Think of San Francisco's NOFX as a tween of American punk rock. Having just missed the cut-off that would put the band in good standing as members of the first wave of '80s punk and hardcore, the group nonetheless is more venerated than most of the second-generation bands that followed in the 1990s.
"We're not considered an old-school band. We missed by about a year," explains a sleepy Fat Mike (aka Mike Burkett), NOFX's bassist and frontman. He's speaking from a Texas hotel room, where he has just awakened, shortly after 2:30 p.m. CST. "Some bands started in 1982. They're old school. We started in 1983. And we didn't start touring much until 1985. We didn't do a lot of opening for other bands back then because we were terrible. We couldn't get shows."
NOFX's first full-length album, Liberal Animation, wasn't released until 1988, and it wasn't until 1994's landmark Punk in Drublic that the band had a breakthrough success. All in all, the band has done an admirable job of carving out its own little niche in the rugged landscape of post-punk American rock over the last three decades. NOFX has released 11 full-length albums and 15 EPs, toured the world several times over, sold more than 6 million independent records, and, with Punk in Drublic, it produced at least one true punk-rock classic.
And all of this has been accomplished while (mostly) maintaining the same membership the band has had since 1991, when it added lead guitarist/trumpeter El Hefe to round out the original line-up of Fat Mike, drummer Erik Sandin and guitarist Eric Melvin.
"The thing about us is that everybody is pretty cool," Fat Mike says of his band's longevity. "If you've got a big ego, you start getting shot down by everybody else, including our crew. You know, our crew has been with us for 18 years as well. So if you're a dick rock star, everyone gives you shit. Everyone's cool. We keep our egos in check. I like being in our band. We've never really had an argument before."
As singer and chief songwriter, Fat Mike's lyrics are often topical, irreverent, and even silly at times. But they're never boring. The band's last full-length album, 2009's Coaster, featured lyrical attacks on some of Mike's favorite targets, such as organized religion and class politics. But on the Cokie the Clown EP, released later the same year, the frontman takes a rare opportunity to exorcise some personal demons.
Shows in the wake of the Cokie release sometimes featured Fat Mike taking the stage made up as Cokie, a particularly sad-looking and disheveled clown, whose approach is marked by a disquieting admixture of irreverence and gloom. At a performance in Austin, Texas, at last year's SXSW, Cokie tricked audience members into drinking from a water bottle filled with what they thought was pee. (It was later revealed the bottle contained nothing more than water.)
"I just thought it would be a cool idea to have this super-sad, depressing clown who scares people and bums people out," Mike says. "I'd never seen that before. At my first Cokie the Clown show, the crowd had absolutely no idea what to do with themselves. They were so uncomfortable, and I thought it was beautiful. It's a cool way to tell the most depressing war stories of my life. You don't do that at our regular show because that's not what people paid to get in for. But those people paid to see Cokie the Clown. And they got what they paid for."
And as for the pee-in-bottle stunt?
"Clowns play practical jokes," Mike says.
Over the years, NOFX has been notoriously contrarian in its attitude towards mainstream media. Though the band has loosened up in recent years, it often refused interviews in the past and has perennially denied mainstream outlets such as MTV access to its videos. Which seems more than a little odd, once one has gone to the trouble of making a video in the first place. But according to Mike, there's a method in the band's seeming madness, and the proof of it lies in all those NOFX records sold, and in those 28 years—give or take—the band has stayed together.
"I think overexposure is bad," Mike says. "I think it's best to keep your band smaller. I feel like if you keep your band small, people feel like you're a part of their life rather than a product sold to them. It's like you're more special or esoteric. I've always felt that without MTV or major press, you have a longer career. And you know what? I think I was right."