Gaining Weight — The Rise of Fat Wreck Chords As One Of The Last Great Punk Indies

Fat Wreck Chords

“I want Fat to be pure. I want people who got Fat tattoos in the ’90s to still be proud of that tattoo in 2020.” — Fat Mike

Twenty-five years ago, NOFX lead vocalist/bassist Fat Mike and his then girlfriend, Erin Burkett, founded the fiercely independent Fat Wreck Chords. To this day, Fat Mike and Erin, though now divorced, still own and run the label. The San Francisco-based label epitomizes many of the intriguing dichotomies inherent within the life and work of its conceptualistic beacon, Fat Mike. Since its inception, Fat has released over 157 studio albums. Catalog highlights include releases by such iconic bands as NOFX, Good Riddance, Descendents, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, The Loved Ones, Screeching Weasel, Propagandhi, Rise Against, Lagwagon, Strung Out, No Use for a Name, Less Than Jake, Against Me! and Anti-Flag. The label has also built a very respected reputation as a discovery conduit with its signature compilations. In honor of this landmark anniversary, Fat has curated a compilation exclusively for Bandcamp, Fat Music Vol. 8: Going Nowhere Fat.

NOFX was one of the cornerstones of 1990s punk rock, highly regarded by fans and critics alike for well-crafted pop songcraft, barbed wit, pristine production, and accomplished musicianship. The band’s fresh and polished approach to what has been considered a lo-fi genre, and its bold decision to resist signing with a major label during the 1990s punk rock gold rush, garnered the quartet a dedicated fanbase and fostered a new era of punk.

NOFX by Ben Garcia
photo by Ben Garcia

Technical aptitude and a brash, anthemic sound are the hallmarks of the NOFX and Fat Wreck Chords style. The label has been able to earn an engaged following for its consistency and its dedication to its foundational ethos and music sensibility. In these revealing and exclusive interviews for Bandcamp, trusted employee and Fat recording artist Jason Hall of Western Addiction interviews cofounder Erin Burkett, and new Fat signees Night Birds frontman Brian Gorsegner chats with Fat Mike. The two cofounders discuss the label’s storied history and milestone anniversary with wryness and warm candor.

Interview One: Jason Hall with Erin Burkett

Erin Burkett by Kristen Wrightphoto by Kristen Wright

Jason: In your words, what is Fat known for?

Erin: I hope we are best known for treating our bands like family. For the most part, we sign our bands to one-record deals, treat them fairly and honestly, and keep our promises. For my part, I have tried to cultivate a feeling of mutual respect between the bands and the label. I’ve said it before, but these bands are truly family to me. I try to have an emotional investment with everyone on our label. Oh, yeah, and music. We’re known for putting out consistently good punk tunes.

Jason: At what point did you realize you were doing something special and it could turn into a life versus a hobby?

Erin: This is an interesting question. There are times when I still think I might have to go get a real job. The first few years, I kept my day job at a public relations firm because I thought there was no way we would be able to pay our rent and expenses on label income. When I finally quit, I figured it would be a few years, and I’d have to go back to work. I still can’t believe it’s been 25 years, and we are still going strong. I feel like this last year has been one of our best ever.

Jason: What release(s) are you most proud of?

Erin: I have an emotional attachment to almost everything we put out on Fat; however, I am most proud of the Tony Sly tribute album. Tony’s passing was a tragic and devastating blow to all of us, but obviously more so for his family. To be able to do something to help his family grieve and secure their future at the same time was huge. I was blown away by the response we received when we started that project. I felt such a sense of community and family. The number of bands that were willing to donate their time and artistry in honor of Tony was overwhelming. The day Brigitte Sly called me in tears after receiving her first royalty check and told me that the money will put her girls through college was the moment I felt most proud of my amazing Fat family.

Jason: What are some of your most cherished memories of the label?

Erin: Over the years we have had some awesome experiences. Fat’s 13-year anniversary party was an epic moment in our label history. We rented out the Great American Music Hall and threw a big party with NOFX, Lagwagon, NUFAN, and Propagandhi. Joey asked me on stage to sing “E Dagger” and it was the only time I’ve ever sung in public (other than Karaoke). I was so nervous up there… I just wanted it to be over so I could run off stage. It was such an awesome night. I can’t wait for our 25-year anniversary bash!

