NOFX Punk Off Their Asses
Published Apr 01, 2006Most punk bands that have been together for over 20 years start faltering as they age. The new material is pretty good, but doesn't compare to their old output. They used to be pretty debauched, but now have spouses and houses. With the upcoming release of their tenth studio full-length, Wolves In Wolves Clothing, NOFX are proving that they are still one of the most relevant musical forces in the modern punk scene. While the band's ubiquitous nature has not left them unscathed by punker-than-thou critics, their unwavering dedication to the ethics of the scene that spawned them puts them in a league of their own. Refusing to sign to a major, and releasing records through indies Epitaph and Fat Wreck, continuing to put out seven-inches, and getting inhumanly wasted on a daily basis are just some of the ways the band manages to stay punk in an increasingly corporate music environment. Of even greater importance is the band's musical legacy, which has shaped the evolution of oft-maligned pop punk since the release of Ribbed in 1990. While their Warped Tour peers are mired in heartache and self-indulgence, NOFX are setting up voter registration booths and preaching political reform. They've spawned countless imitators, many of whom have abandoned the punk ethics the band have always stood for, but for 23 years, NOFX have stuck to their guns, riding out punk's mid-90s surge into the mainstream only to transform from sophomoric drunk-punks into surprisingly outspoken (but still drunk) politicos.
Erik Sandin, Eric Melvin, and Mike Burkett gather for the first practice of their as-of-yet unnamed punk band in Los Angeles, California. Eric, who doesn't own a guitar amp, plays through a stereo. "We were fucking horrible," says Mike Burkett, known today as Fat Mike, the group's bassist and vocalist, "And I thought our drummer, Smelly [Erik], was really weird." The band decide to ape Boston punkers Negative FX and name themselves NOFX, partially due to the fact that, at the time, everyone in the band but Mike was straight edge. While a guy named Steve is originally tapped to be the singer, he doesn't show up to any practices and quits after the band play their first gig without him. As Mike recalls, "I was outside beer-bonging a 40-ouncer of Olde English 800, and our drummer says, This band Justice League will let us use their gear. We can play four songs.' We only had four songs, so it was perfect." Later that year, the band is approached by Don Bolles of the Germs to assist in recording a nine-song demo, which Mike describes, along with most of the band's output from the 80s, as "fucking horrible."
"It's fucking horrible," says Mike, in reference to the band's first seven-inch for Mystic Records. They also put out the seven-inch So What If We're On Mystic? Embarking on their first American tour, four people are present for the band's stop in Detroit; all of them leave after the first song. "We kept playing. There was a bartender and a soundman, and we figured we'd just practice. Because lord knows, we needed to practice," Mike laughs. "It was a dollar to get in, so they gave us four dollars and we had to siphon gas to get to next city." While attempting to cross the border to play with Death Sentence in Vancouver, the band is forced to turn back when they don't have the necessary work permits to enter the country. After dropping off their gear in Seattle, they arrive in Vancouver, where Death Sentence refuse to share their gear. As Mike recalls, "We just played snooker and went home." On New Year's Eve in Texas, Erik leaps off his drum kit to fight some skinheads, forcing the owner of the club to pull out a shotgun.
Mike begins attending San Francisco State University, and Erik quits the band. Bringing in Scott Sellers on drums and vocalist Dave Allen, the new line-up goes on tour without ever having a single practice. This new incarnation of the band fares no better than the first. "It's unbelievable we stayed together, given how much people didn't like us," Mike says. On St. Patrick's Day, Allen is killed in a car accident, an event that Mike describes only as "weird." Dave Casillas joins on guitar, and Scott Sellers is briefly replaced by Scott Aldahl, before Erik is talked into rejoining. By this point, though, he is a full-on heroin junkie. "It was really hard for him to quit every time we'd go on tour," Mike says. "He'd go through with withdrawals, but nothing too bad because he drank so much anyway and scored any kind of pills he could find."
