The Meat Puppets spent the late eighties living out of a second-hand RV. We travelled the country like a rock and roll gypsy caravan — roadies, girlfriends, Curt’s pit bull and a trailer full of gear in tow. After driving all day, we’d hit town in the afternoon, winding right past the nicer neighborhoods until we reached that night’s shit-hole. As soon as we finished loading in and doing our sound-check, I’d make for the pavement, looking for anything else to do: a thrift store, a comic store, healthy food, even a laundromat. In the meantime, the Kirkwoods would pitch their nightly floating dope carnival in the parking lot.
But the grind was wearing us all down. With no new product to promote that year, attendance at our shows was dropping. As gates decreased, we got shorter and shorter shrift from the promoters. Meanwhile, we developed superstitious rituals: “warming up” before every show with muscle-wrenching “stretches” and loading up on herbal stimulants. We’d get on stage and pound on our instruments until we wore ourselves out — or until the audience left. We fought with everyone: our label, our booking agent, club employees, each other, sometimes even with the fans. We were exhausted. We’d been living hand-to-mouth for too long, playing too many piddly-shit gigs for too little money. We were squandering our reputation and burning ourselves out. Curt finally told us he couldn’t take any more.
During a break from touring, we cut a new demo and, for the first time in years, beat the bushes for major label interest. A couple of label reps came out to some shows, but none took the bait. In the end, Curt had no choice but to deal once again with SST. During a visit to California, he cut a rough version of “The Void” using Greg’s new drum machine. He liked the results. I’d been pushing him to use a drum machine on our next record, wanting a more level playing field against the rest of the mid-eighties rock world already on the sequencer bandwagon. I was tired of comping along in the background, and wanted the chance to actually compose my parts.
First, I laid down a basic kick and snare pattern on drum pads, playing along with Curt to a click track. Then the brothers came in one at a time and overdubbed their own bass, guitar and vocals. After they finished their parts, I composed my fills using the drum machine keyboard. Finally, I added live cymbals, replacing the click track with real high hat. This strategy suited us well, for at the time we were barely speaking to each other. I don’t think all three of us were ever all in the studio at the same time.
The finished product had a calculated hair metal sound to it. Just to make sure nobody missed the point, we added entirely too much reverb. The songs were pretty basic, and the poetry was stingy by Meat Puppets standards. Mostly, Curt just wanted to rock out; he didn’t want to be bothered by the rest of it. The album is hampered by our crappy “self production” and the leaden mechanical drum tracks, but the best songs eventually found life on stage. “Light,” “Attacked by Monsters” and “Touchdown King” became concert staples.
Once we delivered “Monsters,” we began our preparations for yet another season in the R.V. But a funny thing happened. Atlantic Records offered us and SST a nice sum for the rights to release the album. But Greg wouldn’t even consider giving it up. They had planned their whole season around the release, and everything was already printed and pressed. Both sides dug in. Suddenly, it became a lot harder to get somebody from either label on the phone. “Monsters” was a flop — poorly promoted and poorly received. We went out for another round of shitty gigs. This time around, all the opening acts had major label albums. While their promo teams beat a path to their dressing rooms, we were selling handmade tee shirts for gas money. We couldn’t even find our record in stores. We felt screwed.
It was around this time when rumors began to circulate that we were finished. And the rumors weren’t far from true. I hardly even felt like I was in a band any more. Nothing but inertia kept me going — that and the desire to see how the story was going to end. I didn’t want to give Cris and Curt the satisfaction of giving up before they did. I stopped smoking grass that summer, and spent most my time trying to make sense of our disastrous finances. When a major label contract finally arrived in the summer of 1990, it was a predictably shitty deal. But it was a lifeline, and we grabbed it. What choice did we have?
You’d think, given my critical eye for my own work, that I’d rate “Monsters” dead last. And it’s true: artistically, the album is my least favorite. But as a tactic to attract a major label deal, it was a complete success. And even if our new partners at London/Polygram didn’t particularly “get” the Meat Puppets, for a while at least it seemed the change would breathe new life into the band. And for a while at least, it did.