Seventy-one seconds. That’s how long any unsuspecting, true-blue country fan will make it through Love Their Country, the new album from Me First And The Gimme Gimmes. Up until then, it’s all side-saddle guitar and twang-tinged vocals – everything those good ol’ bandanna-bearing boys on the disc’s cover seem to promise. But at second 72, the façade is over, guitars turn up, and drummer Dave Raun beats the bejesus out of a hyperwarp version of Garth Brooks’ “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old).” Congrats, cowboy. You’ve just been punk’d. Literally.
As the hipper kids in the reading room already know, the Gimmes are punk rock’s first uber-super cover group, a side project for Swingin’ Utters singer Spike Slawson, NOFX bassist (and Fat Wreck Chords owner) Fat Mike, Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett, and Lagwagon vocalist/guitarist Joey Cape and skinslammer Raun. And whether it’s greaser pop or surfer swing or this current roundup of country-influenced ditties, no genre is safe from the band’s daring interpretations: The songs are fast, the volume is loud, and the attitude – a lot playful, a little pugnacious – is like a soft poke in the ribs. It might not hurt much, but it sure does get your attention.
And Raun’s power playing, of course, will have everything to do with keeping your attention. Now 36 years old, and with almost two decades pounding the beat behind aggressive music, he is more than a respected, bona-fide punk professional: Raun is punk rock royalty. Even if he didn’t realize he’d be wearing the crown.
“I never planned on playing drums,” he remembers, laughing a little. But as a kid, he was one of those telltale fidgeters who couldn’t stop hitting on stuff, so he soon tapped into his talent by picking up the sticks, quickly joining his middle school’s concert and marching bands, and eventually taking lessons from one of DRUM!’s very own columnists, Mike Curotto. But even while practicing slick samba patterns and jamming out the muscular music of ’70s stalwarts like Led Zeppelin and The Who, Raun still didn’t consider a career as a pro basher, much less as a punk icon. “I really never thought about it too much,” he insists. “I played with people, started jamming in bands, and kind of got lucky. One thing just led to another.”
Sounds simple enough, but some of those “things” (feel free to groan now) include coveted gigs with a couple pioneering punk bands. The first, Rich Kids On LSD, also abbreviated to RKL, was already well established by the time he joined in 1992, and the group’s sound – derelict and raw and jam packed with jacked up tempos – proved a perfect fit for the phat foot he had developed playing Bonzo’s kick pattern in “Immigrant Song.” Four years and a lot of leg muscle later, he then landed Lagwagon’s drum chair, replacing the late Derrick Plourde (“a great, great player,” who ironically enough was also his predecessor in Rich Kids). And though the bands’ styles were relatively similar, Lagwagon became a musical turning point for Raun.
“RKL songs were all over the place,” he says, “and it was a little more structure with the Lagwagon stuff. It was a nice departure, playing a song that’s based more around the vocals and the melody. That’s the kind of the thing that Joey [Cape] writes – the normal singer/songwriter type of thing. It was nice to have a singer and not some kind of crazy punk rock screamer.”
Once the screaming turned more to singing, Raun must have liked what he heard because the song- and melody-focused Gimmes gang soon came together. And they rode in hard and fast, with tongues firmly and unabashedly planted in cheek. “It was pretty much a joke band,” Raun admits. “And we really didn’t take it seriously – we still don’t take it as seriously as probably it should be. We go through songs that have really strong melodies and see how they work with us. We really don’t want to stray too far from the original melody, because that’s the crux of the songs. They’re already tried and true, and then when you’ve got someone like Spike singing them, who is a phenomenal singer, it’s just a whole lot of fun.”
Absolutely. And nothing quite shouts fun like, umm, cowboy hats? Why, oh why, a country cover album? Though the latest Gimme release does rework a fistful of boot-scootin’ classics, don’t run for the hills and get your half-panties in a knot. There aren’t any of your toothless granddaddy’s campfire singalong sounds here. In fact, the whole album could be listened to as a subversive unwriting of our very own national folk music. Or maybe the record is a not-so-subtle stiff middle finger directed toward industry naysayers. But the real reason is probably a little simpler. “Country ended up being the natural progression from all the other [albums],” Raun explains. “Some country artists are some of the earliest punk rockers, like Johnny Cash.” And Willie Nelson and Hank Williams and, for a contemporary twist, maybe even those loud-mouthed, free-speech-spouting Dixie Chicks – all subversives, and all excellent songwriters whose tunes the Gimme guys creatively crank up with high-powered punk sensibilities.
But cranked up, remember, doesn’t have to mean crazy stupid. Because the songs ultimately center on Slawson’s vocal lines, Raun manages to keep the drumming reins on, adopting the scaled-back kick-ass charms of the cowboy genre. “I prefer to keep it pretty basic with the Gimmes,” he explains, playing mostly up-tempo 2 and 4 patterns, with a punk-patented galloping bass drum. “There are only like two or three beats I do. It’s not the place to get all Neil Peart about it.”
Except maybe on the second song, “(Ghost) Riders In The Sky,” which starts out with a shredding snare and tom lick, a little slice of Raun’s chops. It’s fast of course, but also melodic, and all the more impressive because it was off the cuff, a result of the Gimmes’ hit-it-and-quit-it aesthetic. “We don’t really spend much time on anything we do,” Raun reveals. “We rehearse the songs a bit and then start laying them down. [Fat] Mike is all for the first take. I’ve had to actually plead with him to let me hit it again. In the studio, I know that I’m working under the gun.”
And ultimately he and the rest of the band are also working on the edge, playing on the dicey domain of what it means these days to be a genuinely sweat-stained and muscle-strained punk band – what it really means, that is, to be “successful” in terms of punk rock’s philosophy of social commitment, integrity, honesty, and, most important of all, creative freedom. Is it enough to just play shows and pay bills and eat? Is there ever a desire for something more? Maybe U2-like record sales and Christina Aguilera–frequent magazine covers, a Bentley or two in the garage, and a little face time on MTV Cribs?
“No, not really,” he says. “I’m happy because I just love playing, and because no one expected to actually be able to make a living from this, and it’s more than done that. Back before this punk thing broke, Lagwagon was offered all kinds of huge deals, and we refused it because we kind of figured that being with the punk rock ideology, we wanted to keep it small, the way we have done it. We wouldn’t really last [in] the big leagues. You have to bow to too many people. And you have to compromise. The albums that we make are the albums that we want to make. And we don’t have people breathing down our necks.”
And when no one’s breathing down your neck – when an artist can actually take a risk, throw on a cowboy hat, and ride off into the Wild Wild West, all full of piss and vinegar and cantankerous confidence – you might be surprised at the number of people who will tag along. Raun still is.
“It just kind of caught on,” he says about the Gimmes. “A lot of it in the beginning was people who knew what bands we were all in. But since then, it’s gone on to be that kids will be at our show and they’ll be like, ‘My parents are into your album.’ It’s a hit because people love to listen to the songs they’ve grown up on. The songs are still very familiar, but they rock a little harder. People really dig it. We would have never been able to predict the Gimme phenomenon,” he says, pausing for the punkest part of all: “And it all started just as a joke.”