NOFX: The State Of Punk To Come

Posted by Steven Robertshaw on 13-Oct-05 @ 02:08 PM

When all of their colleagues were doing press and getting their fair share of MTV and radio play, punk-rock icons NOFX hunkered down, refusing to do interviews, promo opportunities and any other activities that might launch them into the rat race of mainstream culture. In this, their first
interview in seven years, the band have decided to meet the press not because they want to sell records, but because they want to make sure the Presidency isn't bought.
Story: Jonah Bayer


There are a few things one shouldn't do while interviewing NOFX-even if it is the band's first interview in seven years. These things include: asking their frontman, Fat Mike, where he got his nickname (it stems from his gaining 35 pounds his freshman year of college); misquoting the band (one of the reasons they stopped talking in the first place); or trying to get them to talk shit about the minions of second-rate knockoffs they've inspired over the past 20 years (NOFX are friends with most of them).

That said, the band will talk freely about their largely undocumented history and Mike's label, Fat Wreck Chords; demonstrate how to siphon gas; and, of course, discuss their favorite topic: the 2004 presidential election. In other words, with Dubya's potential re-election looming in the not-so-distant future, punk rock's biggest underground band are finally ready to talk-and be taken seriously. Well, sort of.

So, this is your first NOFX interview in seven years. Why now?
FAT MIKE: Because we think it's the right time to start using the mainstream music media for our own political agenda, where we felt we were being used back in the '90s. People were trying to get cred by interviewing NOFX, and we were just sick of it. So we stopped doing interviews.

Have you been thinking about ending your media ban for a while?
MIKE: Well, it's been my plan for a couple years. When the 2004 election was coming up, the band was gonna start doing interviews again, and we figured we'd get a lot of good slots and covers. [Laughter.] And we could use it for our political message.

Got it. Well, I know you've probably haven't been through the band history in a while, but...
MIKE: Our political agenda is, by the way, to get Bush out of office.

FORMING
Fat WRECK CHORDS is housed in a nondescript brick building in downtown San Francisco, dwarfed by a glass monstrosity that serves as Charles Schwab's corporate headquarters. In order to get to Fat Mike's office, first you have to ascend a flight of stairs (the label's warehouse takes up the first floor) and go through the front door, where you'll be greeted by the label's mohawked bon vivant, Floyd. From there, you'll follow the cheetah-patterned carpet past a few desks and a framed copy of the Billboard Top 200 chart from December 1999, which shows NOFX's 18-minute EP The Decline debuting at No. 200. Next, you'll enter a giant room where a majority of Fat's 16 domestic employees are working and-while I was there, at least-cranking the latest Pinhead Gunpowder disc.

Fat Mike will be on the phone. You will wait. You may also note that this feels more like a house party than a small empire. Then you'll wait some more. At this point, you might even start sweating a little. Finally, he'll be ready to see you.

First off, Fat Mike isn't really fat-and that's not really his name. Mike Burkett, NOFX's 37-year-old bassist/singer, is more "portly," like a punk-rock dignitary (which, essentially, is what he is). Today, he's wearing a Hawaiian-style shirt with dog chains around his neck and wrist, and his normally fluorescent-dyed hair is its natural state: black and bushy. Also present in his CD-littered office are the band's other two original members: black-and-blue-dreadlocked guitarist Eric Melvin and the band's sole sober member, drummer Erik Ghint, affectionately referred to as "Smelly." Guitarist El Hefe is MIA. Together, these three kids from California invented their own brand of punk rock, inspired countless bands and, through it all, remained true to Fugazi-like ethics without any help from MTV or commercial radio.

First, the facts: The members of NOFX met through the Hollywood punk scene when they were 12 years old, and started the band in October of 1983. Originally a trio, they had a revolving door of guitarists in their early days, and at one point, even enlisted a lead singer. When asked what they sounded like back then, Mike replies, "We were mostly hardcore. Bad. Very bad music." Their first West Coast tour was during Easter break of their senior year of high school, traveling in Melvin's parents' station wagon with no back window. The band had chops, but they were influenced by hardcore acts like the Germs and Jerry's Kids-bands who eschewed melody in favor of all things fast and hard. By 1986, NOFX's average take for a concert was still only $36. But soon enough, everything would change.

