Get “Fat,” build your empire: Michael Burkett's punk legacy

Despite going by the nickname Fat Mike for most of his adult life, Michael Burkett's most prominent trait isn't the fact that he's overweight. The bathroom scale is actually a pretty petty concern when you consider that the 42-year-old is the frontman for the punk institution NOFX and the owner of the highly successful Bay Area record label Fat Wreck Chords.

NOFX came up in Berkeley in the early '80s. By the '90s, the band had helped construct a whole new subgenre of punk rock that took influence from iconoclasts like the Germs and Misfits, but introduced a melodic and technical edge to the formula. “We haven't followed the times or the trends, and those are the kinds of bands that stick around,” Burkett explains. Although NOFX initially built its career on anti-politically-correct lyrics and imagery (the group's 1992 breakthrough album was titled White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean), the band has grown up in recent years. Specifically, Burkett's politics have evolved, as evidenced by his spearheading the 2004 Punkvoter campaign in an attempt to prevent George W. Bush's re-election.

While NOFX — which releases its eleventh studio album in April and a DVD of its Fuse reality series, NOFX: Backstage Passport, in March — never had the same commercial success as peers like the Offspring and Bad Religion, this was largely by design. The group spoke out against MTV, and rarely gave interviews for a majority of its career. Ultimately, Burkett thinks this approach helped maintain the group's longevity and credibility.

NOFX also took the subversive route with its fans, relentlessly insulting the crowd during performances, an action which often prompted projectiles — and sometimes saliva — to be hurled toward the musicians. Burkett claims that this dysfunctional dynamic ironically helped turn the casual listener into a loyalist. “When you tell a crowd a bunch of bullshit about how much you love them, they can instantly see through that,” he says. “People like us because we're real.” This week, NOFX will play four shows in San Francisco to celebrate its 25th anniversary, hitting every era of its recorded output and even bringing back the original guitarists who played on the band's early releases.

Fat Wreck Chords is another important bit of Burkett's legacy. He started the label in 1990 and has released albums by Rise Against and Against Me!, operating his business the same way he does his band. “Some punk labels will sign whatever they think will sell, and that's not something that interests me,” he says. In that spirit, Fat Wreck Chords quickly established itself as one of the more artist-friendly labels around, signing bands to one-album deals and taking younger acts like Smoke Or Fire on the road with more established labelmates.

When Burkett is asked whether he thinks the scene he grew up in has become stagnant over the past decade, the punk lifer recounts a recent experience that showed his days of being jaded are still years away. He watched Blake Schwarzenbach's (Jawbreaker, Jets to Brazil) new band Thorns of Life perform at the Hemlock for a hundred-strong crowd that also included Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong. “I wouldn't say it was a dangerous show, but it was a cool punk show,” Burkett says, adding that the fact that the club was at capacity was a virtue instead of an inconvenience.

Ultimately, despite punk rock's numerous waves of mainstream popularity and commercialization, Burkett believes there will always be a thriving underground scene lurking below the radar. “If you're looking at major venues or listening to what's on the radio then, yeah, punk rock is stupid and too safe — but if you go to shady bars in a big city you see tons of cool bands,” he says. “It's still there. You just have to find it.”

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