In January of 1993, I conducted a unique phone interview. Instead of garnering me column inches or sound bytes, this one provided background for a PHD dissertation by one Matthew Lahrman who was then going to school in Illinois. He was exploring the experiences of young rock bands and the transformation of their idealism as it broke or did not break upon the rocks of music business reality. As a band who had recently signed to a major after ten years of of “independence,” we were a natural fit. Plus, we were one of Matt’s favorite bands.
It took Matt about three years to finish his book-length dissertation, which he titled “Selling Out: Constructing Authenticity And Success In Chicago’s Indie Rock Scene.” Though little, if any, of the interview made it into the final version, Matt was gracious to send me a copy anyway. Recently, he was also kind enough to send me his transcript of the interview itself. The going is kind of slow, since this is a faithful transcription of the interview. But once you wade through all the ellipses, you’re left with a typically cavalier yet fatalistic Yours Truly, well on my way to disillusionment, but still defending the band’s direction.
Interview with Derrick Bostrom, drummer for the Meat Puppets.
The interview takes place over the phone. Derrick is at his home in Arizona on January 23, 1993
Derrick: So this is a dissertation about…
Matt: About rock. It’s mainly about local rock bands, in Chicago… authenticity and success.
D: Moving towards acceptance and stuff like that.
M: Right. And there’s this term “selling out” and what young bands think about it, ones that aren’t signed yet. And as far. . .
D: We’re one that has been signed.
M: You’ve been signed but you’re not at the point where you could really be considered selling out.
D: It remains to be seen whether any of our young bands reach the mega level yet. Some people have said that either you start out mega, or you don’t ever really get well incorporated. Bands like us who get into it mostly for music have a harder time breaking through than people who are more oriented toward the business. . . who set out to play by the certain rules. Like “Don’t ever write a song in a certain key because it might not be a hit.” “Oh, we can’t do that song ‘cause it won’t get us where we want to be.”
M: When you write songs do you think about economic success?
D: No so much in the writing. There’s a lot of songs that are written. . . and then once the songs are written. . . in our particular instance the label generally won’t accept the first ten. We like to go in and record. . . we used to, on SST, we’d get ten songs that we liked and then we’d go into the studio and record them and that would be that. London wants to. . . wants us to write three times that many songs so that there can be lots to choose from. And I don’t really know exactly what they do on their end but I’m sure they take. . .now we make demos and send them into the label and then they probably get played around to various people who have a hand in it.
M: So London is a subsidiary of somebody, right?
M: It’s considered a major label?
D: Oh yea, definitely. There’s only about five labels out there. And they’re all, everybody is a subsidiary of one or the other. The major labels are attached to corporations. You can assume that the real money is in armaments. So you got to assume that somewhere along the line Polygram probably is involved in communication radar. I haven’t gone so far as to check it out yet, but you can pretty bet that these label people, since they’re involved in communications probably are involved in. . . .rather than making bombs, making communications stuff. In the old days the telephone was, of course, used for communication but it was also used to attach electrodes, to use as a power source for torture out in the field.
M: Excuse me?
D: They used to have a power source to telephones and they used to contact each other when they were out on the front. They would use that electricity to electrocute. . . for electrodes to testicles and things like that. So the history of communications has always been tied into armaments. So I make no bones about being employed by a death merchant, as they call them.
M: Why did you guys make the move from. . . SST is basically an independent.
D: Time will tell whether or not we have. . . we still have outstanding disputes with SST that I’d rather not discuss. But we’ve been doing this band for thirteen years. You get to a certain point where if you don’t move on then you’re stagnating. Standing still is still going backwards. We were getting a reputation of “why haven’t the Meat Puppets signed when everybody else has?” We were going out on . . .out albums. . .we would be touring and our agent would be able to. . .lots and lots of bands that were on major labels were trying to open for us, were contacting our agent. . . and a fairly good bill. But here were all these bands on majors, and major labels thought a good idea would be to get their band to go out and open for the Meat Puppets who are on an independent. Then we’d get into these towns, these major market towns, Boston, New York, etc., and find out that our opening band’s records were completely all over the record stores and the label was stocking the stores and making sure the promotion materials were there. They were dong lots of interviews and lots of people were going to see them. And we had real trouble. Especially with our last release. But always finding records in the store. So we knew that there were advantages to . . .that SST couldn’t have. Then, of course, there were times like when we toured with Black Flag. We opened for them. We both had a new record out at the same time.
