What You Don't Know About NOFX
You may not realise it, but NOFX are not only one of the finest punk bands of the past twenty years, but they also have the distinct advantage of being one of the most successful independent bands ever.
In terms of stature within their genre among both fans and also their peers, the Californian four-piece have crafted a niche for themselves that is unlike any other. Essentially, they have what amounts to the coolest job in the world – one that entails spending their time plying punk tunes around the world and hanging out as part of a gang of close friends, all while not having to live on the poverty line. It all sounds fine and dandy, sure, but if we’ve learnt anything about NOFX, it’s that while it might sound like beer, skittles and punk rock, amid the politics, crafting a punk-based DIY business model and intense personal tribulations they’ve experienced, a band has been forged that are truly like no other.
With the surprisingly tumult that followed NOFX singer, bassist, spokes-piece and punk-rock entrepreneur Fat Mike (once known to family and friends as Mike Burkett) and his appearance as alter-ego Cokie The Clown at last year’s SXSW music conference (where Mike gave the audience shots of tequila, then went on to show footage of him peeing into the bottle just before walking on stage… all of which was revealed to be a hoax) it’s NOFX’s personal issues and relationships that have been shoved to the fore.
Luckily, however, with the Cokie The Clown persona and companion EP of the same name, as well as Mike’s familial and drug issues being the backbone of their last album, 2009’s Coaster, it was actually the band themselves who were first to shine a light on these inspirations.
For Mike it was clearly a cathartic move, and one that, for the band, was almost overdue. Having used 2003’s ultra-political War On Errorism as a platform to voice their ongoing frustration with the American poltical system (one that had already been a running theme on tunes like Murder The Government from 1997’s So Long And Thanks For All The Shoes) 2006’s Wolves In Wolves Clothing proved a bridging of the political and the personal. Now, as the band get older and priorities in life still constantly changing (including Fat Wreck Chords – which Mike set up and still runs, albeit only going into the office sporadically due to NOFX’s commitments), elements like Cokie The Clown and writing about painful family memories are not only possible, they’re a priority – more so than, say, in the past, when screaming frustration or cracking jokes into the ether was the norm.
“I write about things that happen and you think about,” Mike muses, “and it’s not, I think, that my songwriting is maturing, it’s just that you go through different experiences. As you have those experiences, you write about them. So, it just happens that I’ve been going through more traumatic experiences lately.”
With Cokie The Clown, Mike reasons, he was able to expunge some demons, and it seems to have at least helped him express in a different context. “I wanted to do the opposite of what everyone does,” he says of the SXSW show and EP. “To do something no-one had really done before, the opposite of what a comedian does. So I wanted to tell the worst, most depressing stories of my life, and play a couple of songs that were sad… and juggle. And, er,” he pauses, then chuckles, “it turned out exactly how I wanted it to.
“People left confused and depressed…” he grins, “and stoked. And some of them felt a little nauseated as well.”
As for his NOFX bandmates, the furore that hit after the pissing-in-the-tequila-hoax and the stories that Mike told as Cokie (including stories about a rape and the deaths of his parents), didn’t seem to faze them. “They weren’t there,” he shrugs. “I don’t think I ever talked to them about it – I think our drummer asked me if I really pissed in that tequila bottle, but, we didn’t really talk about it.”
But that, he figures, isn’t an issue. NOFX’s longevity is testament to the inter-band relationships that have stood the test of time. “We all like each other a lot,” he argues, “we like our crew a lot and we’re all kind of best friends… I mean, what are we going to argue about?” he laughs flippantly. “What, ‘the plane’s late?’ “But we’re too cool with each other for that now. It sounds weird,” he adds, “but we like each other.”
For a band that, for the past twenty years, have so succinctly and effectively defined a contemporary punk-rock existence – through the Fat Wreck business model, their humour-filled attitude, their political commentary – NOFX now find themselves at a strange point. For all the talk of maturity, they’re still a punk band and they still walk a tight line between the serious and the silly. It’s evident in how the band have to approach their audience – which by now is split between those older types who discovered them back when they were teenagers, and the teenagers who are only now currently discovering the band. “I don’t think we can relate to them…” Mike says of those younger fans. Y’know. Being that his band are in their 40s, it’s true.
“I think they relate to us,” he continues. “That’s because we’re older and smarter and wiser and funnier, and you know… we can’t relate them,” he reiterates. “I’m not going to go up to a 15-year-old punk kid and ask him what’s going on in his life,” he chuckles.
The crucial factor is that those kids are appreciating NOFX simply “‘Cos we’re good,” Mike argues. “And I’d say we’re in the top five best punk bands in the world, so that’s why kids still get into us – ‘cos we’re good.”
That in itself brings up the problem of contemporary punk – that it’s so watered down and diluted that it seems that many new generation bands are simply different shades of each other. “I don’t keep up,” nods Mike. “It’s because new bands aren’t as good as the older bands… I don’t know why,” he ponders the idea. “You’d think bands would get better and better, but they really don’t.”
Damn straight. If someone could let Good Charlotte know that, that’d be great. But it does make a good point: bands who stand for something are few on the ground, and those that were in the third wave of punk and are still standing – like NOFX, Bad Religion, Pennywise and so on – still command extreme amounts of loyalty from existing fans, while finding new fans at the same time, and they get to do what they want. “Yeah – it totally is living the dream,” Mike acknowledges, “and somehow we’ve put ourselves in a position where we can do whatever the fuck we want, and no one owns any part of us. [A clown horn goes off in the background, with no explanation]
“So we put out our own records, we do our own merch, we book our own tours and we do whatever we want. It’s how it should be.”
With a new album not yet started on (“we usually put out records every three years, and our last one came about a year and a half ago, so, yeah, we’ve still got a year and a half”) and a compilation of their old EPs called The Longest EP now out (“it was fun to listen to them all together. It’s also a nice little record for people, you know? It’s got a lot of songs people haven’t heard before. What a bargain!”) NOFX are once again Australia bound for the No Sleep Til festival. And, contrary to the usual fake excitement elicited by such a proposition, Mike is seemingly really fucking excited by the idea.
“Frenzal!” he exclaims happily, of who else is on tour – besides Megadeth, Descendents, Dropkick Murphys and million other bands. “And what about Me First & The Gimme Gimmes! So of course [I’m excited] – it’s my favourite fucking country! I don’t want to sound like a fucking asshole, but people are really nice down there.
“Apart from you,” he adds of your humble scribe, “I think people are generally nice… and I have a good time down there. And if your fucking drugs weren’t so expensive, it’d be a really good place to be.”
NOFX headline the NO SLEEP TIL festival – alongside Megadeth, Descendents, Dropkick Murphys, Gwar, A Day To Remember, Frenzal Rhomb, Parkway Drive, Alkaline Trio and a million other bands – at the Melbourne Showgrounds on Friday December 17. Tickets and info from nosleeptil.com.au. NOFX’s The Longest EP is out now through Fat Wreck Chords.