Fat Mike Vs Frank Turner: Punk Rock, Bad House Parties And Margaret Thatcher

NOFX's Fat Mike in conversation with friend-turned-collaborator Frank Turner about the importance of punk rock

Fat Mike Vs Frank Turner: Punk Rock, Bad House Parties And Margaret Thatcher
Ian Winwood

The idea for NOFX and Frank Turner to record a split release of each other’s songs was conceived in a casual conversation backstage at a festival in Italy in the summer of 2019. By the time the two parties had retreated to their respective tour buses, a vague concept had coalesced into a hardened proposal. Frank sent a text to Fat Mike, the singer and bandleader with NOFX, with words to the effect of, ‘Right, let’s do this.’

The result is West Coast vs. Wessex, a 10-track gem that contains new versions of such standards as Ballad Of Me And My Friends, Glory Hallelujah, and Thatcher Fucked The Kids (written by Frank), and Bob, Falling In Love, and Scavenger Type (originally released by NOFX). Keen-eyed fans will note that this is the first split record to which Fat Mike’s band have placed their name since BYO Split Series Volume III, from 2002, a 12-track song-share with Rancid.

“We decided to do this one because I thought we would do a great job of covering each other’s songs,” says Fat Mike. “Apart from a couple of songs here and there, we didn’t really do the songs justice [on the split with Rancid]. But on this one it’s songs that have been written in totally different styles coming together, and I’m really happy with how it came out.”

Kerrang! convened with Frank and Fat Mike to get the skinny on the punk rock release of the season…

The first question is for Mike. Mike do you actually know where, or what, Wessex is?
Fat Mike: “I do know what it is, it’s a city. It’s one of those weirdly spelled cities that Britain has so many of. But I don’t know where it is. Let me take a guess… No, I have no fucking idea where it is.”
Frank: “Can I jump in here? Wessex is south of London. It used to be a kingdom in the pre-Norman conquest era, but now it’s just sort of an area. It’s where I grew up. It’s to the west of Brighton. In fact, it’s the Deep South of England.”

Frank, how did NOFX enter your life?
Frank: “For me as a kid, I got into punk rock because Kurt Cobain called Nirvana a punk band in an interview. My mate’s uncle knew about music so he told me to get albums by The Clash and the Pistols, which is what I did. Then Green Day and The Offspring happened, for which I was exactly the right age and demographic, and from that there was a select group of my crowd who went deeper. We went, ‘Okay, this music is fucking great, let’s find more of it.’ So in terms of heading into the underground, the first level below Green Day and The Offspring was where NOFX resided. They were the band that you came across first. So I got into NOFX and fell head over heels in love with them. I loved them much more than I did Green Day or The Offspring.”

And how did you get to know Frank’s music, Mike?
Fat Mike: “I met him at a show at Reading, and Joey Cape from Lagwagon told me that I had to stay after their show and watch this guy called Frank Turner. I really didn’t want to stay but he told me just to stay for one song, and of course I ended up staying for the whole show. What really struck me was how Frank spoke to the audience. He just makes everyone feels comfortable, and that they’re part of something. And then I saw him at the Troubadour, and I was sat next to [Social Distortion frontman] Mike Ness and Brett Gurewitz [from Bad Religion]. I had a seat saved for me and I thought ‘Ooh, isn’t this special!’”
Frank: “[Punk rock songwriter] Dave Hause was also there. I remember after the show we had a couple of drinks and Mike said, ‘I’m going back to my dungeon, do any of you want to come?’ Now I had a couple of friends there that I was supposed to be hanging out with, so I said, ‘Maybe in a bit.’ So Dave Hause went off with you and about half an hour later I got a text from Dave saying, ‘Please come now, it’s getting fucking weird! Come in a cab now because I need back up!’”

Frank, you’ve described this split-album as “the pinnacle of my career”. Would you care to elaborate?
Frank: “One of the things about this for me is that even in the ‘above ground’ parts of my career, I’ve always had one foot in the punk world. A lot of punk rock purists look askance at me when I say that because here I am with The Way I Tend To Be on the radio, and I do kind of get that. Musically I have gone into other places, but the truth is that my youth and my schooling was in this particular kind of punk. So this feels like validation to me on a lot of levels, which might sound like a strange word to use. I don’t want to be too precious about this, but now it’s like, ‘I’ve done a split with NOFX. What have you got, dickheads?’ To me, it feels like a bit of a homecoming.”

Mike, did you always know which songs you were going to record?
Fat Mike: “No, not at all. In fact, we actually recorded Casanova Lament and Four Little Words but they just didn’t turn out as good as the other ones.”

Frank once said that for years he’s been wanting someone to take the song Thatcher Fucked The Kids off his hands. Mike, why did you choose to cover it?
Fat Mike: “Because that song works so well in the style that we played it. We wanted to do a ska version of something because we hadn’t done one in such a long time, and it just came out sounding so cool. And I just love the song, so that one was a no-brainer. I wrote a song called Ronnie & Mags a while ago, so I’m familiar with the terrain. And she was a woman and all, but she did a lot of cunty things.”

