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Survival of the Fattest: An Oral History of Fat Wreck Chords

on September 14, 2015, 12:30pm

The House of Blues in Boston is crawling with kids. At five o’clock on a typically warm and sunny Wednesday afternoon in August, the Swingin’ Utters are already in fine form, revving up the kind of purist ’77-style street punk they’ve made their calling card for more than 20 years. On a typical night, the venue would still be a good hour or two away from doors, but today is different. With eight bands slated to perform, the roving carnival that is the Fat Wreck Chords 25th Anniversary Tour kicked off at the almost unspeakable hour of three p.m.

It might be an unusual setup for a mid-week show, but there’s also something perfectly punk rock about it. Multi-band matinee shows are as old as the genre itself, and if you’re going to celebrate the ongoing legacy of one of the most successful and iconic punk labels in operation, you’re looking at a full day’s worth of power chords, safety pins, and circle pits. By night’s end, long-running Fat Wreck mainstays, including Strung Out, Lagwagon, and NOFX, will have shared the stage with members of the label’s new wave like Masked Intruder and ToyGuitar. Watching the cross section of bands that have played part in the label’s growth over the years, it’s hard to lose sight of what is really being celebrated. More than the bands themselves, the Fat tour was a celebration of a special form of punk rock culture 25 years in the making. Ok, 24 years if we’re being technical.

“Yeah, I fucked that one up,” NOFX frontman and Fat Wreck co-owner and namesake “Fat” Mike Burkett said, copping to the fact that the label started in 1991.

From its humble origins, Fat Wreck Chords was a label that embodied the most fundamental ideals and principles of punk rock culture. They signed bands they liked and made their own rules as they went. Over the years, the label rode its way through the genre’s many peaks and valleys, from its commercial high-water mark in the late ’90s to the leaner times in the mid-2000s. Now well into its third decade of operation, the people behind Fat Wreck Chords delve into the label’s unlikely success story.

fat wreck chords poster

Erin Burkett [Co-owner, Fat Wreck Chords]: We talk about it being 25 years since we started the label, but I didn’t think it would last two years. This labor of love that started out as a hobby, just something fun to do, has evolved into this great, amazing family that I’m so happy to be a part of. I cried at every [Fat Tour] show I was at.

Fat Mike [NOFX; Co-owner, Fat Wreck Chords]: I started putting out NOFX seven inches in the ’80s, because it was the only choice. There weren’t any labels. There was Mystic Records, but they never paid us. So I just said, “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”

Burkett: Mike and I had met when we moved to San Francisco to go to college. I was 17 and he was 19 when we met. We met through mutual friends. The San Francisco punk scene at the time was very close-knit. You would just see the same people. We went to the same college. We would see the same people at the same shows, the same house parties, and the same squats. We were just friends for about four years, and eventually we started dating. We were together when we started the label, living in a one-bedroom apartment in the Mission.

Fat Mike: It was us, a fax machine, and some tape. I remember I would get very, very excited when a fax would come in. When we got an order from Europe, it would be three in the morning. I’d hear the fax machine, jump out of bed, and see that we got an order for 50 records. That was very, very exciting to me.

Burkett: We started out of our kitchen. I would work full-time during the day, then come home and fill orders. Our whole kitchen was just overrun with boxes of product and invoices. There was not any cooking going on in there.

Joey Cape [Lagwagon]: I saw in Maximum Rocknroll that Fat Mike had posted a little ad that he was starting a label. I ran into him in San Francisco at a show on Haight Street at a club called the Night Break. I think it was a Real Mackenzies show. We had met before, but we didn’t know each other. I thought, “I’ve got a demo tape in my car right out front. What the hell?” I gave him the tape and said, “I heard you’re starting a label, thought you might like this.”

Burkett: Lagwagon, they were the first band other than NOFX. Then about a year later, we signed Propagandhi and No Use for a Name right around the same time. Those bands actually had the same release day. We had a discussion about that at Fat. There were people arguing about who got signed second and who got signed third. We found out they came out on the same day.

