I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue saying it until the cows come home – the Meat Puppets are one of my favorite all-time bands. And besides their music, an additional component to the band that I’ve always found enticing is Curt and Cris Kirkwood’s art, that often adjourns the band’s album covers and t-shirt designs – especially the latter’s knack for creating lovable yet terrifying creatures. And recently, a website has been created that focuses solely on Cris’ doodles – including an option to purchase original drawings.
When I recently attended a Puppets show in Brooklyn (the band plays/sounds as great as ever – definitely see them if you can), Cris was gracious to give me an original drawing as a “thank you” for writing a book about them [2012’s Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets]. This got me thinking – has Cris ever been interviewed about his drawing and artistic talent? An interview was promptly set up with Cris (the chap on the far right in the photo above) for Alternative Nation.
In the interview, Kirkwork discusses his artwork and his memories of Nirvana Unplugged. Kirkwood remembered comforting a young Frances Bean Cobain, “We’re backstage someplace, and I can’t remember where. And I remember Courtney [Love] was there, and so was Courtney and Kurt’s little baby girl, Frances. She was a little teeny weeny kid at the time – like a toddler. It was after the show, and everybody is hanging out, and Frances was throwing a conniption fit. She was crying and crying, to the degree that toddlers will do that, and the parents try to cajole the kid out of its unhappiness. And nothing was working, and she was just crying and crying. I realized, “Well shit, I can make this baby stop crying,” because Curt had had Elmo and Catherine, so I’m like, good and uncle’d up. I was like, “I know how to make the child stop crying,” and I had my bag – I had a briefcase that I carried all this crap with me then – and in there, was a harmonica. So I took that out, and all it took was one little toot on the harmonica. It’s like babies, you distract them, and the harmonica completely worked, where I honked on the harmonica, and she was like, “Huh?” Stopped crying immediately and had all her attention focused on the noise that had just been made. And I remember Cobain saying, “Who are you? Dr. Spock?” Y’know, the childhood baby doctor [Benjamin Spock].”
For more on Kirkwood’s artwork, and his memories of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance, read the full interview below!
When and how did you start drawing?
I started drawing as a kid. It was a habitual kind of doodling thing that started when I was real young. I was really young – grade school, even. I remember one time, getting in trouble – this couldn’t have been more than second grade or something. I was sitting there and I had discovered how to draw stars, and I learned how to read pretty easily as a kid, so somewhere in there, school wasn’t quite as engrossing. I discovered how to draw stars because I was sitting there during class, drawing in my reader book – stars over and over. And the teacher actually sent me down to the principal, and I remember he laid out a bunch of pencils with erasers on them, and told me, “I want you to erase every mark in that book.” And I sat there, and actually took from that, “Oh, ha ha – you mean all the printed marks, as well?” That was long fucking time ago, in my world.
So the doodling thing, it was always there. It was something that I enjoyed doing. And Curt, being my older brother, he and his friend Sam [Hundley] were pretty fuckin’ art-y when we were young. I remember learning how to draw a cube from Curt – a three-dimensional cube. There was some of that hovering around it all. But I thought of both of them as a little bit…better draftsman. It wasn’t anything that I was that serious about, but I enjoyed doodling. At a particular point though I realized doodling is a part of me, and what can happen with it, what can I do with it if I actually sit there and spend a little more time, and go beyond it just being that. And it never really developed beyond that, it still is really just a product of me putting pen to paper. I like the feel of the thing in my hand, and off we go. If I’m sitting there, and there’s pen and paper in hand, it’s going to get drawn on. The pen is going to make a drawing on the paper.
Do you prefer drawing or painting?
I think they’re both fun. The drawing is easier because you don’t have to do anything except have something to draw with and something to draw on, in a way. It comes first, definitely. I don’t sit around thinking in terms of painting, specifically. I paint the drawings, more than anything. And the drawing is like the composition, in a way. The color part of it comes from the same place – it’s down to just my eye dictating what’s going to happen with the thing. But it’s not that I set about to do a painting, it’s more like I have a drawing and I can paint that, as well. But I enjoy them both – they’re both fun. Watercolors, which is what I use primarily, are easy as fuck to use. I sit there and wind up pinching the color off the thing and I can wipe it off on my pants. So it takes it to a place that’s comfortable for me, in terms of the amount of effort that I’m willing to put forth doing it. I wouldn’t consider myself a fuckin’ painter. I’ve farted around a little bit with acrylics – you just realize, “Well, there’s a whole other world,” of like, getting a handle on how to use those things. But it’s always been like that – what you can do to the end result you’re trying to get out artistically, and the artistic end result to what your technique will actually allow.
