NOFX / Fat Wreck Chords’ Fat Mike: Punk Has Returned to Roots After Decline in Album Sales
A Fat Wreck is the new documentary chronicling the history of one of punk's most successful independent labels, Fat Wreck Chords. Founded in 1991 with his girlfriend at the time, Erin, NOFX frontman Fat Mike has developed a reputation as a relatively hands-off owner, letting the bands he signs pave their own destiny.
The documentary focuses on the first crop of bands signed to Fat Wreck Chords (No Use For a Name, Strung Out, Propaghandi, Lagwagon and more) and how they shaped what became known as the Fat Wreck Chords sound. Prior to starting the label, Fat Mike worked for Epitaph Records, another massively successful and influential independent label.
This is where our conversation with the icon began as we went on to discuss what he looked for in bands before inking them to a deal, the importance of a group's first record and how punk has returned to its roots after the decline in album sales. Check out our chat below.
Did you know you wanted to start a label before you started working at Epitaph?
Oh, no, not at all. Everything I did was just, I mean I was going to be a real estate agent, I went to college, I wasn't going to be in the music business. I guess I have a knack for taking opportunities when I see them. We didn't start a band to become big, I didn't start a label to have a big label. I just saw a few good bands and signed them.
The first bands had a lot more melody. What was funny, all the bands said they had more of a metal sound and you're not much of a metal guy. What drove you to sign those bands who came from the metal world?
The thing was, they were all good players. They were good players that liked metal, and they heard punk and realized that punk was better music. So, [laughs] we should start playing punk. But just turned out that Face To Face, Lagwagon, Propagandhi were all really good players and Strung Out — and so that kinda is how we got the Fat sound. Really tight players.
You'd wanted guys who were more confident going into the studio rather than just a little bit of an unhinged sound?
Well yeah, I'm not a perfectionist that way, or certainly wasn't. That's because in the early '90s and the late '80s I couldn't sing, our drummer was on heroin when we recorded our first three albums, it wasn't really like we had a choice, but that's the beauty of punk rock is that you don't have to be good, you just have to kind of have good songs. But you don't have to play them that well.
You said in the documentary, you really tend to get involved in a band's first album. The hallmark of a lot of bands first album is that the band does sound raw. What was your involvement in the studio helping these guys trying to shape their first record?
I help with song structure and melodies and when the band, during your first record, usually have a lot of songs to choose from, from different demos. So, I would help with sequence and choosing songs and you know, Lagwagon and Propagandhi and No Use [For a Name], we had like five days in the studio to do all those albums. So I was just there to help the songs and to get it done fast. I knew the sound I wanted. I'd done records before, I knew how important the loud guitarist is and s--t like that.
With the first album and your involvement, do you feel you just didn't want these bands to sound too new?
No, Good Riddance weren't a metal band or good players and their first record is super sloppy, but it sounds awesome to me. I don't choose bands by their musicianship, ever. It's always by songwriting. It was really just by chance that a lot of the first bands were metalheads at one point. Because my two favorite bands, Bad Religion and RKL, and RKL were the best musicians I'd ever seen.
Every band said that being on Fat Wreck Chords, they liked the hands off approach. Of course you had the involvement in the first records, but what's the most involvement you've had in an album past the band's first record?
Well I mean, with a few exceptions, I produced three Real McKenzies albums, a few No Use for a Name, but besides that not very much. I like to make sure a band gets a fair shake. When someone hears them for the first time because I know for NOFX, our first album sucked. We had an uphill battle to fight to make people listen to us. So it's kind of my reputation on the line to sign a good band. But after that it's their reputation.
You had already made those mistakes, it seemed like you were just watching out for them making sure that they didn't make the same mistakes that you did.
Yeah, and a lot of bands still ask for sequencing because I'm a good sequencer. I tell bands, still, record 18 to 20 songs and let's pick the best 12. I like being a part of that process. I don't like producing bands anymore, it's kind of a headache.
You mentioned dropping a band, possibly dropping Get Dead after they gave you a psychedelic cocktail. Have you ever sought revenge?
No, but I did Tweet if this band ever stays at your house, put something in their drink because they did it to me. They were like, "S--t," because they could never trust anybody. [laughs] It’s funny, I really do have a soft spot in my heart for those guys.
It's obvious in the documentary. You said you were calling other people and it seemed like you knew the right thing was to drop them but you couldn't bring yourself to do it.
Yeah. It’s also because I produced the album. We spent a lot of time drinking together. It’s funny because we drank and did drugs together, but that one night I’m like, "I can’t party tonight."
It was interesting when you were talking about closing up some of the international offices, moving from three down to one with the CD falling out. Everybody likes to complain about the same stuff with sales bottoming out in the industry, but what's one thing about the music industry that's absolutely better the way it is now than it was before?
Well, punk rock as far as Fat Wreck Chords goes is back to where it started, which is bands like the Swingin' Utters. They are making records and touring for fun. You know, most of our bands realize that they are not going to make a living doing this. So they make records that maybe are a little more honest now. Or they are not trying to write hip songs or they are not trying to get really popular because they know it’s not going to happen.
So, it’s kind of, you go back to why you started playing punk. Which all of the Fat Wreck Chords bands started playing punk because they love the music. It wasn’t to make a living. And that’s what they are doing again. Like Swingin' Utters, they stopped touring for six years or something and then they realized, "S--t, we like touring and we like making records. Just 'cause we didn’t make it big doesn’t mean we can’t still keep doing what we love." So, that’s what I think is better now is that people are just doing it because they want to.
Thanks to Fat Mike for the interview. Purchase 'A Fat Wreck' and get more information on the documentary here and follow the label on Facebook. Also, grab your copy of NOFX's latest album, 'First Ditch Effort' at the Fat Wreck Chords webstore and keep up with the band by following their Facebook page.
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