Twenty-five years ago, a young couple named Mike and Erin Burkett decided to start self-releasing punk rock records. Mike was fronting a little underground band named NOFX and, fresh out of college, Erin was working in PR. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the label would go on to be the epicenter of the pop-punk boom of the late 1990s, and put the Bay Area on the map as having one of the best scenes in the world. As the label celebrates this incredible milestone, and the Fat Wreck Chords anniversary tour winds its way across the country — landing at Thee Parkside on August 22 and 23 — we caught up with label co-founder, owner and manager, Erin Burkett, to talk about the last quarter century of Fat Wreck Chords.
Tell us a little about the 25th Anniversary tour…
NOFX was talking about the possibility of doing some shows with Rise Against and adding some other FAT bands, and then we realized it was FAT’s 25-year anniversary, so it just seemed natural to try to put together an all FAT bill. I’m stoked on the entire tour, but am most excited about the San Francisco weekend. Being able to see Lagwagon, Propagandhi, members of No Use For a Name, Good Riddance, and Strung Out all in one weekend is obviously special. Those bands were our first signings (other than NOFX) and we wouldn’t be who we are without them.
[jump] How was the idea for Fat Wreck Chords first born?
It’s funny, because this question presumes that FAT was planned or pre-conceived in some way, which it wasn’t. Mike and I were both in college at the time, and we just thought starting a label would be a fun hobby. We wanted a vehicle to put out NOFX records and having come from the DIY school of punk rock, we thought we could easily do it ourselves.
So this started as a home operation?
FAT was very much a home operation. In the beginning, FAT HQ was in the kitchen of our one-bedroom apartment in the Mission. When we put out our first NOFX 7-inch, we had a big party at our house and invited all our friends over to hand-draw each individual label with colored markers. I worked at a high-tech public relations firm during the day, and filled orders at night and on the weekends. Our entire kitchen was covered in records and cardboard boxes.
What were the very first releases?
Our first releases were NOFX [EPs] The PMRC Can Suck On This and The Longest Line. Given our relative success with NOFX, we figured we could put out other bands as well, and Lagwagon Duh was our guinea pig. No Use For A Name and Propagandhi were signed almost concurrently, and we followed those releases up with Good Riddance and Strung Out in 1994.
As the label got bigger, how did you find the right people to work there?
The majority of our employees started out as interns. They were fans of the label, or NOFX, or at least punk rock in general, and volunteered their time just to be part of the community. Eventually, as the label grew, we hired most of our interns. As a result, we have a team of people that are all personally invested in the success of the label, because they are fans of the music. We have been very lucky.
What are your tasks, day-to-day, when it comes to running the label?
I get asked this question a lot, and I’m fairly certain I answer it differently every time. I think that’s because I do a little bit of everything. For the most part, I oversee the daily operations of the business. I am part band liaison, part distributor liaison, part marketing liaison, and part employee liaison. I handle all the advanced finances and oversee the band royalties. I manage licensing and any legal matters. I am the go-to when my employees need a partner’s advice.
How did Fat Wreck’s exclusive use of one-album contracts come to be?
I think FAT is unique because we understand the business from both the band side and the label side. If you really think about it, a one-record deal just makes sense. We have a personal relationship with all of our bands, and we want them to be successful — not just from a label perspective, but from a personal perspective. These bands are our friends and our family and we want what is best for them. If FAT isn’t it, then of course that makes us sad, but they should be able to move on. We want our bands to put out their music on FAT because they want to, not because they have to.
The downtown SF office you had in the late-'90s seemed like a ridiculously fun place to work…
I don’t think we’ve ever kept it all business at FAT. I have nothing but awesome memories of that first location at 200 Folsom Street. Those were the early years of FAT, and filled with so many firsts. That office was comprised of “before they were stars”: Spike [Me First and The Gimme Gimmes frontman] singing while shipping boxes in our warehouse, Chicken [bass, vocals, Dead To Me] playing tricks on [FAT mascot] Floyd in the mailroom, and Jason [Hall, Western Addiction frontman] trying to keep things punk while navigating his way through contemporary radio. Our bands would come in and we would eat burritos on the zebra carpet.
