NOFX’s Fat Mike: “I fly my freak flag sexually and musically, and punk allows me to do that”
On June 28 2015, NOFX played a show at that was not as good as it might have been. Despite a setlist that included such top of the bill punk rock bangers as Punk Guy – ‘Got a face like Charles Bronson, straight out of Green Bay, Wisconsin’ – Murder The Government, Franco Un-American, and, inevitably, Linoleum, after the gig at the Institute, in Birmingham, the group’s singer and bassist, ‘Fat Mike’ Burkett, found himself feeling depressed. With the number of a local drug seller in his phone, the then-48-year-old decided to place an order for a gram of cocaine. It was six o’clock in the morning.
“That was a meaningful moment for me,” he says today. “On that particular tour, I didn’t have anyone minding me. Normally when I’m out on the road I have a really good system. I go to bed at two or three or four, but this time I pulled an all-nighter and it was gross. It wasn’t really good coke, I just wanted more. Normally I’m not allowed to have my own drugs. There’s a safe out of which a friend will give me a small amount, and that’s all I get. That way I never stay up too late. That way I can be a very responsible drug user. But on this tour… things happened.”
The story is recounted on the song Birmingham, from Single Album, NOFX’s 14th LP. Originally conceived as a double-album – “My intention was to make a great one,” says Fat Mike, “which I don’t think has been done apart from by Pink Floyd [with The Wall]” – the singer was persuaded by M. Shadows, from Avenged Sevenfold, to contract the release to just half its original length. The plan was for the record’s second disc to include a selection of jollier songs for which the group are well known. Think Kill All The White Man, The Brews, Hot Dog In A Hallway, or Theme From A NOFX Album. With this idea duly scotched, the music that remains in place, well, it isn’t jolly at all.
What it is, in fact, is the logical conclusion of the kind of forensically personal songwriting for which Fat Mike ought to really be better appreciated. Naked and uncensored, Single Album features strains of self-loathing (‘My melodies are maladies / my poetries are just phonetic’), futility (‘What’s the point of doing more when the drugs don’t work no more?’) and common-or-garden excess (‘Our arteries and veins corrode / Los Angeles punk scene slowly erodes / ’cause all the punks are doing loads’). On Fuck Euphemism we hear of the time Fat Mike ‘did a line [of cocaine] off Scarlett’s hundred thousand dollar c**t’. Asked about this by Kerrang!, the singer explains that this was “a dom [dominatrix] I was seeing. I didn’t know she was trans for the first couple of times. But then I found out, so I asked, ‘Can I check this thing out?’ And I did a line off it. It’s kind of weird because there’s no clit, so it just falls down like a Volkswagen. It was cool.”
So now you know.
“This album was written after a bout of depression,” the singer says. “I was in a bad place. I was using a lot of drugs. I was a little out of my mind. The subject matter is dark because you really have to be in a bad place to write really dark songs. I’m sober now, but that came about because I had a bleeding ulcer and I was puking blood. I needed to clean up.”
For what it’s worth, he looks well on it. Speaking from a home in Los Angeles out of which he will move later that day, Fat Mike appears on the computer screen with blue hair and a black PVC jacket. With NOFX off the road for obvious reasons, he plans to spend at least the rest of year living in various world cities. A couple of months in Amsterdam, in London, in Sydney, and wherever else catches his eye. For him, the crash of COVID is not the same as it might be for most other groups. As far back as 2008, on the song 60% (Reprise) the band were telling us how they ‘get to play loaded and [for] only three months a year’. Deciding that this quarter-time workload could sometimes be a bit much, they also let us know that ‘some years we just take off’. Man alive, what a life. As spoken about today, even the travails of drug use appear to be something from which Fat Mike has stepped away without too much bomb damage at all.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been at risk of ODing or being too crazy,” he says. “I might even go back to it [drugs]. But I have had a lifestyle change. I’m not a party guy anymore. It would have to be a special occasion. I made the choice that I’m now old enough where I don’t want to live that life anymore.”
The Californian punk scene has long been synonymous with drug use. Black Flag told us that ‘I’ve got to go out, get something for my head / If I keep on doing this I’m going to end up dead’. Keith Morris from the Circle Jerks sang about how ‘I was so fucked up, I was so messed up… I was so wasted’. On New Year’s Eve of 1984, Social Distortion played a show for which singer Mike Ness was paid with two grams of China White heroin. Darby Crash, the frontman with Germs, died after taking enough junk to kill four people. After being busted with crack and heroin, Brett Gurewitz from Bad Religion was in county jail when he learned the news that his group had been given a gold album. We could go on.
“I only went to rehab because I was sick and I just wanted to get away anyway,” says Fat Mike. “All the doctors there said, ‘What are you doing here? You’re not an addict. You’re not an alcoholic.’ And that’s true because when I was partying I would do it for three nights a week at most, and usually one night a week. My liver’s good. I’m very safe. I’m just a proponent of recreational drug use, if you can handle it.
“But being sober is fun too,” he adds. “It’s different. I like doing BDSM [Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission] sober, but I really like it when you fucking get high because then I can do five hours in a dungeon. When you’re sober, one hour is enough.”
Although evidently determined to make up for lost time, Fat Mike didn’t actually take drugs until he was 31 years old (he’s now 54). Mathematically-minded readers will thus deduce that the album Punk In Drublic was recorded with a clear head. This was 1994, and what a time it was. Along with this, his group’s first truly world-class effort, that year also saw the release of Dookie by Green Day, Smash from The Offspring, Bad Religion’s Stranger Than Fiction, and Let’s Go from Rancid. Despite this remarkable burst of quality and success, with the exception of a handful of publications (including Kerrang!, of course) few music titles paid much mind to the fact that two of these groups became the first American punk acts to truly crack the U.S. mainstream.
“All the bands in the ’70s, they all sounded different,” reflects Mike. “Everyone was doing crazy shit. From Fear to X‑Ray Spex to Dead Kennedys, [punk is] music without rules. Other music has rules. I mean, jazz doesn’t but jazz kind of sucks.”
Within a month, Dookie and Smash sold as many copies as Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols had done in two decades. Shagged out from (rightly) bestowing encomiums on the groups from Seattle, this raft of mega-platinum and gold albums appeared to pass by almost without mention. At best it received affectionate ruffle of badly-dyed hair from the gatekeepers of popular opinion.
Today all of these bands are still together, and each one in some way represents the scene that gave them life. For their part, NOFX might just be the very conscience of the West Coast movement. Along with Bad Religion, one of the truly great American punk bands, Single Album is its authors’ finest release for nine years. Who knows, in the fullness of time it might even prove to be as celebrated as such high-water marks as Punk In Drublic, Pump Up The Valuum, and The War On Errorism. Either way, Fat Mike will endure. He could even be the last man standing. The living embodiment of a style of music that at its best is also a state of mind, he will be a part of it while it will be the whole of him.
“Punk rock is so much better than all other kinds of music in every fucking way,” he says. “I’m a lifer. I fucking fly my freak flag, sexually and musically, and punk allows me to do that. The scene is always fertile and awesome, you’ve just got to know where to look for it. As we get older it seems like it’s dying, but if you go to East LA there’s backyard shows with Mexicans, and there’s bar shows. As long as there’s bad musicians who don’t care about getting big, punk rock will always exist. I think it’s still doing great. And I like to think that NOFX toes that line.”
NOFX’s Single Album is released on February 26 via Fat Wreck.
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