Fat Mike on the Particular Brilliance of NOFX Songs Old and New

NOFX Photo by Jonathan Weiner, courtesy of Fat Wreck Chords

Talking with NOFX’s Fat Mike is like a trip to a therapist’s office where it’s never clear if you’re the therapist or the patient. Over 45 minutes, we volleyed between these roles with the iconic punk band’s front person, listening to stark confessions most would keep to themselves, then hearing the studied logic behind Fat Mike’s motivations. It was a hell of a session that began by asking for a NOFX song of particular brilliance to discuss ahead of the release of the band’s new record, Single Album, which is available today.

Full disclosure, my son’s band released an album last year on Fat Wreck Chords, the label Fat Mike co-founded in 1990. It’s mentioned only out of journalistic decorum and was hardly discussed in our chat because there’s so much to talk about with Fat Mike. From the roles drugs and depression take in creating art to gender language in 2021 to music’s only perfect double album (hint – it’s a classic rock treasure, in his opinion) to the mechanics of snorting cocaine off a person’s genitalia, it seems there’s nothing Fat Mike won’t discuss.

Before we got to his NOFX songs of particular brilliance, we asked about Single Album. The album’s ten tracks have a definite 2020 vibe, so we asked if NOFX was tapping into a global gloom for its latest offering, the band’s 14th full-length album.

“These songs were written in 2019, before COVID, but I wrote them during my first bout with depression. I’m 54 and I’ve never experienced any sort of depression before,” Fat Mike said, adding, “I was doing drugs, drinking and doing blow, like a ritual, just to feel better.

“This is the only record I’ve ever done, (that) was written mostly at three and four in the morning. And, the only record I’ve ever done where I was loaded every day in the studio,” he admitted. “I think it kind of shows with my voice and the lyrics. It’s somber.

“But this whole record was recorded in 2019, it just took us a really long time to put it out because it was originally a double album. There were 23 songs. I played it for a lot of people, a lot of big fans of the band and friends of mine, and the consensus I got was this shouldn’t be a double album, because I wanted a perfect double album, because I don’t think anyone has (one) except for Pink Floyd’s The Wall.”

He said the album was going to be titled Single Album, even with two discs. Saving some of the tracks, combined with a plethora of new songs written during his recent sobriety, has the band planning another album release for October. From this album, the song that’s getting buzz is “Fuck Euphemism,” a brash look at words and how we use them, especially as they relate to gender and sexuality. It’s a particularly brilliant NOFX song for a couple of reasons, according to the songwriter.

“It really kind of flowed out. I think that I’m a great person to speak to this issue of language in today’s world. I came out of the closet with this song pretty hardcore. You don’t get more direct than to say, ‘I did a line off of Scarlett’s $100,000 cunt.’ I mean, that is a shocker right there. It doesn’t get much more personal than that. Who the fuck would publicly admit they did cocaine off a trans woman’s man-made pussy?”

“I was with this domme and I didn’t know she was trans and I kind of started to get an inkling she was,” he offered as background. “And I was like, ‘Do you have an innie or an outie?’ And she laughed and said, ‘Only you would say that to someone.’ So, I said, ‘Well, I wanna check it out.’ It’s kind of weird doing coke off a man-made pussy because there’s no clitoral hood, usually you use that for like a backstop.”

We pause to mention we hadn’t expected tips of this nature in the interview. Fat Mike responded, “Oh yeah, I’ve got tips. I’ve been around,” and noted he has a minor in Human Sexuality from San Francisco State University.

“I’ve been around a lot of transgender people, in fact I live with one in my household,” he continued, “so, I think that I was a good person to bring up this subject and sing it in a song. I do consider myself queer. Heterosexual is not my sexual orientation, even though I’m kind of heterosexual. I think if you did tons of weird, fun shit, you’re not mainstream.”

That perspective perhaps gives Fat Mike some license, which is used to the fullest with lines like “I identify as a grain of saltpeter panarchist, or a poly rubber puppy switch brat slut Dharmasochist.”  Gender-bending? Maybe. But, definitely word-bending.

“I use all those words because fuck euphemism. I’m fucking saying exactly what I am. You know, I am getting some shit, not a lot, but just a little, because the LGBTQ community doesn’t know what to make of it. Someone wrote me and said, ‘Why are you telling us what pronouns to use?’”

Mike responded by saying he’s speaking directly to those terms – or maybe, more appropriately, per is speaking to those terms.

“I don’t know if you catch this in the song but I think ‘per’ is the correct pronoun that people should be using. ‘Per’ for person. ‘I was with per last night.’ ‘Oh, don’t you love per?’ It does the job without being confusing and plural.”

Dubbing himself “a word Smith and Wesson” in the song isn’t just a play on words, it fits his gunslinger attitude on many subjects. He said he hopes “per” will catch on and gives credit in the song to its originator, Doris Lessing, a 20th century novelist known for bucking social and artistic convention, just like Fat Mike.

“She wrote a book about a woman who could see into the future called The Good Terrorist and in the future everyone is known as ‘per,’ and I just thought that was so cool and smart. When I started hearing ‘they and them,’ I thought, ‘Oh, that’s weird, because ‘per’ is perfect.”

