When a record label is born, it often dies quickly. Bands suck or people just don’t know they exist. Few make it past year one. Born out of a gritty, hardcore punk scene, Fat Wreck Chords is now boozing in their 25th year after “Fat” Mike Burkett and then-wife Erin began the label while wrapping up college in 1990.
NOFX had released two records on Epitaph Records by this point. While Fat’s initial releases were NOFX oddities, I figured the label began to nab bands that Epitaph mastermind Brett Gurewitz wasn’t into. On a recently phoner with Mike, he clarified: “No Use For a Name were on Epitaph for a second, but Brett didn’t get along with the bass player. I was already friends with them so that worked out. But I wasn’t trying to do that. I saw bands on tour and met people on the road. I saw an opportunity—a good time to start a record label.”
This was before Offspring, Green Day, and Rancid exploded everywhere, or Al Gore built the internet. Spreading the punk gospel was much more organic. “NOFX went to South America for the first time; we had no distribution there, and they didn’t have internet. There were so many people at the show, we thought ‘how the fuck did this happen?’ Just word of mouth.” Mike said, waxing nostalgic, “When I used to go to record shops with friends, [we’d each] buy five 7”s—and then tape everybody’s. It was fun to share. What really started Fat Wreck Chords’ success is I took Fat Music for Fat People (compilation cd) on tour with NOFX, and gave out 1,000 a night.”
It was that relentless spreading of the Fat’s punk rock gospel that built the label into a well-oiled machine. But bands haven’t been a money-driven commodity. It’s often said that the label is like a family. Co-founder and Mike’s ex-wife Erin Burkett references some of the best parties, “I have so many awesome memories growing up with my FAT family. [The best are] FAT’s 13 year anniversary party and my 30th birthday party. For our 13 year party, we rented out the Great American Music Hall and had our first 4 signings—NOFX, Lagwagon, No Use For a Name, and Propagandhi—play sets. I got on stage with Lagwagon and sang my song “E Dagger.” We put a camera on Floyd’s head to capture all the chaos, it was an awesome night. For my 30th birthday party we rented out Bottom Of the Hill and got Lagwagon and the Gimmes to play. Lagwagon let me write their set list, and Joey (Cape) got Nerf Herder to play as my birthday present. There was glitter and sequins and cake,” Erin says.
In fact, with fun and good music being the goal, business hasn’t always been the strong suit. Erin points out a particular meeting that felt a bit out of their realm, “Mike and I were in a room full of suits in NYC, having just signed a distribution deal that would really help expand our reach, and in response to the question ‘what’s your five year plan?’ Mike took his hand and gestured downward, like a sinking ship, and then farted before sitting back down again.”
This hasn’t stopped their punk rock prowess however, as a stalwart of the scene. Fat continue to release new bands that fit into the folds. This keeps the label fresh, and the punk scene interesting. “What we look for is different than what other labels look for: bands that are cool, good, drunks … And drug users. People that want to do this for fun. If we sign good bands, the label will be around and people will trust us.” But with social media making it possible for a turd with a laptop to thrive, it seems difficult to stand out. Mike’s advice? “You need to be a good live band, and be fun. Any band can make a decent record, but if you suck live—no one’s gonna like ya.”
So go do drugs and have fun, bands.
FAT WRECKED FOR 25 YEARS. NOFX W/ LAGWAGON, STRUNG OUT, MASKED INTRUDER, BAD COP/BAD COP, AND MORE, HOUSE OF BLUES BOSTON, 15 LANSDOWNE ST., BOSTON. 888.693.2583. WED. 8.12. 2PM/ALL AGES/$40-$70. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT HOUSEOFBLUES.COM/BOSTON.