For most, being a punk rocker is a phase you grow out of. But for San Francisco punk-rock giants NOFX, it's a blueprint for living and growing up.
When punk was exploding all over the mainstream's chest in the mid-'90s, NOFX passed up the move to a major, stuck with indie label Epitaph, and eventually repped its own label, Fat Wreck Chords. To this day, the band outsells many major-label acts, supports family, and lives a life in which its members answer to no one. Spitting a big "I told you so" to those who doubted NOFX's independent route must be tempting, but frontman/bassist Fat Mike doesn't bother. "I don't say it — people know," he says with a tone of well-earned cockiness.
New Times reached Fat Mike in the middle of a Thai food meal in his new Las Vegas home, a spot that reflects his current level of success. "I'm gonna vacation with my daughter here," he says. "It's a super punk house... all the walls are covered with old L.A. punk-rock fliers, and there's posters and a pool table, pinball, videogames... My friends were like, 'Fuck! I wanna stay there!' I thought, 'Yeah, I should rent this out.' It's gonna be pretty cheap, like $2,500 a week or something." In addition to his real estate venture, Fat Mike is also a proprietor at a popular new Brooklyn restaurant, the upscale, locally sourced Thistle Hill Tavern.
Not bad for a guy who decided to avoid the major-label fate that befell punk groups All, Bad Religion, CIV, Jawbreaker, the Muffs, and Less Than Jake — just a few of the bands that either crawled back to their independent home or broke up shortly after signing to the big leagues. Naturally, Mike cites Green Day as the one exception to the rule: "[They] made the right choice for themselves. If they stayed on Lookout, they wouldn't have been that successful."
Having compelling material helps too, and NOFX has long championed the freedom to say and do whatever you want to, however you want to. For example, in "Lori Myers" off of 1994's Punk in Drublic, the protagonist of the song is a lady who boldly proclaims, "The 50K I make this year will go anywhere I please!"
She's a "hooker or stripper," Mike says. "It doesn't matter. What's the difference? What's important is consent. You could do whatever you want with somebody as long as it's consensual — I'm also part of the BDSM world, and I know tons of people that give up lots of rights — but it's consensual. If someone says, 'How can you let a person treat you that way?' Well, it's because I wanted to be treated this way."
As long as NOFX has been around, there have also been umpteen songs about beer bongs, speed, and even ketamine. Although drummer Eric "Smelly" Sandin has been clean and sober for about 20 years, his relationship with the rest of the guys is solid despite their difference in lifestyles.
"[Eric] had the big drug problem when we first started," Mike explains. "For like six years, he was on heroin every day — I wasn't sober then, but I didn't do drugs at all; I just drank a little. So we didn't give him a lot of shit. It's your life. Do what you want; just don't fuck up the band — and he gives us the same respect. Give people shit if they start fucking up their lives. Anybody who knows me well knows I do a lot of drugs. Right now, I just came from a record label meeting. When I'm home and I'm working, I'm sober. When I'm on the road, I'm partying; makes sense, right?"
After a career of NOFX songs about politics and religion, fisting and PCP, 2009's Coaster gave us one of the band's biggest surprises in a deeply sincere song, "My Orphan Year," about Mike losing both of his parents. At last year's SXSW, he performed the song as Cokie the Clown in full clown garb. The set was loaded with sad and disturbing anecdotes that Fat Mike admits were all true. "I wanted to be the anti-comedian; I wanted to get up there and fuck everybody up," he says. "I wanted to be the most depressing clown ever. I did a dress rehearsal at Fat Wreck Chords, and I fucking freaked everybody out... I knew this was gonna work good."
Don't expect clown makeup on Friday, though. Since NOFX admittedly uses the first few nights of tour as practice, instead of practicing before they tour, having five dates prior should make for a tight set. Fat Mike's posttour plans have to do with a new batch of songs he's writing, but not for NOFX. That's one of the few topics he doesn't have much to say about, except that "it could be my favorite work I've ever done."