Who are some of your favorite artists and influences when it comes to drawing?
Well, definitely my brother, and Derrick [Bostrom, the Meat Puppets’ original drummer]. Both those guys. And beyond that, one of my absolute favorites is Robert Crumb. The guy is just far out. Disney was a huge influence – going all the way back to childhood, there was just the animation side of things. And all the Warner Brothers stuff was just amazing stuff – that’s just a universal place. Basil Wolverton…you realize the kind of stuff you can get into with a pen, Jack Kirby, as well, where you’re taking the pen out, and the black side of the thing. Van Gogh and that kind of stuff – the really obvious stuff. But as far as pen and paper goes, I’m definitely a huge Crumb head.
Since all three original members of the Meat Puppets drew, was it ever difficult to decide who was going to get their artwork on an album cover, t-shirt, etc.?
Not really. I think most of the front covers are Curt’s acrylic pieces. And they lent themselves to the covers easily, in a way. They fit well – nice, big, simplistic kind of images. The Van Gogh thing coming in, and whatnot. Then I remember Derrick specifically did Mirage. Derrick had a bunch of really neat stuff. My stuff being little squiggly things, especially back then – little doodles that got tucked in, here and there. Plenty of t-shirts and that kind of thing. Nah, there was never that big of a…that’s one of the reasons why the band managed to exist for so long is we figured out how to make things happen. It would kind of be like, “Well, here is what I think,” “Here’s what I think,” “Here’s what I think.” “OK. On we go.”
What have been some of your favorite drawings you’ve created over the years?
I don’t know, any of them can be fun. It’s not like I really have that kind of a thing. I don’t know if I necessarily have a “favorite drawing.” If I push myself, I come up with things that are beyond me in a way. But I’ve done a few bigger pieces, where it’s still just the same thing – you do a drawing, kind of enhancing it, and then painting it. But they’re larger, and those are kind of fun. But I have yet to really entirely break into the thing – break the barrier between me and what I can get out of myself down. It’s too bad. I don’t know if I’d necessarily say I have favorite drawings. There’s some stuff from a few years back – kind of before I fell into the abyss [Cris is referencing to the mid ’90s through the early 21st century, when he suffered from severe drug addiction].
Here’s an interesting thing that started to happen – at a certain point, I started to have seizures, in my late twenties. I was tested for what the cause could be. It was just the kind of thing I was told at the time that it’s something that’s not entirely uncommon for people of a certain age to suddenly start having seizures. And I happened to be one that did. They’re really mental – they’re like this, brain spasm…flat-out, they’re fuckin’ seizures. After that, I noticed that the drawings, suddenly, I could push myself into certain places and I could try and get to things that were just a little beyond what it had been before. I remember reading something about that, about there being some sort of enhancement…it can have almost a compulsive side to it. And that kind of happened at a point. A lot of the stuff that came out of that period was stuff that was really fuckin’ satisfying. And it’s never really gone away, to where I can still…if I spend time on something, I can really fill it in with a lot of ink, which is basically what it’s down to. And some of those pieces are actually fun – I’m thinking about getting one of them done on my back, which is about the only part of my body that’s not scarred to all living shit, because of my bad behavior!
I remember a cool drawing you did on the actual CD for the Too High to Die album.
Yeah, that’s a cute drawing. The record company picked that out, I think. We had given them a bunch of different stuff, and they did a few things with my stuff that was real cool, that I liked a lot. They used that guy…that guy actually became known as “booger guy.” I don’t know where the fuck that came from. A t-shirt was made with that – a yellow shirt, with that guy as a little emblem over the heart. We were doing that STP tour [in 1994], and when the lights were on the crowd – because those were all arena shows – and look in the crowd and go, “Oh, there’s one! Oh, there’s one!” But yeah, that one got used and got a little bit of visibility. And the record company made a promotional item, a “Color Along with Cris” coloring book, and that was just charming – it was a bunch of my black and white stuff put into a coloring book format, with pictures of Curt and I as kids, and Derrick as a little tiny kid. That was definitely fun.