"I know it sounds lame, but when Bad Religion's Suffer came out, it changed our whole attitude on music," Mike explains. "We grew up on bands like Adolescents, Bad Religion and Social Distortion, and we forgot all about melody-and that's what we should be striving for instead of playing riffs. That was '88, and then we did [1989's] S&M Airlines, which was sketchy, but definitely showed some improvement. "

Mike isn't being modest-they really were that bad. "I remember I bought a NOFX 7-inch because Greg Hetson was wearing a NOFX shirt in a Bad Religion picture," recounts Alkaline Trio frontman Matt Skiba. "So I bought the So What If We're On Mystic? 7-inch, and I couldn't understand why Greg Hetson liked such a horrible band. This is when I was 14, and I realized if a band that crappy could put out a record, then so could I."

That probably wasn't the band's intention, but, slowly, NOFX did get better, booking tours through the pages of Maximum RockNRoll and using phony calling cards to make the calls. "Half our shows, we'd show up in a town and try to jump on another band's bill, and back then, bands would just let you play," Mike says. "Pretty much addiction kept us together. Not to each other or anything-to booze and drugs. [Laughter.] Oh, and Melvin siphoned gas, too. I didn't think it tasted very good."

When asked for a description of how to siphon gas, the until now-quiet Melvin lights up and speaks for the first time, giving a detailed description behind the physics of gasoline consumption.

"You had physics class in high school?" asks Ghint.

"Yeah," Melvin replies.

"Jesus Christ," says Ghint. "My hardest class was woodshop."

The band eventually became friends with Bad Religion and signed to guitarist Brett Gurewitz's then-nascent Epitaph label in 1989. But the real turning point for NOFX was 1991's Ribbed. Though it featured the blazing solos of then-guitarist Dave Casillas and the sophomoric humor the band were slowly becoming known for on songs like "New Boobs" and "Together On The Sand," the album finally fused NOFX's hardcore tendencies with songs that were smart, funny and incredibly catchy, propelled by galloping drums and palm-muted power chords-a template countless bands would soon be replicating.

"The first time I heard Ribbed, I was like, 'Is this the same band?'" remembers Alkaline Trio's Skiba. "I couldn't believe it. I knew their change wasn't overnight, but it felt like that to me, and I fell in love with them."

He wasn't alone. From there, a string of albums and EPs came out: The Longest Line (featuring new guitarist El Hefe, who brought jazz and world-music influences with him), White Trash, Two Heebs And A Bean, and what many consider to be the band's best album, Punk In Drublic, which has sold nearly one million copies worldwide since its release in 1994. (Mike admits that after Punk In Drublic, "the records have pretty much tailed off, some better than others.") Oh, and something else happened in '94: Many of the bands NOFX had taken out on the road, like Green Day and the Offspring, suddenly started showing up on MTV-and NOFX decided they didn't want any part of it.

JEALOUS AGAIN
NOFX'S infamous media ban was anything but a calculated move to try to create a mystique or to sell more albums (for a while, the band answered fans' questions on their Web site). It was simply the only way they felt they could deal with all the attention-and money-that was coming down on their tiny scene.

"We came to the conclusion that if we were to follow [Green Day and the Offspring], then the media starts dictating our shots instead of us just doing what we do," says Ghint. "For 10 years prior, we had always just done what we did and built our fan base one fan at a time. And if we went with MTV and started doing interviews, what if they wanted to stop promoting us? We just wanted to do it the same way we had always done it."

"You just get to the point when you have to do what people say with radio and MTV," says Mike, sounding more stubborn than principled. "'Okay, we're going to start playing you, but you have to do this show for us or you have to do this interview for us.' We don't want to do anything that someone wants us to do. We want to do what we want to do."

Still, after over a decade of living off dollar cheeseburgers and playing cities like Aurora, Ohio, for a handful of family members, wasn't it difficult to watch their punk peers getting hefty major-label advances seemingly overnight?

"It was hard," Mike admits. "I think we were all really jealous when the Offspring got big, because they had just opened for us in Europe. But it took me four months, and after four months, I wasn't bitter anymore."

