We talk to Fat Wreck Chords’ Erin Burkett as the label celebrates 25 years of ‘destroying punk rock’

Erin BurkettPhotos by Kristen Wright & Alan Snodgrass // Written by Molly Kish //

Amidst the ever-changing creative landscape of the Bay Area, one independent record label has beaten the odds. Conceived out of DIY necessity and spearheaded to this day by the original founders, Fat Wreck Chords has not only become one of the most successfully owned and operated labels in the nation, but also inherently synonymous with an era of punk-rock history that’s still being written today.

While most people familiar with Fat Wreck Chords associate the brand with its flagship band NOFX and frontman/bassist Fat Mike (born Michael John Burkett), who serves as the label’s co-founder, his partner Erin Burkett still remains the binding glue behind Fat Wreck Chords.

Leading up to this weekend’s epic “Fat Wrecked for 25 Years” tour that will be taking over the streets of San Francisco, Showbams spoke with Burkett about what it took to start, sustain and succeed as an independent punk-rock label for more than a quarter century.

Fat Wrecked for 25 Years

Showbams: This year marks the 25th anniversary of Fat Wreck Chords, and this month you’re taking off on a month-long, multi-band tour to celebrate a quarter century of “destroying punk rock.” So, first and foremost, how are you feeling?

Burkett: I feel great! I’m super excited about the tour, and it makes me feel a little bit old — I can’t lie to you. I can’t believe it’s been 25 years, but I’m really proud of our bands and am really stoked on this tour, especially because I feel like in this past year, we had some really great releases from some of our core bands like Lagwagon, Good Riddance, Swingin’ Utters and Strung Out, who all came back after a little bit of a break in between records and just put out amazing albums. I think it’s going to be a big celebration, and I’m really excited for it!

Showbams: Being that this is the hometown show, we’re really excited for it, too. Also, this milestone is a big one. Was it something as the label’s co-founder that you ever imagined it would actually hit?

Burkett: No, never, not even close. We were surprised when we even started making money. We just started doing this as a hobby. It was something fun, and we wanted to put out some NOFX releases. We honestly never expected it to even turn a profit, and when it did, we thought, “Alright, let’s just give it a go.”

We’re from the old school. We had DIY punk ethics and just thought that we could do it — and it worked. Twenty-five years later, and I still am actually amazed that it did. It’s amazing to me we’re still relevant and that not only are we doing well, but we also just had the greatest year ever. I feel really, truly lucky and blessed to have been able to spend the past 25 years of my life doing this.

Showbams: Yeah, definitely not a bad day job.

Burkett: No, definitely not.

Showbams: Looking back at the legacy of the label, you’ve truly fashioned Fat Wreck as not only a brand, but also an entity and really an overall archetype in punk rock. Do you ever have any “holy shit” moments thinking about all the ground you guys have covered?

Burkett: Well, not really because I don’t ever step back and look at it like that. I just grew up running this label. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done and probably know how to do. It feels natural to me now, and all of these bands are like my family. People do ask me that question sometimes, and I just feel that I am unable to separate myself from Fat Wreck Chords. So, I don’t know that I can step outside myself and look at it from the outside. It just feels normal, like part of me.

Showbams: What do you feel has been the driving force behind the longevity of the label?

Burkett: I think it’s the family environment. I know it sounds cliché and I say it a lot, but it’s the truth. These band members are some of my closest friends. We vacation together, we go to each others’ birthday parties, our kids play together — we’ve built a family unit.

I think the fact that we only sign record deals probably is a huge factor as to why we’re successful because you have to think about it like this. If you’re in a relationship, like if you’re married and not happy, you should be able to get a divorce. I think of that as the same type of situation with the label and the bands. If the band isn’t stoked on us and they want to go somewhere else, they should be able to do that. I think that sort of builds a mutual trust and a mutual respect between the label and our bands. It feels great every time a new album comes along and they choose to give it to us because they want to and not because they signed a contract.

Showbams: Not a lot of labels feel comfortable to even offer that as an option, but that probably makes for a much happier work environment.

Burkett: Oh, absolutely! That is the thing. We care about these bands, and we want them to do well — not because were trying to make money off of them, but because they’re our friends! We want them to succeed because we give a crap.

Showbams: The label pretty much ushered in a post-hardcore era of punk, emerging as a revival of the quintessential ethos behind the genre while diversifying from the mainstream counterpart of radio-friendly alternative rock. What were some of your early influences that drew you into the punk culture and community?