Fat Mike: [Propagandhi’s How to Clean Everything] record created the Fat sound. It really did. Lagwagon kind of sounded like NOFX, but Propagandhi brought in the best guitar playing, the best lyrics, the best melodies, and it raised the bar for punk rock. Look at NOFX. Before Propagandhi, we had White Trash, Two Heebs, and a Bean. That’s a fucking good record, but then we went to Punk in Drublic. We knew we had to step it up. That record influenced way more bands and people than it gets credit for.

longest line

Cape: The timing was very ideal. The label was new, we were new, the other bands were new. Everything was just sort of a jump ahead of the normal workload. We started out, and we got the right tours immediately. We toured with NOFX right away when they already had something going.

Fat Mike: The first three records we did for the label were [NOFX’s] The Longest Line, Lagwagon, and Propagandhi, and those were three great records. No Use for a Name’s The Daily Grind was really good, then Strung Out came and Good Riddance. They were all great.

Jake Kiley [Strung Out]:  In the early days, there was Epitaph, which obviously had a head start on everybody. That was where we all wanted to be, and that’s where we wanted Fat Wreck Chords to get to. When we met Mike, we thought, “This is an ambitious guy who knows what he’s doing. He’s right on the pulse of what’s happening.”

Fat Mike: Epitaph was a model, I guess, but they weren’t doing anything that we weren’t already doing. They just had more people and were doing it better. Brett [Gurewitz] was in the right place. He was in LA, and he signed Pennywise, NOFX, Offspring. Rancid came in a little later. He just signed the best LA punk bands, and he had Bad Religion. He just signed the best bands, and he was successful. That’s why we’ve had success, me and Brett. We were two of the leading songwriters in punk rock. When we pick bands, we probably have better judgment or a better ear for it.

Intruder Blue [Masked Intruder]: Fat has always been known for being more involved than a lot of other independent labels might be, just in terms of saying, “Hey, well these songs aren’t really strong enough for the record.” I heard stories about that back in the day.

Fat Mike: With all the early bands, I produced them. I probably produced the first 10 or 15 records, because I wanted to make sure that all the songs were good on all the records. That’s what I figured would make a label — putting out high-quality records all the way through. I made it a point to be in the studio for every record. The parts I didn’t like I would just say, “This song’s not good enough. That’s not good enough. Do this, do this, do this.” It kind of sounds like something a major label would do, but the thing is if we put out one bad record in the early days, our reputation wouldn’t have been good.

Burkett: We’ve always run this label on our own terms. We just do what we want to do. I want to be proud of every band on this label. I want to enjoy watching them play live. I want to enjoy listening to their records in my car.

Fat Mike: New Found Glory asked to come to this label a few years ago. I just said, “No. I’m friends with you guys, but I just don’t like your band. It’s fast and punk and whatever, but it doesn’t do anything for me.”

lagwagon Survival of the Fattest: An Oral History of Fat Wreck Chords

Kiley: We believed in Fat. We all did. Lagwagon and Propaghandi, we were all amazed by their records. When we got to put out our record, it was just a dream come true to work with a label that really had a future ahead of it.

Fat Mike: What happened was all these bands had to step it up to keep up with the other bands. Lagwagon made Trashed, which kicked the first album’s ass, then they made Hoss, which kicked everyone’s ass. NOFX was the same way. We made Punk in Drublic. Everyone started to try and make their best record. Strung Out’s second record is known as their best record, you know? I think all the bands on the label started feeding off each other.

Burkett: I think when we put out No Use for A Name and Propagandhi, that was the moment that I thought, “Huh, maybe this is an actual business.” It wasn’t supposed to be. It was just supposed to be fun. But I think that’s why it worked.

Cape: I can only speak for us, but it all moved kind of fast. By 1994, we were playing 280 shows a year. We quit our jobs, and we were a band. We were on tour all of the time, and there was no one in our band that wasn’t completely gracious. It was like, “Wow, ok.”