Propaghandi

Jason: How is running a label like being a parent?

Erin: Before I had Darla, I would have said it was exactly like being a parent in every way. My bands are my children, and I feel directly responsible for the well being of all of them. I give them advances on their allowance. I advise them if I think they are making poor decisions, but ultimately let them choose their own paths. I bail them out of jail if they are arrested and pay for their rehab if needed. Now that I am a parent, though, I can tell you that being a parent is a hundred times harder than running a label.

Jason: What does it take nowadays for a band to get your attention? What was the last band that made you go, “Ok, now this is different, this is good”?

Erin: I don’t think much has changed in the last 25 years in terms of what bands we sign at Fat. We sign bands with music that we want to listen to, with members that we want to hang out with. Of course, in addition to that, we need the band to be hard-working and willing to tour. The last band that made me stop in my tracks was Pears. They’re the first band that I can remember signing without having met, which breaks all of our rules. However, I heard the record and I just felt this surge of adrenaline rush through me. It made me feel 15 years old again, and angry, and I loved it. Then I saw them live, and I can’t remember the last time I was so impressed with a new band. They are insane.

Jason: Where do you see music going? Are streaming services going to “save music?”

Erin: Well, I definitely see music going in the direction of more and more streaming services; however, I’m not sure I would say it’s going to save music. I don’t think music needs to be saved. I think there will always be a fan base for musical art, and there will always be advances in technology and new ways of turning a profit on that art for both the musician and the label. Fat has definitely seen its ups and downs, but one thing remains the same: punk rock fans are loyal, and they enjoy turning other people onto “their” band.

Jason: What would you say to your daughter if she told you she wanted to date a musician?

Erin: Ugh, I dread the day. I would tell her to follow her heart. I married for love, and even though Mike and I are divorced, we had twenty, sometimes-awesome, sometimes-not, but always interesting, years together. We built Fat, created Darla, and we both have an amazing life cultivated by that initial relationship. I would want the same thing for my daughter.

Nightbirds by Keith Marlowe
photo by Keith Marlowe

Interview Two: Brian Gorsegner with Fat Mike

Fat Mike by Alan Snodgrassphoto by Alan Snodgrass

Brian: What was the last day job you held before being full-time NOFX and full-time Fat Wreck Chords?

Fat Mike: I worked in the back of a couple of women’s shoe stores,’cause that was my Dad’s business, and for a pharmacy delivering drugs. Before that, it was McDonald’s. Shit, it all makes sense now—I’m a drug-using fat guy that loves to wear high heels! Nurture wins over nature!

Brian: You created Fat Wreck Chords with your onetime girlfriend, then wife, and now ex-wife, Erin… Which one of you came up with the idea to start the label? Were you running it together from day one?

Fat Mike: It was my idea, and I always signed all the bands. Before we had an office, Erin would fill orders and handle mail order when I was on tour. Then, in about 1993, we got an office and ran it together. She did all the accounting and I signed the bands. These days I hardly go in anymore. I sign bands and go to the weekly meeting, but she runs the place.

Brian: How the hell did Fat weather the virtual crash of the music industry? I mean, you’re still a viable operation where majors are shedding people left and right and trying to reinvent themselves. What do you see as the biggest changes between the early 2000s and now?

Fat Mike: We had to shed stuff too. We had four offices around the world and 18 employees in the ’90s because we were selling between a million and two million records a year. It was insane! Tilt sold 60 thousand records! The reinventing thing never happened. I wouldn’t do that to our fans. I started Fat Wreck Chords to be a label that represented me. I only signed bands that I liked and that had similar beliefs as mine. I wanted punk bands that were drunks and drug users that cared about playing music and having a good time more than they cared about becoming a success. There was no way I was gonna sign one of those emo/metal bands with kids that got their bodies covered in tattoos in three months and never tried drugs, but told everyone they did. No bands that sang about God or anything—that was against what I believed in. I signed MXPX but told them I would not put out their record if they sung about God or Jesus. There was no way I was gonna put out music just because it was popular at the time. I want Fat to be pure. I want people who got Fat tattoos in the ’90s to still be proud of that tattoo in 2020.

