Published Feb 01, 2000In the modern punk rock lexicon, there are a few generally accepted terms used to define the genre's wide array of sounds and scenes. Hardcore (raging, often politically-charged and metallic), and its attendant "core" suffix combinations; there's emo (swirling guitars, throbbing beats and deeply reflective lyrics); there's OC (Orange County, melodic punk); Oi! (influenced by the old-school British scene).
And then there's the "Fat" sound - a term that has become synonymous with fast, melodic, aggressive, punchy and occasionally humorous punk rawk. It's one of the most adored and reviled of all punk's sub genres, but it's also one of the few sounds named for a record label (Fat Wreck Chords).
While other labels (Victory, Revelation, DeSoto, Deep Elm etc.) are recognised for showcasing particular styles, Fat is the one label that has not only defined a sub genre (even though most of their bands don't sound alike) but brought a great many bands to a level of popularity they probably wouldn't have attained on any other label.
The label, founded and is still overseen by NOFX bassist "Fat" Mike Burkett, has an unparalleled level of band loyalty. After eight years, 20 bands, some 60 releases and an offshoot label (Honest Don's) later, no band has ever left, which is both a blessing and curse, as the label has struggled to maintain its integrity while helping bands make a living playing music. It's one of the only two (with Epitaph) that can sell in the hundreds of thousands without the assistance of a major label.
Fat Wreck Chords was born sometime in 1991, just as Nirvana was ready to explode and make punk a marketable mainstream commodity for the first time since the late '70s. Burkett, having made his mark in NOFX wanted to help out friends and bands he liked; things have changed since, but not much. "That's how it started and it's still pretty much like that," says Burkett, who has handed day-to-day operations over to his wife Erin and a small staff, although he still acts as a talent scout. "There's a few bands I signed that aren't my favourite bands, but I think are good for the label, like Sick Of It All."
The first signings were Lagwagon, Propagandhi and No Use For A Name. It was the similarity of their sounds - although today the three sound nothing alike - that lead to the label's name becoming synonymous with the sound. "There's a thread between most of the bands which is, I think, melodic hardcore," says Burkett. "We got really lucky with the first bands we signed. They're all great in my eyes. They're all really challenging musicians and really good songwriters."
It has become increasingly difficult for Fat to find groups that fit that bill, though, which has lead to a diversification of the label with bands like Mad Caddies, Bracket, Swingin' Utters and most recently New York hardcore giants Sick Of It All and Virginia's Avail joining the fold.
"We got Strung Out and Good Riddance [in 1994] but since then it's been a lot harder to get bands that can play good and fast and write good songs," he notes. "Even though there are tons of them, I'm not really impressed by any of them."
Tons of them, indeed. One of the unfortunate side effects of the explosion in punk's popularity and that of the Fat bands, is a glut of pretenders and sound-alikes. Legions of Fat clones has helped the perpetuated the idea that Fat bands are cut from the same cloth.
"I'm extremely sick of everyone saying, 'All those Fat Wreck Chords bands sound the same,'" Burkett huffs. "When I was a kid all anyone used to say to me was all punk bands sounded the same. You can say that about any kind of music if you're not a fan. I think all hip-hop bands sound the same but Dr. Dre would say, 'No way.'"
And he's not the only one. Good Riddance vocalist Russ Rankins says there's a stigma attached to being a Fat band, even after his band's four albums worth of lyrical growth and musical progression.
"Occasionally we get people who have expectations about how we'll sound simply because we're on that label, but there's nothing I can do about that," he says. "The downside is offset by the fact that it's such a great label and they treat us really fairly, regardless of how we sound and what direction we want to go in.
"It boils down to a lot of people in the press bending over backwards to put bands in boxes, which is unfortunate because it defeats the purpose of what we're trying to do. It's like creative sand-boxing; I don't think it does anybody any good, it's just a shortcut for people who are writing reviews."
For Sick Of It All, who released their Call To Arms disc on Fat after a less than pleasant two album deal with Warner affiliate EastWest, rejoining the indie ranks is a blessing. "We didn't feel like we could do anything else [on a major] but going to Fat meant a lot less pressure," according to SOIA screamer Lou Koller. "With majors, they want radio hits and they push your record for the first two months and that's it. With Fat, our record has been out since February and I'm still seeing new ads coming out. That's what a label should do."
