, but you're going to have to wait," so we starved our way through 1990 waiting for him to make his deal, so that we could make ours. We made our deal finally in 1990, like a year later, and began to put pieces into place to launch ourselves on the majors.
SST area- Derrick, Cris, Curt; photo by Joseph Cultice
PSF: Looking back, how do you feel about signing to London Records now?
DB: Well, I think it probably gave us an extra lease on our career, because we were really hitting the wall. We needed resources; we were broke. We had been borrowing from Peter to pay Paul for a long time. We were on the outs with our label, and the independent distribution network was drying up, as I said, so really, we didn't have much choice.
We felt very, very fortunate to have the opportunity, so we were very glad. However, first thing they made us do, they said, "we won't deal with you, you have to have a manager," so we had to hire a fucking manager, and the fucking label provided us with a handful of the names of people from whom we could pick our manager.
Furthermore, we had one of our buddies, who happened to be a lawyer, somebody who'd always show up at the van during the sound check when we were in his town, and he would have the good bud, but he also was a lawyer, and he's the guy who quote/unquote negotiated our deal with the major label, which as you might guess was not a great deal.
It wasn't particularly well negotiated, but we picked our manager, and then suddenly, the next time we went on tour, we went and did a show, as soon as we got back from the show, he's calling us going, "you owe me my cut," we're like, "you didn't have anything to do with this show, we set up this show before we even signed with you." It doesn't matter, you just signed a deal saying I get X amount of your income. We're like, "well, shit," and then he made us buy vans. He started doing things to make us get real, for instance, we had to fucking get right with the IRS, and he began putting into place loans from the label.
Then we got a major label deal, and we got him in place and he starts sending letters to the label going, "these guys are broke, these guys are in debt, both in their personal lives and to the IRS, we need the label to loan them money so that they can be solvent," and that's one of the things that the major labels would do for you, it was nice.
Next thing we found out is that they were going to have to approve the content of our records, they were going to insist that we use an outside producer, and they were going to have to have final say on who we used, things like that. They wanted certain songs to appear on the record, and we would have to submit to them demos, and they would not agree to let us go into the studio until they heard enough songs that they felt that they could sell, and of course, they would say, "I don't hear a single yet, keep trying."
Eventually, we put a package together with songs and a producer happened to be Pete Anderson, who was Dwight Yoakam's and Michelle Shocked's manager- he had some credibility with the label and they were willing to work with him.
We began working with our outside producer for the first time. Before that of course, all of our old buddies come up going, "now that you guys are in a major, I know what you guys need to be big," just like all of our friends are going, "I know what you need! I've got just what you need to be successful," and of course we had to put them all at arm's length and go, "that's not how this game is going to work."
We also had to mend fences, so that we could start from a square playing field; all the people who we had feuded with because they might have rubbed us the wrong way in terms of our artistic integrity, we had to go back and apologize to them to make sure we would get the air-play or good press. Because we would go through and basically snub people who gave us bad press, or we would get on the air and make crude comments, and then not be allowed back, and we had to go through this period of fence mending.
By the time we were doing it, they had already paved that trail, so it was easy for us to know what direction to go in. We did all that good stuff, we did this record with a countrified producer because it seemed like our strengths were this country punk shit, and we did Forbidden Places within a month or so.
Nevermind had burst, and the [Meat Puppets'] record, it was like this country punk gimmick they were trying to sell us with was a non-starter. It was all about grunge, it was all about Nirvana, it was all about you no longer have to pretend that you're... You don't have to play the game, they changed the rules of the game. It's like... Monsters was trying to be too metal, Forbidden Places was trying to be too country, and now the label was like, "no, we want to make you guys as rough edged and grunge-y as possible," and then at this point, it was real hard to get them to agree to take us back into the studio, because they knew now, they had a shot. Like, "all right, we have to put you guys over, we can't release anything that's going to fail. Your first record failed, now the second one must not fail, or everybody who went to bat for you looks bad, and you guys are out of a job." So, we really had to fight to get Too High to Die made, and they liked "Backwater."
Curt hated "Backwater," he thought it was stupid, but that's the one they liked. Then he was so desperate, he was sending them everything, and he sent them a track that I had done, which was a parody of Chili Pepper's/Jane's Addiction, and it was just a pastiche of styles, and it wasn't a Meat Puppets' track, it was like a demo of a song Cris and I did for fun, and they were like, "there! That's the single, that's the one we hear." Curt was like, "no fucking way, I will quit the band, if after this long, you guys would want to go with one of Bostrom's joke songs, and try to put us over with this," literally, and they were like, "no, no, you have to do it," and so we went in and did three demos of it, trying to make it more Meat Puppets like, and they were like, "okay," and they let us go into the studio.