Brian: As previously mentioned, you and Erin were dating at the early incarnation of Fat, then got married, split up, but remained partners at the label. Kudos for being able to maintain a work relationship. Can you tell me about the dynamic of running the label with your ex?

Fat Mike: Well, since we share the same kid, we decided early on in our divorce that we would not become enemies. We were gonna be good parents that never talked shit about each other. Totally unlike the divorced families that we grew up in. Same thing went for the label. We maintain a very professional work relationship and any issues we have with each other (and there have been plenty) do not come into Fat. I think all the bands and staff really appreciate that. I mean we fought like pit bulls when we were at work and married. Everyone there was witness to huge fucking arguments all the time. Now there’s nothing. Our divorce worked out pretty good for Fat, strangely enough. Erin is at the label everyday and I’m there for two hours twice a month. Works out pretty good.

Brian: Who is your daughter Darla’s favorite Fat Wreck Chords band?

Fat Mike: By far, Darla’s favorite band is Masked Intruder.

Brian: What is the best Fat album to make sweet love to?

Fat Mike: If you can make it through The Decline [a NOFX EP featuring one epic 18-minute composition] your lady is stoked!

Brian: Thanks Mike, congrats on 25 years of Fat Wreck; we’re looking forward to joining the party. Last question, what’s your favorite Seinfeld episode?

Fat Mike: The one where George called his aunt a “beloved cunt.”

Escape Artists

High Tides

“It seems we always let some melancholy vibes seep in, so there tends to be an edginess. Even while sipping the Bu on smooth waters, the tides bring a little unrest.” — Warren Kroll

Whether it’s the agonizing winters, the endless farmland, or the close proximity to Governor Scott Walker, there has always been a yearning among Midwesterners to get the hell out. “The greatest escape I ever made,” Harry Houdini once quipped, “was when I left Appleton, Wisconsin.” Yet while Houdini and countless others found enlightenment and adventure in new locales, the ambient electronic duo High Tides created their own world in the very heart of the one they sought to escape.

Warren Kroll and Steven Lutes, who met in Indiana and began creating music together in the Red Falcons Project, don’t simply craft songs that capture the sensation of being drunk on a California beach; they fully inhabit that lurid dream world, complete with nautical costumes and their favorite beverage-cum-mascot, Malibu Rum. “High Tides started in 2011 in a very tongue-in-cheek fashion. We were thrift store shopping and found these sweet Hawaiian shirts and various beach gear,” Lutes explains. “So we got some Parrot Bay and Malibu rum, put on the Hawaiian threads, and put together [the first High Tides track] ‘The Beach Elder.’”

High Tides

Like much of High Tides’ self-titled debut, “The Beach Elder” evokes the sweetness, the laze, and the haze of an afternoon spent drinking in the tropics. But even though Kroll and Lutes celebrate an image of themselves that mirrors that tranquility—dawdling in the waves of a careless Technicolor fantasy where Malibu bottles radiate a messianic glow and the water is always warm—there is a hint of mystery and unease to these songs, too. It’s as if a sheen of oil coats the pristine waves, or a toxic smog hangs over the bloated, tropical sunset on the album’s cover. On “Ripped Tide,” an uptempo beat is placed alongside a series of mesmerizing, sluggish synth lines with dizzying and disorienting effect. Swirling eddies of sound on “Sunware” are offset by a disarming, bleating chirp that sounds like lurching both backward and forward at once. “It seems we always let some melancholy vibes seep in, so there tends to be an edginess,” Kroll points out. “Even while sipping the Bu on smooth waters, the tides bring a little unrest,” he adds.

High Tides plays like a single track, in which humming synthesizers and thudding drum machines swirl into a thick soup. But like the segments of a centipede, it’s delineated by the handful of remixes scattered throughout. They were all written by the group’s mentor, old friend, and tour mate Tom Fec, who performs under the name Tobacco and was a founding member of Pittsburg’s experimental psychedelic group Black Moth Super Rainbow (whose label, Rad Cult, is releasing High Tides). “Tom was a big push in us actually putting together a High Tides album,” Lutes says. “The whole project really started to evolve into a bigger vision once we got the push from him.”