Here’s one of the heartbreaking things that happened – we played at Rye Playland, when it was “major label time” and visibility of the band was pretty high. During the show, a kid was getting passed around the crowd and then was dropped or something, and got hurt, to the degree that his friends were backstage afterwards, and the kid got taken away in an ambulance. I drew him a drawing real quick, and wrote, “Get well soon,” to give to his friends to take to him. And while I was doing that drawing, this guy was in the backstage as well. He’s like, “You like to draw?” It turns out he was vice president in charge of animation at MTV. He’s like, “Let’s talk.” And I’m like, “Fuckin’ A, let’s talk!” So I actually went down to MTV a couple of times and got it to the point where, do you remember when MTV had those little snippets they would put on between videos? They used different artists to do that, and it got to the point where a couple of the guys, like Mike Judge’s background guys – because Beavis & Butthead was going back then – and they were going to be the guys that actually worked on the bulk of the animation, and I was going to provide the drawings. And that was another one of “the victims” of me having dropped the ball so bad [in reference to Cris’ aforementioned period of drug addiction].
Did you ever consider doing animation based on the characters from your drawings?
Yeah, definitely. That was where it was down to where it could happen. Because one of the other things, Curt’s my biggest artistic influence. Period. Art, music, whatever – he just is. As kids, he and I, we had an eight-millimeter camera in the late ’60s, and went on to do some stop motion-animated stuff. The stuff that I was more involved in was we did a thing called A Cloak and Dagger Affair. Curt wrote and directed it, and I starred in it. It’s like I’m supposed to be a spy and I get shot with an arrow, and he made these oldie-time silent movie cards, with the dialogue on them. And we also made stuff like sitting on the ground, and then you scoot a little bit so you scoot all over the driveway on your butt with stop motion. But Curt took it even a step further – he did this piece, it’s just bitchin’, it’s called The Egg. It predated South Park in that all the characters were…I mean, it predated it by 40 fuckin’ years. They were like cut out of construction paper and all the various moving elements – including an eggshell, and a bird pops out of the eggshell. And the premise of the thing is it starts with this egg, a crack develops across it, the shell pops open, and there’s a little bird that jumps out. The bird goes walking around and it sees pollution, war, and the state of the world, and then winds up going back and jumping back into its eggshell.
So animation based on your drawings is something you are still interested in doing?
For sure. It would be a blast for me. That would definitely be something that would be fun as crap if that kind of a thing popped up. Here’s another good story – I have this friend who has the same birthday as I do. And for my birthday one year, Mad Magazine actually used the Meat Puppets in one of their cartoons. It was just like, “They used our name!” That was cool enough – that’s another gigantic influence, is Mad Magazine. Don Martin, Jesus, let me not forget Don Martin – huge, huge influence. All of them – Al Jaffee, just a big influence on me, definitely. Mad Magazine, entirely. So to be featured in there, it’s just like, “Far out!” That was cool enough, but this friend of mine took it upon himself to get in touch with the folks at Mad, and there was this woman, Amy Vozeolis, and she was kind enough to take that particular issue of the magazine and have all these guys sign it – including Dick DeBartolo, the whole crew, the whole gang of idiots that were still around and could have sign it. And he gave it to me as a birthday present. I really dug it, so I had a photo taken of myself, and I’m holding the magazine upside down and I’ve got my eyes crossed, and I sent along a letter which I drew a picture on, of a guy picking his nose, and I wrote on it, “Here is a picture of me pretending I know how to read,” and sent it to those guys as a thank you. And then, they printed it in a subsequent issue – the photo and the letter with the drawing on it! That’s about as far out as it can get for me. I got a kick out of that.
How can people check out your drawings and purchase info?
I’ve got that website up now. I managed to get a little website together and it’s criskirkwoodart.com. People can get in touch with me through that. There’s a handful of stuff up there, but I’ve got tons more. That’s one thing about drawing – I shit this stuff out.