The P.M.R.C. Can Suck On This is recorded in one day for $200. Frustrated with their situation on Mystic Records, from whom they never received a cent of royalties, the band opt to release the record themselves, pressing 500 copies and distributing it under the name Colossal Wassail Records. The cover is a photo of famous televangelist Jim Bakker being sodomised by his wife Tammy Faye; subsequent reissues replace this with a tamer live pic of Eric.
The band embarks on their first European tour as a last-minute replacement for the Adolescents. The results are less than stellar. "The guy who booked the tour told us, I thought you were better than this,'" Mike remembers. "We had people throw bottles at us, and one night they un-plugged the P.A. We were bad." To be fair, the band's sound wasn't just cut off because people hated them; a women's group from Frankfurt was protesting the show due to the lyrics to a song titled "On The Rag." "After that tour, I really thought about quitting," Mike says. "I wanted to join Operation Ivy as a roadie or something because I had just heard their record and I was like, Fuck, this is awesome. This is what we should be doing.' But then I heard [Bad Religion's] Suffer and I was like, Fuck! This is what we're supposed to be doing. This is what punk rock is. Fuck this hardcore shit.' That's when I remembered punk rock has melody. Not only did that record change out career, but I think it changed everyone's career." Entering the studio with Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz, the band records Liberal Animation, which Gurewitz wants to release on his new label Epitaph. Still leery of record labels following their experience with Mystic, the band opts to press it themselves, putting out 2000 copies on Colossal Wassail.
Working with Gurewitz once again, the band record S&M Airlines, their first release for Epitaph. "That's when things started to change," Mike notes. "In the U.S., no one really noticed, but in Germany, people really liked us. We had 300 kids at a show, which was unbelievable for us. It was like, Wow. Maybe we have something here.'" Dave Casillas is kicked out, inexplicably given the band's history, for being too drunk, and Steve Kidweller joins on guitar.
Ribbed is the first record to cement the NOFX sound. It is also the last time the band records with Gurewitz. "Brett actually quit twice during that record," according to Mike. "We got in a screaming match once where I just had tears coming down my face. He was trying to make it sound like a Bad Religion album, putting three-part harmonies on everything, and I just didn't want that. He just kept saying, Dude, just let me do it. And if you don't like, I'll take it out.' And he'd do something, and I'd say, I don't like it,' and he'd say, Well I just spent two hours doing it!'" After touring, Kidweller decides he can't make any money in punk rock and quits to form a rock band. "He probably kicks himself in the ass everyday," laughs Mike. Aaron Abeyta is enlisted to fill in on guitar, but due to the overabundance of people in the band whose names begin with the "Eh" sound, he is rechristened "El Hefe." For years, the band circulates the rumour that El Hefe was one of the kids in 1976 version of The Bad News Bears. He was not.
Deciding that the name Colossal Wassail is "too long," Mike takes out a $20,000 bank loan and starts Fat Wreck Chords, signing relative unknowns Lagwagon, No Use For A Name and Propagandhi. "Ribbed had sold 10,000 copies, and I figured I could put out a few bands a year and probably make a living," Mike recalls. "You certainly couldn't make a living playing music. There was no chance of ever making it in punk rock."
Mike takes 12 hours to record his vocals for "The Longest Line," the title song from the band's latest EP, because "That's how fucking bad I was." Before heading to the studio to work on their next full-length, the band issue an ultimatum to Erik. "We had started making some real money. We had come back from tour with about $20,000 each, and that's when he was going to get really deep into heroin," remembers Mike. "It was never a big fight, but we said We need you to quit, or we're going to have someone else play on this record.'" Erik ends up recording on heroin, but checks into rehab immediately after. He has remained sober ever since. The record, originally titled White Trash, Two Kikes, And A Spic, is released under the name White Trash, Two Heebs, And A Bean after Erik's grandma is offended. On tour to promote the record, the band unintentionally incites a riot at the Patriotic Hall in L.A. when the club's promoter oversells the show by roughly 600 tickets. A security guard is stabbed and a car is lit on fire; it is later revealed that the car belonged to Warren Fitzgerald of the Vandals. "He shouldn't have parked so close," Mike says.
