Fat Wreck Chords really doesn’t require much of an introduction. It was founded in 1990 by NOFX singer/bassist Fat Mike and his then-girlfriend Erin Burkett, and quickly rose to become one of the most popular and influential punk rock record labels in the world. They helped launch the careers of bands like Lagwagon, Propagandhi, No Use for a Name, Strung Out, Good Riddance and many others. They continue to develop emerging and dynamic bands to this day, and do so while maintaining the standards of quality they’ve displayed since their inception. Fat recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and we spoke with co-founder Erin Burkett about the label’s history. We talked about its humble beginnings, how the label grew and some of the challenges they faced along the way. We also discussed the current Fat tour, the label’s future and more.
Bill – Tell me about the label’s early days when it was started out of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco.
Erin – Well, it was really more of a hobby than it ever was meant to be a career. It was just something where we wanted to put out some NOFX releases and it seemed being from the school of DIY, Mike and I just kind of thought, “We can do this ourselves. How hard can it be?” And it turned out to be a lot harder than we thought, obviously, but still very lucrative eventually. In the beginning we never expected to make any money from it at all. We were both in college and I had a full-time job at a public relations firm. We just started with some NOFX releases and were surprised when they actually did relatively well. So then we thought, “Well, maybe we could actually put out another band.” And we met Joey from Lagwagon and we really liked his band and so we just decided to give it a try. So in the first year and a half, I was still working full-time and then I would come home at night and I would ship orders, handle mail-order and do distributors. Our kitchen was just filled with cardboard boxes, invoices and product everywhere. It was fun. It was something that we were doing together and it was music that we had a passion for. It was meant to just be something that was enjoyable for us and we were very pleasantly surprised when it actually started making money.
Bill – What were some of the initial lessons that you learned that helped to make the label successful?
Erin – Neither one of us had any clue what we were doing and you can’t really go to school to learn how to run a record label. Even if there was one, I don’t think they would teach what we’ve learned. I would say the most important thing I’ve learned is that if you just are honorable and loyal and forthright and trusting; if you give someone your word and you follow through with it and you actually make good on your promises, then that’s a really good business model. From the get-go, we’ve grown up with these bands and they truly are family to us. Because of that dynamic I think we work harder because we’re so invested in the personal lives of our bands. We want them to succeed because they’re our friends and we give a crap about them, not because we’re trying to see them as a commodity in any way, shape or form. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a lesson that I’ve learned, but it’s definitely how we’ve run the business. I think that it could be a lesson that’s learned in any given business, not necessarily just a record label, but in anything you do.
Bill – Some of the first records you put out were from bands like Lagwagon, Propagandhi and Strung Out. At the time, did you have any kind of idea that these bands would still be active and releasing music over 20 years later?
Erin – Oh no, absolutely not. This last year has been epic in my opinion. The fact that we in the last year have releases from Lagwagon, Good Riddance, Strung Out and Swingin’ Utters, which were all some of our core bands, the fact that they had a little bit of a break from putting out music and then came back with these really amazing, strong records. I’m stoked, but it’s overwhelming to me. Lagwagon has been with us for 25 years. The fact that they are still relevant and still amazing and putting out these great releases and still touring and putting on great live shows; I mean, no, I could have never predicted that. Again, I’m surprised that we’re still here 25 years later. There was not a big plan, there wasn’t a business model. It kept working, so we kept doing it.
Bill – At what point did you realize the label had somewhat made it and that it was going to be a sustainable thing?
Erin – I think when we put out that first Propagandhi record and it did really well. Because at that point we’d put out NOFX and Lagwagon, and we’d just released No Use for a Name and then we put out Propagandhi. I think there was a moment in which I went, “Wow, we’re like a label. We’re actually a legitimate business and people are starting to respect our bands and starting to respect our label.” And I love that record, that initial Propagandhi record, so much that I just remember listening to it thinking “I can’t believe I’m part of this.” The 14-year-old me was so stoked on the fact that I actually had a part in putting out this music. I definitely remember Propagandhi just feeling like “we’re something now.”
Bill – When was the most challenging time in the label’s history?
Erin – The thing about the music industry is that it definitely has its ups and downs. Mike is a little bit more of a risk-taker and I’m a lot more cautious and I’m more prone to worry. I definitely have learned over the last 25 years that if you’re in a downswing, it’s always going to cycle back up. I used to panic because the way the music industry is, the year that we have really depends on what kind of releases we have. There have definitely been some years where that was not the year where we put out some epic releases, because bands don’t put out records every year, obviously. I learned to just sort of wade my way through it. Just wait it out and eventually it’s going to turn over again. Obviously the digital era was tough. I remember having a conversation with my sister’s older teenage children and I had sort of an epiphany where I finally realized, I’m like, “Wow, I don’t think this generation actually feels that they need to pay for music.” I know that I had heard that, but I was actually talking to my nephews and they were basically telling me that they thought it should be free. I had this moment of like, “Wow. Okay. That’s obviously going to be a problem.” Not so much from a label perspective, obviously I want my label to do well, but I want my bands to do well. If people don’t think that record labels should be making money that’s one thing and I can deal with that, but if you don’t think that an artist should be paid for their artistry, that’s just crazy.
