You know the best time to celebrate a 25th anniversary? If you’re NOFX frontman and punk legend Fat Mike, a man for whom even the concept of linear time is too mainstream, it’s after 24 years. As his label, Fat Wreck Chords has approached this stunning, if chronologically inconsistent, milestone, it’s become a symbol of integrity and honesty in a world where ‘edgy’ bands are signed to major labels, and sing about destroying the establishment that they are often more a part of than their fans would like to believe. This relentless openness functions on the levels of the individual, the band, and the label, creating a movement that’s lasted a quarter of a century.
Fat Mike himself has never shied away from bringing his own life and fears into his music. In Franco Un-American, he bluntly describes the comfort of apathy in spite of knowledge of the problems of the world – ‘I never looked around, never second-guessed / Then I read some Howard Zinn now I’m always depressed’ – which is a welcome breath of honestly in a genre that, at times, can be so politicised that bands seem to pick fights with nothing, simply to prove how bloody outraged they are by some nondescript rightwing conspiracy. Both this open admission of his own apathetic weaknesses, and his self-deprecating stage name ‘Fat Mike’, have moulded the image of Fat Mike not only into an honest one, but a complex one. He’s not ‘some twenty-something makeup-wearing pop star’, but a human, who’s stumbled to the forefront of a movement of youths, and never tried to hide his imperfections. He’s bought the shirt off a hipster at one of his gigs, simply because he wanted to get the shirt out of his sight, and openly discussed his long history with BDSM and dominatrix girlfriend.
His band have taken this personal bluntness and applied them to political themes: Franco Un-American was released on the 2003 album The War on Errorism, an album full of explicitly anti-Bush songs like Idiots Are Taking Over, and the 2006 track Leaving Jesusland encourages the congregation of ‘people with college degrees [and] open-minded philosophies’ away from the ‘cerebral black hole’ of the American right. The band are just as blunt when discussing broad social issues as Mike is when opening up about himself.
This wider political focus extends to the bands signed and records released by Fat Wreck Chords: Anti-Flag’s The Terror State and Rise Against’s Revolutions Per Minute both contain aggressively anti-America sentiments, and have helped reinforce the purpose of Fat Wreck Chords as a platform for personal struggles and political dissent.
The most striking characteristic of Fat Wreck Chords, however, is how it treats itself and its bands; the latter are signed to one or two record deals, save for a few label mainstays like NOFX and Lagwagon, preventing bands from becoming complacent and commercial (which, of course, NOFX parody, in the track It’s My Job to Keep Punk Rock elite). This has allowed the label to function as a platform for new bands, keeping the punk genre fresh and meaningful, and opening up personal, rather than primarily professional, relationships with their older bands: Rise Against were still making, and losing, bets with Fat Mike as late as 2009, six years after their last original release with his label. Similarly, the label’s almost-25th anniversary is being celebrated with a continental tour, as opposed to a cash-grabbing rerelease of an older album, or a new t-shirt on King’s Road Merch.
Punk has historically been a difficult movement for outsiders to understand, and even fans to fully appreciate; it’s not a genre that can be assessed as a whole, but a constellation of meaningful dialogue, bands that burn out by their mid-twenties and metaphors stretched so thin they become parodic. Some will call it self-centred, and others will decry that it’s a movement defined by the negative; but it has an honesty and bluntness that the whole Fat Family has worn on their sleeves for a quarter of a century. In many ways, and on every relevant level, Fat Wreck Chords is punk.
And if you disagree, I doubt Fat Mike gives a shit.
Photo by Kevin Rossin