Improvisational Revelations: An Interview with Derrick Bostrom of the Meat Puppets
Interview by Parisa Eshrati
Since rejoining the group in 2019, original Meat Puppets drummer Derrick Bostrom has been drawn back into the improvisational energy of the band. "The pull of the music for me is when you can get to a place where you’re not making the decisions. Rather, the music itself is making the decisions."
We caught up with Derrick during the Meat Puppets recent co-headlining tour with Mudhoney to talk about the magic of improvisational music, the group's evolution from a trio to an ensemble, the rise and fall of SST Records, and so much more.
It’s been a few years now, but I’d like to start by talking about your return to the band. I’m reminded of the title track on Dusty Notes, where it says “music flows through an open door, can’t keep it closed, it’s liking to swing…it’s a magical thing”. Despite having to leave for general life obligations, tell me about this pull that playing music has on you and your life.
Well I didn't write the lyrics to the song, but I feel the same way Curt [Kirkwood] does about it. It's beyond musical, it's such an important thing for me to live and experience. With the state of the world, the state of my aging body, I just couldn't be more delighted to be playing music again. You asked a pretty wide-ranged question but it seems like you put your finger on the heart of it. Even though we just drove seven hours today from Austin and have even more long drives to San Diego, LA and San Francisco - all with no breaks - I'm delighted to do it. The five of us haven't really played together at all, or even seen each other, since New Year's Eve 2020. This whole process of trying to get our music back together after this long really points out how alive it is.
This is something I think about all the time, and I'll spare you the four-hour version of this answer [laughs], but the pull of the music for me is when you can get to a place where you’re not making the decisions. Rather, the music itself is making the decisions. That's the best place to be in - where you're playing in a group, listening, and trying to keep out of your own way. We're a pretty improvised band. I don't come to every gig with anything other than a small laundry list of things that I'd like to improve from the night before. I just kind of let my body do its thing. There are some nights where it all seems to magically come together and some nights where it's really hard work. You know, I'm 62 years old and I have a regular job like a lot of people. And while I wouldn't say there's nothing magical about working in bureaucratic capitalist America, it's nothing compared to making art. For me, as a pretty solitary artist, to make it in a group...it's always a revelation. It's always very humbling. It's always very startling. There's really nothing that beats it, except perhaps for marriage.
The band has evolved in recent years from a trio to a full-on ensemble, now featuring Elmo Kirkwood on second guitar and Ron Stabinsky on keys. Despite the obvious instrumental changes, how do you feel that working as an ensemble has influenced the dynamic of the Meat Puppets?
Well you know, the original trio was getting older and while some aspects of our gift have grown, other parts have changed. When we were younger, it was all about playing as crazy as possible. If you watch clips of Curt from back in the day, he was playing the flashiest, craziest, fastest and weirdest guitar you've ever heard. Lately, he's not doing that sort of style.
We've had a second guitarist since about '94, or maybe even earlier. Elmo is the third one we've had. The advantage to Elmo, of course, is that he's young and crazy like his father used to be! He's on a trip of his own though. He brings a palette that's a little bit more current. His touch points might be a Queen album from the seventies whereas mine is gonna be a blues record from the fifties or something like that. He's every bit as smart as his father, who more or less plays it close to the vest. As a drummer, having a rhythm guitarist that's that sharp is such a blast. He also plays amazing leads that pull from a really deep well of musical knowledge. He knows a lot of music that I don't know because, well,I stopped listening to music about the time the term Spice Girls came into the world [laughs].
Ron has been playing music since he could practically walk. He's a very adept musician. He's also a music teacher and is an accompanist at a college. That makes his accompanying chops really, really sharp. Plus, he does his own music and plays in like hundreds of bands. He does classical, jazz, free jazz, just all over the place. He's a chill dude, which is great because most people irritate the hell out of us. He was persistent enough and loved the band enough to keep close until he finally had the opportunity to join.