Burkett: I grew up in a really small town. It’s a farming town outside of Sacramento, and up until my sophomore year of high school, there were no punk rockers at my school. I didn’t even really know what one was. Then, a girl named Jeannine transferred from Holland, and she was a foreign-exchange student from Amsterdam. I just remember looking at her and thinking she was the coolest thing I had ever seen. She had a partially shaved head, sort of a wide mohawk, wore really cool clothes and had all of these piercings — and everybody hated her. But I was in love with her. I thought she was the greatest thing I had ever seen.

So, I made it my quest to make sure that this girl liked me because I really wanted to be friends with her. I kind of forced myself on her, and she was into all of these amazing bands. She turned me on to punk rock, and I have been in love ever since. It has changed my whole entire life. I went from being totally unhappy and feeling like nobody understood me and I didn’t understand anybody — you know the typical teenage angst, but I couldn’t identify with it. Then, I met her, started going to punk shows and was like, “These are my people. This is what I’ve been looking for my whole life!” Suddenly, I just felt like I found people that got me, and I’ve just had a passion for it ever since my sophomore year of high school.

Showbams: What was the first show that you went to?

Burkett: The first show I went to was a 7 Seconds show in Sacramento at the Crest Theatre, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was really cool. It was an old theater that they turned into a club, but I heard from other people that they knocked it down, which is sad. It was really pretty.

I almost got a 7 Seconds tattoo as well, but the guy turned me down because I was 15 and it wasn’t legal. I was so mad.

Fat Mike

Fat Mike

Showbams: How did you end up meeting Fat Mike?

Burkett: Through the same girl, Jeannine. She ended up going to school in Santa Barbara, and I moved to San Francisco to go to school. At that time, everyone was broke and we didn’t have cars, so we were always trying to carpool or get rides back and forth between the two cities to see each other because we were best friends. At one point she said to me, “There’s this guy. He goes to your school and he’s in a band called NOFX, so find him because he’s always driving back and forth to rehearse or play shows with his band. Find him and get a ride with him next time.” I was like, “So, you want me to find some guy I don’t know in a school of about 50,000 people and randomly walk up to him?”

Then, one day I was randomly walking to school and I saw a van parked on the side of the street. It had NOFX gratified all over the side of it. I thought, “Well, this must be the guy.” I ripped off a piece of notebook paper, and I just wrote a note saying, “You don’t know me, but I want to go to Santa Barbara whenever you want to go. Call me and I’ll pay for gas money.” He called that weekend and said, “I’m going down if you want to go,” and it was a horrible experience.

He was with his girlfriend at the time, a girl named Wendy, and they were breaking up so they were fighting all the time. They were breaking up, but I don’t think they knew they were going to break up. They were just arguing about everything, and they blasted Rich Kids on LSD (R.K.L.) so loud in the back of the van that I actually thought one of my eardrums was going to pop. They yelled at each other and screamed at each other all the way down to Santa Barbara. It was just miserable.

I got out of the van and thought, “I don’t ever want to see those people ever, ever again. That was terrible.” Then, we became friends after that. We were friends for two years before we ever started dating, so then all of this happened.

Showbams: What made you want to go into a professional partnership together?

Burkett: I don’t think we really did. There wasn’t ever a conversation about it really. What happened was, we wanted to put out NOFX releases and Mike was always on tour. I had a full-time job at a public relations firm, but obviously you don’t start a business by hiring people. You do everything yourself, so he would sort of get excited about these projects, then he would leave and go on tour for three months. I would do everything. It wasn’t really a conversation where we said, “Let’s do this together.” It just sort of happened.

I would work all day long. Then, I would come home and ship orders, handle mail orders and eventually it was just too much. I was exhausted. I realized I can’t work, finish school and do this all night long.

It started in the kitchen of our one-bedroom apartment in The Mission until our whole kitchen was covered in boxes, invoices, product and cardboard. We finally said, “Alright, let’s just give it a try. We might go broke and we might lose our apartment, but let’s just see if we can actually do this full time. I quit (my full-time job), but when you’re young, you just do stuff like that.

Showbams: With over 157 albums released and a roster of 80-plus bands, was there ever a band that you passed on signing that you later regretted?

Burkett: Oh, absolutely. We could have signed The Lillingtons, and that was the stupidest thing we ever did — was not signing them. It’s so upsetting to me. I want that band on this label really badly. It’s a bummer to me. The other one, we had a chance. We’re really good friends with Matt Skiba (of Alkaline Trio), and at one point, we had a chance to put out some of his solo material, which we absolutely should have done. I don’t know why we didn’t.

