Saturday, July 21, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

With new memoir, NOFX's Fat Mike opens up about punk's destructive early days

The day after finishing NOFX's 13th studio album, singer and bassist "Fat Mike" Burkett offers a confession.

"This is the first record that I've ever done while being loaded every day," he said by phone from San Francisco. "I drank a bunch and was doing tons of coke. What happened is I just spent 12, 14 hours a day on the record. And absolutely focused. But I did stuff that people don't normally do. My sense of judgment was off."

Honest as ever, Burkett, 49 — let's just call him Fat Mike, because that's how the punk world knows him — is all about trying new things these days. His long-running California punk band has just released NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories, a memoir of more than 30 years in the punk world, from L.A.'s early-'80s hardcore scene to the rise of the Warped Tour and their legacy as DIY punk heroes. The book spawned an unusual multiplatform tour that will hit Tampa on Thursday, with a signing at Inkwood Books in the afternoon and a concert at the Ritz Ybor that night.

If you know anything about NOFX — or if you've only seen the book's title and grossout cartoon cover — you might expect it to be full of antagonistic, puerile humor, with doses of commentary about the corporatization of punk rock. This is a band, after all, whose two most beloved albums are titled Punk in Drublic and White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean.

What you might not expect is a harrowing memoir that makes their 33-year music odyssey sound like hell on earth. With the help of co-author Jeff Alulis, Fat Mike, drummer Erik "Smelly" Sandin and guitarists Eric Melvin and Aaron "El Hefe" Abeyta swap stories about the frighteningly destructive scene that spawned and sustained them. The Hepatitis Bathtub is peopled with lunatics, sociopaths, addicts and loved ones who couldn't escape the punk abyss, with the band struggling to survive dark turns ranging from drug abuse to counterfeiting to disastrous investments to friends' deaths to, um, matricide (allegedly).

"Everyone in the band really gave it all up," Fat Mike said, noting that band members got paid by the page — the more dirt you spill, the bigger your paycheck. "None of us knew a lot of this stuff about each other. And once we started to give it up, everyone gave up their really private, personal stuff, their worst stories. It's not the book people expect."

Considering NOFX has always been a self-sufficient entity — they consistently refused major-label advances, with Fat Mike instead founding the successful indie label Fat Wreck Chords — you have to wonder: How did a publisher persuade them to spill their lives in a book?

"We wanted to give it a real shot in the U.S.," Fat Mike said. "We think there's no reason it can't be as big as The Dirt was."

That 2001 Motley Crue autobiography, a classic first-person account of rock hedonism, was "totally my inspiration," he said. "I read that, and I'm like, Man, this is so good, but our stories are so much better. Because the hard times of Motley Crue were staying at girls' houses in Hollywood. Then they pretty much got signed and became a huge band. It took us 12 years before we even got noticed."

The most engrossing part of the book is its fleshed-out, first-person account of Southern California's nihilistic, gang-dominated hardcore scene, as a young Fat Mike, Sandin and Melvin (Abeyta joined in 1991) found themselves bruised and beaten during violent shows by bands like Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains and Suicidal Tendencies.

"That's what excited (me) about punk rock — it wasn't the music so much as taking your life into your hands every night," Fat Mike said. "No one's really written a book about that. It was so violent, there was just nothing like it. It did stop in the '90s at some point, when clubs actually had to get real security guards. But even in the '90s, they had a security guard stabbed at one of our shows with Pennywise. But how we got out of there alive, or just unhospitalized, is pretty incredible."

NOFX's stories about those fringe freaks and punk characters top any other celebrity dirt in The Hepatitis Bathtub. There are anecdotes about artists like Green Day, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Courtney Love, but none are particularly damning — no one comes out of the book looking more damaged than NOFX members themselves, from Sandin's destructive dope addiction to Fat Mike's obsession with S&M to heretofore unspoken accounts of sexual abuse and assault.

With the book and album — as well as a documentary about Fat Wreck Chords that's making the festival circuit — Fat Mike said he feels like NOFX is entering another era. Opening up with The Hepatitis Bathtub is only the beginning.

"We knew we had a story that no one has told before," he said. "You see bands today, and they'll get big within two years, or they'll break up and start a new band or change their name. No one knows the feeling of playing for years, no one liked you, and not having the possibility of ever making money. Punk rock was a different animal then, and we just toured because we had a good time. We thought we were good, too.

"We romanticize it," he added. "But we just didn't know any better."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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