Media Hijackers

NOFX plays with punk politics

Orlando, March 1993, some forgotten dive bar. Standing beside a small, sticker-laden Toyota are four fanzine-peddling teenagers from Palm Beach County. The reason for their three-hour sojourn: to get an interview with the evening's headliner, NOFX, the clown princes of punk rock. At the time, Orlando was as far south as the L.A.-based band would go. But for the young 'zinesters, including yours truly, it was worth the trip. Not only did we get to speak with the band but it was a laid-back, joke-filled discussion about music, the finer points (or lack thereof) of straight-edge, and the dangers of getting your chain wallet snagged on things. In a word: The band was accessible.

Fast-forward to 1994. Punk lands on the shoulders of mainstream culture like a well-hocked loogie. Green Day hits it big, the Offspring follows suit, and the Warped Tour begins its reign of subcultural supremacy. Any band linked to the phenomenon reaps big benefits. NOFX is no exception. For a group accustomed to coverage in underground 'zines like MaximumRocknRoll, the surge of international press seemed strange. Why would publications that never gave two shits about NOFX suddenly request an interview? Could their motives be profit-driven? Um, yeah. That's why "Fat" Mike Burkett, NOFX's serious yet self-effacing frontman, pretty much refused to talk to the press.

Talk about a turnaround.

These men are serious: Erik Sandlin (left), Fat Mike, Eric Melvin, and Aaron "El Hefe" Abeyta
These men are serious: Erik Sandlin (left), Fat Mike, Eric Melvin, and Aaron "El Hefe" Abeyta

These days, getting an interview with Burkett is a matter of catching him in the right mood. Lest you think he's the pompous, "misunderstood artist" type à la Billy Corgan, just remember — Burkett's the guy responsible for songs like "Hot Dog in a Hallway" and "My Vagina."

"Once in Sweden, some photographer asked for some band shots and an interview, and we explained we don't do interviews," Burkett tells New Times via e-mail. "We said sorry, and we were very nice about it. So he took some photos while we weren't looking and made up his own interview that really made us look like assholes. And it was put in the biggest full-color teenie-bopper magazine in Sweden. One of the memorable quotes was, 'We hate our fans. '"

Fake interview or not, being featured in a Swedish rag probably wasn't something Burkett foresaw when NOFX formed in 1983. Nowadays, signing with Epitaph Records is considered striking gold for a young punk band. But when NOFX hooked up with the label in 1989, record-buying fans were far fewer in number. Five years and five NOFX albums later, the skate rats started multiplying like gremlins. Suddenly, the band's merch booth was the place where kids went to spend that allowance money.

"Our popularity got a boost in '94 when Green Day and the Offspring got big," Burkett says. "That was before the Warped Tour, and ever since then, we've been getting less and less popular. [But we're] going down in style, though."

It's their style that makes NOFX more engaging than the peaches-and-cream punk acts that sing about girls, or humorless, politics-first bands that merely preach to the converted (war is, like, bad). Hell, if there's anything that separates NOFX from the punk establishment, it's the band's ability to reach out to the unconverted. While bashing Bush is cakewalk, it takes some real cojones to confront the people whose money puts food in your belly. But it's something NOFX has always done, from skewering the peace punks of the late '80s to the apolitical PlayStation junkies of today.

Example: Back in 2003, in Bush's post-9/11 America, Burkett and company knew the stakes had been raised — it was time to give their fans a good kick in the ass. Indeed, NOFX took great pains to ensure that its music would be more than another skate video soundtrack. The result was a three-pronged pre-election attack on the Bush administration: a new album, War on Errorism, the Rock Against Bush Tour (also a CD and DVD), and the massive voter registration campaign, Punkvoter.com.

Of course, getting the message across to the masses means using the mass media. Next stop, Newsweek.

"We definitely used the mainstream press to advance our political goals," Burkett says. "We hadn't done interviews for eight years or so. So it was really easy to get into all the big mags."

But no amount of print coverage compares to the power of live television. If the point is to find new recruits, there's no better recruitment tool than the boob tube. Risking potential harassment from Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog (you know, the sock puppet that ticked off Eminem), NOFX braved the stage for a performance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. The band ran through a fiery version of its political call-to-arms tune "Franco Un-American" with some surprising lyrical censorship.

"Conan was pretty cool, except they bleeped out some of the lyrics that I previously cleared with them," Burkett says. "I sang, 'Bush likes Dick/But he hates homosexuals.' Before the show, they said it was OK. But when it aired, they bleeped it. They also bleeped 'From de-hoofed horses' for some reason."

Fortunately for Burkett, network heads are less likely to put the muzzle on a live interview — even when the interviewer is a bomb-happy blowhard like Dennis Miller, the comedy world's answer to Bill O'Reilly.

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