Can you still be a punk rocker in your fifties? “Clearly, look at me,” Fat Mike replies sarcastically. He’s slouching in his seat with a sleepy face, unshaven, with tousled blue hair, wearing a low-cut dress with a plunging neckline and a dark red Perfecto leather jacket. The NOFX frontman talks somewhat listlessly, often monosyllabically, although with a friendly manner from his home in Las Vegas, where he is creating the Museum of Punk Rock. Michael John Burkett, universally known as Fat Mike, is the, singer, lyricist and bassist of the now legendary punk rock band, which this year is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a farewell tour of 40 cities — with 40 songs per concert — called the Final Tour. The band are in Barcelona on this leg, where they have sold out three dates at the Poble Espanyol venue. “Punk is the best style of music, it’s the funnest and the most sincere. It’s got the best lyrics and it’s played by cool people, not jerks,” says the musician, in his characteristic teasing tone.
NOFX formed in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, and for many years they tasted the chill of failure in front of audiences who were bored to death. However, they exploded onto the California pop punk scene of the 1990s following the success of albums such as Green Day’s Dookie, which sold 20 million copies, and The Offspring’s Smash, and which also included groups such as Bad Religion and Rancid, the latter performing a classic and chiseled punk mixed with Caribbean rhythms, like advanced students of The Clash. A few years earlier Nirvana had paved the way for guitar bands, although with a much more depressing and nihilistic air.
It was in this musical context that Punk in Drublic appeared, in 1994, the album that catapulted NOFX into the upper echelons of the punk scene. Among many cloned projects, the band stood out for its aggressive but bright and shiny sound, its hyper-speed, completely unpredictable harmonies, and the sharp humor of Mike’s lyrics, in addition to his somewhat nasal voice. NOFX’s success wasn’t as stratospheric as other California alumni, but they have arguably aged better and maintained a more solid and indomitable status within the scene than many of their contemporaries. Now they are calling it a day. Does this mean punk really is dead?
40 years of punk
“I think 40 years is a good time to break up. I’m tired of entertaining people,” Fat Mike explains. “[The final concerts] will be longer than our usual shows, and they’re going to be very emotional.” Age, he says, has taken its toll. “It hurts. Physically. Mentally it’s fine. I haven’t been able to move my arm in three days because I slept on it bad. I hurt myself sleeping,” he says with a chuckle. Fat Mike has been described as one of the most hated people on the punk scene because of his political activism and frequent outbursts, and he has gone public with his drug problems and his stints in rehab. “You can play music and do drugs and it’s fine. You can’t drive a steamroller or a crane and do drugs. Not fine. Music is one thing you’re allowed to do while intoxicated. No-one’s getting hurt,” he says. He is also an outspoken advocate of his cross-dressing and sexual tastes: sadomasochism, which he has tried to draw out of invisibility. He has sometimes defined himself as queer.
Despite the farewell tour, NOFX have 30 to 40 songs pending mixing and arranging. However, after their final show in Los Angeles, in 2024, there will be no further live reunions. “We’re done,” says Fat Mike, although in the music world unexpected comebacks are becoming increasingly the norm. He will continue to produce records, he explains, but he won’t tour again. Is life on the road that hard? “Well, I’m going to say there’s nothing really hard about it. We go on stage and play for an hour and a half. Four or five nights a week. It’s pretty easy. It’s tiring, but it fucking beats working eight hours a day. It’s got to be the easiest job in the world. I mean actors, they have to work 12 hours a day.”
Fat Mike doesn’t think punk has changed much in the last 40 years, but it “got more popular.” He does, though, say NOFX have changed: “We’ve gotten a lot fucking better. We were terrible when we started,” he says. “But punk rock hasn’t changed that much: kids still start bands and play music in their garage, get drunk, take drugs and play punk rock, that hasn’t changed.” At NOFX concerts, however, the average age of the audience is not exactly young, at least at their most recent concert in Madrid in 2019, where the crowd was made up of a profusion of bald heads and beer bellies, and notably male. “But when we were kids there weren’t that many kids getting into punk rock either. In my high school there were 3,000 people and only 13 punk rockers.”
All this is not to say that Fat Mike’s involvement in the scene is finished. The 12,000-square-meter Punk Rock Museum will have all the accoutrements you’d expect, such as the instruments wielded by the great stars of punk, but with a twist: musicians will be the guides for the public, including Fat Mike, “unlike any other museum in the world,” he says. He will also continue his foray into comedy, pouring out the humor that his lyrics exude in the form of a monologue. “NOFX, one of the things you can say about us is we’re one of the funniest bands on stage. But comedy is hard. You can’t just go up there and do improvs like NOFX does on stage. You have to really work out your routine. So I like it. It makes me nervous.”
Comedy, in Fat Mike’s view, has become a victim of so-called cancel culture in the United States. Especially for someone who has a reputation as a loudmouth and a hooligan, and who at more than a few of his concerts has ended up generating controversy. “You say something and then it goes online and everyone spreads it and so instead of saying something in a club that 1,000 people heard, you know, 500,000 people hear it, and it wasn’t meant for everyone to hear,” he says. “NOFX have lost tons of shows over that. That’s one of the reasons I want to quit, because if I can’t say what I want to say on stage, it makes it not fun. In punk rock you used to be able to say whatever the fuck you wanted to and now you get in trouble for it.”
Some of Fat Mike’s controversies include fights, on-stage jokes about a fatal shooting at a country concert, poking fun at a Mormon audience’s religion, and sexual comments deemed inappropriate. At a concert in Austin, Texas, in 2010, he invited dozens of spectators to drink tequila from a bottle of Patrón Añejo, and the audience went wild. At the end of the performance, a video was played showing Fat Mike urinating into a bottle of the same brand. The ominous doubt hung in the air and the fans were no longer so thrilled to have shared a shot with their idol.
At the time of the George W. Bush presidency and the Iraq War, Fat Mike was the promoter of the Rock against Bush record and concert series, which took place in 2004. The political situation in the United States today is overshadowed by the authoritarian drift and conspiracy theories of Donald Trump and a highly polarized society. “It’s terrible, but what are you going to do? The United States is full of a bunch of fucking idiots,” he says. Some experts have speculated over the possibility of a civil war, perhaps not in the traditional sense, but an escalation of partisan violence among the population. “I don’t think that would happen because the standard of living in this country is too good. People don’t realize that. Do you know how many people starve to death in the U.S. every year? None. There’s always a place to get food and shelter. The problem is that all the mentally ill people, there’s no place for them to live. There’s no mental hospitals anymore. The government shut them all down,” he says. The future? “I think the end of society as we know it is on its way out. There’ll be rich people with armies and poor people, it will be a feudal society.”
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