They hired Paul Leary who came and was like, "I'll produce your guys' record," and they were like, "cool, this they can work with," and we went down to Memphis and we did the session, and it was a good session, but we didn't do the song that I had written, so when we submitted the record, they hit the roof. They were like, "where's the fucking single we demanded," and our manager had promised that we were going to deliver it and we didn't, because we were dead set against it. It's not that we didn't want a single, we didn't want that song to be the single, it wasn't a song that we did, it wasn't a Meat Puppet song; it didn't represent what we were doing, and it created a lot of internal tension between me and Curt because it wasn't his song.
They made us go back into the studio again after we had already done the record, and record this fucking song again, and spent something like $10,000 on one session. It just sucked. The only thing that was cool about it was that it was at a cool studio, I think it was Sunset Sound- it was one that Prince always worked at. There's like the Prince room there, and we got the word at one point, "you guys need to stay in your control room, because Prince is coming in and out, and he does not want to see anybody, you understand? Do not leave your control room," so we did as we were told.
Meanwhile, this was a song that I had written, and I kept trying to tell the producer, "yeah, this isn't the way it goes, you're not doing it the way it should go," and he was like, "shut up, we're doing it my way," and I was like, "fine, whatever." Of course, the label rejected it, because it was terrible, so what they wound up doing was they got Butch Vig to do a remix of "Backwater," which they pushed... They sent advanced copies to the DJs, began to pull in the favors they needed to pull in, and "Backwater" went over.
Meanwhile, on our own, without any help from the label or our management, we managed to get on Nirvana's tour. Because we had seen in the press, probably just Spin magazine, something about how he really liked the Meat Puppets. Courtney didn't get it, but he spent enough time working with her, so that she would appreciate the Meat Puppets, largely by playing our songs to her and in his style. He's like, "this is cool, I think I may do some of these songs in an upcoming session," which was Unplugged.
We were like, "wow, he wants to play some of our songs, this could be good for us," so we got on tour with him, got to know him. As it turned out, this tour, these shows that we were doing with them, were right before their Unplugged session, and part of the concept was that would give Kurt time to work with us and learn the songs really well, so that he could do them in Unplugged.
Well, by this time, Kurt Cobain was starting to break down. Yeah, there was too much pressure on him. By this time, this was In Utero, he was having his own pressures, the labels wanted him doing things he didn't want to do, and he was working too hard. He's like, "will you guys please just come on the show with me," and we were all the way out on the East Coast, we had just done a couple of dates with them, and then we were going to tour all the way to get back to Phoenix, so we jammed... We were doing all these dates to get back to Phoenix, meanwhile talking with their people to try to arrange to get on this show.
Our manager had meanwhile gotten married and had a baby and he was on vacation, he was not around, and finally, we realized we have to cancel our last date in order to get back to Phoenix in time to fly out to the unplugged sessions, so we called our manager saying, "yeah, we're not doing this day, we're going to do this."
He's like, "fuck you, you need to do this date," yada, yada, yada; we were like, "this guy is dead to us," so we flew back, we drove back to Phoenix as quick as we could, we got stuck in a blizzard on the way from... We were in Boulder, we got caught in a blizzard. On the panhandle, on the way into Santa Fe, we had literally dragged us into fucking Phoenix, just in time for those guys to jump on a plane and get back to New York, where they were unveiled at the rehearsals as Nirvana's special guests, and MTV was aghast. They're like, "you're going to have these no-name hippies on your show," and Kurt Cobain was like, "this is just what I need, thank God, thank God, bless you guys."
This show comes out, "Backwater" comes out, Too High To Die comes out, we fired our old manager, we were like, "yeah, you're not going to be involved in this, you've done nothing but throw roadblocks at us, you've taken the label's side against us when we didn't want to do this song. All the things that are happening now are because of us, and because we refused to do what we didn't want to do, so you're not helping us, you're fired."
In the meantime, we went with John Silva, who I believe was Nirvana's manager. That seemed to help things, and we had a real successful 1994. In fact, we worked our fucking asses off in 1994, by the end of 1994, our bass player was hooked on heroin, and so many of these '90s alternative bands had fallen by the wayside from their own problems.
Oh, yeah, did I mention that Kurt Cobain killed himself?
They showed Unplugged all day long on MTV for a month, so suddenly the Meat Puppets are a household name. Unfortunately, there's also a backlash against us, because people were grossed out, so we released another single, "We Don't Exist", and we did a nice video of it, which was rejected by MTV as having stereotypes in it, and it was a stupid fucking video. It had a Mexican in it, and a big titted blond in it, and shit like that. It's like our best video in terms of it's the best pretending that we're playing we've ever done, and the band shots are really good, but MTV wouldn't play it.
Rykodisc area- Derrick, Curt, Cris; photo by Joseph Cultice
See Part 2 of the interview
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