Kiley: I remember playing with Offspring one time to, like, 80 people. Then Smash came out, and it was on KROQ just a little bit, and that was like, “Whoa, this is crazy that they’re playing this on the radio.” Then it all just clicked. Green Day happened right at the same time, but on a much bigger level. I could feel it happening all around me. Then to watch it materialize was insane. By mid 1995, the shit was just huge.

Burkett: There were a good 10 years in there that I like to call the glory days. It started in the mid-to-late ’90s. Everything we put out sold. It was actually relatively easy. When No Use for a Name’s Leche Con Carne came out and we actually got radio play and video play, that was something so far outside of the punk rock realm for us. I was like, “Are they really playing ‘Soulmate’ on the radio? That felt larger than life.

Fat Mike: I remember Ribbed, our third album, sold 10,000 copies. We and Pennywise were like, “What the fuck? We just sold 10,000 copies.” That was a huge number then. Then Punk in Drublic, three years later, hit over a million. So yeah, big change.

Kiley: We were happy to do 20,000. That was our goal. Then we just kept trying to build upon it. It all just kind of kept growing.

Propagandhi_HowToCleanEverything

Burkett: It was a concern, growing too quick. We had no idea what we were doing. We had never worked at a label before, so we just did things by trial and error. That was fine in the beginning. Then we got bigger and expanded to the point where we actually had a radio department. I felt directly responsible for my bands’ careers in a way that I hadn’t felt before, so I was definitely worried that we were gonna blow it. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for a band blowing their one big shot.

Cape: If you look at any business, there’s always the question of how fast you can expand. You don’t want to expand much faster than what’s realistic, because if you do it and you have a tough time, you’re gonna crash. The very basic version of the way Fat does things is they spend what they’re gonna make. It’s not the hip-hop world where everyone is buying bling. I’ve never seen any evidence of that kind of thing, even during the best years of the label. That’s kind of an important attitude that’s maintained there.

Burkett: Everything normalized. We had 10 years where everything sold really, really well, and then the bottom sort of fell out of the music industry. We were left sort of hanging on thinking, “What happened here?”

Kiley: They had a European office, a San Francisco office, so it was becoming a pretty big thing. It was also an expensive thing to operate. It was OK for years when some of the bigger bands were selling 500,000 copies, but around the time of the millenium, when everything started happening with the internet, they were kind of late in switching over to the digital age.

Fat Mike: I actually blew it. Everything was so good at Fat for so long, then in one year, record sales dropped 25 or 30 percent. We just weren’t paying attention. We had one year where we made no money. Then the next year we lost a bunch of money. We had to fire five people and close down the other offices.

Burkett: Another aftereffect of everything was our bands who had been used to getting certain royalties and didn’t have to tour as much all of a sudden had to tour more, which at that point was a little bit of a bummer. We want our bands out there touring, but we also know they have lives, and at that point many of them had families and children. They leave for tour and come home two months later and they miss some major milestone in their kids’ lives. It was a hard adjustment.

Fat Mike: We don’t give advances anymore or bonuses. The fucking bonuses we used to give, we used to give our employees and bands $20,000 bonuses every year. We always felt like you had to profit share somehow. It’s funny because when we weren’t doing well, a couple of people left. They were like, “Well, I needed that money.” But it’s like, “Don’t plan for it. It’s a fucking gift.”

Kiley: We came up watching Fat outgrow other labels before it, and now these smaller labels were getting bigger than Fat in the early 2000s. It was like, “Wow, this is crazy watching these little baby labels surpass us.” Their bands were selling more than ours.

NUFAN-daily_grind-(front)

Cape: The question to me is will things like Fat Wreck Chords that have had an impact on the world, will they survive this? For a while there was talk of it becoming a back catalog label.

Fat Mike: When we were thinking about closing it down when we were losing money, we just couldn’t. We didn’t want to. If we had just shut the label down and only done distribution, we would have made a lot more money. But we didn’t want to do that. We thought, “Let’s just cut everything down and just do exactly what we do but on a lower scale.” That worked.