Punk In Drublic is the band's best work to date, eventually selling 1.1 million copies worldwide. That same year, Green Day and the Offspring explode into the mainstream. "It bugged us that the Offspring got big for about three or four months," Mike remembers. "Not Green Day. But we had just taken the Offspring on tour, and they were so mediocre that we just thought it was weird." While both Green Day and the Offspring receive massive support from radio and MTV, NOFX simply opts out. "We made the Leave It Alone' video, and we decided not to send it to MTV. We just didn't want to be a part of that machine, of that punk wave.' I think it's one of the best decisions we've ever made. Dexter Holland from the Offspring once told me he envied our career, because they never got any respect in the music business," explains Mike. The band's decision to not support MTV is not without its difficulties. "They said they were going to play the No Use For A Name video [for Soulmate'], but if we weren't going to give them a NOFX video, then forget it. That was when I really got turned off. I don't know how happy No Use were, but I put my band before my label." Soon after, NOFX stop doing interviews. "We ended up in some teeny bopper magazine because some guy just made up the interview," Mike says. "We were doing so many interviews every day that we'd just start making up stories. All people wanted to talk about was Green Day. I didn't really think it was helping our career, and we didn't really have much to say."
While I Heard They Suck Live! becomes the band's first release to appear on the Billboard charts, Fat Mike joins forces with Joey Cape and Dave Raun of Lagwagon, Spike Slawson of Swingin' Utters, and Chris Shiflett of No Use (and currently Foo Fighters) to form Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, a covers-only punk band. "We were frustrated because we were all playing in bands whose members all lived in different cities. We thought, Let's just record a couple of seven-inches and play locally whenever we want to,'" explains Mike. "The funny thing is, everyone from the Gimme Gimmes moved away, so now we can't play locally." The band have released five full-length records on Fat and played the Warped tour, Europe, Japan, and a Bar Mitzvah.
As a promotional item for their latest record, Heavy Petting Zoo, whose cover features a man molesting a sheep, the band distributes blow-up "Love Ewes"; posters for the album get a record store in France shut down. The album receives lukewarm reception from fans and critics who aren't overtly impressed with its slower pace. Eric buys a coffee shop in L.A., dubs it Café Mocha, and has similar difficulties with slowness of pace it shuts down two years later. While on tour in Bakersfield, Erik is attacked from behind mid-song by an angry skinhead who knocks over his whole kit. "We all jumped into the pit and tried to fight him," Mike says. "He got kicked out. I guess he came back after the show to apologise, and Erik just came up to him with a monkey wrench It was pretty upsetting. The sound it made really made me sick to my stomach."
In a rare interview with Flipside, Mike discusses his recent adoption of a vegetarian lifestyle; understandably, it's a surprise for a man who once wrote songs like "Vegetarian Mumbo Jumbo." "I love being proven wrong. I find it refreshing and humbling. I used to make fun of vegetarians, and I was just trying to be a punky, snot-nosed kid." On the other hand, one of the band's songs is used, without permission, as the theme to a porn flick titled Monkey Gang Bang. Near the end of the year, So Long And Thanks For All the Shoes is released; it's Mike's favourite NOFX record.
Following in Eric's unsuccessful footsteps, El Hefe opens up his own club, Hefe's, which barely lasts two years. "He got one of those ATM machines put in, and he had to get a five year lease," Mike says. "So after the club shut down, he was stuck with a bank machine he had to keep renting every month. I don't know what he did with it." During the summer's Warped Tour stop in Houston, Texas, the band is appalled by the poor sound at the all-concrete venue and apologises to their fans by throwing $5,000 in dollar bills into the pit during their set. "It was really hot, and they booked the Warped Tour inside this shed where cattle were being sold. Bad Religion were playing, and I couldn't tell what song they were playing. That's how bad it sounded," recalls Mike. "I felt like we cheated the kids. We weren't going to play, and I thought, Fuck, we should give them our share of the money back and just have fun with it.'" Tour difficulties continue when a planned date in Moscow is cancelled due to troubles with the band's work papers. "They wouldn't let us out of the airport," Mike says. "Luckily, we only flew from Amsterdam, but it still cost us about $16,000."