M: That was a while ago. . .
D: Yea. I’m talking about ’84. Their records would be in the store and ours wouldn’t be.
M: And you’re on the same label and they own the label.
D: Yea. And this was when we were going out with Meat Puppets II, which was getting great reviews everywhere, in the national press as well as various regionals. And SST was obviously more interested in pushing My War.
M: So your goals when you first started, you said thirteen years ago, were they. . .
D: I think we all had different goals. Mine wee different than Curt’s or Cris’s. But I think we all mostly wanted to blow minds, get weird and prove that we were wild dudes, or whatever.
M: Rather than signing with a label?
D: Yea. We wanted to just. . . we started out within our little Phoenix scene. There was maybe five, six. . . no more than a dozen bands that were there. We wanted to (a) be part of the group and then after that we wanted to stand out from the group. And. . . within a couple years into our existence we suddenly got opportunities to play out of town. We met with people who wanted to do records with us. We did them and began to tour. And we’d come off of a tour and find that most of our old scene bands were broken up, drug abused, married, or dead, or drunk, or whatever. . . just basically moved along in one way or another, and we were surviving. The next step was alienation from the scene that started us.
M: The hardcore scene?
D: Well, yea. Largely due to the. . .It wasn’t really a hardcore scene back then. It was just kind of punk. We never. . . hardcore cam along
after we did.
M: ‘Cause I’m thinking of the early ‘80’s. I grew up in San Diego. Black Flag and Circle Jerks and Bad Religion.
D: The scene we grew up out of, the bands we used to go see were more of what you’d call punk rock than hardcore. Plus your occasional weird Beefheartesque sort of rock and roll that was highly anti-establishment without being macho or jock or anything like that. Which was more hardcore, much more of a muscle bound sort of think than we were.
M: So what would you consider J.F.A?
D: They would be a hardcore band. The whole skating, the whole sports tie in. Whereas our scene was more of an anarchistic. . . more intellectual.
M: What bands do you consider were in your scene?
D: We used to look to the early L.A. bands: The Germs, X before they were old, who else? Devo. Some of the weirder more eclectic sort of bands.
M: The Wierdos?
D: The Wierdos. That kind of thing. Though they kind of were a little more rock and roll than we were into. Then there were some local bands: the Consumers and the Lyres, the Feederz. I think the Feederz made some records that were picked up.
M: So do you think there’s such thing as authentic rock and roll, as far as talking about selling out?
D: No. I think rock and roll started out as a sell out art form. When you consider that music at the time was. . . You can look at it two ways. On one hand you can say well, they cut through a lot of the bullshit and made it more immediate by using bass, guitar and drums and shouting. Rather than a detailed arrangement and a lot of musicians and song writers and stuff like that. Certainly they based a lot of their structure on country music and blues, three chord, 8-bar thing. But also you gotta figure that in terms of the business, rock and roll was largely an offshoot. . . business-wise, one of the reasons it was promoted as it was that it was really easy to market and that the bands that were involved were a lot less experienced in music. And since they weren’t commercial, they didn’t have the clout of established management or legal advice. So they were easy to snap up.
M: Easy to exploit.
D: Easy to exploit. Because there was a . . . there was two publishing companies in the ‘50s: ASCAP and BMI. And BMI started because ASCAP boycotted the radio. Because they felt that the radio was playing records of groups at the time when a lot of groups got their livelihood from playing live on the radio. They felt it was unfair. So ASCAP refused to allow any of their songs to be played on the radio in, like, 1941, 1942. So the radio started their own publishing company, Broadcast Music. And whereas ASCAP was mostly, they started out as a sheet music administrator, working with Broadway people and Tin Pan Alley. They didn’t really want what they considered low quality material like country music or race records. So BMI went and snapped all these people up. Again, these were the people that were easy to exploit. So right off the bat rock and roll kind of fell into a scab situation, as far as a strike was concerned. By the time the ‘50s came around that strike was ended. But still, the lines were drawn between. . .
M: So you think that laid a foundation for. . .
D: Yea. I think rock and roll has always been about money and there’s been. . . since it’s been dealing with that energy thing, it’s always been a commodity from the very beginning. All pop music is. Performing. . .it’s more of an anomaly in rock and roll because you’re dealing with such a volatile thing. It’s so obvious when somebody dresses up in a suit and smiles for the camera and sings with an orchestra, it’s obvious what their intention are. But when you’re. . .when you get people excited and stuff, yet the intent is still to make money, it becomes somewhat more insidious.
