- NOFX: Just your garden-variety political action committee.
Orlando, March 1993, some forgotten dive bar. Standing beside a small, sticker-laden Toyota are four fanzine-peddling teenagers from Palm Beach County. The reason for their three-hour sojourn: to get an interview with the evening's headliner, NOFX, the clown princes of punk rock. At the time, Orlando was as far south as the L.A. band would go. But for the young 'zinesters -- including yours truly -- it was worth the trip. Not only did we get to speak with the band; it was a laid-back, joke-filled discussion about music, the finer points (or lack thereof) of straight-edge, and the dangers of getting your chain wallet snagged on things. The band was accessible, to say the least.
Fast-forward to 1994. Punk lands on the shoulders of mainstream culture like a well-hocked loogie. Green Day hits it big, the Offspring follows suit, and the Warped Tour begins its reign of subcultural supremacy. Any band linked to the phenomenon reaps big benefits. NOFX is no exception. For a group accustomed to coverage in underground 'zines like MaximumRocknRoll, the surge of international press seemed strange. Why would publications that never gave two shits about NOFX suddenly request an interview? Could their motives be profit-driven? Um, yeah. That's why "Fat" Mike Burkett, NOFX's serious yet self-effacing frontman, pretty much refused to talk to the press.
Talk about a turnaround.
These days, getting an interview with Burkett is a matter of catching him in the right mood. Lest you think he's the pompous, "misunderstood artist" type, à la Billy Corgan, just remember -- Burkett's the guy responsible for songs like "Hot Dog in a Hallway" and "My Vagina."
"Once, in Sweden, some photographer asked for some band shots and an interview, and we explained we don't do interviews," Burkett writes in an e-mail. "We said sorry, and we were very nice about it. So he took some photos while we weren't looking and made up his own interview that really made us look like assholes. And it was put in the biggest full-color teenie-bopper magazine in Sweden. One of the memorable quotes was 'We hate our fans.'"
Fake interview or not, being featured in a Swedish rag probably wasn't something Burkett foresaw when NOFX formed in 1983. Nowadays, signing with Epitaph Records is like striking gold for a young punk band. But when NOFX hooked up with the label in 1989, fans were far fewer in number. Five years and five NOFX albums later, the skate rats started multiplying like gremlins. Suddenly, the band's merch booth was flush with kids' allowance money.
"Our popularity got a boost in '94, when Green Day and the Offspring got big," Burkett says. "That was before the Warped Tour, and ever since then, we've been getting less and less popular. [But we're] going down in style, though."
Its style is what makes NOFX more engaging than the peaches-and-cream punk acts that sing about girls or the humorless, politics-first bands that merely preach to the converted (war is, like, bad). Hell, if there's anything that separates NOFX from the punk establishment, it's the band's ability to reach out to the unconverted. While bashing Bush is a cakewalk, it takes some real cojones to confront the people whose money puts food in your belly. But it's something NOFX has always done, from skewering the peace punks of the late '80s to the apolitical PlayStation junkies of today.
Example: Back in 2003, in Bush's post-9/11 America, Burkett and company knew the stakes had been raised -- it was time to give their fans a good kick in the ass. Indeed, NOFX took great pains to ensure that its music would be more than another skate-video soundtrack. The result was a three-pronged pre-election attack on the Bush administration: a new album, War on Errorism, the Rock Against Bush Tour (also a CD and DVD), and the massive voter registration campaign, Punkvoter.com.
Of course, getting the message across to the masses means using the mass media. Next stop, Newsweek.
"We definitely used the mainstream press to advance our political goals," Burkett says. "We hadn't done interviews for eight years or so. So it was really easy to get into all the big mags."
But no amount of print coverage compares to the power of live television. If the point is to find new recruits, there's no better tool than the boob tube. Risking potential harassment from Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog, NOFX took the stage on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. The band ran through a fiery version of its political call-to-arms, "Franco Un-American," with some surprising lyrical censorship.
"Conan was pretty cool, except they bleeped out some of the lyrics that I previously cleared with them," Burkett says. "I sang, 'Bush likes Dick/But he hates homosexuals.' Before the show, they said it was OK. But when it aired, they bleeped it. They also bleeped 'From de-hoofed horses' for some reason."
Fortunately for Burkett, network heads are less likely to put the muzzle on a live interview -- even when the interviewer is a bomb-happy blowhard like Dennis Miller, comedy's answer to Bill O'Reilly.
"The worst [television] experience was on The Dennis Miller Show," Burkett says. "A week before the show, the producer gave me a list of 10 things Dennis was going to ask me, and they didn't ask one of them. I kicked his ass anyway, but it did throw me when he asked totally different things."
For NOFX, it's back to the Warped Tour this summer -- and that means Punkvoter.com is in full campaign mode. And if you think NOFX hit its political high-note with War on Errorism, just check back in April, when the band releases its new album, Wolves in Wolves' Clothing. Where Errorism fought for a "Separation of Church and Skate" (as the album's opening track suggested), Wolves in Wolves' Clothing is an even hotter candle under the ass for Bible-study punks.
"Our new album will surely piss off a lot of Christians," Burkett says. "We're not pulling any punches this time."
Oh, it's on, kids. And that goes double for you, Dubya.