Mike and Erin
By Peter Atkinson
Original Interview: http://www.meanstreet.biz/article.php?article_id=96&issue_id=36 (broken link)
Sometimes the simpler the plan, the better the outcome.
And you can’t get a much simpler plan than what NOFX’s Fat Mike had in mind for his new record label, Fat Wreck Chords, back in the day.
"I wanted to put out cool punk records," he recalled in an e-mail interview.
And with that, Fat was born in Mike’s San Francisco apartment in 1990. From the start, it was business by anything but the book. With no employees to turn to, Mike would drop everything in his wife Erin’s lap when he’d leave to tour with NOFX.
"I was working full time at a public relations firm," said Erin, now head of Fat’s operations, in a separate interview. "I would work all day, and then come home to stuff envelopes, send out mail orders and fill distributor orders."
"After a few months of working both jobs, I decided that it really sucked, so I quit my day job. It actually wasn’t the smartest idea, because the label wasn’t making any money, NOFX was barely making money and we could easily have gone broke. We got lucky."
Fat Wreck Chords turns lucky 13 in 2003. To fete the anniversary of its first release, a 1990 re-pressing of NOFX’s "The PMRC Can Suck on This" single, NOFX will headline a wing-ding Jan. 25 in San Francisco featuring Fat’s first signees, Lagwagon, No Use For A Name and Canada’s Propagandhi.
After more than 100 releases from some 40 bands, Fat stands as one of the most respected, influential independent labels in any genre of music — punk or otherwise — succeeding almost in spite of itself, in true punk fashion.
The label moved out of Mike’s apartment into genuine office space years ago. It now has a staff of 15, an international roster of bands, two diverse offshoot labels (Honest Don’s and, for women, Pink & Black) and a firmer grasp of all that goes into running a worldwide company.
"After 13 years, I think we finally know what we are doing," Erin said.
Though it has been overshadowed by Epitaph Records — which helped launch the mid-’90s punk explosion with The Offspring’s Smash and had gold-record successes with Rancid and, ironically, NOFX — Fat has left an indelible stamp on the music business, perhaps more for how it does business than how much business it does.
"We don’t play by the same rules," said Erin. "We just try to do the best we can to make sure our bands are happy and their records are selling. We try to operate more like a family, rather than a business."
"It’s tough these days to compete with some other labels that have financial backing, or are owned by majors, because they use dirty marketing tactics to sell records. They actually sell records at a loss just to bump up the Soundscan numbers, creating a buzz for the band, using it to get press and better tours. Since we don’t have financial backing, we actually do need to sell records for a profit in order to stay in business."
Sales may be modest by industry standards — a big seller is a couple hundred thousand copies — but Fat’s been able to hang right in there. Its bands can make a living — albeit, again, a modest one — playing music despite industry ups and downs, since Fat remains rooted in the skater subculture that is punk’s lifeblood, as evidenced by its presence on each summer’s Warped Tour.
"I think the secret is that we’ve never screwed anybody over," adds Fat Mike. "Out of the 40 or so bands that have been on the label, we’ve never had a band leave cuz they weren’t happy.
"Lately, we’ve been signing a lot of bands that left other labels (Sick Of It All, Less Than Jake). We may not sell millions of records like majors, but we treat our bands like family, not products. We have a huge punk rock family and that’s what I consider success."
Together, California-based punk rockers Lagwagon, No Use For A Name and Strung Out have issued more than a dozen albums on Fat. Despite overtures from, or curiosity about, other labels, they’ve stuck with Fat since signing on — as has Propagandhi.
"It’s been great," said NUFAN frontman Tony Sly. "They don’t make us do anything we don’t want to do and really respect our opinion. We really feel at home on this label. To me, everyone at Fat is a friend. I probably spend more [time] drinking with them than anything."
"They work really hard for the bands that they have and they believe in all of them," offers Lagwagon’s Joey Cape. "It’s a really pure form of business and we feel really, really fortunate to have been part of it."
"There’s a lot of bands that would like to be on Fat," adds Strung Out drummer Jordan Burns. "It’s a good place to be and it’s still one of the strongest forces in punk rock music."
The commercial climate today is a hell of a lot different than it was in 1990. Punk bands can score big label deals, get splattered all over radio and MTV and sell millions right out of the gate. Given that, are young punk bands willing to sign with an indie like Fat and work their way up from the underground?
"I’ve noticed that most bands nowadays want to take the quick road, but there are still plenty of bands that don’t," said Mike. "It comes down to how long you wanna be in a band for. It seems that if you wanna get big fast and make a quick buck, you should go to a major. If you want a longer career, I would go indie."
And just how healthy is punk rock in the new millennium?
"I would say that punk rock has non-terminal cancer," Mike offers. "It’s got a lot of fucked up growths on it, but it’s not gonna die from it. There are plenty of seedy, tiny clubs in bad neighborhoods where shitty bands play for three bucks in front of 20 people. Punk rock is still alive."
Given that punk’s version of Ozzy and Sharon run things, it’s no wonder that "family" comes up a lot when people speak about Fat. Mike and Erin marked their 10th wedding anniversary last September, so business and marriage have been able to co-exist. But that’s not to say it hasn’t been rocky.