Because of all that, it allows the band to open up. It allows Curt and I to play a little more simply (though there’s nothing you can do to make Chris play simply. He's insane!) It gives us a critical chance to lay back a little and create a fuller sound. It's not only beautiful to listen to, but it's also a challenge to pull off in the sense that when you've got that many extra pieces, you want to make sure it doesn't get cluttered. Playing with a five-piece in a lot of ways is like a dream come true. You can't stay 25 forever. You can't play crazy punk rock gigs all the time. This is the natural next step.
The early ethos of the band was, as you’ve stated many years ago, this Harlan Ellison-type approach where you’re a thorn-in-the-side of anyone who wanted to tell you how to sound or how to be. Now 30 years later, with your core and experimental sound obviously well established, what’s the main driving ethos behind the band?
I’ve always loved badasses like Harlan Ellison. That guy always made sure he was a real pain in the ass whenever he had to work with anyone to make sure he got what he wanted. That's more of my personal ethos, not necessarily that of the whole band, the other voices can be pretty laid back. I've found that if you want what you want and you're, say, not the top man of the totem pole, sometimes you can't allow a little thing such as decorum stand in the way.
That's the thing about being self-employed in general and also trying to make art. You blast into a town and you've got to find out who can understand what you want and need. It's never perfect. It's always a rag tag and we always ultimately have a great time, laughing and gnashing our teeth over things getting fucked up. Like when it's a hundred degrees at the club and nobody bothered to turn on the air conditioning in the club. Or even the other night, someone brought us coffee and a big wad of mold floated up to the top. We had a good laugh about that. We didn't consider, you know, taking the mustard and writing "NO MORE MOLDY COFFEE" on the walls...that's probably something Harlan would've done. [laughs]
One of my favorite band influences you’ve ever cited is “the general distaste for punk rock”. Now that we’re a few decades from punk’s inception and you’ve seen its impact on several generations on fans and culture, what’s your relationship like with the genre now?
When I first heard punk rock, I really loved it. It was around that same time that I was getting really into Dada, and it was really obvious that the two were very similar. Punk rock had its inception in situationism just as Malcolm McLaren was a situationist, and so on. I love that idea of Dadaists putting on a performance that was designed to make people try to chase them out of town with a pitchfork. I thought that was a really valid statement [laughs].
We started having problems with punk when there got to be a lot of toxic masculinity in the hardcore scene. They liked to throw things at you on stage if you weren't wearing the "punk uniform", which we did not. Even Black Flag, who generally just wore their street clothes on stage, looked like punk rockers compared to what we looked like in 1980. We just looked like real freaks. When we did shows with Black Flag, people would throw shit at us...and heavy shit! I think the spitting is what really bothered Curt. He got looged on all the fucking time! We did a show with The Misfits on their first West Coast tour. It was this big show with Flesh Eaters and JFA in San Francisco, and the crowd was full of hardcore macho creeps. It ended up so bad that someone in the crowd attacked the Misfits guitarist, who then took out his guitar and smashed it over some kid's head and landed him permanently in the hospital.
By that time, Curt was writing some country-ish music and we figured we would lean more into that direction. But you know, as far as punk in general, it definitely heralded the end of something that the absence of which is very, very much noticeable nowadays. Society is kind of screwed now. I know when you're an old fart, you always look at everything and go, "AH, everything SUCKS!", but I think it's pretty prescient to take note of what was going on at the time.
I saw that you’ve been reading Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records. What have been some of the highlights of the book for you so far? Even though you lived it first-hand, has anything surprised you when revisiting the era of SST?
What surprised me, of course, is how much I remember so clearly. With all of that stuff, right up until the time we stopped dealing with the label in about 1990, the writing was on the wall. A lot of it was really appalling, especially the situation with Negativland. And honestly, what surprises me is how little of that music I ever listened to. I know the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü, and that's about it. I don't think I could even point out a single Sonic Youth song. I pulled out the first Saccharine Trust album after revisiting the book and that's still great. But of course with this whole scene, it seemed like just as it was getting started, it ended. We were out doing this big tour with Black Flag in 1984, and then the next year Hüsker Dü was gone, D. Boon was dead, and Black Flag parceled out their last three records, which were basically all recorded at once. It was so brief and yet considered so seminal.
