In music, hiatus can be a tricky thing—and if taken at the height of a career, even trickier. It can provide much-needed creative rejuvenation or just as easily sound the death knell for a group or performer.
But good or bad, self-imposed or dictated, lore-making or the first step to irrelevance, performers going AWOL at lucrative times is common. Cat Stevens became a Muslim philanthropist during his hiatus from a successful music career. Elvis joined the Army. David Lee Roth spent time as an EMT in New York, administering professional mouth-to-mouth to more than just California girls.
For Meat Puppets bassist Cris Kirkwood, the recent decade-long break he took from the band he and brother Curt founded in 1980 was something else entirely. It's something he's just glad to have survived.
“I definitely hurt myself real good,” he tells CityBeat from his home outside of Phoenix. “But there's a lot to be said about the fuckin' strength of the human spirit, I can tell you that. Considering how seriously fucked my reality got, it's just amazing that I'm even here at all.”
Things weren't always so delicate. From 1980 to 1996, the Kirkwood brothers, along with drummer Derrick Bostrom, enjoyed a solid career. Starting on Greg Ginn's (of Black Flag fame) influential SST label, the band pioneered its own unique sound by infusing punk rock with elements of psychedelic and acid rock, blues and country. The sound attracted a handful of peer fans—most notably Nirvana, who played three Puppets' songs and used the brothers as a backing band during their 1993 MTV Unplugged appearance in New York. The gig exposed them to a far wider audience. The Puppets' subsequent release, 1994's Too High to Die, was the band's most successful.
But that success also intensified Cris Kirkwood's already severe drug habits, and by '96, his hunger for cocaine and heroin was insatiable.
He quit the band. His addiction spiraled out of control and culminated in a 2003 incident at a Phoenix post office in which Kirkwood got into a heated argument over a parking space, beat a security guard with the guard's own baton and was shot in the back.
As a result, Kirkwood served 18 months in an Arizona prison for felony assault and spent his time there playing in bands and getting clean. His guitarist / singer / songwriter brother, who never stopped performing as Meat Puppets or in side projects, asked him to re-join the band in 2006.
Kirkwood appreciates the second chance.
“It's really great to be back making music with Curt again. To be contributing to this group the way that I am, to be having this much fun doing it, and to be as far beyond all of the bullshit as I seem to be, well, to me, that's all pretty good.”
The reunited brothers, along with new drummer Ted Marcus, released Rise to Your Knees in 2007 to mixed reviews, but the album will always hold a special place for the revitalized bass player.
“Rise to Your Knees will always be touching and carry an emotional content for me because it was the first album Curt and I had made together in a long time. It was a very big thing for me. And considering as long as I was gone, I'm really pleased with the way it turned out. But the new album is Curt and I really getting back in stride. There's some really neat shit on it.”
That new album, the appropriately titled Sewn Together, will be released in late March, right around the time the Puppets will debut it at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin.
For now, the Kirkwoods are happy to be together and having fun with their current leg of live shows, which, after experimenting with it to great success on the East Coast, will be a first-ever all-acoustic (sort of) set primarily of the band's classic material.
“Curt is playing acoustic, but through his petals,” his brother says. “So, we can get louder when we need to. And the shows have been great, man.”
Perhaps the hiatus will prove beneficial for the band.
“One of the cool things about Meat Puppets is that people always considered us a part of the punk-rock scene,” Kirkwood explains. “But we're always just about the fuckin' weird little trip that we're on. There's no getting around aging, but if you continue to hone your craft, it will evolve and grow. And I'm really diggin' where it's at right now.” Meat Puppets play with Benji Hughes and I See Hawks in L.A. on Tuesday, Jan. 13, at The Casbah. www.themeatpuppets.com.