And you also take requests for drawings through the site, right?
Yeah, to a degree that I can accommodate their request. No fuckin’ da Vinci “Eye,” you know what I’m saying? But I’m amenable to whatever. That’s why I got into the arts – music and the arts in general. Because it’s that realm. It’s not brain surgery.
It’s hard to believe that it’s over 20 years since Nirvana’s Unplugged performance. Care to share a memory or two?
Here’s a cute one that’s kind of in line with my take on my art career. One time, I was backstage – it was before we did the Unplugged thing, and those guys had us come out and do some shows with them. That was again, at big places. We’re backstage someplace, and I can’t remember where. And I remember Courtney [Love] was there, and so was Courtney and Kurt’s little baby girl, Frances. She was a little teeny weeny kid at the time – like a toddler. It was after the show, and everybody is hanging out, and Frances was throwing a conniption fit. She was crying and crying, to the degree that toddlers will do that, and the parents try to cajole the kid out of its unhappiness. And nothing was working, and she was just crying and crying. I realized, “Well shit, I can make this baby stop crying,” because Curt had had Elmo and Catherine, so I’m like, good and uncle’d up. I was like, “I know how to make the child stop crying,” and I had my bag – I had a briefcase that I carried all this crap with me then – and in there, was a harmonica. So I took that out, and all it took was one little toot on the harmonica. It’s like babies, you distract them, and the harmonica completely worked, where I honked on the harmonica, and she was like, “Huh?” Stopped crying immediately and had all her attention focused on the noise that had just been made. And I remember Cobain saying, “Who are you? Dr. Spock?” Y’know, the childhood baby doctor [Benjamin Spock].
I remember that story! You told it in the Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets book.
I’m not surprised. I think I told you all of the funny Nirvana stories – the story about Bobcat Goldthwait was far out as fuck.
Right – when you met him at the Unplugged taping and told him to do something “special” on his Tonight Show appearance.
He said he wanted to do something special. And I told him, “Look, tip over Jay Leno’s desk.” Instead, he actually wound up like, lighting a fucking chair on fire, using lighter fluid! And apparently, Leno really didn’t like it. But that whole thing was really fun – it was surprisingly good. Oh, here’s something I can point out that I might not have pointed out – I heard some of that Nirvana stuff at some point with Curt and I on there. And on one of those songs, there’s a big bass clam. So I invite people to try and suss out – if they can – where the bass clam is.
And the other thing I like is one time it came on the radio – whichever was the last song that we did of our songs with them [“Lake of Fire”] – I don’t really practice singing the back up stuff. And I don’t even know if there’s back up stuff on the songs on our record. Probably not. But I enjoy singing the back up stuff and didn’t practice it, but when it came time to do the taping, I sat where Krist [Novoselic] had been sitting, and he moved over, and he had a microphone. So I’m like, “Fuck that. I’m getting my vocals on here.” So I moan along to some of those songs. And then at the very end of the thing, since I had the mic, it seemed fitting to make some sort of a mention to Nirvana. So I just say, “Fuckin’ Nirvana!” And I heard it on the radio one time, and realized just the way that they cut the CD track, where the song actually ends, it was on the radio, and real clearly, it’s me going, “Fuckin’ Nirvana!”
I don’t think I ever asked you before – what did you think of the Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets book?
Oh, it’s fucking outrageous. I think it’s warranted, because even though I’m a part of it, I think that the band – as far as an art project is concerned – has absolutely gotten to the point where a book is easily called for. If the art’s worth anything at all. And for us to have lived our lives through it the way that we have, to the point that it’s gotten to, and the initial intent and the intent that we maintained, I think the Meat Puppets are worthy of that kind of attention and worth looking into. It’s worthwhile unto itself as far as our fans are concerned, I think. And why wouldn’t I…I’m in the fuckin’ band! [Laughs] It was a great idea to do it the way you did it – to interview people like that. It was moving to read, to see other people’s takes on it. I really dig the living fuck out of it. It’s cool as fuck.
Band photo by Phil Pracht.
Cris and Greg photo by Lou Rossi.