NOFX on Embracing The Darkness for ‘Single Album’
As NOFX release their 14th studio album, iconic frontman Fat Mike discusses the path to their first record in five years, the darkness along the way, and what's coming next.
Ask any fan of veteran punk outfit NOFX, and they’ll agree that the band are as prolific as they are intriguing. With 13 full-length albums to their name, three live records, numerous EPs, and an amount of singles and split releases that can only be counted by the world’s top minds, it’s rare for any period of time to go by without a new release from the California icons.
Today though, the group release Single Album, their 14th studio record and first album since 2016’s First Ditch Effort. Putting an end to the longest gap between full-lengths to date, NOFX haven’t been far from our minds in the meantime. Why, 2016 brought with it the band’s Hepatitis Bathtub autobiography, while 2019 kicked off a new run of their 7″ of The Month Club series, and 2020 saw the release of the West Coast vs. Wessex split record with Frank Turner.
However, it hasn’t all been major chords and encores over the past few years, with the band also heading into some dark territory. While 2018 saw the group “effectively banned” from performing in the US following a controversial onstage comment, frontman Fat Mike (that is, bassist and vocalist Michael Burkett) found himself entering detox for drug and alcohol abuse a few years back, admitting now he’s been sober since late 2020.
Through it all though, the group has emerged from a a few darker years with their latest studio offering, Single Album. In true NOFX fashion, Single Album began life as a double album before the 23 songs the band had recorded were pared down to a lean ten. The result is one of the most personal and surprising records ever to be released by the band.
While topics of Mike’s addiction are touched upon in “Birmingham”, the likes of “Fuck Euphemism” sees him affirming his identity and addressing his sexuality as queer. Meanwhile, album opener “The Big Drag” sees NOFX at their most experimental, while “Linewleum” features the band recruiting Avenged Sevenfold’s M Shadows to retire one of their best-known songs, “Linoleum”.
In anticipation of the record’s release, Rolling Stone sat down with Fat Mike for a chat about the new record, their path to today, and plans for another album before the year is out.
To kick things off here, I’d love to know, how far back did you begin writing for this record? Was it case of starting right away after Last Ditch Effort, or did you take some time off first?
Yeah, I probably took some time off, but most of these songs were written about two years ago and they were recorded in 2019. Except for “Last Resort”, they were recorded in 2019. So, yeah, way before COVID, and it’s such a dark album but that’s just because I was in a dark place.
“I asked him what he thought of the double album and he goes, “I think it’s a single album, dude. I think it’s a great single album.”
It was said you were originally writing for a double album, and as a result, you were writing differently. But which came first? Was it the different writing, or the idea for a double album?
I usually just write down riffs, I record riffs until I get an idea of how I want the album to sound. Y’know, it falls together usually, and I was deadset on doing a double album, which by the way, was also called Single Album. I thought that was funny, but it works this way too. I had about 28 songs, we recorded ’em all, and finished 23, and then… Yeah, it was definitely the double album idea at first, which makes you write differently.
It makes you write more eclectic songs so that it’s a good listen. Because you can’t do a Ramones style song 23 times. So that’s where I came up with songs like “Fish in A Gun Barrel” and “The Big Drag”. On disc two there were a lot of very different songs, too.
I played it for a lot of people, but it was actually the singer of Avenged Sevenfold who’s a huge fan and a good friend, and I asked him what he thought of the double album and he goes, “I think it’s a single album, dude. I think it’s a great single album.” And I kind of went with that, because the goal was not to make a mediocre double album like every other double album – except for Pink Floyd’s The Wall – the goal was to make a great one, and I don’t think I accomplished that.
Is this the sort of thing you’d attempt again in the future, or is it more of a case of, you’ve tried it once, that’s enough?
It’s enough. What I’m doing now is, I’ve already written close to 40 new songs over the past three, four months because I’ve been sober and I’ve stayed home, so I just write every day. We’ve already started recording another album that’s going to come out in November.
