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Exclusive Q&A: Learning Japanese with Me First and the Gimme Gimmes

OurStage Exclusive InterviewsMe First and the Gimme Gimmes is a band that really extends itself into places most bands aren’t willing to go, both literally and musically. Drawing its members from various punk bands like NOFX to Swingin’ Utters, the supergroup also specializes in covers from a variety of wildly different artists ranging from Elton John to Boyz 2 Men.  In preparation for their third tour in Japan, the Gimmes Gimmes released the album Sing In Japanese where the band covers a multitude of classics in the realm of Japanese punk bands. Vocalist Spike Slawson sat down with OurStage to explain what makes a good cover, the difficulties a band faces when touring abroad and his thoughts on the Japanese punk scene as a whole.

OS: Me First and the Gimme Gimmes have always been characterized as a punk supergroup. When you first started, was it difficult to manage all the different elements that each member brought from their respective groups?

SS: Initially, it gelled right away, because I think a lot of people weren’t necessarily convinced they were right yet.

OS: The band pretty much exclusively in covers. What do you think is the most important element of making a good cover?

SS: Fidelity to the original, but with a new group of people in the room where it sounds like a different take to it. Carbon footprint, I don’t know.

OS: Has the band ever attempted to play original songs or has it been only covers?

SS: Only covers, only ever covers.

OS: Was there a specific reason for that?

SS: Well, I don’t know. It’s sort of like a process of elimination. There’s too many options in music, at least in my mind, where we would have no idea where to go. Making it only covers or making it only a certain style of music, it narrows the range a little bit. It just makes it simpler. Often the best song on a lot of these pop punk bands’ records was the cover, you know. Or like the only good song. So why not do a band of that? And several of us wanted to play out in a band that was less serious and the quickest way to get a live set together to play out was covers.

OS: For Singing In Japanese, you spend the entire album covering classic Japanese punk songs like The Blue Hearts’ Linda Linda. When you first decided to do the album, were you more concerned about doing it your own way or keeping in line with the intent of the originals?

SS: It’s kind of attention between both always. That’s all I can say. I don’t think we changed the originals too much, the basic intent or drive of the originals. But, I think there’s something new in them. I hope, at least. I was really concerned about getting the phonetics right. I hope I did, so I would listen to YouTube videos a sort of go line-by-line. So a friend of Mike’s wrote it out phonetically, but I don’t know what the shit means.

OS: Do you have any tips for artists touring abroad, especially in Japan, for the first time?

SS: Yes, especially if you’re from the States. How do you describe it without sounding elitist? It’s just the extra one or two steps required. You will realize, say for example in Japanese and any European cultures, they think the extra step or two in designing things to make them more user-friendly. Does that make any sense? If you allow these cultures to engage you, they will. Because I definitely went out the first times to these places feeling xenophobic and a lot of times that manifests itself into belligerent or arrogant. I advise against that, you’ll miss way too much.

OS: So you recommend going out there and mingling as much as you can?

SS: Yeah, immersing yourself as much as you can. It’s hard. The caveat being, when you’re in a non-Latin based language, it’s kind of difficult. English is kind of like that, as far as stuff that’s written. Say, for example, Spanish when you’re in California, especially in the big metropolitan areas. As far as it’s being spoken, it’s not as much as you would expect. So, it’s really easy to get lost and not finding your way back. But, that said, every culture wants to share its food, art, and culture. So, it’s worth it.

OS: How would you describe the crowds in Japan compared to America?

SS: I’d say more respectful, in really strange ways. When you talk, everybody in the crowd shuts up, which is kind of unnerving. They mean it as a sign of respect where to you it makes things awkward and uncomfortable. Other than that, it’s more of a general thing. I mean, Tokyo is one of the biggest metropolitan centers of the world. Right in the middle, they have pay lockers. So, a businessman will probably have smokes that he hides from his wife there. Shit like that. I don’t know why you would need a locker in the middle of town. Just the fact that you’re able to have it, and that there’s a respect for public space there. It’s amiable.

OS: How many times have you been over to Japan?

SS: The first time I was over there was with the Swingin’ Udders. And then, I’ve been over there with the Gimmes three times since. So, four times.

OS: Would you say you have a pretty good idea of what the Japanese punk scene is like over there?

SS: Sorta. It’s just like everywhere else. It’s just music fans. The notion of punk as a movement, just like everywhere else. There’s a new set of challenges and less colorful bedheads don’t really need it, you know? It’s just sort of a different kind of music. With the Gimmes, I’ve toured as a cover band, so there’s no real political content or anything like that, so you have to take my view with a grain of salt. But, that’s my view on it.

OS: So you feel it’s pretty similar to what we have in America?

SS: Yeah, I would say that. Less homeless and crusty punks, but that’s just because there’s less homeless people over there. But that’s changing with the economy and all.

If you liked what you read, head over to Me First and the Gimme Gimme’s MySpace to listen to some samples of Sing in Japanese and other works.