Fat Mike: The Second Godfather of Punk Rock—“I Got Into Punk Rock Because I Was an Outcast in High School”

Beginning in the 1980s, Mike Burkett—a.k.a. Fat Mike—has been pouring his energy into punk rock. He co-founded the beloved band NOFX in 1983 and the San Francisco-based record label Fat Wreck Chords in 1990. Ever since, he’s been signing bands, playing shows, writing books, creating documentaries, and he even started a company that makes panties for straight men. Most recently, in 2023, he co-created the Las Vegas-based Punk Rock Museum. Earlier this year, Vegas decreed April 1 to be Punk Rock Day (what Mike calls a “punk proc,” short for punk proclamation). It all comes together to mark the culmination of a life dedicated to the music he says saved his life.

Videos by American Songwriter

“I got into punk rock,” Mike tells American Songwriter, “because I was an outcast in high school.” His parents didn’t listen to music, he says, and only had a few albums around, including one from Herb Alpert and another by Barbra Streisand. So, Mike discovered music, watching cable TV and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Then, at a summer camp, his counselor, Joe Escalante from The Vandals, showed him a Ramones song, and Mike was hooked. “That’s the first cassette I ever bought,” he says.

Attending his first shows, Mike says he was “scared as shit” watching bands like Killing Joke and X. But the fear enticed him. “Everyone looked at me with kind of an angry look,” he says. “But it was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen before.” He found himself both attracted to the music and to the women in their leather outfits. He bought his first bass guitar because one friend had a six-string and another a drum kit. Together, the trio started practicing. He was never shown how to play, but he also knew that with punk rock, you “don’t need to be good.” He liked practicing, and playing in a band introduced him to more ladies. “We played a party,” he says, and “that’s when the girl in leather came on to me. I said, ‘Okay, this works!’”

When he first began to perform, he thought punk rock was “dead” and that he’d missed out on it. The second generation of the genre came in the late 1970s with Bad Religion, Germs, and Wasted Youth. Hardcore was the rage in the mid-’80s. But then, a new wave of punk came about in the 1990s, thanks to Nirvana, Green Day, and The Offspring. Today, Mike says, “There are platinum albums everywhere. I think that is a positive thing.” He sees nothing wrong with punk achieving success. “I bet most of [the players in successful groups] just wanted to be in a band with friends and have fun,” Mike explains. “None of us [in my generation] had any idea we could even make a living because no one had done it [except the Ramones].”

This year, Mike is retiring from NOFX. After 40 years, he’s at peace with that idea, despite the fact, he says, that the group is playing the best it ever has. To date, NOFX has released 15 studio albums, most recently Double Album in 2022. Mike also releases music as the character Cokie the Clown and has written classical music and a new stage musical, Home Street Home, which he calls his best work. It makes for a big resume, but he doesn’t get caught up in all he’s accomplished—punk rock isn’t about that, he says.

“Punk rock is not about awards,” Mike says. “I didn’t open the Punk Rock Hall of Fame; it’s the Punk Rock Museum. Punk rock is so much more important than any other style of music in the world. It has the smartest lyrics and the least pretentious people. It’s a family. It’s a church. It’s a community. We needed a place to memorialize all that.”

Among the museum’s exhibits are instruments from famous musicians that attendees can actually play, including Mike’s bass and Joan Jett’s guitar. Tour guides are also some of those same famous artists. Just the other day, Mike says, a little girl was playing a left-handed guitar, and C.J. Ramone came up to her to jam, bringing her parents to tears. For the 57-year-old Mike, that’s what it’s all about; honoring a genre of music that can inspire and impact lives as much as it can simply entertain. That’s what it did for him as a scared, queer-identifying kid. And that’s why Las Vegas is honoring punk rock music with its own day on April 1.

“I’ve figured out there’s two kinds of people,” Mike says. “Most people are music lovers, and I don’t get along with them. Then there are song lovers, those are the people I get along with. For music lovers, music makes them feel good. Song lovers get touched by music in a different way.”

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