Interview: Me First and the Gimme Gimmes
That was an accomplishment if nothing else, pissing off The Eagles. That was a high point in my life.
In between work with their many other bands, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes have been spending the last couple of decades covering some of the biggest songs from a whole variety of different genres. When they recently came over to the UK to tour to promote their upcoming best of compilation, Steve Fallows managed to grab a few words with singer Spike Slawson about the tour, some of his other projects and how they deal with permission to cover the songs they have recorded over the past twenty years.
(((o))): First of all, thanks for your time. How is the tour going?
Spike: So far, so good. Yeah, we like it over this side.
(((o))): It’s always good to see you over here. We were starved of Gimme Gimmes shows earlier in your career, bar the occasional one off show or festival appearance, but recently we have seen you quite regularly.
Spike: Yeah, we’ve been to the UK a lot recently.
(((o))): What caused the change of approach towards Europe?
Spike: Interest on the part of people over here, and availability on the part of people in our band. We all do different bands, so it used to be really fucking difficult to do anything, but we definitely plan to tour, visit and explore more in the future.
(((o))): With all the different projects that you are all involved in, how difficult is it to plan time together to tour and record?
Spike: We shape shift a little bit, we have a few different players and back up plans. We get pretty good shows out here so people want to make time and effort to come over here.
(((o))): I was reading that your involvement with the Gimme Gimmes started when you were working at Fat Wreck Chords. What is the story behind that?
Spike: I started working there because I worked at a different distributor that handled some of their stuff, and for some reason – I’d only met Mike (Burkett, Gimme Gimmes bassist and Fat Wreck Chords boss) very briefly – but I got a call after I’d quit that job. It was a sketchy job in the first place, not the most scrupulous of bosses. So I got a call saying would I cover shipping and receiving for them, which I did. Not very well though, which is why they found me another position in the organisation, which was singer in his new covers band, and I think its worked out OK so far. I’ve done a lot better at this.
(((o))): When it comes to recording an album, how do you all decide on a theme?
Spike: Well, it’s tough, because it’s tough to adhere to a theme all the time. Then you only have a finite amount of things that work with our particular idiom, so I’m of the opinion that we have maybe exhausted the idea of themes. My idea is to start doing more 7” singles of artists that we like, something more along the lines of the first album, free to do these cheesy singer songwriters and that kind of thing.
(((o))): Is there any material that you really want to do or something that you wont touch?
Spike: I think we should stay away from R ‘n’ B and hip hop, because it’s so rhythm and groove oriented and that sort of thing doesn’t translate too well. What does translate well is like that first record with all of these acoustic songs that I wasn’t particularly fond of, but Mike and Joey (Cape, guitarist) were. Songs that once you throw a beat over them, they have a whole different character. As far as a song that I’d like to do, there is so much of that AM Gold stuff from the States. That quiet rock …I just want to do all of that. It’s hard to choose any one song or artist I’d like to do more contemporary too, where it’s prudent.
(((o))): Which current artists do you think are ripe for the Gimme Gimmes treatment?
Spike: It’s tough to say. I’d think a boy band record might not be out of the question. Not exactly current I know but a couple of decades on from out usual output. That would make sense. No current stuff has that cheesy style. They write songs differently nowadays, no better or worse, but what qualifies as pop now is a lot different to what it was in the seventies and eighties.
(((o))): Have you managed to cover any of your own favourite songs?
Spike: No, because they did it right, you know. I don’t want to fuck with that. The closest we came for me was an easybeat song, I don’t know if the other guys like that stuff but I love it. I felt that we didn’t really do it justice, so we tend to leave that stuff alone. They got it right first time; there is no room for improvement.
(((o))): With all of the changes in the music industry since he band stared, is it more difficult to get permission to do this nowadays?
Spike: It’s the same as it ever was until someone decides to take legal issue with it. It falls under satire, so I think that Fat Wreck Chords have a reserve kept away, just in case they get sued as to how royalties are paid, but other than that its just a sink license. If we were to do a video, then we would have to get permission. We asked for permission from The Eagles to do a cover of ‘Desperado’, a song that I can’t fucking stand. I felt that we might have improved that one. We asked them for permission and their management responded and said no. Not only no, but “we hate your version. It’s important to the band that you guys knows how much they hate your version”. That was an accomplishment if nothing else, pissing off The Eagles. That was a high point in my life.
(((o))): Has anyone ever said no right from the outset?
Spike: No one has ever said no, because we have never asked. We have gone with the thing that it is all covered under satire. There was one video we did for an R Kelly song, I don’t know how much that cost, and we did one for ‘Summertime’, which is under public domain now, so no. We can still go international, we don’t know Italian publishing law back in San Francisco, but we should be fine.
(((o))): I’ve noticed when listening to the radio how often a song that comes on that you have covered. You have quite repertoire now?
Spike: Yeah, it’s crazy. It’s become like an act now. It must be time for us to go to Las Vegas for a residency I think. I like the idea of being a revue act.
(((o))): That would be a cool idea for a live record.
Spike: Live In Las Vegas, with added hecklers of course, especially if we recorded it in some dive off the strip somewhere. I like that.
(((o))): Is another live record a possibility? I’ve been listening to Ruin Johnny’s Bar Mitzvah recently?
Spike: That would be cool. I loved that idea; it really was a stroke of genius on Mike’s part. He told us that there was a Bar Mitzvah coming up and that we should fucking play it. He’d already looked into it and the pieces all came together. People really were holding their ears, and it was every bit as awkward as it sounded.
(((o))): How difficult was that to record, being a very different kind of venue than is usually used.
Spike: We had to barricade the drums off because it was such a tiny room; even so it still blasted everyone. They ended up getting really drunk, and by the middle of the set, everyone had let their hair down a little bit.
(((o))): Outside of the Gimme Gimmes, you are most well known for your work with the Swingin’ Utters. What else have you been working on?
Spike: Yeah, I was with them for 13 years. They are all still touring the world and still writing songs. They are still my friends, but their touring schedule was just too heavy for me. They get out there all the time, and I love San Francisco too much, so I end up saying there as much as I can. Outside Gimme Gimme commitments, I’m also doing a band called Uke-hunt, which is during the Gimme Gimme sets I play some ukulele interludes here and there, so I and some friends back home including Prairie Prince, the guy from The Tubes, we decided to do some of my favourite songs. Whereas this is more Mike and Joey’s source material, Uke-hunt is more along my tastes, Michael Jackson, The Kinks, The Searchers, all of that. I’ve been doing a lot with that and we toured Europe with that earlier this year and we really enjoyed that. Outsider pop classics done in a different way. It’s like exporting my San Francisco (which doesn’t even really exist anymore) before all of the young kids discovered old man bars. I really enjoy doing that. I also have an originals band called the Revolts, that I’ve been working on since 2006, so we are recording, which is taking forever, which it should I suppose because its important to us.
(((o))): You’ve mentioned more EPs, but what does the future hold for the Gimme Gimmes?
Spike: I like that idea, because it is how we started. It’s like all the shitheads that ruined my city, selling full-length records, ruined that business model. It’s not really a feasible moneymaker and you over play your hand by making a full record. You have maybe 5 or 6 great songs if you’re lucky, then these fillers that are OK, but you rarely play live. With a 7” you just stick with good stuff and you don’t over release things, and you may make a little bit of money as well. It’s songs that people are really excited to hear when you play live, and that for me is the fun part of being in this band.