Fat Mike talks about NOFX and his later-life interest in drugs and bondage

Fat Mike talks about NOFX and his later-life interest in drugs and bondage

Generally speaking, people don’t get wilder as they get older. The ones who spend their teens and 20s partying discover that recovery takes longer and hangovers hit harder the deeper they get into their 30s. That’s also when the responsibilities of adulthood really take hold, making it feel irresponsible to, say, maintain a steady cocaine habit. But “Fat Mike” Burkett, leader of seminal punk band NOFX and founder of indie punk label Fat Wreck Chords, is not like most people. When Burkett started NOFX in 1983, no one would have imagined that such a supremely sloppy, juvenile punk band would become one of the genre’s most enduring and successful groups. By the mid-’90s, NOFX had become one of the biggest punk bands in the world—all without mainstream radio play or the backing of a major label—and Fat Wreck had become a tastemaker, selling millions of records in the process. All of this made Fat Mike wealthy—and a little bored. He and his bandmates were never known as teetotalers, but Burkett took it up a notch, dabbling in drugs at an age when most people slow down or stop. After his marriage ended in 2010, he also became more outspoken about his BDSM lifestyle: This year, he scored a silent fetish film, Rubber Bordello, directed by and starring his girlfriend, Soma Snakeoil. All of these themes turn up on Self-Entitled, NOFX’s 12th studio album and first since 2009’s Coaster. Produced by Bill Stevenson (Descendents, Rise Against, The Lemonheads), it’s the rawest album the band has ever released, though Burkett—always honest—doesn’t necessarily think it’s his best. Just before NOFX started a tour on December 4, he talked with The A.V. Club about the album, reconfiguring Fat Wreck Chords, and getting strapped to a palm tree and beaten while high on DMT.

The A.V. Club: You’ve said you were less prepared for this album than you had ever been.

Fat Mike Burkett: Totally unprepared. One of the best songs on the record I wrote in my head on the train ride from Hollywood to Santa Ana.

AVC: Which song was that?

MB: “Cell Out.” I told our drummer: “Oh, we have another song to record.” And he’s like, “What? But…” So he still had another half-day of recording. But it turned out to be one of the best songs.

AVC: Bill Stevenson is known for being a meticulous guy. It seems like that would clash with the NOFX recording style.

MB: Yeah, but he works with a lot of bands. He gets us. He gave me shit this time because I still had about five songs to sing and I had two or three more days in the studio, and I just kind of wanted a binge. He’s like, “You know, Mike, we’re not done. You don’t need to be celebrating yet.” [Laughs.] And my voice was all bent out of shape because I’d been drinking so much. But I like how it turned out, because everyone was like, “Wow, your voice sounds live on these songs. It sounds like you did a live show.” Because I was all dehydrated from staying up all night.

AVC: Do you still get as much out of writing for NOFX as you have in the past, or has it changed?

MB: Well this album, I just kind of… I was listening to old L.A. punk records, and I just wanted to make an old-school punk album. And the crazy thing is, it’s getting great reviews everywhere, way better than [2006’s] Wolves In Wolves’ Clothing. I was way more proud of that than this one.

AVC: Really?

MB: And we worked way harder [on Wolves In Wolves’ Clothing]. You know, if I listened to them back to back right now, I’d still think Wolves is a much better album. But you know, this one’s just fast, and punchy, and simple, and edgy. And sometimes people are going to like that more.

AVC: Does it bother you that you you’re not as proud of this one?

MB: No, because what I set out to accomplish, I did. But, you know, a year from now if I rated all our records, this one would be in the top eight, probably. [Laughs.]

AVC: Some artists have a really difficult time stopping. They’d work on an album forever if they could. You seem like you don’t have any problems walking away when it’s time. 

MB: Yeah, there’s a couple of phrases here and there that I think could have been better. Usually I have the songs, and they’re done for three or four months, so you can still mess around with them. But I didn’t get to do that this time. This was the first album I can remember where we recorded 18 songs, but I had to finish the lyrics for six of them in the studio. That’s just stupid.

AVC: Has the writing process drifted that way, or have you usually been done before you record?

MB: More or less done. I’m anal that way. I just want to worry about performance when I’m at the studio. But it’s crazy, because probably 90 percent of the bands on Fat Wreck Chords aren’t ready when I get to the studio, and they can afford to fuck around in the studio less than I can. It always amazes me when I see bands writing lyrics in the studio, like, “What have you been doing for two years?” [Laughs.]