"I was afraid that we wouldn’t be able to pay our rent," said Erin of Fat’s early days. "Our marriage is more important than our business, so I knew that if work was getting in the way of our relationship, we would have to figure out how to work together, or one of us would have to quit."
Their relationship almost never got off the ground.
"Mike and I met in college," Erin recalls. "I needed a ride to Santa Barbara to visit a friend, and the rest of his band lived there at the time. I saw a van with “NOFX” spray painted on the side, so I left a note on the windshield asking him for a ride in exchange for gas money. He called that week, and I rode down with him and his girlfriend."
"It sucked. They fought the entire trip, and blasted RKL so loud that I needed earplugs. He also ripped me off for gas money. After that, we became friends."
Though he’s often the class clown of punk with NOFX and Me First & The Gimme Gimmes, Fat Mike’s latest endeavor is a bit of old-fashioned punk rock activism.
Just prior to the recent mid-term election, Mike launched Punkvoter.com. The fiercely liberal website is aimed at raising awareness and serving as a sounding board against the Republican’s conservative agenda, in general, and President Bush in particular.
A "Rock Against Bush" compilation and tour are planned before the 2004 election, and Mike is hoping to get filmmaker/agitator Michael Moore involved in Punkvoter. But will it all resonate with the kids who seem more concerned with what’s happening on "The Osbournes?"
"Kids don’t care. That’s why I am trying to get them to care," Mike said. "When things in this country start to really suck, when kids are scared to go out ’cause of snipers and bombings or when there’s no jobs in this country cuz everything’s made somewhere else, then they’ll care. Then it’ll be too late."
"Hopefully kids will support the tour and go to the voting booths. Next election is gonna be a different story."
Once the bands have finished playing and the confetti, spilled beer and puke is cleaned up after Fat’s 13th birthday bash, what comes next? Well, an ass-load of new releases, for one thing.
"New Lagwagon, new Anti Flag, new Gimme Gimmes, new Mad Caddies, and we got a bunch of new bands such as The Fight, None More Black and Irish Car Bomb too," Mike offers. "It’s a real busy year."
And after more than a decade of working with Epitaph, NOFX will be releasing its new album, Our Second Best Record, on Fat this spring.
"We stuck with Epitaph for so long cuz they were a great label and always treated us great," Mike said. "The reason we’re going to Fat is because after all these years, I want my band to be on my label. It should be pretty cool."
Fat Wreck Chords Band Profiles
Joey Cape: It all came down to Mike saying, "Hey, I like your band, let’s put a record out." We were pretty much a NOFX knockoff, but from there we had the time to get set up, evolve and develop our own personality.
Joey Cape: Yeah, I ran it for five years. I’m pretty much ending it, though. My partner wanted to go to school, and I don’t want to look for another partner. There’s a lot of great things about it — the music, the bands — but the business end of it is not really my thing.
Joey Cape: We finished the vocals yesterday, some overdubs and mixing are left. We’re pretty confident in this record, which is cool because we had a lot of insecurities about it. We hadn’t done a new record in a long time and every time we’d do some work, we’d find a reason to think it sucked. But we kept at it and this record really doesn’t suck.
No Use For A Name
Tony Sly: We were on New Red Archives Records and really didn’t feel like we belonged there anymore. Mike came to the studio while we were recording "Don’t Miss The Train." He didn’t court us or anything, but he always had Bad Religion records like three months before they came out and would take us to Fresh Choice to eat lunch. We thought he was cool.
Tony Sly: They don’t rip us off, they market us, they support us, they have parties and they have a softball team. NRA didn’t.
Tony Sly: Yeah, there was Atlantic, Reprise, Hollywood Records and a couple more I can’t remember. They bought us hotel rooms, dinner and all that crap. One of those A&R guys was so cheesy though, he said things like, "This pizza is on Atlantic, bros." ... A Dominos pizza ... Thanks a lot.
Tony Sly: They buy us Round Table pizza.
On the web: http://www.nouse4aname.com
Jordan Burns: Our old bass player, Jim Cherry, who passed away a little while ago, made friends with Mike. Jim kept sending him tapes and bugging him and finally he was gonna put out a 7", but after he heard the guys more and more he decided to put out a full-length album.
Jordan Burns: In the beginning, Fat Wreck was bigger than all of the bands. If you put the Fat logo on your flyer, people would come and see you because of that.
Jordan Burns: No. I was getting on Mike about it, "Hey, how did we get left out? We were one of the first four Fat bands." I didn’t think he should count NOFX. But then he asked me, "Would you consider Bad Religion the first Epitaph band?" I couldn’t really argue with that. We’re playing in Vegas that night anyway with Bad Religion, which is kind of ironic.
On the web: http://www.strungout.com
Q&A With Fat Mike
Do you have anything to do with Fat’s operations, or are you just the guy who signs the bands?
Fat Mike: I also do stuff like feed the turtle, have lunch with people, listen to stuff, and I always answer many daily questions with, "sure."
Fat Mike: I just gotta like them. Lord knows record sales don’t matter, cuz some of our bands don’t sell shit. I’m definitely more concerned with good music than record sales.
Fat Mike: Somebody gets me lunch everyday.
Fat Mike: Telling a band that their new record kinda sucks.
Fat Mike: Always remember that relationships you make are more important than the money you make.