It's not unusual that a reunion album is marketed as a "return to the glory days." But in the case of the new Meat Puppets CD Sewn Together, it's high praise that also begs an important question. If you're a grizzled cult band that's slogged through a cartoonishly tumultuous 30-year career, what exactly qualifies as your "glory days?"
"The glory days? Jeez, I don't know," answers Curt Kirkwood, who formed the Puppets with his brother Cris in a Phoenix suburb back in 1980. "That would probably be when we were still living with our parents and playing in the living room — before anyone ever really addressed exactly what we were. But, you know, I'm not the judge of that kind of thing. I'm convinced that I'm only as good as my last gig, and my glory days are the ones that I'm in now."
Kirkwood doesn't feel like Sewn Together particularly resembles the sound of his band's mid-'80s critical peak or its mid-'90s commercial breakthrough. To his credit, he has never been one to linger too much in the past, even if a band reunion would tend to indicate the contrary. In truth, getting back with the Meat Puppets was more about continuing a book that had never really been closed in the first place.
"I did a lot of solo projects, and it was good," says Kirkwood. "But Meat Puppets is Meat Puppets. I never intended for it to be broken up. I never said it was. It's frustrating now for it to seem like we've 'reformed.' It's mental to me. I'm still in denial about it."
Indeed, the Puppets' long hiatus was never announced so much as forced, thanks to the group's infamous drug problems and the eventual imprisonment of Cris Kirkwood. When the brothers finally reunited for 2007's Rise to Your Knees (their first record together in 12 years), the album suffered from understandable rustiness and the lack of original drummer Derrick Bostrom, who declined the Kirkwoods' offer to return. Addressing these issues with consistent touring and the hiring of talented new drummer Ted Marcus, the Meat Puppets truly do sound back at full force on Sewn Together — a tightly devised but quickly recorded album that celebrates the band in its raw state.
"I like the idea of actually getting the real version of what we are," says Kirkwood. "I don't like the enhancements of the digital age. I knew I wanted to set up the band and play the songs live, because I like the way we sound, just like that. And that's what you get here. There are some guitar overdubs and some vocal multi-tracking, but overall, it's pretty real."
Along with guest musicians William Joseph (piano) and Kevin Bowe (guitar, dulcimer, percussion), Sewn Together benefits from the presence of Kirkwood's son Elmo — a guitarist and budding producer in his own right.
"Elmo's just got a different perspective," says Kirkwood. "He's more of a hardass in a way. He's my son, so nobody can get too pissed off at him — everybody likes him. But he's also the kind of person who will tell you that you totally suck, and it doesn't matter what you think of what you've done. If he's not into it, he's going to say something. He doesn't hold any sway, of course, but it's still really fun to have somebody like that in there for that outside pair of ears."
Perhaps as a testament to Elmo's insights, Sewn Together doesn't sound like an album made by aging rockers past their prime. It's an energized, eclectic effort that — while not quite as charming as the 25-year-old classic Meat Puppets II — wouldn't sound out of place as a follow-up to that record (particularly tracks like "I'm Not You" and "The Monkey and the Snake").
All things told, Sewn Together is a record Puppets fans can be proud of, even if the road that led to it was a lot bumpier that it could have been.
"There's no model for this stuff," says Kirkwood. "It's not like we decided one day, 'Oh, let's be the totally fucking insane Meat Puppets!' It just happened. I mean, we could have done better in some ways, but I don't know. There are only so many options I had. I'm from Phoenix, I'm not that talented and I'm pretty lazy. So I had to let a lot ride on this life. And I don't really think I'd do anything differently."