Interview with Fat Mike of Me First And The Gimme Gimmes: Wing (and Fennel) Man

Fat Mike said the CMJ Music Marathon and Film Festival is stupid. But that won’t stop the decadent musician and his band of merry punks, collectively known as Me First And The Gimme Gimmes, from rotting up the Big Apple as one of CMJ’s featured acts—for the price of a cool $10,000, of course.

The band’s bio reads somewhat like a joke. What happens when you put five famous musicians from established bands in a studio together and leave them to their own devices? In Me First’s case, they form a cover band solely dedicated to reinventing and performing “punked up” versions of songs from artists like John Denver, Lionel Richie and Garth Brooks.

It started back in 1995, when remixed classics from Me First members, bassist “Fat” Mike Burkett of NOFX, guitarist Chris Shiflett of Foo Fighters, guitarist Joey Cape and drummer Dave Raun of Lagwagon and vocalist Spike Slawson of Swingin’ Utters/Re-Volts began popping up on punk rock compilation albums. Voluntarily pushed further into their new musical project due to a mutual love of the “oldies but goodies,” Me First And The Gimme Gimmes released several singles before the band’s first full-length, Have A Ball, in 1997. The album’s renditions of ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s tunes—which included a cranked up version of “Rocket Man” by Elton John and a cover of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” that shreds riffs and sheds tears—left newfound fans wanting more.

Continuing their exploration of uncharted cover band territory, Me First has released six more albums since the punk rock super group’s unveiling, all under Fat Mike’s record label, Fat Wreck Chords. The recycled discography covers all genres of music and includes the show tune inspired Are A Drag, a nod to the ‘60s with Blow In The Wind, Take A Break and its R&B infused interpretations. Ruin Jonny’s Bar Mitzvah was recorded live at a bar mitzvah, then came country western homage Love Their Country and their most recent release, Have Another Ball. A seventh record is in the works and, according to Fat Mike, the album will pay tribute to Australian artists in order to not-so-coincidently correspond with the band’s upcoming tour in the land down under this December.

In addition to releasing several albums, Me First was thrown into the media spotlight in 2006 due to this report: Scheduled to perform three shows at PNC Park for the Pittsburg Pirates baseball team, fans booed the band during the very first night’s performance. Subsequently, Me First was asked to never return. Getting jeered off stage by a mob of adrenaline soused baseball junkies? It doesn’t get more punk rock than that.

In promotion of Me First’s visit to New York City on Oct. 22 as part of the Rocks Off Concert Cruise Series and Oct. 23 at the Music Hall in Williamsburg, Fat Mike spoke to The Aquarian Weekly about Michael Jackson, mussels and fennel, with little bits about his music thrown in.

How do you choose a song and go about putting your own spin on it?

It sounds funny, but it’s actually a pretty difficult process because most songs, you can’t just punk up. Most songs, it sounds stupid if you make them go faster. So we start to do songs and try them out. One of the un-fun parts of the band is doing this part since we argue a lot about what songs to do.

Have you ever spoken to anyone who wasn’t pleased about the rendition of the song you made?

Oh, yes. Most of them are not pleased. The most unpleased band was The Eagles. We tried to make a video for…what was that song? Well, we only play one Eagles song [“Desperado”]. They were very unhappy with it and said make sure [their manager] lets us know that they hated it. Not just weren’t happy about it, they hated our version. We asked to do the video, so they had to hear it to give us permission. They did not give us permission. It hurt our feelings a lot—that’s not true. We don’t give a fuck.

Are there songs that just don’t work?

Probably a hundred songs that didn’t work. In the country songs for our country album, we went through about 90 songs before we found 12 that were good. We tried “Rhinestone Cowboy,” we tried “Friends In Low Places,” we tried a lot of Hank Williams, we tried Dolly Parton. Usually, they didn’t work very well. It has to work perfectly. So actually, it sounds simple to be in our band, but it’s actually very hard. Not to be in it, but to make it good. You have to go through a lot of shitty songs. Actually, a lot of good songs before you find the one that sounds good while playing them punk.

Is there any genre of music or artist you would never cover?

Nope…Well, we’ve been working on this new EP because we’re in Australia in December so we’re doing all songs by Australian artists. Our singer [Spike Slawson] refuses to do any music by the band Jet. I don’t know. Our band… not only are we all people from other punk bands, but the majority of us are a little off our fuckin’ rocker. So Spike is probably the weirdest guy in the band.

An EP?

Yes. That will be an EP because, you know, seriously, there aren’t a lot of good Australian songs.

Are you currently recording for that?

Yes. In fact, we are recording as we speak. Tomorrow, Chris from Foo Fighters is going to play on it. He never comes to our practices ‘cause he’s in the [sarcastically] Foo Fighters.

Is it hard to get everyone in the band together considering everyone has different projects going on?

Yeah, because we are all on tour in different places. Our bands are always on tour and we’re always recording different albums. So it’s hard for us to get together more than one week or two weeks a year. We don’t practice at all.

As a super group, why continue to do covers rather than produce new material?

It’s harder to write songs, and it’s a lot easier to cover songs. The band is supposed to be about fun, and working hard is not fun.

Why is CMJ the ideal environment for your band?

Someone offered us 10 grand, so we did it [laughs]. And we get to play on a boat! How many people get to play on a boat?

And Me First is part of Fat Wreck Chords showcase at CMJ [featuring None More Black, Teenage Bottlerocket, Smoke Or Fire, Dead To Me, The Flatliners and Cobra Skulls]. Are you planning to see any of your other bands perform?

I’ll try to get to a few. It’s always nice to see bands on our label. But there are also people in New York we end up talking to—and good food. I’m having dinner at my restaurant in Brooklyn that evening. It’s in Park Slope. It’s called Thistle Hill. It’s delicious. You should try the mussels. Sometimes I get the pork belly, or the fried fennel is quite good.

Another thing I’ve heard about your band is that you get wasted on stage. Is that true?

Well, we get wasted before we get on stage and on stage and during our costume change and then after the show.

What exactly on?

It depends on what member you’re talking to.

How about you?

I like alcohol and pharmaceuticals. I don’t like soft drugs. Let’s just say that. It’s something that happens every show I ever play because playing sober seems like a ridiculous concept to me. If you’re in a cover band, why would you play sober? It beats working at Vegas or Atlantic City. It’s not art, it’s a cover band [laughs]. It’s like painting by numbers [laughs].

I would still think it’s art. The way you cover [songs] is different, like your “I Believe I Can Fly” cover was pretty…

…Are you an R. Kelly fan? He’s a child molester, you know. He peed on little kids.

What about Michael Jackson?

I’m happy he’s dead. A lot of less kids being molested now.

You’re going to have some angry Michael Jackson fans on you.

Good. Fucking pedophiles. Dude, I’ve never understood that argument. “He made great music, so let him do what he wants with the children.” It’s just like O.J. Simpson. “He’s such a good football player. So [what if] he murdered his wife?” Same way as Robert Blake. Robert Blake got away with murder, too.

Me First And The Gimme Gimmes will perform in two Fat Wreck Chords Showcases in NYC, Oct. 22 on the Temptress Cruise Ship and Oct. 23 at The Music Hall Of Williamsburg in Brooklyn.