M: Do you think that bands that are just starting out at a local level. . .
D: no, I don’t think they have that intention at all. In fact I think that the thin that keeps rock and roll alive is the fact that there is constant groups of bands that aren’t interested in that at all who are trying to subvert that.
But, like I said before, you get some success and you really…that’s the thing about it. You make a living doing this. You can make a living doing what you like.
M: Is this an obvious question? Do you guys make a living by being in the band?
D: Sure. Well, if you want to call it that.
M: You don’t work any other job?
D: No. But at this point there’s all sorts of different levels of money. There’s shows and records and publishing and merchandizing. And then trying to do various others things on the side. There’s plenty of. . . you can, it’s what you make of it. The more deals you can make the more money you can make. We don’t do that well ‘cause our focus has always been getting a rise our of people. Our group feel, so we don’t exploit our band as much as we… That’s one of the things our label wishes that we were a little more business oriented and would exploit our thing more. For instance, our label doesn’t like us to perform “Whistling Song” live ‘cause they feel that it’s an incongruity that our target audience, that they’ve targeted for us, won’t be able to stomach. “Hard rock bands don’t whistle!” And I go “yea, but we’re like a psychedelic neo-jazz southwest country/punk/hard rock band.” but they want us to be a hard rock band.
M: I know that from seeing four or five of your shows that often times the audience wants you to play that song.
D: Yea. But that’s the thing. We can’t be. . . we know it’s not in our interest to just play the same. . . You see Chicago shows?
M: I’ve seen. . .I went to school in Arizona. .. .I’ve seen two in Flagstaff, one in Phoenix.
D: Still we’re talking’ about. . . even the Metro would only hold, say, 500 people maybe. Less than. . .maybe 5 or 600 people. And you can’t be setting your sites that low. You have to be lookin’ to shows for, like, 30,000 or more if you want to be big.
M: Have you found that you’ve changed your goals?
D: No. I don’t like doing “Whistling Song” with or without the incongruency. I don’t care. I’m tired of it. It’s an ancient song. I’d rather not do it anyway.
M: Is there any kind of tension between playing for an authentic rock audience, or. . . for the 500 at Lounge Ax. . .
D: No. We basically feel that what we do, what we’ve always done, people can like. We don’t consider ourselves to be inaccessible. We never thought that our stuff was that far out. Now there are far out aspects to it. The fact that what we sing about is very oblique. And then that’s probably the major problem.
M: The lyrics?
D: Yea. The lyrics are probably the biggest problem as far as trying to sell us; to put us over big. And of course I remember when Stipe and Co. started getting big all you’d ever hear about was how you couldn’t understand the lyrics. Suddenly, “Stipes actually singing so you can understand him!” Like, I couldn’t tell the difference. It didn’t make any difference to me.
M: Do think there was a conscious effort on REM’s part to make it so we could understand the lyrics?
D: Umm. . .sure. It’s such a small concession. It doesn’t. . .makes such a little. . .I mean, what they’re interested in is broad enough within its own limited range so that there’s plenty of things for them to do to keep it interesting.
M: Would you consider REM an authentic rock band?
D: Ummm. . .authentic rock band. But I don’t think they were ever an underground band. I think that they started out. . .they did one single and got signed to IRS. I don’t consider that to be nearly enough time in the underground. Of course they worked. They toured plenty and they made their grass roots connection with people. So they should have their . . .they should get their due. However, I never thought their music was particularly challenging.
M: Would you be comfortable in their position?
D: Umm. . I’d prefer it. I’d prefer to play unchallenging music. I’m lazy. I’d love to just go “boop-bap” the way their drummer does and not have to do shit. Unfortunately I have to. . .our music is largely. . .our music is so uncommercial at its core because all we try to do in to it. We don’t even care about what it sounds like. We just care about how it fits together in the connection to our brain while we’re actually doing it. We don’t rehearse a lot. We prefer to leave it at. . .to leave the live performance to be an avenue of discovery and experiment rather than just something that we could recreate, something that we’ve done in practice. It never. . .no matter how much you practice it when you’re us. It’s been this way since the beginning, it just doesn’t feel the same on stage with all those people there. And the focus on the energy and the performance is just so different.
