Ten years ago, word on the streets had it that guitar bands were done. Dead and buried, they said. The future is EDM, hip-hop, moustachioed guys in big hats. Fat chance.
Fat Wreck Chords has lived through the highs, the lows and, more than a quarter century later, it’s still punching out the heavy stuff. The San Francisco-based punk label is independently owned and operated by its co-founders, Fat Mike (aka NOFX singer Michael Burkett) and his then girlfriend Erin Kelly-Burkett (the pair got married, divorced and are said to get along just great).
With Fat Wreck, it’s never been about chasing hits. It’s about family and a steady flow of music with muscles, with releases from the likes of Download Festival headliners NOFX, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Lagwagon and Australia’s own Frenzal Rhomb.
In almost a quarter century, Fat Wreck has never had a Gold or Platinum record, a fact the label wears with some pride. Its team even took on the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), just to clarify they’re not good buddies. Fat Wreck oozes punk.
TIO caught up with Vanessa Burt, the Canadian-born, New Jersey-based Head of Publicity and Marketing for Fat Wreck Chords, ahead of her first visit to Australia for the Sept. 4-7 Bigsound summit. Lagwagon frontman Joey Cape and Kelly-Burkett are signed on as keynote speakers at this year’s conference, which will wrap with a Fat Wreck closing party. Read on.
Fat Wreck has been in business since 1991. What’s the secret?
It really has to be Fat Mike and Erin. Not only do they treat their band members as family members, but they treat us the same way. The success is an extension to that.
There aren’t many companies that go above and beyond to support the people working for them. The fan base is there. But Mike has an impeccable ear, and, especially in the earlier days on tour with NOFX, found himself in the right place at the right time.
Erin also does an amazing job picking the bands. I’ve been with them over 22 years. It’s a family. All of us, we’re people who were attracted to punk rock music from the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was different then, people didn’t have tattoos unless you were an outlier. So if you’re adopting that lifestyle you’re picking your family.
Fat Wreck Chords is very much that way. I’ve been with them as long as I have because they’ve been through my highs and my lows, they’re supportive, they don’t judge me, they allow me to be my creative self in whatever form I want to be.
I started my own PR company in the early 2000s because I wanted to work different types of music. They supported it, they weren’t threatened by it. They didn’t try claim ownership. They want you to be the best version of yourself. That’s why all their (staff) have been there a really long time. And most of the bands have been there since the beginning.
Your label operates on one album deals. I guess that motivates both parties.
That’s right. There’s been a couple of occasions where we’ve done more than one (in the) deal, but that’s always the offer, the first one (album). Because we want to make sure there’s a fit for both, we don’t want to keep somebody on the label who doesn’t want to be. That’s our whole ethos. It’s all connected.
We’ve had bands who’ve left, like Teenage Bottlerocket, they were on Red Scare Industries, then Toby (Jeg) who was an employee for many years before he branched off with Red Scare, TBR went on there, then came out on Fat, then went to Rise Records, then came back to Fat.
That’s also true of Less Than Jake. They did some releases, came back to us and now they’re with Pure Noise. Also face to face. There are a lot of bands who’ve come and gone. No hard feelings. We’re always happy to have bands come back.
America is dominated by hip-hop, and pop. In the U.K. there was a time when tastemakers were saying guitar bands are finished.
For us, punk has never been a popular genre. When you talk to Fat Mike he’s like, “the ‘90s were a fluke. We’re right back to where we’ve always been.” People say that, it’s fine.
I don’t think they were lifers anyway. I don’t consider that genre dead. It’s robust. It’s probably most popular, more true to what it was in the earlier days because, you go to cities and there are still people putting on house shows, putting on basement shows, using alternative spaces to create music and art. Fat Mike created that Punk In Drublic festival, and when they did camping, they sold 15,000 tickets in the first day. They were all punk bands.
Let’s talk politics and music. The artist community largely despises what’s going on in the White House. Are your bands all fired up?
This time in the United States is unprecedented. It’s a heartbreaking time to live here. Every day you watch the news, wincing.
There are a lot of things he does which are disgusting, but right now where most people are focusing on is the fact the government hasn’t reunited the children with the parents they’ve forcibly separated. That is so harrowing and disgusting.
People are getting involved politically because they realise they were asleep for too long. There are a lot of bands that give away their sales to Bandcamp for a week in order to donate to someone that’s helping. You don’t need to be a punk band to feel that outrage, you just need to be a human.
We just had a conversation about a new NOFX record. Mike was like, “well I’m not going to write a happy record because I’m not happy right now. Like what’s going on politically, it’s going to be a political record, even more so than my last.” That’s how Mike writes, what’s going on in his life.
You’ve shunned being a member of the RIAA. That’s a real punk move.
Oh my god, that was such a fight. They kept putting our name on (the members list), over and over again. We had to get a lawyer involved. It was a mess. It took years (to clean up). We were always flummoxed about it. It was really bizarre.