Frank, in an ideal world would you prefer that Thatcher Fucked The Kids was laid to rest? And if so, why?
Frank: “No. A big part of the reason that I stopped playing that song for a long time is because it attracted a very specific type of person to my shows. They were people who were only interested in me singing their pre-existing opinions back to them in rhyming couplets and nothing else. And they’re always fucking guys in their late-forties wearing fucking combat trousers standing in the front row loudly talking to each other until I play that song, at which point they fall quiet. And then when I play anything after that, they’re back to talking to each other again. It just really fucked me off. I respect Billy Bragg a lot, but contrary to popular belief I’ve never wanted to be Billy Bragg. I want to be a songwriter before anything else.”

There will be people, Frank, who think that the reason you no longer play the song is that you’ve disavowed its sentiment. Lyrics such as, 'So all the kids are bastards, but don’t blame them… blame the folks who sold the future for the highest bid. That’s right, Thatcher fucked the kids.'
Frank: “I’m not sure that I have disavowed its sentiments. And then I heard Mike’s version and I thought, ‘That’s a great fucking song, man. It’s strong enough to survive a completely different arrangement.’”

One song that isn’t on the album is the 18-minute long The Decline, by NOFX. Were you tempted to try that, Frank?
Frank: “I thought about it for a day and then realised that it was too much effort. But one of the things that I noticed in doing this is just how much stuff I’ve sort of stolen from NOFX. On the sleeve for The Decline are the words ‘Don’t try this at home’, presumably because the song is so difficult. And that’s the reason I did [the song] Try This At Home, because it’s so easy to play.”

Mike, would it be fair to say that even after all these years, for you, punk rock has never lost its sense of wonder?
Fat Mike: “Yeah. We had a secret, and to this day it’s still the best kind of music. It’s still the most complicated, it still has the best melodies, and the lyrics are the best. And it’s a still a secret that people don’t know about. They know about some of the bigger bands, but it still exists in basements and in the underground and in pubs. What other kind of music has that? Nothing relevant.”

What does punk rock mean to you, Frank?
Frank: “So much. In about 2005 and 2006, when I started doing solo stuff, I was in and around the fringes of the indie scene; you know, The Libertines and that kind of crew. And I kept being blown away that I kept meeting people who didn’t grow up with punk rock, and just how weird they were. I couldn’t believe that here were these energetic guitar bands who were 23-years-old and who were going out on their first ever tour. I was like, ‘What the fuck have you been doing for the past six or seven years?’ I’ve been touring since I was 16, because that’s what bands do. You can tell the people who grew up with punk even if they don’t make that kind of music any more, because it puts something in your DNA. It’s an attitude as well as a style of music. It’s an approach.”
Mike: “Frank has said this to me before, but we both kind of have contempt for our crowd. We like it when they like us, but we don’t care if they don’t. We question them and make them think differently. We’re not pandering.”
Frank: “To me, punk was always a refuge. It was a community that we built and that lived by our rules. And there is a level at which the atmosphere I try to inculcate at my shows is me trying to put that philosophy into practice again. It might not be punk in sounding like The Descendents or whatever, but is punk in that it’s a society that seeks to question and challenge things. I want to be in a punk scene and to be in a punk band.”
Mike: “What punk has is that we look out for each other. We support each other. Like when Green Day first got big I was, like, 'Yes! Finally!' I remember the Deftones were the only band that were on both the Warped Tour and Ozzfest – they were the only band that did both. And when they were on the Warped Tour they told us, ‘Man, Ozzfest sucks. Every band has to outdo each other, everyone’s got their own posses, no-one is friends, it’s just bullshit. But on the Warped Tour it’s like family.’ Any band that behaved like a rock star on the Warped Tour was shunned and made fun of. They got the scarlet letter. And that’s the biggest difference. Punk rock is family; because we all came from weird families, we built our own.”
Frank: “Because it’s not a fucking competition. So many people seem to believe that music should be a competition, and that’s so fucking boring to me. But if I see a band that I knew as kids playing in a basement, and suddenly they’re doing well, it’s like, ‘Yes!’ Punk rock is a conversation between a community of equals.”

Mike, is there anything that you miss from NOFX’s earlier tours?
Fat Mike: “No, nothing. My band was on drugs, Erik Sandin [drummer] was on heroin… there were some great moments, but I would say that these are the days, the ones we’re living right now. Those weren’t the days.”

Also, you weren’t very good back then.
Fat Mike: “No, no. We’re definitely the most improved band. We should definitely have some kind of trophy for that.”

Finish us off with a good story please, Mike.
Fat Mike: “Well, I caught a bullet train with Oasis in Japan. Actually, I can do better than that: I went to a New Year’s Eve party at Noel Gallagher’s house one year. I was told that if I went there no-one would give a fuck who I was, which was true. But the people there were nice, although the only person I was really talking with was this guy called Andy [Dunlop] who is in Travis. But the only problem was I couldn’t understand a fucking word he was saying because his Scottish accent was too strong!”

West Coast Vs Wessex is out July 31 via Fat Wreck Chords.

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