Revisiting past work: NOFX front man Fat Mike On 25 Years Of Fat Wreck Chords
This article first appeared in Colorado Music Buzz, August 2015. It's rare that I get nervous before an interview but NOFX has been my favorite band since high school, and I had a few drinks before I called him up to calm nerves a bit. About halfway through the interview, Mike revealed that he had been taking a shit the whole time, and from then on I was completely comfortable.
NOFX Front man Fat Mike on 25 years of Fat Wreck Chords
by Tim Wenger
I’d be willing to bet that NOFX front man Fat Mike never set out to be a role model. When he started the band with guitarist and best friend Eric Melvin in 1983, he was a teenage punk rocker in California raised on The Misfits and Bad Religion. But 32 years later, the punk world has grown up and so has Fat Mike, in some ways at least. His band has stood the tests of changing times and constant scrutiny and have come out on top, one of only a handful of punk bands to reach such a high level of success and carry it through four decades without imploding.
His band has released twelve full-length albums, way too many EPs and other releases to count, filmed their 2008 world tour for a documentary series on FuseTV, and have done it all (and a lot more) while resisting many of the sources of outside influence that so many of their contemporaries succumbed to. Their 1994 record Punk In Drublic has sold well over 1 million copies worldwide.
Outside the realm of recording and shows, Mike and ex-wife Erin Kelly-Burkett are currently celebrating the 25th anniversary of their seminal independent record label Fat Wreck Chords with a cross-country caravan tour this month that will showcase NOFX and many of the label’s other acts, hitting the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver on Thursday, August 20.
Mike has quite the resume (I haven’t even mentioned Me First and the Gimme Gimmes) that is rather inspirational on its own. But, the reason why Fat Mike has been and has remained a role model, at least to me, goes back to the whole ‘growing’ thing.
I remember the night I saw my first punk show, in junior high with my best friend from up the street. I had no idea what to think, or do, but as soon as I saw the band and the mosh pit and the hair, I wanted to be a part of it so badly. I don’t remember the time I bought my first NOFX cd, must have been sometime in the mid-nineties, but I do remember how I related to the lyrics. They were crass, immature, and not very serious, much like me. I connected with them because in all their pubescent glory they perfectly personified my life and my train of thought.
Fast forward a few years and about sixteen more NOFX releases. High school. Girls. Drinking. Sneaking out of the house at night to smoke weed at the park. Trying to be a rebel but not really having much of a stance on anything other than wanting to live my life my own way. Fat Mike’s lyrics still in my head, but newer, and slightly more socially conscious.
More years. Anti-Bush protests. The War on Errorism.
More years. Wolves in Wolves Clothing. Coaster. Self-Entitled. I have debated with many people whether Wolves is the greatest NOFX album. I think it is. For a long time I thought Punk In Drublic was the greatest record of all time, but Wolves and the subsequent albums are the most relatable to my life now. The best punk rock bands are, in my opinion, the ones that grow along with their fans. Even if the chord progressions stay the same, the message is reflective of where the members are at in their personal lives. For over half my life, I have been able to put on a NOFX album and relate it to my current situation. I don’t always agree with or understand everything Fat Mike says, but he has an undeniable talent at putting his life experiences into relevant, relatable, often humorous poetry and presenting it in a way that I can listen to his songs and think, ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself!’
Mike’s followers know that he isn’t always the biggest fan of interviews. But the Fat Wreck tour needs publicity just like any other tour does, and a couple weeks ago I was on the ball at work and hit ‘Reply’ quickly enough on an email from Fat Wreck’s publicity team to secure a few minutes with Mike via phone. Here is our conversation.
CMB: First off, congratulations on the 25th anniversary tour, that’s a huge accomplishment.
Mike: Thank you very much.
CMB: You have some pretty good longevity with your endeavors. What is the key to that?
Mike: I think with both NOFX and Fat Wreck Chords, the key is to not try to impress people, not try to fool people, just do what I love and that’s doing punk rock as good as I can. Find the best punk bands, write the best punk songs. I don’t think I’ve ever said this before and it’s going to sound terrible, but we are the Kentucky Fried Chicken of punk rock. We can only do one thing.
We try not to go with music trends. When ska bands took off, I didn’t sign a ska band. When emo took off, I didn’t sign an emo band. We just stick with what kind of music the people on Fat Wreck Chords love.
CMB: As a business owner also a punk rocker, how do you maintain your ideals and also run a profitable business, make tough calls, and be a dick when you need to be a dick?
Mike: That’s the thing, is that capitalism can’t work if you don’t get greedy. That’s one of the things that makes (Fat Wreck) work is that I try to be fair all around, with people that work for you and with bands. What I think we’re pretty well known for is that we’ve never fucked over a band. Or anybody. And sometimes the tough choices have been that we have to fuck over ourselves before we fuck over somebody else. We’ve lost money on a lot of record deals instead of doing the dick thing and charging a band back for stuff that we’re legally allowed to, but it’s just a dickhead thing to do. They’re your friends. And also, if you do it once, then you’re reputation is gone. If you fuck over one band it could ruin your entire reputation. I tell everyone that works for me ‘Just don’t be a dick, ever.’
Luckily, when I started the label, I was in a band that was on another label. So when a band would ask for something and the people at Fat Wreck Chords would say ‘That’s not cool,’ I could look at it from both ways. I could say ‘If I was in that band, I would want my label to do this.’