That’s amazing, that’s also an incredibly quick turnaround for you as well.
Well, you know, bands used to do that. The Beatles, KISS, a lot of rock bands, like, when they hit, they put out records every year; not every four years or three years. I think it’d be cool to put out two records this year and keep doing that because instead of a double album, I’m just going to make more records.
“We’ve already started recording another album that’s going to come out in November.”
You mentioned The Wall before, but are there are particular double albums you do consider to be what a double album should be?
No, actually, that’s why I wanted to do one, because it’s an easy pond to jump in with only – as far as I’m concerned – one fish. Eve The Beatles didn’t pull off a double album. That “Revolution 9” and “[Wild] Honey Pie”, there’s some shit songs on that. And in punk rock, no one pulled it off. Like, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade? Fuck that. Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti? Terrible. Guns N’ Roses didn’t pull it off, no one pulled it off, I think.
I don’t think I’ll do it again. I just wanted to see if I could do it. And I did it, it was a decent album, butI didn’t want to put out a decent double album, I wanted it to be a perfect double album. That I did not accomplished.
You mentioned that there were 28 tracks recorded and 23 finished. Were any of those tracks that didn’t make the cut for this album ones that we’ve heard in the last few years with the 7” Of The Month Club, or were they from separate sessions? Because some of those tracks are on this new album in some form.
I like your research, dude; you know your shit. It’s funny how people don’t like the 7″ Of The Month Club, but it was designed for demos and the songs don’t sound that good. But we’ve been doing that for years, songs off Fuck the Kids, “Murder the Government” or “Stranger Than Fishin”, they were all crappy songs, but when you spend time on them in the studio, they sound good.
So about half the songs on disc two were on the 7″ Of The Month Club, but much better versions. There was a cover of “The Queen Is Dead”, from the Cokie the Clown album, there was a cover of “Three Against Me” – a really sweet cover. Y’know, I was just trying to make a diverse, really great album, but I think it’s better as it is now, and I’m so happy with doing interviews because people like the new album. Y’know, you’re never sure, you never know what people are going to like.
“Going through a divorce and being really lonely, and I was just drinking and doing a lot of drugs. That’s why this album is so dark.”
The album definitely does sound a bit different, and I assume that’s due to some darker topics, and its result as a very personal album. NOFX aren’t strangers to serious topics, but these topics are often overshadowed by more of the ‘fun’ songs, for lack of a better word. Is this something you’ve noticed, or something that’s sort of bothered you at all over the years?
It’s funny because NOFX doesn’t… we really don’t have many ‘fun’ songs. Our albums are usually dark and socially political, and with a fun song here and there, really. It’s just that we’re fun on stage, and we’re goofballs, but we don’t that many fun songs. But this album is darker, and that’s because I was in a very dark place writing it. Y’know, going through a divorce and being really lonely, and I was just drinking and doing a lot of drugs. That’s why this album is so dark.
On that topic, the record does feature an incredibly personal track for you by way of “Birmingham”, which focus on your experience on realising you’re an addict. When you have a song like this, what’s the sort of goal you’re aiming for? Is it simply to tell your story, raise awareness of addiction, or is there something else you have in mind?
Oh no, I don’t give a fuck about raising awareness of addiction. Y’know, I went to rehab three months ago and the funny thing the doctor and the therapist there told me was, “We’re not sure why you’re here, Mike. You’re not an addict, you’re not an alcoholic, and your organs are all fine.” And I puked up two litres of blood and was shitting blood, and I thought I wad dying, but it turns out it was because of H. pylori bacteria. It wasn’t because of my habit of drinking and doing drugs. I was doing drugs and drinking because I was in a miserable place.
In my normal life, I party when there’s a show in town, or I’m on tour. Five days a week in my normal life, I’m riding my bike, going to bed early. So I’m not an alcoholic, which is funny. But “Birmingham”, that was a new level. Usually when I’m on tour I’m asleep by three or four. I had the drug dealer’s number and we had a day off [laughs]. I felt really gross. I wasn’t doing drugs to have fun, I was doing drugs because I just wanted more.
