It's two in the afternoon when I get Fat Mike on the phone, and he's hungry.
“Hold on a second. Can I have some pork dumplings? Gimme five.”
“Are you ordering Chinese food?” I ask.
“Yeah, I'm ordering Chinese food. What are you doing?”
It's been a long life in punk rock for Fat Mike. The punk formerly known as Michael Burkett has been vocalist/bassist for NOFX for more than 30 years, and owner/producer/mastermind behind his label, Fat Wreck Chords, for (almost) a quarter decade (“We're only 24, we lied about that 25 thing, do the math!”).
In that time, his label's been a huge part of defining and distributing the classic West Coast/California punk sound for the modern era: fast, catchy, irreverent, confrontational, and occasionally obnoxious. Some call it skate punk, some pop-punk, but Mike prefers the term “melodic hardcore,” releasing records by NOFX, Lagwagon, Swinging Utters, Lawrence Arms, and locals Dillinger Four and Banner Pilot, just to name a few.
“In '91 I was seeing a lot of bands play,” Fat Mike says of the label's beginnings. “I started a label, it seemed like a good opportunity. [We] went from zero employees to one, to two, got up to 18, and four offices around the world. Things went bad [about eight years ago], we closed all the offices, fired everyone except for five people, and somehow we're still going.”
Like the rest of the music industry, tough times came. “When people started getting everything for free from the internet ... now we're selling 20 percent of what we used to sell," Mike explains. But Fat Wreck Chords keeps chugging along, thanks to a smaller, but still loyal, fan base.
Now, in celebration of that (nearly) 25 year history, some of label's biggest (and smallest) names have hit the road for the Fat Wrecked for 25! tour, which descends on Myth tonight. Ahead of the show, we got Fat Mike to share his 25 favorite Fat releases (in no particular order, except for the first two, Mike clarifies):
- Tony Sly — 12 Song Program
- Western Addiction — Cognicide
- Snuff — Demmamussabebonk
- Frenzal Rhomb — Sans Souci
- Propagandhi — How to Clean Everything
- Wizo — Uuaarrgh
- Lagwagon — Trashed
- Strung Out — Twisted by Design
- American Steel — Destroy Their Future
- No Use For A Name — Feel Good Record of the Year
- NOFX – Wolves in Wolves' Clothing
- Hi-Standard — Growing Up
- Good Riddance — For God and Country
- Rise Against — The Unravelling
- Against Me! — Eternal Cowboy
- Home Street Home — Original Songs
- Me First and the Gimme Gimmes — Ruin Jonny's Bar Mitzvah
- Old Man Markley — Down Side Up
- Masked Intruder — Masked Intruder
- Swingin' Utters — 5 Lessons Learned
- The Real Mckenzies — Oot and Aboot
- Mad Caddies — Duck and Cover
- Lawrence Arms — Apathy and Exhaustion
- Descendents — Cool to be You
- Anti Flag's Terror State and Tilt's Till it Kills
“I have to like the band. I don't put out shit I don't like. It's pretty rare," Mike says. "New Found Glory asked to be on the label a few years ago and I said, 'Sorry guys, I don't want to put it out.' 'What do you mean, we're good!' 'Well, not according to me.' Yeah, I didn't do that.”
What Fat Mike does like has resulted in over 150 albums and various singles and EPs, some huge sellers, some small. Among his favorites:
Propagandhi's How To Clean Everything: “Defined the Fat WC sound, almost. Politically, it said everything that a lot of us wanted to say. Musically, it was more complicated and melodic, way more advanced than any other band.”
Descendents' Cool To Be You: “I may be the only person in the world, but I think it's better than Everything Sucks. Cool To Be You has so many better songs.”
American Steel's Destroy Their Future: “I can't understand why they're not more popular. That record is fucking gorgeous. Against Me! Got their sound from American Steel. So did a lot of bands. They're like the Melvins — all the bands took their sound and got bigger with it.”
Hi-Standard's Growing Up: “I had to put that on the list; it sold 700,000 fucking copies.”
But Fat Mike's top two are unusual for a label mostly associated with catchy, fast skate punk, and aren't even close to his best sellers. Western Addiction's Cognicide is a balls-out ode to classic early '80s hardcore — “If it were to come out in '81, it would probably be the classic, it would be up there with Minor Threat and Black Flag. People just don't even listen to it. It's fucking amazing."
And Tony Sly's 12 Song Program is a solo acoustic release by the No Use For a Name frontman, who died in 2012 — “I've listened to that Tony Sly record maybe 150 times. Since he died, it's too hard to listen to. It's the record that me and my lady got done having sex, that's what we listened to. We listened to it nightly. It's such a beautiful record.”
As for the future of Fat Wreck Chords, Fat Mike doesn't sound overly ambitious.
“I'm hoping to go into work a lot less, spend more time with my kids," he says. "Hopefully cool punk bands will keep coming to Fat ... it's nice when you have bands come back, it means you're doing something right.”