M: It’s interesting. . .I like you guys quite a bit, you’re one of my favorite bands.
D: Thank you.
M: . . .friends of mine that don’t know abut you, I’ll lend them your discs and they’ll be kind of neutral on it. I get them to go to a show and it’s a much different experience.
D: That’s a problem for us career wise. It’s kind of a shame. It would be nice if we could do a show that was more. . . that had more of that. I mean had a record that had more the energy. . . or if we could have a show that would have a little less of that and be more like the record. The label would like us to do shows that were more like the record, and we’d rather do a record that was more like our shows. I think most of our small core of 60,000 people that bought our last record would agree. But we need to sell between one and three hundred thousand or our records or else we’re gonna have to be considered failure in this particular realm of the industry.
M: You sold 60,000 of Forbidden Places?
D: Probably in the neighborhood. But we sold them all at once. Which is still the best we’d ever done. We’d sold, over the years, with our SST products, not that many. With something like Up on the Sun, our best success at the time, we probably have sold around that in seven years. But we were able to do that much business right away given the distribution network. But that does not satisfy our label. Whereas fIREHOSE sold about that many, maybe a little more, and their label was very happy with it.
M: Of Flyin’ the Flannel?
D: Yea. Their first Sony record. It depends on who you are. On our label we have a specific sort of inter-office politics in which the person that goes to bat for us happens to have to be accountable in a certain way. It has so much to do with it outside of the music or the record. It has a lot to do with maybe the person. . . maybe there’s somebody in you label that’s looking, that want the job of the person who’s your advocate. So they’re looking to make that person look bad. So they try to paint your band in a bad light to make this person look bad. So you get dragged down in the process. There’s all sorts of. . .that’s one of the problems with working with a corporation. there’s so much out of your control.
M: And these are things that unsigned bands have no idea about.
D: It depends on who the unsigned band is, I think. It depends on who it is. Unsigned bands meaning bands that are into it for the music, like us, rather than say a band that is trying to copy Guns ‘n’ Roses.
M: Or just a young band. . .eighteen or nineteen year old kids. ..
D: Yea. Kids are just getting together out of their love. .. .yea. That’s something that they don’t. . .I mean, I essentially rebel against that. I just go “Great. Let them drop us. Who gives a shit. If that’s what it’s all about, fuck ‘em.” I don’t give a damn. I know the other guys. .We all work at it because it’s a challenge, and to a certain extent we believe we’re up to it, and we aren’t that intimidated by it. I don’t lose a lot of sleep over it.
M: You’re not worried about losing your job?
D: I’m not so sure that we’re on the right label. As far as that goes there may be labels that could do a lot better job with us. It all boils down to who you’re working for and where they’re at in their careers and stuff like that. Obviously one of the first things a label is gonna say is, “Alright, these guys have been around for thirteen years. They’re not gonna go. . . they’re one of the seminal bands of this scene. . how come it’s taken these guys so long to get as far as they have?” Who cares! They’re not impressed by what we’ve done so far. and as far as they’re concerned what it boils down to is the right song, the right video, and the right opening slot on the right tour, the right producer and the right video director, and the right live show which means the right lights, the right back drop, the right songs, the right links with the right tempos. ‘Cause we like to play fast and sloppy and shit. A good show for us, one which we come out feeling really satisfied with, might not be what Mr. Big thinks is the one.
M: So you don’t do much rehearsing for your shows?
D: We do. But it’s not useful rehearsing in the sense that once we get on stage it’s a totally different experience. We obviously know what the songs are going to be, but we don’t go, “Alright, we’re gonna do this and this and nothing but this.” Keep it really, really basic.
M: You like to talk, don’t you?
D: No. I gave you my phone number.
M: Yes you did. That was nice of you.
D: Yea. You’d get a lot of crap from either me or Cris.
M: Does Curt not do interviews?
D: He’s more fanciful in his answers. I don’t know if he’d particularly want to address himself to your particular topic. I had something to say about your topic so I thought I’d give you my number.
M: I appreciate it. Pearl Jam hasn’t responded.
D: Well, I can’t speak for others. For me it’s like it’s an important issue at this time and I have a specific sort of attitude toward it. I think it’s not necessarily a wonderful thing.
M: What’s not a wonderful thing?
D: This whole music business bullshit.
M: The music is still a wonderful thing, isn’t it?