If they say ‘Why don’t you give us a discount on cds, we’re on the road and we’re working,’ I would say, ‘OK.’ If I was starving, I would want my label to do that. Really, people at the label did not see my perspective because they were not in a band on the road. Most labels are not run by people in bands on the road at the same time.
CMB: Do you think that goes into your longevity? All these big labels that are crashing because their business model is bullshit and they make a life out of fucking people over, and now it’s coming back to them, but a business like yours is still able to rely on your reputation?
Mike: Yeah, well sure. It didn’t happen exactly how I thought. I wrote that song “Dinosaurs Will Die” I don’t know how many years ago, twelve years ago or something. The thing is that the big problem is that kids today don’t know what buying a record is. It’s just free. And it’s such a shame because it’s not just the buying of it. It’s like books- books are still in print almost as much as they always were because it’s still fun to sit down and read a book. It’s not fun on a computer. But people listen to music, it’s just information on a computer. That’s why our record sales started taking off because people like to have something to look at and to hold and smell and listen to, it makes it theirs. That was the greatest thing about punk rock as a kid was you went and got a record and it was yours, and nobody at your high school knew it and you were listening to something that was so much better than everything else.
CMB: I read an interview that you did years ago where you were asked about songs like “Shut Up Already” and how your views have changed over the years. I liked what you said because it shows how you have grown and what you are putting out music that is representative of where you are in your life now. What do you have to say about how punk rock has evolved and grown up, and maybe has a different world view than it did in the 80’s or 90’s?
Mike: That’s a long question. But at some point I said, and I still say it, it’s interesting to see how band’s views have changed. Part of being intelligent is changing your mind. I find it really refreshing when you’re talking to someone about something you’ve always believed in and they give you a point of view you’ve never thought of before. It’s nice to see that there are still bands that are singing about things that are important.
That’s another thing that’s great about punk rock is bands sing about things that are important. Not everybody, not The Ramones, but the Pistols and The Clash, and of course Bad Religion and Propagandhi. They sing about things that are fucking important that rock bands never did.
CMB: Yeah. So, how bout tour life. Are you still stoked on touring these days?
Mike: The thing is is that NOFX, we only tour for three weeks at a time, and that’s why we still love it so much. Because three weeks is a vacation, and in three weeks we do I think 14 shows, and that’s it. We go home. At the end of three weeks, we’re fucking done. We only get burned by the last show. Bands who tour for two months, three months, four months, of course you don’t like touring because it fucking sucks for that long. It turns into a job. It’s never turned into a job for us, and that’s another reason why NOFX has been so successful because people can see it in our eyes on stage- we’re not just there doing our job, we’re having a good time. You’ve probably seen us before, you know the difference.
CMB: Yeah, just the fact that you guys come out and bullshit, you’re not just boom-boom-boom and then you’re offstage. You take your time and do your thing.
Mike: Yeah, and I change the set list every night and we keep records of what we’ve played in every city so we make sure not to play the same songs. Except for, you know, maybe eight or ten of the real popular ones. Like “Linoleum” we’ll always do. But besides that we change it up because I want to do a different performance and I want to have a good time. Playing the same set every night gets boring.
CMB: Do you feel at all, with NOFX and Fat Wreck having the success that they’ve had, that you’ve become some kind of a kingpin in the punk world? Like you need to represent yourself when you go places, like Hunter Thompson not knowing if people want Duke or if they want Thompson.
Mike: I mean, I feel like I’m always under scrutiny for sure. It always amazes me how many people dislike me. I can never figure out what I did wrong. All I try to do is what I am. I’m not rude to people. I’ll say ‘Oh Hey, how are you doing?’ or ‘Oh a picture, sure!’ but I’m not necessarily trying to have a conversation with this sixteen year old who I’ve never met before.
I really, especially since I got more into the media somewhat lately, I don’t about that shit anymore so much. I’m just getting crazier and crazier, I’ve started wearing dresses on stage, I’m starting to feel like a punk rocker again these days because I’m just doing whatever the fuck I want to.
This tour, there is some pressure on this tour. It’s a Fat Wreck tour and I’ve gotta headline, and I’ve gotta be the man. I was going to take a big sober break right now because I’m working on the musical, but I can’t go on this tour, all my best friends are going to be on this tour!
CMB: So are you going to be taking the musical (Home Street Home) on the road at all?
Mike: We don’t know. The end game is to open on Broadway, but we’re not sure. We’ve got a lot of choices right now. But in a year from now, we’re going to be on Broadway. It’s something I’ve never realized, but people have a notion that it’s not going to be good. That it’s going to be a punk rock musical. I thought people would want to see it because I wrote it, but people actually don’t want to see it because I wrote it. They think it’s going to be a punk rock, like an American Idiot type musical, but it’s not. It’s a fucking musical. We played Home Street Home in front of a room of senior citizens, and every one of them liked it. Every single one. It’s better than everybody thinks it’s going to be.
CMB: Hopefully I’ll see it one of these days. One last thing- do you feel that the top threat to humanity is religion?
Mike: You know, I’d say in the top three. If you’re talking about fundamentalist Muslims, I think they are the most dangerous people in the world right now. But it’s because they are on the wrong end of capitalism. It’s not because they are religious, it’s because their lives are so fucked that they have to turn to something. If they were growing up and their friends and family weren’t being killed or starving to death, they wouldn’t be so fucking angry. These days I really do think it’s corporations and big money that is making the world a terrible place to be. Happy people do not turn into fundamentalists, desperate people do.