He admits it's an unusual fit for an East Coast hardcore act being in the company of mostly West Coast pop-punk bands. "It's kind of weird because so many of their bands are way more melodic than us," Koller says. "The kids who just buy Fat records have been really cool for the most part. They've been really open-minded. I found it strange that we got mixed reaction from our longtime fans who think [Call To Arms ] is too poppy just because we're on Fat. We could have out a death metal album and people would say the same thing."
For an established act like Sick Of It All, things couldn't be better. But that's not the case for all Fat bands. There's an unfortunately ironic side effect that has come about from the label's popularity - with a finite number of baggy-panted, chain-walleted consumers, the increasing number of Fat sound-alikes has reached critical mass.
"It's getting less popular and harder to sell records because there's so much of it and people are totally sick of that sound now," Burkett admits. "Record sales for almost every band on the label are going down. Not dramatically, but everyone's new record would do better than the last one. People aren't going to go out and buying every record - they're over it. I see it getting a little more obscure, like it used to be, which is fine by me."
Adds Rankins: "When I got into punk in 1983, the scene was much more band-oriented and now it's much more label-oriented. You have bands that are willing to form, play and break up with the sole goal of being signed to a certain label. We've played with bands that had the baggy pants and Arnettes [sunglasses] and every Fat band sticker on their guitar and they would do at least one Lagwagon cover in their set. You just don't run into that anymore, thank God."
Before being granted the exclusive Canadian interview with his Fatness, Exclaim! was told to stick to questions about Fat Wreck Chords and the label's new 101-band Short Music For Short People compilation. Under no circumstances were to ask about NOFX, Fat Mike's day gig. The band has a distinct aversion to publicity, but it didn't stop us from asking. Surprise, surprise, we actually got some answers. The band has just recorded an EP, which will be released on Fat this year, although they are still very much with Epitaph, and will be heading out on a "Turd Town Tour" of often bypassed American cities in the fall. Many people thought because their last album was calledSo Long and Thanks for All the Shoes , they were either calling it quits or at least making their Epitaph swan song.
Says Mike: "It was going to be because they were selling, but they didn't end up selling. They're still an independent company and we have loyalty to them."
So why all the media shyness about NOFX? "The reason we don't do interviews is because we don't want to get any more popular and be exploited by the press. We were getting really sick of answering the same old questions. And who cares about us anyway - we're just guys making music and having fun."
Not that getting any bigger would make a difference to the band, which Mike insists would never compromise its principles. Like the one that says they only play small venues even if it means some fans get shut out. "When NOFX goes on tour, we play places that sound good," he states. "I do that so the people that are there are stoked and I always try to put on the best show I can. I'm not going to play a 5,000 seater that sounds like crap so that everyone can see us. I'd rather put on a good show for a few people. Nirvana used to piss the fuck out of me. They said they couldn't play small places, they had to play big places because they had too many fans. Fuck that. You don't owe anybody anything. I do this for fun. Punk rock is supposed to be elite and a close knit circle and you're not supposed to get everything."
A Beginner's Guide To Fat Wreck Chords
PropagandhiLess Talk, More Rock
The second album from these more or less politically correct Winnipegers stands as not only the best record Fat has ever released, but one of the most important punk albums of the 1990s.
Good Riddance A Comprehensive Guide to Moderne Rebellion
Straight out of Santa Cruz, this sophomore album is equal parts melodic punk and politically-charged hardcore.
Lagwagon Double Plaidinum
Although Hoss is Lagwagon's best known record, this is their best to date. More aggressive, yet still melodic and skilfully executed.
No Use For A Name Leche Con Carne
Punk as fuck.
Snuff Demmamussabebonk & WIZO Kraut and Reuben
These two records are essential listening to truly understand Fat's cosmopolitan nature.
Various Survival of the Fattest
The best of the four low-priced sampler compilations, all of which contain album tracks and unreleased tracks.