For California punk rock fans, Fat Mike is an institution. Other than fronting NOFX and and playing bass in supergroup Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, perhaps his biggest contribution is founding Fat Wreck Chords, a label that would both support and sustain a very particular punk sound.
This year, the label turns 25. Mike and friends are currently embarked on an anniversary tour featuring some of the biggest bands on his roster (Lagwagon, Strung Out, Swingin' Utters, definitely not Rise Against.) We caught up with the guy to talk about the last two decades and to reflect on some of his past releases.
Congrats on 25 years of Fat Wreck Chords! How's the anniversary tour going?
Great! Lots of fun. Too much fun. [We've done] like two or three shows.
Is NOFX playing a combination of older and newer stuff? How do you decide what you're playing?
I just decide. I change it up every night.
Very cool...but 25 years, man, that's an impressive feat!
Twenty-five years is very impressive but we've only been around for 24 years. We lied about that.
No one is going to check the math.
No one did, which is funny.
When you started the label, it was just you and your girlfriend at the time. How many of you are there now?
There's seven of us all together. We were up to 18 [at one point.]
What inspired you to start Fat Wreck in the first place?
It wasn't inspiration. It was just opportunity. There weren't a lot of punk labels are the time and I had seen a lot of good bands so I decided to give it a shot.
Were there ever points of financial trouble? How has Fat Wreck continued to be so sustainable?
There were three years where we were losing money. Everything was going so well before that. We had to fire twelve people. That was eight years ago. Our payroll was close to a million dollars and we were losing money every year for three years so we had to do something.
Fat Wreck has always done one-record contracts with your artists. Why is that?
We only do one record contracts, occasionally two. It's pretty rare. If a band wants to leave I don't want them on the label.
There's probably a benefit of signing to a label run by a musician, someone who gets it.
I can see both sides. What's happened is that we've had a lot of bands that come back.
After they realized they've messed up by leaving you?
Not all of them have messed up. Even if they didn't mess up, they've gotten more popular on a major but they realize they're not making any money so they wanna come back somewhere where they can make money.
What happened to [Fat Wreck imprint] Pink and Black?
It was just a label my ex-wife started, a more girl-based label, sh*t like that. It just didn't work out.
Fat Wreck has always adhered to a particular punk sound. Is that consistency necessary for longevity or were you looking to find a space for these bands to live?
Both. I think if you're in a band you shouldn't be changing styles of music, you're going lose fans more than you're gonna gain fans. People latch on to your band because you have a sound. Even NOFX has always branched off in different styles of music but we have always kept our sound and the same goes for a label. If you're gonna trust a label and buy everything on it or a lot of things on it, you have to keep to a sound. I don't see why you shouldn't. I'm not interested in putting out music that I don't like.
You're a politically outspoken guy. Do you make sure all of the bands on your label assign themselves to that?
Yeah. I'm not going sign a band that's religious or republican or homophobic. They don't necessarily have to be political but there certainly can't be spreading word of something I can't believe in. I was going to sign the Smoking Popes. I was talking to their manager. "Is the singer Christian?" "Yeah." So I go, "Really Christian? Believes in Noah's Ark and shit like that?" He goes, "Yeah, he's very Christian. He goes to church a lot. He believes in all that stuff." And I said, "Oh, well, I'm sorry. I don't want to sign the band anymore." The manager thought I was kidding. He goes, "We just agreed to this deal," and I go, "He's going to be spreading the word of Jesus around. I'm not comfortable signing them." I said, "Good luck with everything, but I'm not involved with this anymore."
We've picked a few of our Fat Wreck releases and we're hoping you can tell us a little about each. First up: Against Me!'s Searching for a Former Clarity.
My anecdote for that is the name of the band on the cover is so small you can barely see it. It pisses me off. I told Laura Jane or Tom at the time, "Just make the name bigger so people can see it." He said, "No, that's how the artist did it and that's how we like it." How it is now, it's twice as big as it used to be. I could not believe that they just wouldn't make the name of their band bigger. They went to a major after that and they put out New Wave and the name of the band is gigantic. It's because they know they f*cked up.
Lagwangon, Let's Talk About Feelings
That's the Lagwagon with the best songs. [I prefer Trashed] for different reasons. I helped on that record a lot. I helped with a lot of the melodies and I worked on it and I produced it. It was a big step for them. It helped define their sound. That's when they really started to get big. It was a big record for Fat Wreck Records. I was really proud to put out that record.
Less Than Jake, Borders & Boundaries
That was funny because we finally got Less Than Jake on the label and they gave us a record that was nothing like their old ska punk records. It was really just pop-punk. I was like "Wow, you gave us the record where you're changing your sound." I wanted—I thought they were going to give me a record that sounded like "Welcome to Gainesville." They sent me a demo years before and I said no.
Propagandhi, How to Clean Everything
That was the record that really defined our sound. It's an important record.
Anti-Flag, The Terror State
I think that's the best Anti-Flag record so I'm happy they gave me that one. I just like it the best. The record they gave us before that wasn't that good and then they went to a major and that record wasn't very good. I really thought that The Terror State was their best one.
Rise Against, Revolutions Per Minute
That was big. Obviously when I signed that band I thought they were really good. When majors came around and picked our bands, that was the band I thought had a big future. Revolutions Per Minute was the record that put them on their way.