Erin Burkett: Punk fans, to their credit, are pretty loyal. We have a lot of fans who will buy something just because we put it out. That’s amazing. So I don’t think it all hit us quite as hard as it did labels in other genres, because I think punk fans are more involved. They understand that punk rock is an artistry that bands should be able to turn a profit on and pay their bills.

Fat Mike: Our office was a showroom, so we opened this one-room record store. It’s only open for three hours, twice a month, and there’s free beer for everybody. That’s what we do, and we always end up doing a few grand. Not only that, but we have a community now. We have the same people that come in and drink on Fridays, and it’s fucking fun. That’s what punk rock is about, that sense  of community. The store is a smaller version of what Fat Wreck Chords is.

Intruder Blue: I don’t know what I imagined it to be like when I was 16 years old or whatever, but being with Fat is basically working alongside a lot of people who have great, strong work ethics but also love to have fun and party. It’s really just like having a really cool job that lets you hang out with a lot of cool people.

Burkett: The fact that a lot of our bands have been with us for so long means a lot, because they’re not here because they’re locked in by contract. They’re with us because they want to be with us. I don’t know how else to express my love and thanks to our bands for their loyalty. They work hard for us, and we work hard for them. I think our bands feel like they’re very much a part of the label, you know what I mean?

Kiley: There’s contracts, but I don’t think we’ve signed one in, like, 10 years. You’ll have contracts to renegotiate royalty rates and stuff like that occassionally. But we got to a point where we got exactly what we wanted, so we haven’t tried to negotiate anything.

Fat Mike: I just did a handwritten contract with the Pears that makes no sense at all. It said, “You have to do as many records for Fat as we ask for … unless you don’t want to.” What it’s come down to is after 25 years, we’ve never been sued, we’ve never sued anyone, we’ve never been audited. We’ve just never had any problems with any band. It just seems like contracts don’t mean anything anymore.

another day in paradise 519193d5416e7 Survival of the Fattest: An Oral History of Fat Wreck Chords

Burkett: We’ve always been so closely knit with our bands that we see them as people. They’re not commodities to us. They’re people with lives that we’re very involved in. We go on vacation together. Our children play together. We go to each other’s birthday parties. When you’re that close to somebody, you want them to succeed because you really care about them.

Fat Mike: My motto has always been, “We can never, ever fuck anyone over.” We’ll lose money before we fuck anybody over. You need a perfect record.

Cape: This label has always operated in such a respectful way. They’ve never asked us to do anything we didn’t want to do. They’ve always been supportive of everything. I think you can see that in the fact that not many bands have left the label, and up until recently, no one left the label.

Burkett: We’ve obviously had bands who have left over the years, but we’re still friends with all of them. We get a little sad when that happens, but it makes sense. If a marriage isn’t working, you should be able to get a divorce. The same thing goes with a band. If they feel that another label is a better fit for them, that makes us sad. But we understand it. This is their career, and they have one shot at it.

Fat Mike: Against Me!, that was one band that we gave a two-record deal to because we gave them a lot of money. They decided to go to a major. Our lawyers were like, “They’re under contract. They can’t.” But I just thought, “If they don’t want to be here, let ’em go.”

Intruder Blue: It really does operate as a family, this record label. It’s been great. This tour is a perfect example. We’ve just been having so much frickin’ fun every night. It’s unbelievable.

Kiley: It’s very cool. Lagwagon was one of our first tours ever. NOFX actually was our first tour ever. The Fat tour is like getting back together with old friends. Fat Mike and Erin are both still around, and they’re great to hang out with. There’s no sense of, like, the boss. You don’t have to tip-toe around anyone. The label means a lot to people, and being a part of that is something that I wouldn’t trade for all the corporate money in the world.

Fat Mike: Sick of It All flew in for the Fat tour, even though they’re no longer on the label. They’re still Fat family, and we actually now might do some more work with them in the future. That’s the thing about Fat. Everyone stays in the fold.

Cape: I would equate us to being a family that’s happy. There’s a safety net there. I’ve felt like that a million times. There have been times where we’ve had real trouble within the band. If you can’t call anyone else, you can call your family. And we’ve had a family for 25 years. That’s awesome.

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