When pop-punk was at its most popular, how many demo tapes were you receiving per week?
I don’t think I could assign a number to it, but if I had to guess, I’d say a buttload. We had demo tapes coming from everywhere. They were coming to our house, to our office, from other band members, handed to me at shows, and thrown on stage at Mike. We definitely signed a few bands from demo tapes, but they were hand delivered to us from friends. Mad Caddies, for example, was given to us on a tape by [Lagwagon frontman] Joey Cape.
The way people access, share, and buy music now is completely different to how things were when the label started. How has Fat adjusted and adapted to this new environment?
It’s a constant battle to keep current in the music industry. Part of our struggle has been an unwillingness to adjust our business model (as much as we have one) to stay relevant. We have seen some of our contemporaries branch out into other genres of music, but that’s just not our scene. We love punk, and only punk. I think in that respect we’ve been lucky because punk fans are very loyal. They find a band they love, and they stick with them. They tend to like their label mates, their touring partners, and their friends. Even during the digital revolution when consumers seemed to feel that music should be free, a majority of our fans stuck by our bands, because they felt a personal investment in them. So although we’ve had to make adjustments along the way, we’ve been able to stay true to our roots.
FAT did some pretty serious downsizing a few years ago, where the staff got smaller and fans got worried. What tough decisions were made during that time?
The mid- to late-'90s were very generous to FAT and punk in general. I like to call them our glory days. We experienced a great deal of success and growth in a short period of time, and we expanded accordingly. But like everything, the music industry has a cycle, and during the downswing, we needed to make some changes. In retrospect, I can see why fans might have worried, but to be honest, we’ve been through a few of those periods, and we always come out on top. I’m sure fans were worried when Mike and I divorced as well, yet the last year has been one of our best ever, and I see no signs of us slowing down.
Whose idea was it to open the record store, now attached to the warehouse?
I have to give full credit to Mike on that one. He had the idea, and to be honest, none of us really thought it would work. I was just worried that no one would come. But to be fair, I always have that worry about everything! It’s been a great addition to our new office space and has really helped us bond with our local punk community. The added bonus of having our bands play in our warehouse space whenever they are on tour or passing through San Francisco has been epic. I mean, who wouldn’t want to listen to awesome live punk and drink beer for free?
What are your favorite FAT bands of all time?
It’s no secret that Lagwagon is my favorite band. Up until recently, Hoss was my favorite record of all time; however, it has now been replaced by 2014’s Hang. I truly am a huge fan of all the music we put out at FAT. After all, if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t release it. Honestly, I could go on and on… almost all my favorite bands are FAT bands.
Which release has sold most, in the history of the label?
NOFX, I Heard They Suck Live.
Of all the bands signed to Fat over the years, which bands had the biggest personalities?
We have band members that are alcoholics, drug addicts, vegans, straight edge, lesbians, gays, transgender, homebodies, social butterflies, anarchists, pacifists, and masochists — sometimes all in the same band. I love a dichotomy, when the person on stage seems totally different than the person in your living room; when Jason Hall opens his mouth on stage and screams hardcore obscenities at you but says “gosh darn it” and “fudge” in person. Or when [Good Riddance vocalist] Russ Rankin makes eye contact with you on stage singing about political reform, but runs off stage after the show and looks uncomfortably at his feet when you pay him a compliment. Or when any of the Intruders blush because they realize they just woke up next to your daughter’s room and their poster is on the wall and a 10-year-old knows their secret identities. I love that.
Looking back, what has been your favorite period for the FAT family?
The first decade was pretty magical. I grew up running this label and the friendships that I formed in those early days have lasted me a lifetime. My most treasured memories are from those early days when Mike and I really had no idea what we were doing and yet were able to create this amazing family together. I really can’t believe my baby is 25 years old.