At 11 o’ clock on a sunny morning in Las Vegas, Fat Mike is, as he once sang, living the good life provided by punk. Midway through his interview with Louder, NOFX's 55-year bandleader is brought his first meal of the day by his housekeeper.
“Mussels,” he says to a woman off-screen. “For breakfast?”
Sitting next to the shellfish is a bowl of what looks like tortilla chips.
“No, they’re eggs,” he says.
That is a weird combination.
“Yeah, but she’s great,” he says. “She cleans my [bondage] dungeon and recently shaved my legs for me.”
Several years ago, Michael John Burkett declared that NOFX would break up half a decade after Bad Religion. Turns out, though, that his own band have blinked first. Following the release of Double Album – a companion piece to last year’s exceptional Single Album – December 2, and a subsequent tour, this top-tier punk group will exist no more. Twenty-nine years after joining Green Day, The Offspring, Rancid and Bad Religion as one of the groups that smashed the glass ceiling separating their movement from the American mainstream – in their case with the gold-rated Punk In Drublic – they are also the first group from the exalted Class of ’94 to pass into the past tense.
What better time, then, to grab a word with Fat Mike about all those yesterdays and life beyond the world-beating punk outfit with which he made his name.
Let’s start in the present. You’re soon to open a museum of punk rock in Las Vegas. How’s that shaping up?
Fat Mike: “It’s fucking awesome. I just did a walk-through yesterday. Construction’s almost done. We’ve been going through our artefacts, and we have too many, so it’s going to be full. The most exciting thing to me is the tour guides. We’re getting legends – I gave people four days a month, people like Glen Matlock [from the Sex Pistols] and Don Bolles [from Germs] and Roger Miret from Agnostic Front. There’s me and Smelly from NOFX… we just have legends. And they’re our tour [guides]. They don’t walk you through the museum, they’re just there to tell you some stories.”
Speaking of stories, what’s the skinny on Green Day refusing to give you anything to exhibit?
“Er, I don’t know. I can’t even get them on the phone. I just talk through their manager. I don’t know. At one point the manager said something like they’ll get us a guitar or something, but we can’t chase every band that doesn’t want to be part of it. I’ve never met anyone like them, either. And we have history.
“That they’re [also] pretty much the only band who didn’t invest any money is weird too. People at the museum were making kind of a big deal out of it. People were kind of bummed. But I’m not. I keep it close to my chest, whatever… But Green Day made the most money out of punk than anyone, so you’d think they’d want their own wing or something.”
How do you feel about celebrating NOFX’s 40th anniversary by splitting up?
“I’m actually very excited about it. I’m not sad yet, but I know what we’re going to do. We’re going to play all of our songs and really, really give it our all. Generally when we play shows I just get wasted, and we’re good [when doing that], but we don’t think about the show, we just go out and have a good time. But this time we’re thinking, ‘Oh, no, we have to fucking rock, cos this is our last time’ in various cities. We’ve done it twice so far, in Vancouver and Edmonton… and we just fucking killed it. A lot of people said that they’d never seen us that good, which is pretty fucking awesome, when you hear that.”
But why stop?
“I’ve had it.”
“Because I don’t enjoy it like I used to. And if I don’t get loaded, I really don’t want to do it. I don’t need to be onstage hearing people applaud and dance. I don’t need that. Some people are addicted to that. I’ve started doing stand-up comedy and I like that way better, in front of 30 people. And writing music. I’ve been writing [string] quartets, which I really enjoy, and writing for other people. I have another band called the Co-Defendants, which is really exciting to me. And 40 years is a fucking long time to be in a band.”
What did NOFX’s other members think of the decision?
“None of them liked it at first. But then I explained to them how we’re going to do it. Because we’re doing it unlike anybody else. We’re getting our own venues, outdoor venues, so we get all the [money from] ticket sales and from the bars, and all the merch. We’re kind of sliding under the radar of Live Nation and other big promoters. There’s only a finite amount of money you can make playing for a big promoter, unless you charge a whole bunch. Because they’re going to take 75% of the money. So we’re only going to play places where we control everything. Or else we want 75% of the bar, or else we’re not playing. And Live Nation will not give you any of the bar. And our people fucking drink.”
So the band is good? It’s solid?
“Yeah, they’re very solid about this decision. Yeah.”
Will the farewell tour be visiting the UK?
“Whether we do it, we need a venue where we can do two nights and where we get the bar and most of the tickets. So we need to find a place.”
There’s a case to be made that Single Album is NOFX’S best record. So it’s not as if you’ve been on the decline. Is that how it looks to you?
“Absolutely. I think we’re more relevant now than we ever have been. I spend so much time writing. I can’t get let anything get out there that I don’t 100% love. I’m very pleased that you said that about Single Album, and I’m also happy with how Double Album came out. And I’m glad they both came out separately. Single Album needed to be on its own.”