Unlike High Tides’ original songs, the handful of BMSR and Tobacco remixes all feature Tom’s voice, which hisses and whispers, adding a deeper sense of otherworldliness to the remixes. On “Blurring My Day,” the high-arcing synth parts and skittering, frantic drum machines of BMSR’s original recording are slowed down and covered in a thick blanket of haze. If the original song is a caffeinated party track, the remix is a sunset luau fueled by cough syrup. Later, Fec’s voice fills all the sonic space on “Face Breakout,” before Lutes and Kroll yank it out, exposing one of the most subtle and minimal arrangements on the album. “It seemed right to include [the remixes] since they were such a big part of what High Tides has become,” Lutes told me.

High Tides’ original material doesn’t need vocals to get its point across. Instead, Lutes’ and Kroll’s songs speak through subtle shifts and radiant, oft-unidentifiable sounds; anyone who has ever become intoxicated on sun will appreciate the hypnotic haze of “Sunware” or the vivid, expanding wall of sound in “7 Mile Beach.” And even though there wasn’t an actual cruise that inspired “Coastal Cruise ’86,” its punching bass and shimmering keys perfectly evoke the sensation of floating weightless across the water. But, as the members of High Tides remind us throughout their debut, they don’t need an actual beach or an actual cruise to take them anywhere; that place already exists in their heads.

Collaborator Hopscotch

The Grant Wallace Band

Here’s a fun game I’ve been playing as of late: collaborator hopscotch. Start with an intriguing new release—let’s say, Grant Wallace Band’s Axle of the World (with Rabbit), out earlier this month on Two Labyrinths Records. Drink in the twisting bluegrass lines of the album’s opening track, “Hengs”:

Next, pick an intriguing element—perhaps Luke Gullickson’s bluesy piano dwelling under Ben Hjertmann’s elastic voice—and find a new project. Possibly To Evening Lands, a set of charmingly mysterious songs with Gullickson on vocals and piano, accompanied by violinist Ellen McSweeney. The tune “Little Bird” starts out with an instrumental process reminiscent of Philip Glass, but soon becomes a jaunty dance and a lovely vocal duet.

Drawn to McSweeney’s understated presence, hop another step in that direction. Get lost in her haunting song “Saturn,” off the 2014 album The Wrong Idea, in which McSweeney harmonizes her voice in a gentle hush over lilting violin lines.

Alas, it’s a solo album—a collaborative dead end! Go back one space and roll again. Let’s try Gullickson’s Open, a large-scale, minimalist work for viola and piano which, despite its length, somehow retains the folksy intimacy of the composer’s three-minute songs.

Pursue the sound of Doyle Armbrust’s viola and, next thing you know, you’re listening to the Spektral Quartet—of which Armbrust is a member—and they’re playing Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s meandering and guttural Dig Absolutely:

Now we’re back where we began: Fisher-Lochhead plays the quivering viola part in Grant Wallace Band’s “Hengs.” (And if you dwell on that Spektral release for a bit longer, you’ll discover a saccharine and spidery quartet from band member Hjertmann, too.)

This particular round of collaborative hopscotch sketches out an eccentric but seemingly unified musical multiverse, with Grant Wallace Band at an axis. And Grant Wallace Band is intriguing not only for its wealth of connections but also for its own music. Gullickson, Hjertmann, and Fisher-Lochhead met in college and grad school and came together in Chicago—where two of them were working on graduate degrees in composition at Northwestern University—before deciding to start a band in 2011. “All that time we were just bringing in scraps of material, workshopping tunes together, improvising together, and learning to be a band,” Gullickson told me. “Most of the music on Axle had its origins during that year, though it all grew and changed a lot over a few years playing shows together and a few years working and reworking the album.”

The band didn’t intend to form as a quasi-bluegrass project, instead envisioning something closer to a jazz trio that would build from notated sketches and lead sheets to fleshed-out songs. “Hengs” started off with an initial compositional framework upon which the musicians improvised in rehearsal. “The bluegrass thing happened because we learned we loved singing together in three parts,” Gullickson said, “and because we kept getting gigs at places with no piano, so we started using me more as a guitarist.” The success of those three-part vocals is audible in “Hengs,” which concludes with a seemingly ceaseless reiteration of the phrase “Dead man walking,” in full-bodied harmony over an instrumental freakout.