AVC: Maybe they think they don’t have to be concerned about time because they’re using the label’s studio.

MB: My old employee, he got kicked out of his house, and I hadn’t been to my studio in months. It’d just kind of been closed down. But I go there one day, and he’s living there. [Laughs.] The guy broke in and was living at my studio. It was a fucking weird situation. I had the cops take him away.

AVC: Wow, the cops had to come?

MB: Yeah. I was like, “What are you doing here?” He wouldn’t answer me, and there was shit taken apart. I was like, “What the fuck is going on here?” And he wouldn’t tell me. So I just called the cops.

AVC: Do you think that because you’re a successful musician, but you’re also known for being a partier, that people try to get away with that kind of thing?

MB: Oh, absolutely. People take advantage of me all the time, and I let them until a certain point.

AVC: Are there any other good examples?

MB: I had a personal assistant in L.A., and there’s drugs that are in my house sometimes, locked up or stashed away. You got to figure that anyone that’s working for you is dipping in, you know? It’s just what people do. “Let’s do some coke or some pills. Let’s take a few here or there.” That’s part of the game. But this one guy—he worked for me for about two years, and he’s a good friend of mine. But then I get home and all the drugs are gone. He goes, “Yeah, I had a birthday here the other day, and so I took all your drugs.” [Laughs.] I went, “You took them all?” And he’s like, “Well, at first I didn’t, but then I went back and got the rest.” [Laughs.] But he said it like, “Oh, no big deal, right? Because I’ve taken them before.” And I was like, “No, you took all of them!” And when someone’s already in debt to you thousands of dollars it’s just like, I can’t. You know, if you had called and asked, I would have given you anything, whatever. The good thing is that he doesn’t work for me anymore, but he had a great gig. 

AVC: The coming back for it is the kicker. If it’s just one momentary lapse in judgment where you just take everything and go…

MB: Well, that’s the thing, just taking it all. And I was actually going to party that night, and now I’ve got to fucking drive 45 minutes to Venice, if I can score anything. So that’s why I keep stuff locked up and hidden away. It wasn’t a good safe, but it was decent. It’s like a little security safe, and he tried a weird key in it and broke it.

AVC: That’s really hardcore.

MB: That’s why he had to cop to it, because there’s no other person that could have done it.

AVC: It seems like operating in this world, you probably attract flakey people.

MB: Yeah, what happens to me is that I have a lot of friends who are out of work. So I end up hiring these people, and there’s a reason they’re out of work. [Laughs.] They’re the sort of people that don’t have a good job, ever. They’re flakey people. They can’t hold a job, so I hire them and expect them to do a good job for me, and it never works out.

AVC: Do you have people like that who guilt trip you into hiring them? 

MB: No, not so much. It’s just a few that end up hanging around. It’s the people you see at bars; it’s people you see at your house. You’re just like, “Oh, yeah. I need this done. I need this room painted and I don’t really want to paint it. Will you paint it?” And then they just start working for you. It’s happened to me so many times. It’s the drunks and the flakes.

AVC: Have you learned to avoid it?

MB: You’d think, but the studio thing just happened last week! The guy just got out of jail. He had to spend like a week in jail. 

AVC: So is there repair work you’re going to have to do to the place?

MB: Yeah, some. It’s just a weird thing. He stole the keys from my house, because he knew no one was in the studio for a while. And then he locked himself out of the studio, and then he had to break the back window to break in. So we couldn’t figure out why the back window was broken when he had the keys, and he was like, “Oh, I locked myself out.” [Laughs.]

AVC: It’s interesting that you came to drugs late in life. Because it seems like by the time you came to them, a lot of people would be having their last hurrah.

MB: Yeah, I tried drugs in my 30s. I went to college, and I started my label. And it was exciting, but things had to get done and I had to be at work every day. I was just fucking busy in my 20s, building what I have. And it was kind of like, “All right, now I’ve got a few million bucks, my band is successful, I’m going to start partying!” [Laughs.] Well [Me First And The Gimme Gimmes, his side project] really pushed it on me, because everyone in the Gimmes was big partiers back then. So they got me to try coke, and I think because I tried drugs so late in life it helped me not become an addict. Because I’ll go—I mean, I won’t go a long time, but I’ll go two or three weeks without partying when I have to do something. When I’ve got shit to take care of. But then I go on tour, and what are you supposed to do on tour? Why be sober on tour? Why play sober? Why do a job sober if you don’t have to? And being a musician is really one of the only jobs that you’re really pushed into performing drunk. People expect it. People expect rock stars to be wasted, and if you’re not it’s a disappointment. If you’re an actor you can’t show up at work wasted, or any kind of the arts. You’re not supposed to show up at work wasted. Maybe Jackson Pollock or something.

