Fat Mike of NOFX on pornography, punk-rock parenting and how America is a sinking ship
NOFX was started in Los Angeles in 1983 by Michael "Fat Mike" Burkett and Eric Melvin. The band was born of the same West Coast scene that produced some of the most important punk bands of all time, from Black Flag and the Circle Jerks to the Minutemen and the Descendents. Although the sound that NOFX helped pioneer was more pop-oriented, the band certainly didn't lose any of the sharp, irreverent sense of humor that permeated the music of many of those legendary L.A. hardcore bands.
Decidedly independent, NOFX has never signed to a major label, unlike many of its peers, and has succeeded on its own terms, releasing albums through Burkett's Fat Wreck Chords imprint. The band's catchy songs and juvenile but smartly iconoclastic lyrics have been an inspiration for a generation of punk musicians, who have helped carry on not just the sound, but the cultural and political foundations of punk to the mainstream without selling out.
In the last decade, the band wrote songs denouncing (and went on tours with themes mocking) George W. Bush, which served to help motivate its audience to become politically aware and involved. We recently had a rare opportunity to speak with the always thoughtful and witty Burkett about his recent scoring of a pornographic movie and his thoughts on that subject, his assessment of the political climate today and about some of the humorous titles included on the new record, last year's Self Entitled.
Westword: You were involved in the film Rubber Bordello, at the very least in making the soundtrack?
"Fat" Mike Burkett: Yes. My girlfriend and I. That's kind of our thing. So we just started making a movie. We made it -- she directed it; I did the soundtrack, and it got nominated for eight AVN awards. Pretty good for our first try.
You've made ragtime music before. Did it come pretty natural to you this time out?
I worked with a piano player, my friend Dustin. So it's just like music is music. You come up with melodies and stuff and change styles. It wasn't challenging; it was just really fun.
Have you figured out how to take that on the road, or is that something you've thought about?
Yeah, when things slow down, we're going to do a live SM show with a small band playing those tunes. It should be pretty fun.
You did an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year, and in that interview, it was brought up that when you were going to college you wrote your thesis on pornography. Why did you write your thesis on that, or what sparked your interest in pornography as a kind of academic subject?
At the time, there were a lot of people fighting against pornography. Tipper Gore, for instance. The Parents' Music Resource Center was around, and people had to start labeling their music, and people tried to shut down magazines. I just started doing research, and I found that most people's negative views toward women came from mass media and not from pornography. Movies such as Gone With the Wind, in which Scarlett O'Hara gets raped and wakes up with a smile on her face? More people saw that than any pornographic magazines.
Yeah, more people saw that than saw Behind the Green Door or Deep Throat or anything like that.
Oh, for sure. Times a hundred. And porn movies generally don't show rape. It's just maybe rough sex, but mainstream media is what gives people negative attitudes against women, not porn.
How did you go about researching that, seeing as it was probably the '80s sometime.
I read a lot of studies, most of which came out of Holland.
How did you become involved in The Other F Word?
Oh, just Jim Lindberg from Pennywise wrote that book, Punk Rock Dad, and he asked me for some quotes. He didn't use them. They were a little bit too racy, I guess, for him. That sounds weird, but I was talking about how difficult it was to clean poop out of my daughter's vagina; I was cleaning her diaper, you know? "God, how did this stuff get in here?" I felt so, "Ugh, I'm not supposed be doing this!" And he's like, "Yeah, I can't really use that." I said, "You can't use that? That's a great punk rock parenting story!"
Everyone with a daughter goes through that.
Yeah, but no one talks about it. So the producers liked what I said, so they wanted me in the movie.
You've worked with Bill Stevenson for some time now in recording your albums. How did you get connected with him, and why do you enjoy working with him?
Well, he's the guy if you want to make a good punk album. Him and Jason Livermore. They've just been doing it for so long. NOFX played with The Descendents in '86, so we've known Bill for quite a while. We played that show with them in Houston.
Did you ever get to see Black Flag?
I did. I saw them at the Palladium, and I didn't like them with Henry. It was actually '83 and it was their "reunion" show, and they had Ron Reyes, Dez Cadena and Henry Rollins, and we all kind of left when Henry got on the stage. Henry kind of ruined Black Flag for all of us.
If you asked Henry what his favorite line-up of the band was, he'd probably agree with you.
In the first decade of this century you were refreshingly, unapologetically critical of the Bush administration. How do you feel about the Obama administration so far, perhaps the Boehner Congress and the current political climate, generally?
Oh, you know, it's government. It's totally fucked up, and it's more fucked up than it's ever been. And Obama seems more conservative than Reagan. But he's a hundred times better than George W. Bush, so we give him that. But, I've been saying this for a while now: The U.S. is just a sinking ship, so you can't do that much with it.
Sinking ship? Do you think anything can be done to improve the state of things?
Because there's hardly any manufacturing here. Our cost of living is so low because we get everything from super poor countries. We have food, but it's like the '90s were the best eight years we've had, economically, that there will ever be. We owe so much fucking money, it's ridiculous, and no one wants to raise taxes, and no one wants to earn their fair share. They just want and want and want more.
And our system fucking sucks. We need a parliamentary system -- that would maybe help out. But it's just terrible. But then, on the other hand, do you know how many people starved to death in the U.S. last year? Zero. So we have that going for us and we're still in better shape than most countries in the world.
Was releasing Self Entitled on September 11, 2012 entirely coincidental?
Pretty much coincidental. Tuesdays are the days that you have to release your records, and our distributor releases every other Tuesday, so it just fell on that day. Pretty sweet, though.
The title sounds like it works as a kind of joke and a description of certain segments, maybe even most, of American society.
So many people put out "self-titled" records, so we decided Self Entitled would be funny. And we do feel self entitled because we've been doing this so long. We want to play shows how we want to, and we want things to happen the way we want to. We don't like answering to anybody, and we don't.
On the album, you have a song title that seems especially amusing, "My Sycophant Others." What inspired that title and the song?
A lot of my songs just start from titles: So I have "my significant others," and I thought "My Sycophant Others" because a lot of people in my business get surrounded by "yes" men. And I don't. I'm not. But it's kind of a joke. Like our manager Kent, and a lot of people that work for me, they tend pretend to agree with me just to keep me quiet, you know? So it's kind of my joke back at them.
There's another song with a hilarious title, but the song itself doesn't sound like it's about something humorous. "I've Got One Jealous Again, Again." Obviously you mention Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Misfits and The Replacements and so forth. How did that song come about?
I was married for a long time, and we put our record collections together, and we had that song a few years ago, "We Got Two Jealous Agains." We had a lot of the same records. So now we're divorced, and we split the record collection up, and I have one "Jealous Again," again. I have single records again.
A few years back, you played Punk in Drublic in its entirety. Why did you want to play that record in its entirety?
It's our biggest record. It seems that a lot of people's favorite songs are on that. That one and So Long and Thanks for All the Shoes. This tour we're doing, toward the end, all of Ribbed, which should be fun. That's one of our only records where I was really unhappy with the vocal performance, so I wanted to do the whole thing live. I just have the worst sense of pitch ever.
Are you considering recording it live and re-releasing a live version of the album?
Yeah, we're considering it. We're going to record it and see how it turns out.