The American independent music scene had become a horse race by 1986. The revolution was over; it was time to get serious. Husker Du and the Replacements were odds-on favorites to win; the Meat Puppets were expected to place or show. “Rolling Stone” deemed us only a couple tweaks away from greatness. We had begun to second-guess ourselves. Each Puppet accused the other of holding the band back. But everyone could agree that my sins were the greatest. I just didn’t seem to care anymore. I balked at the band’s direction. I rarely showed up for rehearsals. To be honest, the magic was draining out of it for me.
Things got a lot less fun as the year progressed. A week into the first leg of the tour, our sound man slammed Curt’s finger in a van door, breaking it in two places. Curt regained his dexterity in a few weeks, but the experience left us all shaken. The hastily-rebooked make-up dates were a punishing slog. Everywhere we went, disgruntled promoters complained about poor attendance. Finally, during the last show of the tour, we accidentally left all the cash earnings from the trip in our unlocked vehicle. We returned home flat broke.
I spent the next month hidden away, licking my wounds. My brother Damon offered some encouragement. You just have to keep practicing, he told me. Keep working on your instrument, keep getting better. Let the work lead the way. The rest will follow if you let it. I took his advice to heart. I moved out of the condemned duplex I was renting and in with friends. I bleached my hair, started working out, and tried to regain my confidence.
While I sulked, the Kirkwoods kept busy. They acquired a mixer, some microphones and an 8-track reel-to-reel tape recorder. Cris bought a drum machine and a headless bass with a graphite neck. Curt picked up a clumsy guitar synthesizer. As they got proficient with their new toys, the brothers began to woodshed material for the next album. Once I resurfaced, we decided it would be most productive if Cris and I got together by ourselves to work out the arrangements.
But just as he had with the songs on “Out My Way,” Curt kept a lot of the words and melodies to himself until we got into the studio. Once again, I had to comp along in the dark. Cris coached me through a lot of it, writing rhythm patterns and adding little bits of business that made the changes distinctive. But the material remained largely impenetrable to me.
I was also hamstrung by my equipment. Swept up in the general enthusiasm for new gadgets, I purchased an unwieldy midi drum set with triangular controllers and a library of awful samples. They were unforgiving and difficult to control, demanding intense concentration. My performances on that kit were tentative and lacking in spontaneity. I was never able to relax, let go and swing — something hard enough to do in the studio under the best of circumstances.
Once we got into the studio, we chafed under Chaton’s strict no-drug policy. We had to sneak behind the building to partake of our primary creative tool. But even under these oppressive conditions, we rose to the occasion. Outtakes from these sessions offer the best available insight into how the Meat Puppets constructed their music in the studio. Both brothers are excellent here: at once inventive and precise. For my part, I focused on keeping things simple. Listening to these recordings now, I’m struck by how good our studio chops actually were. We really stuck with it until we got it right.
But despite all the hard work and loving attention, “Mirage” is a flawed work. Though a growing core of self-described “Meat Heads” identified with our unabashed stoniness and manic fretboard antics, most listeners were unable to connect with the album’s lysergic themes and florid yet sterile production. Some of the better tunes didn’t even make it onto the album, deferred instead until “Huevos,” where they would receive their just due in a more energetic environment. But we scored with tracks like “Beauty,” “The Mighty Zero,” “A Hundred Miles,” and “Love Our Children Forever.” Other tracks, such as “Quit It,” “I Am A Machine” and the title track itself, have perhaps not aged so well.
Regardless, we grew by leaps and bounds during the creation of “Mirage.” We’d never worked so hard on an album, and after it was finished, we worked even harder. We converted Cris’ garage into a practice space; there, we really began to put on muscle. We reconnected as a working unit, throwing ourselves into rehearsals until we finally built the band up into the live act we wanted to be. Once we got “Mirage” out on the road in front of an audience, we quickly discarded the tunes that refused to catch fire. We substituted a batch of new Curt songs designed to be more fun for us and less challenging to the listener. I ditched the electronic drums and invested in a beautiful Gretsch kit, which I was able to play the shit out of.
Less than six months after the release of “Mirage,” we squeezed a studio session in between two legs of the tour, banged out ten new songs in three days, and released them almost as quickly. “Huevos” was funky, raw and loose — everything “Mirage” was not — and we were immensely pleased with it. Critical reception was tepid; speculation about our major label chances ceased. But we’d proven something to ourselves. The media didn’t understand where we were going, but we finally did. Over the years, as “punk” turned to “indie,” and then to “alternative,” the ground continued to shift and shrink beneath us. The “mainstream” became the only direction left. We continued to knuckle under, pushing ourselves along, browbeating each other into line and upping the ante. But no matter what we did, or how determined we were to polish it out, the magic remained. In the end, it was all we had.