AVC: You said that the Gimmes were all big partiers. Have they tapered?

MB: Oh, yeah. All of them.

AVC: But you’re still going strong.

MB: Yeah, everyone else stopped. [Laughs.] Do you see what they did to me?

AVC: Have you gotten wilder as you’ve gotten older?

MB: Totally. Me and my girlfriend have a dungeon in L.A., and we’re building one in San Francisco now. And Motor Studios, my recording studio, is booked like half the year or whatever, but there’s a huge lounge and it doesn’t get used that much, so we’re turning the lounge of the studio into a dungeon. So when bands record there, they’re going to be sitting on funny-shaped furniture in the lounge. [Laughs.] And there’s bunk beds in there. And we’re putting eyebolts all over the bunk beds, so you can get tied to the bunk beds and stuff. So it should be a fun studio. It might actually bring in more bands, you know? But yeah, my lifestyle is getting crazier and crazier as I get older, for sure. But you know, I go to parent-teacher meetings all the time, and I just played in the Waldorf school golf tournament. So that’s why my life is crazier now—it’s because there’s just so many different aspects of it.

AVC: The dungeon in L.A., that was just a studio apartment that you converted?

MB: Yes, it’s awesome. We rent it out, too. There’s a bed in there. So it’s like $350, and you can rent it out for the night. It’s a B&B, bed and breakfast. I mean B and—what is it? A B&D. [Laughs.]

AVC: What do the neighbors think?

MB: I think our neighbors are drug dealers, so I don’t think they’re going to say anything. We’re always smelling some kind of weird drugs next door. I think the guy makes DMT.

AVC: Have you ever tried DMT?

MB: I tried it once. I tried it in the Dominican Republic. I smoked two hits, and it was awesome. It was like 6 in the morning, these clouds were going over our head, and there’s all these beds on the beaches, so we’re just lying on this bed, and it was awesome. It only lasted 20 minutes, but that’s what you want. 

AVC: Did your time perception get skewed? Did it seem like longer?

MB: No, it didn’t seem like a long time. It seemed like 20 minutes. It was great. Then we smoked some more. The second time we smoked it my girlfriend, she tied me to this palm tree and beat the hell out of me. [Laughs.] It was awesome.

AVC: You had a really funny quote in an interview where you were talking about having the drug talk with your daughter, and your advice was going to be, “Wait until you’re in your 30s, after you’ve graduated college and made your first million.” She’s still young, but how much do those kinds of concerns weigh on your mind?

MB: You know what? I haven’t had to deal with it yet. But especially with Soma’s daughter, Sidra, she’s 13. I’m just waiting for the day she asks, “How come it says everywhere that you do drugs? I don’t see you do drugs.” And my answer will be, “Well I don’t do drugs around you, silly.” But I don’t want to have that talk with her.

AVC: But she probably has an idea what her mom does, right?

MB: Yes. She’s an adult filmmaker and a performer and a model.

AVC: When you go to these parent-teacher conferences, how much are they aware of your life? 

MB: We’re not sure. But all it takes is one person to know, and then everybody knows. And we’re pretty public—we’re not too private about what we do. We had some people from school over for dinner. We had some parents over and their kids and our kids, you know, it was like a nice dinner party. And you start talking about stuff. You just can’t hide everything, you know? We think what we do is, I wouldn’t say “normal,” but awesome and healthy, and we think we’re way more adjusted than normal people. I mean, we’re having a way better time. When you start talking about kinky sex or the shit we do, people are always interested, and they all want to do it. They’re just too scared. 

But tomorrow night we’re taking my guitar player and his wife, and we’re going to this thing, it’s a club called Supper Club. It’s a restaurant, a really nice restaurant, and it’s all beds. So you just lounge in bed and they bring you super-nice trays, with like a five-course meal. And you’re just getting wasted and you’re in bed. There’s little shows that happen, and all the waiters are like fucking freak trannies, so it’s a super-cool place, but tomorrow is bondage night. They have that like twice a year, so that’ll be fun. We’re getting tied up in some crazy position and fed dinner. [Laughs.] So you know, this is how I live. 

What’s funny about that restaurant, too, is that we’ve actually done bondage stuff there on regular nights. You know, we just kind of have a habit of doing that—bondage in public places. And people don’t say shit. They don’t know what to say. We’ve done it on airplanes before, and we’ve never been stopped.