D: Yea. The music is still fun and stuff, but. . .I’ll tell ya. I’ve been doing it for thirteen years and . . .
M: How old are you?
D: Thirty-two. Nobody likes living out of a suitcase. We did a three month tour last year. And I still. . .Looking back on it still frightens me to think that I have to do it again. I just don’t have much of a life. The kind of people that you are able to connect with are. . .you always are wondering what other people are doing. I just read a book, which depending on how much research you have to do for your paper, you might want to look for it, because it has a lot of good quotes about how full of whit the music industry is. It’s Artie Shaw. He’s one of the great big band leaders in the thirties and forties in the swing era. His big hits were “Begin the Beguine” in ’38, and “Frenesi” from ’42.
M: What’s the name of the book?
D: “The Trouble with Cinderella: An Outline of Identity.” It was written in, like, ’52 and it’s kind of an autobiography. He quit the music business a lot of times. He kept saying, “Man, if I could only get a lot of money I would just quit.” And he finally realized that he was in the weird vicious circle. So he got psychiatric help and realized. . .
M: He realized that it was set up so that he couldn’t get enough money to quit.
D: He realized that he was working at cross purposes with himself. He had to. . . what he wanted to do was write. So he gave up music and began to write.
M: If you made enough money would you quit?
D: Oh sure. I’d rather not have to work at all for a living.
M: So you consider it working?
D: Yea! I wouldn’t mind playing music whenever I feel like it, and only when I feel like it. But living in hotels, living with my partners. Having to go hassle over money and worry about whether or not people are gonna show up and stuff. And that’s just our level. I can only dream, from hearing about it, about the problems you’re gonna have once you’re popular. If we got a popular record we’d have to work constantly. We’d be on the road for two or three years.
M: That doesn’t sound…
D: Well, I’m a contemplative person. Other people, most people in music really enjoy the attention and the distraction. What I prefer a lot of time is to sit and contemplate things. And read books like Mr. Shaw’s. And he too was looking to be a writer. He had other interests. And he wanted time to do some of the other things he wanted to do.
M: You mean you actually have other interests?
D: Yea. I do specifically. Cris definitely is into his music. And Curt is kind of a. . .he’s got his own thing too. He’s into his guitar, but he’s also into. . .he’s kind of more into being a celebrity than he is being a straight musician. He’s into being a personality. Somebody who has a unique outlook on life that people find interesting rather than somebody who they just. . .He’s not like a guitar hero. He’s not just interested in being liked because of his. . .
M: Although many people consider him to be. . .
D: Sure. He has a unique guitar style. But he believes that the electric guitar is one of the most sublime sort of things. It practically plays itself. If you got him talking about it. .. it’s like, you can’t lose with an electric guitar. I mean, even I could go up there and blow people away with an electric guitar. That is if they were listening rather than just watching my fingers. Music is not his whole life. He’s also a contemplative sort. Cris is more of a musical sort. We all get tired on tour and you start to get on sort of a thin rope. And you start to lose your cool. Or sleep through the gigs. Whereas we don’t sleep through the gigs, our gigs are kind of like an extremely strong jolt of coffee. We use our gigs to wake ourselves up. It’s a drag. You drive all day and eat shitty food and take weird hours and have people in your face and you don’t have. . . your home and stuff like that. It’s a different schedule. It gets wearing. Which is another reason why we wanted to sign with a major label so that we could get help doing these things. And not have to do it on such a shoe string. And also because, like any band. . .any business that starts out from nothing knowing nothing. We’ve needed to get a lot of our business practices straightened out. So we hired professional management and accounting and stuff like that to make sure that we weren’t wasting our time trying to plug whatever holes or waste of money or waste of time so that we could be a more efficient organization. That gets important when you get old. Curt has a couple of kids that are almost ten. And you have to start thinking about that. When you’re a kid it’s like “Pile in the van, let’s go to the next gig. How much you wanna pay me? $10? Great!” But you start to get older and you get more responsibilities and you have to think about it. Anybody who has been in this business. . ..I mean, the mere fact that we’ve stayed together for thirteen years gives us a awful lot of credibility in the band world. ‘Cause we have stuck it out. We have something to say to people that only the survivors can tell you. Sometimes the survivors tell you things that you might not want to hear when you’re nineteen. You’ll learn them sooner or later.
M: If you’re around for thirteen years.
D: That’s right. We plan to be around for another thirteen.
M: You do?
D: Sure. We’re not…