Bill – Was there a specific period where you had the most fun working at the label?
Erin – Oh yeah, I would say the mid to late ‘90s, there was a good ten years probably from 1995 to 2005, somewhere around there, I call it our glory days. It was so much fun. Everything we put out sold really, really well and we had built this amazing community and network of friends that were all involved in our scene. With the bands, we’d all go to each other’s birthday parties and go on vacation together. It was a really supportive, loving family environment. It still is, but there was a good ten years there where everything worked really well and it was just easier.
Bill – Do you have a favorite record that Fat released that maybe flew under the radar a little bit or didn’t receive the attention you think it deserved?
Erin – I do. I never understood why Bracket hasn’t done as well as I thought they would. I have come to understand that it’s really out of my control. We’ve put out records that sometimes I think will sell so well and it’s so great and people are going to love it, and it just sort of fizzles. And then other records that I think are good, but they’re not epic to me and they sell really, really well. So, I’ve come to understand that you can’t predict it, but I think Bracket is really underrated. I think Bracket is a really strong band and I’ve never understood why they don’t sell better.
Bill – Where did you guys get the idea for the Fat Wrecked for 25 Years tour?
Erin – It’s funny because I think 25 years kind of just snuck up on us. If we hadn’t decided to do the tour I’m not even sure that I would’ve realized it’s been 25 years. It’s sort of flown by. NOFX does tours every year anyway and about a year ago they were talking about their late summer and early fall touring schedule. Then we realized that it was 25 years and we thought it might be fun if we got together some older Fat bands. We were thinking about maybe Rise Against or Against Me!, like if we brought back some bands. When we started looking at bands’ touring schedules, it is pretty difficult to get all of these bands in line for an August or September tour. We’ve done Fat tours in the past, but nothing as epic as this. Then when we realized we had this anniversary and we also had all these great releases by our core bands, we sort of changed directions a little bit. We just tried to get as many Fat bands as we could possibly put on the bill and just make it an all-star Fat Wreck Chords cast. The fact that we were actually able to get all the bands together and align their touring schedules was quite a challenge, but it turned out and I’m excited for it.
Bill – What are you looking forward to most about the San Francisco date of the tour that will feature a special performance from No Use and Friends?
Erin – You just nailed it. It’s the No Use and Friends. After Tony passed, (NUFAN singer/guitarist Tony Sly) No Use for a Name played one more show without him, because they had already been booked to play a festival in Montreal. They had the plane tickets and everything and they talked about cancelling it at that point, but they sort of regrouped and decided to do one last show as a tribute to Tony and just have guest vocals. I flew up to Montreal when they did that, which was almost three years ago, and it was obviously a really emotional performance that everyone was just crying through. Matt Riddle, (bassist) sang a lot of the songs and after the band came offstage they looked at me and I very distinctly remember Matt saying “That’s it. I don’t ever want to do that again. We can’t do it.” When I got the idea for the San Francisco show it was a little bit of a hard sell and it really came down to the fact that we had all these great bands and something just felt like it was missing. I was looking at the two-day festival in San Francisco and I felt like all my family was there, except for the No Use for a Name element was missing. It didn’t feel right to me. We owe so much of who we are as a label to these early bands, No Use for a Name included, and I just felt like we couldn’t have this celebration without them being a part of it. I just started campaigning and I started calling Matt and I called Dave, (guitarist Dave Nassie) and I called Rory, (drummer Rory Koff). I said, “I really want you guys to be part of this. Can we come up with some sort of configuration in which you guys would be willing to play the songs? I want fans to see you guys again and I want you guys to get the recognition you deserve and I want you to be a part of this party.” So, they agreed and I’m so excited about it.
Bill – When you think about the future of Fat Wreck Chords, what sort of things do you envision?
Erin – I mentioned it earlier, but in our 25th year having had what I feel is one of our best years ever and having these releases from some of our initial core bands. I’m looking forward to putting out more stuff from some of our older bands, but also being able to go out and find new talent like PEARS and Night Birds and Bad Cop/Bad Cop. Having our old, core bands mixed with this new, invigorating thing, that’s really exciting to me. I love that we’re able to still have new bands and mix them with our older bands that are still putting out great records. It really is a testament to how great the talent is on our roster. We couldn’t do what we do without them and we’re just thankful.