After the tape recorder clicks off, we take a short break, and I notice Fat Mike leafing though the current issue of AP with Good Charlotte on the cover.

"I went golfing with Benji and Joel last week," he says.

Were they any good?

"No." He quickly adds, "But they're nice kids."

The ironic thing is, the same cycle NOFX eluded the first time around seems to be repeating itself, this time with punk bands now half the band's age getting corporate sponsorships and dominating awards shows. And while you may see these bands next to NOFX onstage-or the putting green-that doesn't mean NOFX's attitude toward punk rock has changed.

Do you see a lot of parallels to '94 with the current punk explosion and bands like Simple Plan and Good Charlotte?
ERIK GHINT: I'm gonna fuckin' [say it]. They're not punk bands; they're glam bands without the fuckin' hair. Punk rock has turned into everything that punk rock was against.

MIKE: People have their definition of punk rock. I think what it is, is music and attitude that offends society-and now, punk rock is everything that's not offensive to society. It models society and reflects society.

GHINT: It's everything it wasn't supposed to be.

Regardless, you're the biggest influence for many of these bands. Do you feel responsible for them in some way?
MIKE: We hear that a lot. But in the '80s, everyone said we sounded like RKL [Rich Kids On LSD] and Bad Religion. So it's all relative. Now, a new band comes out, people say it sounds like Blink-182 or Sum 41-now they're the models. It's all circular. I mean cyclical. Change circular to cyclical... Is that a word?

But you still have to play with these bands on the Warped Tour...
GHINT: It doesn't mean we have to like them personally.

MIKE: And there's a lot of bigger bands that I think are okay. Some of them I think are terrible. It seems like I'm friends with a lot of them, so I'm not going to talk shit. I learned my lesson in the '90s.

So, why exactly do you play shows like the Warped Tour?
MIKE: This year, we're doing Warped Tour to get our political message out. We have a Punkvoter booth, and we're gonna be at the booth every day talking to kids. But we've done Warped Tour in the past, for me, only because it's so much fun. You only have to play for half an hour, you have your buddies there-it's like summer camp. I wouldn't go if I were an audience member, that's for sure.

It's a good deal, though: 100 bands for 20 bucks.
MIKE: Yeah, and that's what punk rock is really all about: quantity.

SURVIVAL OF THE FATTEST
Back at the label offices the next morning, Mike looks hungover. Judging from song titles like "Go To Work Wasted" and "Drugs Are Good," you might imagine he was up late, sniffing coke off strippers' breasts at Larry Flynt's Hustler Club. The truth is, he went to a signing for one of the authors of the book The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq, had some sea bass for dinner, and then he and his wife (and Fat Wreck Chords co-owner), Erin, retired to their new house in the Sunset District-he just couldn't fall asleep until 3:30. No coke binges or open bars; just another day at the office.

But Mike perks up as soon as the President's name is brought up. It's certainly not unusual for a public figure to generate criticism for voicing his or her political beliefs-it goes with the territory. In the country-music world, the Dixie Chicks were lambasted by Toby Keith for criticizing George W. Bush, but in Mike's case, Bush-bashing in the punk community is as accepted as studded belts and Black Flag tattoos.

Let's call it Beastie Boys Syndrome: NOFX were so goofy in their early years, it's difficult for them to be taken seriously as adults. Sure, there have always been threads of political unrest in their lyrics-they are a punk band, after all-but there were just as many songs like with anti-P.C. lyrics like, "I'm tired of you whining about poor little animals dying and the food they are supplying." Alternately, NOFX can't be too serious politically, because it could alienate their fanbase-a large segment of which is well under voting age and cares more about boobs than boycotts. On the band's latest full-length (and their first on Fat Wreck Chords), The War On Errorism, a political rant like "Franco Un-American" is immediately followed up with "She's Nubs," a love song about a quadriplegic.

"I don't feel obligated [to keep writing songs like 'She's Nubs'], but I feel like I'm on the same page with Michael Moore and Al Franken," Mike explains when asked about this dichotomy. "They're funny, and they get their serious ideas and thoughts across by being funny. I don't think I could write an entire political album; part of NOFX is humor and sarcasm."