AVC: What have you done on airplanes?

MB: My girlfriend has tied me up pretty severely, just in coach, window seat, arms tied to the armrests, and legs tied, and blindfolded, and nipple clamps, and all kinds of shit.

AVC: And they don’t say anything?

MB: No. We’ve done it three different times on planes, and we’ve never had anyone stop us. We have been stopped once when we were making out, which is funny because kissing is frowned upon. [Laughs.]

AVC: Maybe they thought you were a panicky flyer or something.

MB: [Laughs.] Well, you’re not really doing anything against the regulations, I don’t think.

AVC: How did you end up scoring Rubber Bordello?

MB: Well the keyboard player for the Mad Caddies is a friend of mine, and we’d been working on stuff together anyway. My girlfriend made the movie. I was like, “I could make this soundtrack with Dustin,” so he wrote most of the piano parts and I wrote most of the horn parts, and we got a drummer and hired some musicians and did it. We watched scenes of the movie and figured out what song felt right with it and what tempo. And it was something I’d never done before but it was super fun.

AVC: It seems like it’d be pretty intense.

MB: Yeah, it was just fun. When you work with really good musicians, you don’t have to worry about that part. When all the musicians finally saw the movie they were freaking out. They were like, “Holy shit!” [Laughs.]

AVC: Freaking out about the content, or how it all worked together?

MB: The content. [Laughs.] Me and Dustin did all the writing, so once we had the song down we brought musicians in one by one. 

AVC: The scene where Soma and the other woman are pegging the guy and then fisting him…

MB: Yeah, that’s a tough one, right?

AVC: Yeah! How do you brainstorm a score for a fisting scene?

MB: I was having a hard time with that scene. I was like, “Babe, you have to put this in?” I don’t know, but I think it works. I think all the songs work.

AVC: The first two songs on the album, “72 Hookers” and “I Believe In Goddess,” have sexual under- or overtones to them. Do you have any line that you draw personally about what you’ll discuss or put in a song?

MB: You know, I keep getting worse and worse is what I keep doing.

AVC: Keep stepping over the line and drawing new ones to step over?

MB: Yeah, because the more you talk about it and open up, things don’t seem weird anymore. So writing about stuff now it’s like, “Oh, this isn’t weird, right?” And people are like, “Yeah, it’s weird, dude.” “Oh, because I didn’t think it was weird anymore.” [Laughs.] And the song “Secret Society,” it’s funny because most people think it’s like some kind of government song, but it’s all about the BDSM world and the weird things that we do. 

AVC: Are there more autobiographical songs too?

MB: I’m trying to see what songs are on it.

AVC: Like “I’ve Got One Jealous Again, Again.”

MB: Yeah that’s totally, completely autobiographical.

AVC: What about “I, Fatty”?

MB: “I, Fatty” is about Fatty Arbuckle. I’ve read that book, I, Fatty—it’s just such a cool book. His autobiography is just great. But also I made that a little vague, because I figured with “I, Fatty” people would think it’s about me. “Down With The Ship” is kind of about me, but it’s kind of my feelings about Fat Wreck Chords a few years ago. Everything was falling apart, and I just wanted to cash out, and my employees are going to be really bummed at me. But as it turned out, we just figured out a better way to run the business and now we’re doing fine again.

AVC: For a long time, you were selling tons of albums, but you laid off a bunch of people a few years ago, just like a lot of labels have. Were you just sick of doing the label in general? 

MB: Well, it’s really fun again now. We just kind of reinvented ourselves a little bit, and stopped spending lots of money on bands and just getting kind of smaller punk bands. And we opened a record store, which is a part of our warehouse [in San Francisco]. There was a storefront, and so we sell kind of rare records and all our records. But we’re only open on Fridays from 3 to 6, and there’s free beer for everyone. It’s awesome because we get 30 to 80 people I’d say. Every Friday afternoon it just turns into a big party, and we do shitloads of business. I’m usually passing out beers and playing music and stuff. So it’s a totally different retail experience, and it doesn’t cost us shit, and it’s only like three hours a week.

AVC: How did you adjust what you were doing at Fat?

MB: Well we went from 18 people to five people. We shut down all our foreign offices. And it’s just like, you know, bands like the Descendents, who we have to give huge advances to, we just stopped doing that. We’ll still give them a lot of percentage points, but I’m not taking a chance on losing money on bands anymore.