The Grant Wallace Band

The music of Axle cogently balances each musician’s compositional ideas with a collective vision worked out in rehearsal. “The Game of 58 Holes,” for example, was conceived by Gullickson—its casual introductory groove evokes Open—but transformed by the other players’ hiccuping viola and mandolin riffs, as Hjertmann sings of strange realms (“I’m just a minor god and no one can recall my name”). There is a gentleness to the complexity: the voices of children sound softly in the distance during the song’s instrumental interludes.

“For me, the ability to try things out in rehearsal every week was the biggest appeal,” Fisher-Lochhead said. “Far more than inclinations toward a specific style, the band was and is characterized by a willingness to explore whatever ideas we would each bring in to rehearsal, no matter how off the wall or unfamiliar.” That attitude is ingrained in the band’s lyrics and its name, which takes after early 20th-century outsider artist Grant Wallace, who made incredible drawings as part of his experiments in telepathy and attempts to communicate with aliens. “Even where there’s nothing obvious or explicitly connected to the art, the atmosphere of the record is suffused with a special combination of esoterica and whimsy,” Fisher-Lochhead added.

It might seem similarly alien for three composers to form a bluegrass band, but it probably shouldn’t. The new-music world has long been engaging with folkish idioms, from an ongoing American fascination with shape-note singing to William Duckworth’s bluegrass-infused Time Curve Preludes. More recently, groups like Missy Mazzoli’s Victoire and Matt McBane’s Build have combined the immediacy of the band with the notated forms of the new-music ensemble. And the commitment toward improvisation outside perceived boundaries of genre has a strong Chicago precedent in the massively important Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The Grant Wallace Band

“The dream of GWB is the same dream that I have for my own music,” Hjertmann said. (See, for example, his eclectic projects as Kong Must Dead.) “And that is to allow me to explore the depths of my own inclinations and desires as a musician and to explore the great expanses of possibility of what that could sound like. The chief distinction here is the great joy of working collaboratively, allowing us to create music as one entity, which means that the musical material itself will migrate and evolve through the collective will of the band.”

That collective exploration is palpable in “Land of Lenu,” in which Hjertmann sings windy, peculiar phrases – “The deep blue mathematics of what’s behind” – atop a composite drone that echoes La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music. The music takes a creepier turn as additional voices enter, accompanied by stressfully unremitting strumming and the manic gurgling of a bassoon. And now, we’re back in the game of collaborative hopscotch—that bassoonist is Katherine Young, the composer responsible for the Parlour Tapes+ release DILIGENCE IS TO MAGIC AS PROGRESS IS TO FLIGHT. That mind-boggling album centers on J. Austin Wulliman—of the Spektral Quartet!—with Young’s electronics and contributions from the Chicago ensemble dal niente.

As Grant Wallace Band evolved over several years, so too has the quirky Chicago new-music scene. I myself left the area in 2010 after graduating from Northwestern, and remembered Spektral and dal niente as promising developments. When I checked back in on the scene for Bandcamp in 2013, I discovered a rich tapestry of strangeness, symbolized by the uncanny independence of Parlour Tapes+. Axle, an unfamiliar transformation of the familiar, slides into that activity with ease.

The Grant Wallace Band

“We definitely grew to exist in and around the Chicago new-music community, which has been blooming, exciting, and mutually supportive over the last several years,” Gullickson said. “Really I just feel indebted to all the individual musicians who helped make that place what it was while I was living there.” Since then, the three bandmembers have scattered—Gullickson lives in New Mexico and Hjertmann in North Carolina, though Fisher-Lochhead remains in Chicago.

But they plan to continue collaborating across long distances, gradually shaping their music—and an in-the-works Kong Must Dead album—just as they did with Axle.A big part of the story of Axle is the returning to it again and again as time passed in all of our lives, because each time we set it aside for a month or two and then came back, there was an implicit process of editing and testing, weighing all of our previous decisions with new perspective,” Gullickson said. “That said, we also tried to maintain the humor and spontaneity of the thing.”

Beats, Rhymes, and Identity

Alexandre Francisco Diaphra

“Don’t complain that there is no more space for culture in Portugal, be the culture. If you do it, the culture won’t disappear.”

For Portuguese poet and artist Alexandre Francisco Diaphra, understanding his identity has been a lifelong quest. This summer he is releasing Diaphra’s Blackbook of the Beats, a multimedia project that’s part beat tape, part poetry, and part post-colonialist discourse. Years in the making, the Blackbook was shaded by Diaphra’s artistic growth and his desire to understand the world in which he lives.