Chris #2, bassist for Anti-Flag, one of punk rock's most politically outspoken bands (who are also on Fat), agrees. "Mike has definitely gotten more political in the years we've gotten to know him," he says. "And it's good to someone like Fat Mike, who is wealthy, [getting involved]. Right now, Bush is doing things in favor of the wealthy, and Mike's not like, 'Hey, I still got a pretty good tax break.'"

However, not everyone shares #2's opinion. In October 2002, when an announcement was made on Punknews.org that Mike had launched the political Web site Punkvoter.com, he was met with a vicious, scathing response from many nameless posters, prompting the normally laid-back singer to post a public response to the criticism.

"Well, sure, it bothers everyone when people talk shit about you," he says with a sigh when the topic is brought up. "I don't know, when people talk shit about you and write shit about you, it's painful sometimes. Especially when they hit the truth a little bit. I don't think I come across as an idiot, and I don't think I'm wasting my time-I think I'm doing something. And if you're turning off more people than you're turning on, then you are wasting your time.

"Yeah, someone like me: who's a drunk and I'm not well-educated-I graduated college-and I'm not that well-read; but I know enough to know what's right and wrong," he continues, growing more vehement with each sentence. "So when people give me shit for not knowing enough and tell me to stay out of politics, it's ludicrous-and it bothers me. I don't always have to defend myself to kids. It doesn't really hurt my feelings so much as it annoys me. In fact, that's exactly what it is."

Besides, Mike doesn't have much time to worry about what other people think of him these days. While the music industry is in one of its largest recessions, Fat Wreck Chords, started by Mike and Erin 12 years ago with a $20,000 bank loan, is quietly thriving. Home to 21 employees and offices in Germany and Canada, it's the only punk label of its kind without any major-label backing, and currently home to some of the most established bands in the genre, like Avail and Descendents, as well as hot up-and-comers like Against Me! and the Lawrence Arms.

And Mike shares the wealth (although it's pretty clear that he and his bandmates won't need to siphon gas any time soon). Employees and band members on Fat Wreck Chords all get yearly bonuses; he only signs bands to one-album deals; and he even encourages his bands to start their own labels, going so far as to float Chris and Jord from Propagandhi $50,000 to start G7 Welcoming Committee in 1997.

"My goal for Fat Wreck Chords was never to make money," he explains. "That's great. I'm all for making money. But it was to help out bands and make relationships. Especially now. I'm not interested in the profit margin; I want to have a lot of good relationships when I'm older."

And judging from his track record, his relationships are good. Only a handful of bands have ever left the label, and the only two bands they've lost to the majors are Less Than Jake and Rise Against, the latter signing to Interscope last year after two full-lengths on Fat.

"[Mike] was always like, 'I want you to stay on Fat. I'm not gonna lie to you, I want you to be on our label, but I'm not going to tell you what to do,'" says Rise Against singer Tim McIlrath from a studio in Chicago where the band are recording a song for Fat's upcoming Rock Against Bush compilation. "Mike doesn't support major labels, and I don't even know if [he] really supports our decision, but I know he supports Rise Against and supports the people in our band. And I'll always consider us a Fat band. "

ULTIMATELY,
regardless of your musical taste or political preference, whether you think they're brilliant or brainless, millionaires or mooks, or whether they're being serious or sarcastic (because with NOFX, you're either in on the joke or you are the joke), NOFX deserve to finally have their story be told. And perhaps the most interesting aspect of their story is that it still doesn't have an ending: After two decades, it's too early to tell what NOFX's legacy will be. Punk pranksters?

Political activists? Music trailblazers? None of the above? It's still anyone's guess.

How would you like NOFX to be remembered?
MIKE: I just want us to be remembered as a punk band. As a real punk band, because I think we are. Everything I think punk is, I think we've stayed true to. People can argue with that, sure. [But] I've tried to walk a certain line and do everything our way and never let up.
GHINT: You know, 10 years ago, I wouldn't have guessed we would have stayed together for more than a couple years. It's still fun for us. I still love doing it. If the band stopped, I feel like I'd be losing an appendage of mine.
MIKE: For me, if the band broke up, it'd be like losing a fingernail. [Laughter.] alt



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