Fat Mike’s had reason to contemplate language over the years, particularly how much weight his own words are given — most notably, remarks he made at Punk Rock Bowling about the 2017 Las Vegas shooting. The new album features the track “Fish in a Gun Barrel” about active shooters. He said the song’s origins actually pre-date the Vegas shooting.

“I didn’t want to put out the song because it sounded like I was exploiting the Vegas shooting. And then, after a few years I’m like, ‘Well, fuck it, I’m not gonna never release this song, I have to put it out.' I was just singing about shooters and you never know who they’re going to be. Vegas was just another shooting, a gnarly one, the most gnarly.

“And then we get in trouble for saying something just off the cuff when people should be outraged that you can buy a gun that does that kind of carnage,” he continued. “That’s what’s outrageous, not me saying ‘At least it was country fans and not punk rock fans.’ It’s just such a stupid thing to say, who cares? It was the wrong thing to say at the wrong place at the wrong time, but it’s so innocuous. ‘Ooh, did I hurt your feelings? Sorry.’ What should hurt your feelings is that guns are legal, we’re the only country in the world where you could buy guns like that.”

Another track from the new album is “Linewleum.” The song reflects on NOFX’s classic “Linoleum,” one of punk’s most covered songs. The band released companion videos showing bands from across the globe taking a stab at the song. The original is from 1994’s Punk in Drublic, NOFX's bestselling album and the namesake for its music and craft beer festival. Bands everywhere have confirmed the particular brilliance of “Linoleum,” so Fat Mike considered its appeal for us.

“It’s not a grandiose song. It’s about a small man and it’s a small song that has so much energy to it. There’s no chorus, the lyrics don’t rhyme. It’s like every new line is kind of a surprise and it’s a simple chord progression,” he said. “As I wrote it, I was trying to play an A minor and my hand, I didn’t finger it right and I played it A major. I’m like, ‘Holy shit, that sounds cool.’ It’s a mistake and the first time you hear it, it sounds like a mistake.

“So, when I wrote ‘Linewleum,’ I like to do things that haven’t been done, and I don’t think anyone wrote a song about retiring a song, but also I changed the chord progression and the melody and the first time that people hear ‘Linewleum,’ it freaks them out. ‘Cause you’re like, ‘What the fuck just happened? The lyrics changed and the melody changed. That’s not fair. You’re fucking with my brain now.’ Damn, I love that.”

Fat Mike’s enjoying a wellspring of creativity since going sober late last year. The result so far is 40 new songs and 20 shed pounds. Sobriety is the subject of “Birmingham,” also on the new album, but he said the song isn’t really about doing less drugs, it’s about doing more of everything. Because that’s what Fat Mike does. More fun than anyone and more work than anyone. In the last couple of years alone, that work’s included releasing a covers split with Frank Turner, doing special event livestreams from his home and producing albums for The Bombpops, Bad Cop/Bad Cop, Get Dead, Mad Caddies, Days N Daze and, of course, NOFX.

“That’s really so amazing for me, to know that my label is still putting out relevant music. Lyrically and musically interesting records and different records that people are getting behind. It’s very rewarding for me after 30 years to have a label that’s still relevant.”

click to enlarge Fat Mike (far left) said NOFX is planning two album releases for 2021 - PHOTO BY JONATHAN WEINER, COURTESY OF FAT WRECK CHORDS
Fat Mike (far left) said NOFX is planning two album releases for 2021
Photo by Jonathan Weiner, courtesy of Fat Wreck Chords

Amidst these new and upcoming projects, Fat Mike is hoping to reveal some good news soon about a long-gestating one.

“I have a musical that I’ve been working on for 12 years, which has been like the heartache of my life. It’s called Home Street Home. I think it’s my best work, an amazing script and an amazing story about street kids,” he said.

The show was slated for a four month run at L.A.'s Garry Marshall Theatre last year but was sidelined by COVID. He’s discussing turning it into a TV series with producers. For anyone interested in the music, it’s online, a dozen songs, some sung by Darla Burkett, his teenaged daughter.

“My daughter sings a bunch of the songs and she’s really good,” he said, sounding every bit the proud father. “She sings something called ‘The First Time,’ she sang it when she was 14, she fucking killed it.”

Fat Mike is opinionated and verbose and that combination makes one either as insightful as a therapist or as anxious as one’s patient. We never fix on a single role in the discussion but do return to the notion of words and their impact. Is it surprising his are so taken to heart or, more to the point, are so often criticized? Not at all, Fat Mike said. It comes with the territory.

“Nobody wants to take a stand these days because it’s hard enough to make a living in the music industry, so why take a chance on losing fans? But, that’s what I’ve always done. I’ve always sang songs to piss people off because I’m kind of a punk lifer and that’s what we do. It just seems you have to be more careful now. Clearly, we almost had our careers ruined from what we said in Las Vegas a few years ago.

“It doesn’t surprise me because we’re in the cancel culture now. Things you say get spread around so fast. If nasty opinions start to outnumber the good opinions, then you’re fucked. It’s just how it is. And still, I won’t not say what I want to say because it’s just fun for me.”
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.