For my money, one of the ‘90s best compilations was Saturday Morning: Cartoon’s Greatest Hits. Described at the time as “a truly altoonative collection of cartoon classics,” the comp found a bunch of Gen X-aged acts getting playfully nostalgic with punk, power-pop, and bubblegum tributes to vintage kids programming from Hanna-Barbera (i.e. Matthew Sweet’s “Scooby-Doo Where Are You?”), Sid and Marty Krofft (The Murmurs’ “H.R. Pufnstuf”), Filmation (Juliana Hatfield and Tanya Donnelly’s “Josie and the Pussycats”), and more.
One of the more memorably aggro offerings on the record is face to face’s SoCal punk take on “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.” It’s a suitably speedy, spinach-and-Marshall-stack-powered cover that goes for the gusto with a seafaring intro, searing octave solos, and vocalist/guitarist Trever Keith’s commitment to the bit as he rifles out the tough-talkin’ colloquialisms of the world’s squintiest sailor (sample lyric: “I’m one tough Gazookus, which hates all Palookas wot ain’t on the up and square”).
It’s a good bit of fun, but one the face to face frontman admits he hasn’t thought of much over the past 25 years (“I kind of cringe at ‘Popeye the Sailor Man,’” he says with a laugh. “I think we’ve done a much better job on so many other covers.”). All the same, Keith reminisced on the cover’s splashy studio session, its western seaboard video shoot, and the ’90s era gear he misses the most.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How do you remember being approached for the Saturday Morning: Cartoon’s Greatest Hits project?
Trever Keith: There was a producer named Ralph Sall—I don’t remember if anyone in the band had a direct relationship with him. He might’ve been a buddy of the guy who was managing us at the time.
I do remember that we got approached, in my opinion, kind of late, because all of the songs I wanted to cover had already been taken. I was like “We should do the Spider-Man man theme song!” Too late, the Ramones have it. By the time it came to [choosing] Popeye, we were kind of like, “really?” We felt like we got stuck with a not very cool cover, but we rose to the challenge, and I think we made a good cover of the song. But as geeks—animation and cartoon fans—there are songs we would’ve been happier to cover.
It was cool, though, because he took us to Ocean Way Recording, a really, really nice, state-of-the-art recording studio in L.A. It’s a place we would have never been able to afford to go and record a full album in. We were there for a couple of days; Ralph was there. Everyone was really friendly.
What do you remember about the sessions?
I’m pretty sure we did bass and drums at the same time, if not the rhythm guitars, [too]. That’s the way we used to do everything back then. We’d rehearse our butts off before a session, and go in and try to record as much live off the floor as we could. That was probably how that went down. I have photos of me and the other guys all gathered around a microphone doing the gang vocals together.
Gear-wise, do you remember what you were using through the session? In the video—and other face to face videos from the mid ‘90s— you’re holding a butterscotch Telecaster, for instance.
I was definitely using the butterscotch Telecaster. What gave that thing the sound that I liked was that I yanked the single coil pickup out and had a hot-rodded Seymour Duncan humbucker put in that little profile. I believe I was using Marshall JMPs at the time, with their master volumes modified. Man, I wish I had those amps back again. I played so many cool vintage amps back then. At the time I was like, “yeah…these are pretty cool,” but years later they’re sought after and cost a jillion dollars.
Did you sell those off, or had they worn down over time?
I’ve bought and sold so many amplifiers. I’m kind of a horse trader when it comes to gear, that’s my downfall. I have managed to hold onto my ’79 black Les Paul Custom for all these years, though. That’s the guitar that immediately followed the Telecaster.
There are two separate lead/solo sections on the song—one being that familiar, sea shanty kind of fret crawl, while the other is more of a streamlined octave section. Had you played either?
I definitely did the octave solo. Chad and I traded off [on leads], and I did the octave part.
What can you recall about the video shoot, where you’re in a shipyard on a small raft, decked out in sailor suits.
It was done at the Long Beach Harbour, which can be intimidating if you’re on sea level. It’s full of these gigantic ships; the bridges above you are sprawling. I think we were in a raft for part of it, the full band holding our guitars and whatnot. There are also some shots where we’re in this dinghy, paddling through the water. You just feel super insignificant out there because of the scale of everything around you. Gigantic! I remember us being a little nervous about knocking the dinghy over and getting dumped into the harbour.
We weren’t crazy about putting on sailor suits. I don’t remember whose idea that was, but we went along with it.
You also wore those vintage, fast food drive-in attendant uniforms in the “Debt” video. A lot of uniforms back then…
You know, it was the ‘90s. I think everyone was more open to being slightly wacky—when making a music video, at least. We were open to getting in costume for the part.
Did you ever play “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” live?
I remember that it was really popular with our Japanese fans, so when we went to Japan people wanted us to play it. We did it at least one time. Actually, Scott [Shifflett, current bassist] was already in the band by then, so he had to learn the song, which Matt [Riddle] had recorded. For him [Scott], he was like, ‘really?’, but it was fun to play.
It’s now been over 25 years since this compilation came out. As a footnote in the overall legacy of face to face, how do you feel about the cover?
I mean, I don’t really feel like the song is one of our best moments, but I feel really happy to have been a part of that Saturday Morning compilation. What Ralph ended up doing—beyond just being a comp— ended up being so cool. I mean, he had the whole video aspect of it; I believe Drew Barrymore hosted it. There was also a comic book made by Marvel that went along with that compilation. The artwork was great. He really did it right. I’m thrilled that we were a part of it.
In terms of the other covers face to face have done over the years, what’s your favourite?
I don’t know if I could note my favourite, but I will say that we released our Standards and Practices Vol. 2 at the end of last year, and recorded two new covers to collect with b-sides and outtakes. I’m super proud of the two that we had just recently covered, which are “A Million Miles Away” by the Plimsouls and a version of Joe Strummer’s “Coma Girl”. I’ve really been enjoying those lately.
face to face’s upcoming No Way Out But Through album is out September 10 via Fat Wreck Chords.