“I saw Rocky Horror when I was 8, it changed my fucking life. I didn’t know if I was like that, but I recorded it from the TV onto a cassette player and it’s been the soundtrack of my life.”
When Fat Mike repeatedly circles back to Rocky Horror Picture Show and the vital role it played in the development of his identity, a funny thing happens. There’s a shift in the lens and suddenly the NOFX bassist, frontman, and songwriter’s entire musical persona comes into a sharper focus.
Many NOFX songs are just as influenced by showtunes and Broadway spectacle as they are by West Coast punk rock. Just listen to the chorus of “Leave it Alone,” off of the band’s most prolific album Punk in Drublic, and tell me you can’t picture Doctor Frank N. Furter singing those “da-na-na’s” while doing the can-can. Both Rocky Horror and NOFX were panned by critics but have slowly built dedicated audiences, ascending to the level of social institutions. So don’t be alarmed by a jarring tonal shift upon hearing NOFX’s newest release, entitled Single Album, which came out February 26 via Fat Wreck Chords.
“Making a double album is hard,” Burkett explains the cryptic nature of the record’s title. “I don’t personally think anyone’s done a good job of it except for Pink Floyd. A lot of people have tried and they always fail. I didn’t wanna fail and I kinda felt that I failed.”
Upon playing the double album for some friends (including Avenged Sevenfold’s M Shadows) it became clear that the songs centered around the darker subject matter were the standout tracks. If Burkett has indeed followed Rocky Horror’s lesson of giving yourself over to a life of pleasure, Single Album reflects the dark side of that lifestyle, on both a personal and social level, with songs centered around gun violence, Burkett’s divorce, and the deaths of friends and family from drugs and cancer. As Doctor Frank himself would say, “It’s not easy having a good time.”
“I started writing a couple years ago and I was in a bad place in my life,” Burkett elaborates. “I was in the middle of a divorce, living by myself in a big condo in SF, my musical lost our big producer in New York over artistic differences – so, kinda starting over. I was in a bad place doing a lot of drugs, drinking a lot. So when you’re doing a lot of drugs and staying up late and not happy, you’re gonna write some depressing songs.”
The album opens with the fittingly titled song “The Big Drag” – a six-minute opus built on tectonic chord progressions and distorted-beyond-recognition bass tone. To call this song bleak would be a vast understatement- you don’t start a punk record with a six-minute song unless you mean business.
The pace kicks back into familiar NOFX trajectory on the third track “Fuck Euphemism” and dives headfirst into Burkett’s sexual identity. His views on the subject are expressed with as much grace and nuance as you’d expect from a NOFX song, but Burkett stands behind his words.
“The thing is people are gonna wanna give me shit. But if you actually read the lyrics and think about it, I’m not saying anything that’s not PC. Why you gotta call me straight? That’s not how I identify. They’re prejudging me. I’m fucking queerer than most people! I’m fucking kinky as hell! I’m a weirdo. Kink will never be part of the letters- of the LGBTQ community. And that’s okay!”
“But I do think its funny, that even most gay people will say ‘I was born this way – you chose to be that way.’ I’m like ‘What the fuck are you talking about? How would you know? And why can’t I be born with genes that make me more feminine or submissive? Or anything? Who cares? If I identify with my sexuality and being a punk rocker,’ I just think it’s funny that they try to be inclusive. But they’re not that inclusive.”
Luckily for Burkett, being an outsider within a community already composed of outsiders is familiar territory.
“It’s like the music business! I don’t want to be part of the music business either. If there were punk rock awards, no one would go! It would be embarrassing to get a fucking trophy like the Grammys. We don’t wanna be part of the music industry, and I don’t want to be part of that community that has so many rules and words. But I respect the hell out of them and I stand with them! Like when Trump made it illegal for transgender people to be in the military, I posted a picture of me – the most feminine picture of me ever. Even though I’m not transgender, I am transvestite! And I’m standing with y’all.’ I stand with the community but I just like to call shit out when I hear it. That’s why the title is ‘Fuck Euphemism.’”
Many fans are vocal in lamenting the lack of political vitriol from the band’s early releases -this is the same band that created the Punk Voter Tour and not one, but two Rock Against Bush compilations. Being completely open about his sexuality has given Burkett a sense of personal acceptance, which itself can be a revolutionary act.
“People want me to get really political because of Trump. But it’s not doing any good right now and it’s not interesting, it’s just fanning flames. I like to tell stories that make people think about life differently. Super protest music makes the world an angrier place. I don’t like singing things that are trite. And seeing anti-Trump songs is just so obvious, it’s like saying you’re against child slavery. Or you’re really pro-water. I’m not gonna sing something so obvious, I’ll let angry 16-year-olds do that.”
When NOFX began Burkett was exactly that- an angry teenager. But decades of living that way will eventually catch up to anyone. After being hospitalized with a bleeding stomach last fall, Burkett decided to put himself into rehab where he worked on changing his perspective. It’s these moments of self-reflection when Burkett looks back through the clear lens of sobriety to the moments when he actually felt the most punk.
“Even at the age of 44, I still looked into the mirror sometimes and thought what a coward I was. And when I heard that song ‘When I clung to her thigh and started to cry cause I wanted to be dressed just the same” I thought ‘Yeah, I’ve always wanted to dress like that and it took me 44 years to actually get the nerve.”
“The first time I cross-dressed was in Luxembourg,” Burkett continues. “I went out to dinner and played a show. But going out to dinner, that was even cooler because I wore a pink slip. Besides that I was just like me. But I got stared at like I was a punk rocker in the ‘80s! But once we were in the restaurant no one treated me weird. And then I got to the show and a couple of the guys in Lagwagon were laughing at me. And Joey was like “Shut up dude! Mike’s wearing a dress! Who cares?”
“It kind of bothered Smelly for a while too. Because he thought it would hurt our image. But we hurt our image every fucking show we play [laughs].”
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Photo credit: Joshua Maranhas