When NOFX started, you weren’t exactly the world’s greatest punk rock band…
“No. We’re definitely the world’s most improved band.”
Quite. But back in 1983, did you have any notion that the group had a future, let alone one that would last so long?
“No. Because in the 1980s, as a punk rock band, there was no hope of doing this as a living. No hope. My plan was… I got my degree, I went to real estate school, and to go on tour in the summer and have fun. And I still do that. But I never thought we’d make it big, no fucking way. We never thought we’d make it medium.”
What kept you plugging away?
“Because we love it. We’re family. And as long as you have fans, it seems worth it. And I still have three more [NOFX] records in the can that aren’t quite done, but they will be. I’m never going to stop making music. And there’s a half album that’s coming out next year. There’s one more side [to Single Album and Double Album], which is four other songs from the recording sessions.”
When punk rock broke, in 1994, you were the person who seemed to have the most reservations. But looking back, do you recognise that the movement achieved a great deal during that time without really sacrificing anything that mattered?
“I think we [NOFX] made the right decision. In fact, we all do. And the decision wasn’t that we didn’t want to sell out by going on a major [the group were courted by Hollywood Records]… it’s just that happiness is the goal in life. Getting more isn’t the goal.
“I asked the band, ‘Are you happy?’ We were making good money, a couple hundred grand a year. We don’t have to go to radio stations. We don’t have to do interviews. We don’t have to do any fucking thing we don’t want. And everybody in the band said, ‘Fuck yeah, of course we’re fucking happy. This is awesome.’ Because we’d just done eight years of making no money. So I looked for happiness, and found it. And we’ve been happy ever since. And I couldn’t fit in that radio mould, anyway. My voice isn’t good enough. We would have had a hit here and there, but we weren’t the band that was going to break. We made the right decision.”
What are your favourite songs that you’ve written?
“Well The Big Drag is one of them. I love the Doors And Fours video… but [1999’s 18-minute] The Decline is my best work. That took me six months to write. Decline is a symphony… it takes you on a ride.”
One of the things about NOFX that’s remained constant is that the band has never seemed fully housetrained.
“I love that.”
How have you managed it?
“I’m a punk lifer. That’s what punk rock is to me, doing things that don’t make sense because they’re fun. As kids we just did the stupidest things to out punk each other, and that’s what I still do. ‘Okay, that was a mistake, I shouldn’t have done that… but it was fun.’ Musically, I don’t write things to piss people off, but I do write to make them think, ‘Why does that piss me off?’ Fuck Euphemism [from Single Album], that song pisses people off, but there’s a reason. I’m a very politically correct person, but I certainly don’t sound like one.”
You’ve said that the song-writers you most admire are Brett Gurewitz from Bad Religion, Steve Soto from Adolescents and Frank Turner. Where do you reckon Fat Mike ranks in that kind of company?
“I don’t want to say what I think…”
Oh go on...
“But I do think I’m the most consistent and prolific. I can’t stop and I always try to write something new. The best feeling is coming up with a new progression that no one’s ever played before. People say that you can’t do that, that it’s all been done, and I say fuck you to that piece of shit idea. If you write simple songs, it’s all been done. But I’m constantly writing songs that have never been done, and that makes my brain so happy.”
You’ve remained wedded to punk rock throughout your musical life. What is it about the movement that’s held your gaze?
“Punk rock’s the best style of music, in every fucking way. It’s got the best chords, the best melodies, the best lyrics, and it’s played by the most humble people out of all the other styles of music. If you go to a regular festival, people are fucking assholes. If you’re an asshole in punk rock, you generally get made fun off. It just doesn’t work.”
Before you made Single Album, you went to rehab to get sober. How’s that working out of you?
“It’s working out great. I’m not sober anymore. But I did do my 10 months sober, went to rehab and learned a lot. It’s a completely different situation now. [Back then] I was depressed, and drinking and using [drugs] because of depression, which is a terrible place to be. Now when I party I’m either with a women in shiny clothes or I’m writing, or having a few drinks by the pool or something. But those 10 months were life changing.”
There’s a section in the song Birmingham, from Single Album, in which you say “When I’m with NOFX or having bondage sex, I seem to function/when I’m alone it’s just self-destruction”. Do you worry that the Devil might make work for idle hands when the band breaks up?
“No, I have so many things in my life… I’m constantly writing and working on stuff. In fact, NOFX stops me from doing all the other stuff I want to do.”
Do you think NOFX might get together every now and again after next year, just to play the occasional show or two?
“I don’t think so. I do know that this is our final tour. I would never do it for financial reasons because I’m fine. And I don’t want to just half-ass it. It’s done.”
NOFX's Double Album is released on December 2 via Fat Wreck Chords. Buy it here (opens in new tab).