Born of an Angolan mother and Guinean father, Diaphra grew up in Portugal using more than one cultural filter to make sense of the world. Travels through Portugal, Europe, and Africa only left him more confused, until he landed in Brazil. In the melting pot of Sao Paulo he found the beginnings of an answer, seeing new connections between the cultures he’d inherited. “That’s when I decided to focus on who I was, and Alexandre Francisco Diaphra was born,” he explains over the phone from his Portuguese home. The name provided an anchor, a way to be one “instead of different people all the time.”

Alexandre Francisco is his birth name, and it rolls off his tongue with his thick Portuguese accent. Diaphra is a nod to his artistic side. He jokes that his full name always felt a little aristocratic, maybe even pompous, and was only ever uttered by his teachers. Whatever the past associations, today he feels good. “It’s been like living a different aspect of the same life,” he explains. “And that’s where the album came from, it’s a trip I took to find myself after the name.”

Alexandre Francisco Diaphra

Diaphra started his musical career in the late 1990s as a percussionist. Experimental jams with friends in the Portuguese countryside soon led him to rapping, and from there to creating his own beats to soundtrack his raps. But it was an encounter with Existereo, a veteran of the Los Angeles underground and member of the Shape Shifters crew, that solidified Diaphra’s belief in the power of rap. “I call him my tutor,” he explains. “One day he shared a tape by a guy called Busdriver and that’s when it shifted for me.” Diaphra came to a new understanding that lyrics and style could be just as important as the message one tries to get across. “That was my flame,” he reveals, “the ignition for where I am today.”

Despite all this, rapping wouldn’t prove to be Diaphra’s ultimate calling. He was invited to enter Portugal’s first national slam poetry contest and came out on top. He says, “I felt a freedom writing slam that I didn’t have in rapping. Structure-wise, especially. And because it’s a cappella, you’re not enslaved by the beat. You can just follow your own beat and interact with what’s going on, follow the moment. That gave me more freedom.” This move toward poetry and free-flowing vocal expression left those who had been a fan of his rapping confused. For Diaphra, however, it was a case of being true to himself, of living something that is genuine. “It’s the human aspect I want from this,” he explains. “Music for me, and the artistic space I want to be in, is really connected to the human aspect. It’s hard for me to disconnect the two.”

The Blackbook was written and composed over a short period of time. It combines poetry in his native Portuguese and sample-heavy productions manipulated by hand rather than locked to a machine’s grid. After discovering his new name in 2012, Diaphra spent time with a portable sampler and record player in Lisbon’s public spaces. He would set up in various locations and record ideas. He wrote words in his book as they came to him and looped up beats in the sampler. Two friends, videographer Manuel Lino and fine artist Fidel Evora, worked with him to create a body of images, videos, and texts that were used in the final package, which includes a DVD that he describes as “video poetry.” It took them three years to put everything together.

While the music on the Blackbook is very much rooted in hip-hop, for Diaphra the beats are also indebted to Guinea-Bissau’s gumbe, a local style of music that unified the country’s different ethnicities after the region gained independence. “I found that the beat of gumbe really provided a union: everyone was around one heart, drinking from things that were lost,” he recalls. “That’s what I wanted to bring to my beats, something that showed me as someone who doesn’t know who he is. Despite all this information being available, we still don’t know who we are.”

Alexandre Francisco Diaphra

The most obvious signifier of identity in the Blackbook is Diaphra’s choice to rhyme in Portuguese. “It’s because of the connection the project has to culture,” he explains. “When I began, the Portuguese department of culture was being closed. People often complain that when a crisis hits it’s culture and education—things we need to get out of a crisis—that are the first to be cut. I state at the beginning of the Blackbook that I understand this, but at the same time I never depended on the government to help me. Don’t complain that there is no more space for culture in Portugal, be the culture. If you do it, the culture won’t disappear.”

A special edition of the release comes with its own version of the Blackbook, a blank Moleskin. According to Diaphra, “The Blackbook was supposed to be a book and for me it still is; it’s a book about ourselves, for people to write their own stories. It’s something connected to everybody. So it’s blank, and I give them the music and the images.”

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