The Decline, at 18 minutes, 23 seconds, is the second-longest punk song ever recorded (after Crass's 22-minute "Yes Sir, I Will"). The EP is heralded as a creative milestone not only for the band, but the entire genre, pushing the boundaries of what is considered punk. Lyrically, the song lambastes groups like the N.R.A. and conservative Christians, marking a significant shift in Fat Mike's lyrical focus. Later that year in England, while playing their biggest headlining show ever, Mike, Eric, and El Hefe each take two hits of ecstasy before playing. "We did it as a Fuck you, this is our biggest show ever, and we're going to try to fuck it up.' But we didn't fuck it up because we didn't get really high until the end of the show," laughs Mike. Several years later, while touring in Italy, Mike and Eric refuse to make the same mistake twice. "We took ecstasy 45 minutes before the show. That was significantly more challenging." Unable to "feel the love" like the rest of his band-mates, a still-sober Erik starts up his own motocross magazine with Jordan Burns of Strung Out, called Moto XXX.
After years of avoiding any commercial radio play, the band ironically releases the single "Dinosaurs Will Die," a song about the evils of the archaic music industry, from Pump Up The Valium. Radio stations end up playing the much poppier "Bottles To The Ground" instead, and a bunch of kids call NOFX sell-outs. The makers of Snickers hand the band a cease and desist order over t-shirts that spoof the chocolate bar's logo.
The Regaining Unconsciousness EP offers a glimpse of the highly politicised direction Mike's lyrics have taken. When The War On Errorism is released, the band is equally praised and panned for the record's obvious Bush-bashing agenda. "I think we lost fans," Mike says. "Vice Magazine gave the record a zero. Fat Mike, we don't listen to your music for your fucking politics. If you want sit at the grownups' table, learn your shit.' Just because I'm in a fun band' doesn't mean I'm not a college graduate and I don't know what I'm talking about. You can have fun and be serious. Because if you're just fucking serious, you're going to be Noam Chomsky." Stepping into his new role as punk's fun, serious guy, Fat Mike establishes Punkvoter.com in an attempt to galvanise the youth vote and oust Bush from office. The organisation pulls together bands of all stripes, from the obvious (Bad Religion, Anti-Flag) to the more surprising (Good Charlotte, Blink 182). "Some bands really got into it. The singer from Yellowcard was a Republican three years ago, and me and Chris Shiflett talked to him one New Year's Eve. After about an hour and a half, we turned him into a Democrat," recalls Mike. A desire to disseminate their message leads the band to do interviews again, including performing "Franco Un-American" on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. In an effort to appease censors, Mike alters an already benign verse in the anti-Bush song. "I showed the censoring people at NBC the lyrical changes I had made, and they said it was fine," Mike remembers. "And I said, Are you sure? Because I'll change it again. I don't want to get bleeped.' And they bleeped it anyway." The War On Errorism reaches #44 on the Billboard charts, the band's highest ranking to date. While touring the album in Europe, the band's crew gets into a fight with a biker gang doing security at a festival in Scotland. "We were playing in front of 20,000 people, and they pulled the power on us and started coming on stage," Mike says. "We needed a police escort from the stage to our bus, and then a police escort out of town. The last thing the bikers said to our crew guy was I'm not going to stab you. I'm going to put a screwdriver through your heart and kill you.' We are never going back to Scotland."
The band appear on the cover of Alternative Press in a spoof of an Entertainment Weekly cover of the Dixie Chicks, naked and covered in words like "NOFX Slut," "Fight Bush Not War," and "Freedumb." Blockbuster refuses to carry it and drops AP from its shelves. The band's Rock Against Bush tour hits a slightly less politicised snag when Mike throws out his back on stage, then compounds the problem by taking too many drugs and sleeping on an uncomfortable tour bus. "We played the Greek Theater in Berkley in front of 6,000 people with me laying on a couch, on pain killers and muscle relaxants," laughs Mike. While touring in Iceland, the band plays what Mike describes as, "my favourite show in ten years." "We hadn't really sold any records in Iceland, which we thought we must have. But we didn't," he says. "We played a 300 seater bar, and there were maybe 200 people there, and about 40 kids who knew our songs. The place just went crazy. And they have this hard alcohol there called Black Death, and we just kept having bottle after bottle. People in the front row were cupping their hands, and we were just swigging it together all night long. We just got fucking ploughed, and it felt like a real punk rock show."
