Twenty years ago, Nirvana released MTV Unplugged in New York, an unintentionally posthumous album recorded on this day (Nov. 18) in 1993. Kurt Cobain died five months after its taping, so its place in rock star lore was all but assured by the time it hit shelves. Nirvana played almost none of its hits and filled nearly half its set with cover songs — a consummate anti-establishment move from one of the most populist anti-establishment acts ever.
But that’s not an oxymoron at all, as Nirvana collaborators Meat Puppets can attest. Three of those covers came from their 1984 LP Meat Puppets II, as members Curt and Cris Kirkwood joined Nirvana onstage to provide backing instrumentals on “Plateau,” “Oh, Me,” and “Lake of Fire.” To mark the anniversary, Billboard spoke with vocalist-guitarist Curt, the eldest of the Kirkwood brothers, as he kicked back on the porch of his home in Austin, TX.
Meat Puppets were one of Nirvana’s core influences, and despite never reaching anywhere close their level of fame, they’ve endured to this day, releasing new music as recently as 2013. But this brush with stardom did vault them to their commercial peak over a decade into their career — 1994’s “Backwater” hit No. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100. Twenty years later, Curt Kirkwood is remarkably well-adjusted about his time in the shadow of a superstar who was actually one of his biggest fans.
What was it about Nirvana’s live show that you really drew you in?
They didn’t really hold anything back. Dave (Grohl) is an insane drummer and he was a lot of fun to watch. Kurt was just… you never really knew. They had a set to a degree, and they had some props and stuff, but it was real. It was simple, and yet, compelling. You could get involved to the point where you just weren’t thinking about it. Which is part of the similarity between them and us — the eyes roll back in the head and it’s on.
The Unplugged session happened while you were on tour with them in 1993. Did you spend a good amount of time hanging out?
Yeah I started to become friends with them. It was just like family to a degree. It’s a strange thing to have the alternative bands start to get that attention… But we’re all pretty private people and at the time were new to that sort of attention. It’s like the weirdos getting hauled around into the big shopping malls.
How did they ask you to be part of the Unplugged session?
I was talking to Kurt backstage at one of the shows; I forget where. He was just saying what they were going to go do that and they wanted to do three of our songs and just asked us real simply if Cris and I would like to come up and do the guitar stuff on them.
I was just getting to know them. But they were pretty easy to get to know. That was the first time I’d met them — I’d been really busy, and I was aware of them, and had heard some of it, but it kind of went over my head. We had just gotten signed to the majors a few years before. We were going through that, so I was pretty occupied. I knew the scope of it to a degree, but it wasn’t until that tour when I realized how cool it really was
Do you think they had any inhibitions about doing such a big thing for MTV?
No, I don’t think they had any at all. I think they probably could have done whatever they wanted and I think they knew that… it was totally natural. We knew where they were coming from and we got along real well. It was just like summer camp — “Oh, the craft session is going to be held in New York this weekend; crafts has been moved up to a different part of the camp. We’ll go do that up there.”
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What was the vibe like when you first took the stage?
I was in the crowd. I was just part of the audience up until our part. Then I knew when I was supposed to go on. We had done a live rehearsal there at the stage before. It wasn’t a real big place; it’s pretty intimate. Everybody there knew why they were there — it wasn’t like anybody had to be sold. By the time we got on it was a really good show. It was just going great so it was pretty normal. It was easy stuff, we played those songs a lot and acoustic stuff is just a lot easier for me because there’s a lot less mystery to it.
It sounds like it went really smoothly, all things considered.
Oh yeah, there was very little production to it. I’ve never been at another one of those Unplugged tapings, but I’ve definitely heard they can be a little more trying for some people. But this was just like a real show… almost a coffee house-sorta thing from front to back, with no retakes or anything. My memories are really fond. I still mostly look at it as having been an audience member ‘cause I played on three songs and I’m just doing my thing.
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Do you remember how Kurt chose the three Meat Puppets songs he wanted to do?
You know I really didn’t talk about it that much. I didn’t ask. Later I had a band with (bassist) Krist (Novoselic) in the early 2000s called Eyes Adrift and I spent a lot of time up at his place out in Washington… He would tell me that was just one of their favorite albums when they were younger before they were getting the band started… Those are pretty much the songs off of the record Meat Puppets II. There’s half a dozen that we’ve done ever since then that have held up and we never got tired of playing them.
Watch the Meat Puppets perform their biggest hit, 1994’s “Backwater”:
Playing those songs and collaborating with Nirvana, did you think about how that could make your band so much bigger?
I really didn’t… I knew that it was a big deal, but I wasn’t thinking that. One of the things I liked about the whole hardcore punk weirdo whatever movement of the early ’80s and the ‘90s was that it didn’t seem like any hub for mass recognition. We just wanted to be in the band and do our art… I never looked down my nose at them but at the same time I never really had any goals or motivation towards that… I was thinking, “This will be beautiful. Kurt’s voice is great.”
I’ve read that Kurt had pressure from MTV to have much more famous guests, like Pearl Jam, on instead. Did you notice anything like that?
No, I didn’t really until the night we were doing it — the rehearsal and stuff. I don’t think they really knew. I think they kept it on the down low from the people at MTV. But I heard that stuff, too, when I got there. It was just whispers, kind of feeling a little bit like we snuck in there. But at the same time, they had to be nice to us ‘cause it was at the behest of the headliners… I think they thought they might get Eddie Vedder out there… the Pearl Jam thing came up. But once again — we’d been outsiders up to that point, so I figured it was just par for the course. We’re outsiders. They’re outsiders, too. Nirvana was definitely coming from the outside… But I kind of got a kick out of it, like, “Oh they don’t want us here? Good.”
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Do you think Kurt and the band got any backlash for not playing most of their big hits?
I never heard anything like that. I don’t know about MTV, but the audience was definitely into it. Nobody was yelling anything; everybody was really, really cool and anxious to see what this would be. Nobody had really heard Nirvana acoustic like that.
I love Nirvana… When I get to talk about it, it’s like looking back through a fairy tale photo album… It’s one of my favorite memories, and it’s easy to see why… It was a blast and I love those guys.