I like an idea that's brought up in the book that some kid who had no access to record stores could look at a catalog in a magazine and know that if it was released on SST, it was probably worth risking money for a mail order. It's obviously not like that now with streaming services but that was a huge deal back then when there was more financial risk involved in music. Even though I was never really a big fan of the music, I definitely am aware of how much we've lost by not having that anymore. And the fans that come out our shows, they know much we and other bands from that label struggled to make our music sound right, how much thought we put into it, how much arguing we put into it, and how much drive we put into it
As I’m based in Arizona, I’d be remiss if we didn’t chat about the local music scene. Phoenix, and AZ in general, has such a rich music history yet very few bands gain any national recognition. Why do you think that is? What extra hurdles do we have as opposed to other underground scenes?
Phoenix has had a rich musical scene for decades - rock 'n roll, soul, country, hillbilly bands, all of that. You always hear about how the music died with Buddy Holly and Elvis going to the army and all that crap, but what really happened is all the unmanufactured rock 'n roll went local. Instead of these big teen idols, you had your local heroes that would open for the bigger acts. John Dixon [Arizona music historian] has a really great label that releases compilations of great Phoenix music, especially soul bands.
There were definitely some other bands from Arizona that broke through. Gin Blossoms were one of the most beloved and popular bands of that era. They're not punk rock, but they are a good pop punk outfit with plenty of alternative cred. I can tell you why it took us so long to do it...'cause we didn't want to get in bed with the monster. We finally did because it was either that or quit. It was getting too hard to slog through all these cities and expect people to have heard your record when nobody is working for you.
We started going out on the road in 1981, playing for peanuts, sleeping on people's floors and doing it as a living until we stopped in 1995. So if there were bands in Phoenix that didn't make the cut nationally, I think I'll just cut to the short answer - they have no one to blame but themselves. As far as current bands, I don't even know what it takes to make it anymore. I think your mom just has to buy you ads on YouTube or something.
Do you think that the musical energy here has changed now that Phoenix’s population is so massive and the landscape has drastically changed?
I think so. I was born in Phoenix in 1960. I remember when there were cow pastures up and down 44th street and Scottsdale Road. Even though it's grown, I still feel like I've kind of grown with it. I'm not a huge fan of the real estate industrial complex. It's definitely a sad thing, and of course we've had crazies running the government for a long, long time. Nonetheless, I like Phoenix. We still have some good-sized venues that can accommodate different artists, and it's nice that we can sell out a show at Crescent Ballroom when we play. I also generally like Phoenix because the people out here just leave you alone.
It’s true! When I moved to Tucson [from Phoenix] I was really thrown off by the fact that people wave to you and say hello.
It's interesting. Tucson is not like Phoenix. It's got a great mom-and-pop feel to it that Phoenix doesn't have anymore. It's beautiful out there. But I still like living in Phoenix because I'm a hateful piece of shit and I like keeping to myself [laughs].
What else can fans look forward to from Meat Puppets? Are you guys working on any new material?
This year we put out a live record. It's not a super official release, it's a limited edition picture disc. It's from a 2019 show in Manchester. It was the first tour I did with the band since I left in 1995 and the first tour with the quintet. When COVID hit, we wanted to release it as a document of what we had done, because at that point we didn't know when we'd be able to play live again.
This was a dream come true of mine because I've always wanted to document the band in this way. You build the songs and grow on stage, and I think that’s what highlights your talents as a live band. It shows the artists at their best and most exhausted state. I make the joke that exhaustion makes the music better, but it does! When you're too tired to play anything but the most essential arrangement, it gets real. You pay attention to what's important 'cause you don't have the energy to embroider or noodle around.
That being said, we do some long free-form improvisations on some of our songs, and that particular show we recorded has some really good ones. I mean, we are a legacy act after all and only play the same twelve songs every night [laughs], but we play them differently from night to night. There's a couple of extended noise/space jams, à la Grateful Dead on PCP or something. The album also highlights Curt's beautiful guitar playing.
Now we're back out on the road, putting together a different show...or rather, the show is trying to put itself together and we're figuring out what that show is. Since COVID, we're two years older, two years sadder, and trying out different things. It’s great to be doing it.
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