Winnipeg-based radio station Power 97 finds itself in hot water with the CRTC when it plays "Kill All The White Man," from the band's recently released greatest hits collection and, originally, The Longest Line. In a report that can only be described as embarrassingly Canadian, the regulatory board notes that, "The first part of the song has a reggae beat, while the latter part has a more hard-rock/punk style With respect to the Human Rights issue, the Panel does not read the lyrics of Kill All the White Man' as unduly discriminatory at all; rather, it understands them as political commentary, essentially a criticism of the imperialist attitude of the Caucasian race, alleged by the songwriter and, presumably, the performers." The station is still found to be in violation of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters' Code of Ethics due to the song's "promotion of violence," and forced to issue an apology. When not running afoul of the CRTC, the band are busying themselves with their new Seven-inch Of The Month Club, which offers subscribers a seven-inch every month for a year of brand-new NOFX material.
Kicking off the year with a tour with the Loved Ones and the Lawrence Arms, the band continues with all the debauched behaviour of their past. "The band had an intervention with me after our Boston show," Mike says. "I had a valium and half a bottle of vodka before the show, and I pulled off The Decline' okay, but by the end I was getting pretty sloppy and forgetting words. Then I just fell straight off the stage head first, into the barricade. I found my limit." With a new teaser EP, Never Trust A Hippy, the band is increasingly turning its focus to the evils of Christian right. "I've been talking a lot of shit about God, and people who believe in God lately. We've had some Christians leaving, saying, Fuck this, I didn't come here to get lectured about my religion.' And it makes me happy. I don't want those fans," Mike says. Wolves In Wolves Clothing, the band's new full-length, comes with all of the typical NOFX trappings. "Going into this record, I thought it was going to be some really inventive stuff, and now I listen to it and I'm like, Yeah, it's a NOFX record.' I won't be able to tell until another year from now how much I like it. I think it may be some of our best lyrics, but musically, it's just the same old shit." With voter registration booths once again at the Warped Tour this summer and Punkvoter likely to be an even stronger presence in the 2008 Presidential election, NOFX are heading into another strong decade of seriously fun punk rock. "Bands generally go downhill, and it's pretty hard to keep up quality without totally changing your sound or getting too much the same, like the Ramones. You have to keep reinventing yourself, but you can't reinvent yourself too much," Mike explains. "I think we're actually having more fun now than we ever have. I think our stories are getting better."
The Essential NOFX
Ribbed (Epitaph, 1990)
While S&M Airlines hinted at it, this was the record that solidified the NOFX sound. Fast, melodic, and full of delightfully sophomoric humour, Ribbed has been dubbed "the first real NOFX record." Littered with harmonies and surprisingly technical guitar work, it proved that the band truly had something to offer, moving them almost completely away from their hardcore roots and planting them firmly in the realm of skate-punk.
Punk In Drublic (Epitaph, 1994)
It went gold without any support from MTV or commercial radio, proving that the band didn't need to play the major label game to be successful. Combining their aggressive roots with uncanny melodic abilities, the record solidified the band's strengths: speed, humour, understated musical ability, and unbelievably catchy songwriting. It brought them together into one insanely tight package, and became the blueprint for countless pop punk records for the next decade.
The Decline (Fat Wreck, 1999)
When it seemed like pop punk had nowhere to go, NOFX obliterated the limitations of the genre and created their finest work. Showcasing the band's newly adopted progressive politics while blowing open the door on their unparalleled musical and songwriting abilities, this song changed what pop punk could be. It may be long, but it's still a NOFX song; Fat Mike's bass heroics collide with El Hefe's urgent trumpet work, while Eric and Erik blaze through 18 minutes of brilliant punk rock at a breakneck speed.