Showbams: Is there distinct criteria a group needs to meet in order to make the cut to be considered for a record deal?

Burkett: Not really. We choose bands that put out music that we like and that we want to listen to. If you look at the roster of Fat Wreck Chords, you’re basically looking at my musical taste and Mike’s musical taste. It’s music we want to listen to and obviously by people that we want to hang out with because Fat Wreck Chords is a family. When we invite someone into the fold, we have to make sure that we get along and that these are the type of people that we want to spend our time with. So, for the most part, that’s the criteria.

Obviously, you need to be a hard-working band and willing to tour and put your efforts toward us as well. But for the most part, we just have to like you, want to hang out with you and like your music.

Showbams: As an independently operated and owned record label, you made a big point to never be involved with the Recording Industry Association of America. No matter how hard they tried, I know you even had to call to have them remove you off their roster.

Burkett: Yep, three times we’ve had to actually. I don’t even understand why.

Showbams: Can you explain your strong stance on not wanting them to include you?

Burkett: Well, this is the thing. Mike and I have always done this ourselves, and we want to keep it that way. If we get in bed with any major corporation, then they have the ability to tell us what to do, and from a very basic standpoint, I don’t want anybody telling me how to run my business. I don’t want anybody telling me that I have to make a decision. I also don’t ever want to have to make a decision based on money either. That sucks! It is a business, and obviously we need to stay profitable. I’m not trying to say that never factors in, but for the most part, we want to be able to run this company the way we want to run it. We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, and if you get in bed with other people, that’s what you have to do.

Showbams: Hand in hand with the old-school punk-rock ideology, Fat Wreck has been involved in politically charged, philanthropic efforts, working with Pets and Protect as well as campaigns addressing former President George W. Bush. What was the label’s motivation behind choosing these causes as its voice in the political mainstream?

Burkett: It was basically about a passion. I have been a vegetarian for 20 years, and I feel very strongly about animal rights and protecting them. I grew up on a farm and watched my father slaughter animals I considered to be my pets and then put them on the dinner table. It was traumatizing, just very horrible. At a very young age, I decided that I didn’t want to participate in this. So, the animal rights ones, those were mostly my passions.

Then, the Rock Against Bush (campaign), that was more of a Mike passion. Not that I didn’t support it — of course I do, but I honestly am not very political. Even though I think that he was an asshole, it’s not a passion that I would have undertook myself. That was really Mike’s thing.

Showbams: The label has touched upon topics of police brutality, racism, mental health, addiction and LGBT rights as hot topics over the past 25 years. Do you feel that it’s now easier for artists to address such issues creatively than it ever was in the past?

Burkett: Oh, absolutely! But there are times when I travel where I feel like because I live in San Francisco and it’s kind of its own little bubble, there are times when I forget what the rest of the world is like. Then, when you travel and you experience certain types of racism, sexism and hatred from other people, it sometimes takes me aback where I’m actually surprised.

Basically, we’re about human rights in general. I don’t care what anybody else does with their life if it’s not affecting me, and I don’t understand why anybody else cares. It’s a very basic human perspective, and we’ve always felt that way. I am very proud of our bands that stand up, take a stance and put themselves out there. You have to be such a strong person and be willing to accept a lot of ridicule to do that. I think that is a huge part of Fat Wreck Chords and our bands. I love the fact that we have this catalog and roster of bands which includes people who are partying drug addicts, people who are straight edge, people who are sober, people who are vegetarians, people who are vegan and transgender. I love that! That’s what life is all about.

Showbams: What do you feel is the greatest threat to an independent record label operating today?

Burkett: The digital era was definitely something that we had to adjust to. I remember having a conversation with my sister’s teenage children, in which I realized there was a whole generation of people growing up who really didn’t think that they needed to pay for music. I remember feeling that that was kind of shocking from the perspective of — I get it if you don’t feel like record labels should be making any money, but how can you not support a band? How can you not support the music that makes you happy, that you know is a daily part of your life? That never made any sense to me.

So, I think that we’ve been working through that, and I see that as kind of the biggest challenge. Trying to come up with new ways to make sure that my artists are able to earn a living. They should be able to get paid for what they love and the artistry they produce. I think that’s always a challenge.

Hear the full interview with Burkett here.

Erin Burkett


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