“I love writing songs that help people. It’s not my responsibility, but I don’t want to please everybody.”
Do you ever find it difficult to write songs that are so personal? Or is it the sort of thing that has become easier over time?
It’s become easier. I mean, the Cokie the Clown record, which I think may be the most depressing record of all time, once I sang that at Danny Lohner’s house… Y’know, you can’t get more personal than that. So now, I’m kind of addicted to it; I can’t not sing a personal song. Well, I can, but I have no problem going there because other people aren’t, and I’m comfortable with it. And after that Hepatitis Bathtub book, it’s all out there, so I don’t want to write singalongs any more, or “rah rah rah” songs.
I like to go to dark places, and on this album, like “Fuck Euphemism”, it’s some of my favourite lyrics I’ve ever written. A lot of people wrote and said that song really helped them talk to their partner about their identity and their sexuality, and I love writing songs that help people. It’s not my responsibility, but I don’t want to please everybody. I want to please 5% of my fans with my songs, y’know?
Speaking of “Fuck Euphemism”, it saw you speaking about identity within the LBGTQ+ community. What was it that inspired the decision to write a song such as this and publicly affirm your identity as queer?
I love writing punk songs; I love writing songs that are offensive to people, and I got a lot of hate for that song – 10% – but I love that. I love pissing people off that think they’re punk rockers, or think they’re liberals. And I really came out of the closet with that song with the line, “Until I did a line off Scarlett’s hundred thousand dollar cunt.”
Y’know, I just put that out there. And y’know, doing cocaine off a manmade pussy, it’s not the same. You have no clitoral hood for back-stock – you can’t just put a bump there. It’s way more confusing. It’s smooth, and you have no idea where it going to go.
“I’m at a place where I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do, and I still keep finding cool things to do.”
But yeah, that song makes people think, and me putting myself on the line like that hopefully makes some people feel better about what they’re allowed to do with their life. I mean, seriously, society’s rules on sexuality are just crazy, and I’m at a place where I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do, and I still keep finding cool things to do.
That should be everyone’s life. I mean, why are there wars starting? Why are there terrorists? It’s because they can’t fucking get laid the way they want to. [Ed. note. Mike touched upon a similar topic on 2012’s “72 Hookers”.]
You mentioned there was some hate you got for that song, but on the other hand, I’ve noted a lot of people referring to the track as being “empowering”. Do you particularly view it that way? Or is it basically just a personal song which has the added benefit of having that effect?
I wrote that really fast. It’s a little disjointed, but some of the lines… I used to think the best line I ever wrote was “No longer svelte, they gotta punch new holes in the Bible belt,” but “‘Cause I’m Wordsmith and Wesson“? That’s pretty good too. And I like the last line, too: “From a Doris Lessing lesson“. I think the most important think about that song is the term “per” for person. Instead of “they/them”, a better term is per.
I read that in college from an infamous feminist writer, Doris Lessing; she came up with the term. And I just thought I’d throw it out there because it makes more sense – it’s less confusing. And some people were bothered by that, like, “Don’t tell us what we can call ourselves.” I’m not, you can call yourselves whatever you want, but when someone tells me they were hanging out with them last night, I figure there was a party, y’know, not one person.
There’s a lot of other songs I could mention here, but one I do have to look at is “Linewleum”, which got a bit of press when it was released. I could ask a lot of things about it, but why exactly do you feel that “Linoleum” has gotten so much attention over the years?
Well, it was a new rhythm, it comes in super big, but why I think people like to [cover] it, and it’s still a favourite, is because nothing really rhymes, there’s no chorus, and it’s a small song about a small man. It’s a small story and it has one little boost in the middle… It’s different than other songs. It’s a sad personal song, but very energetic. Y’know, most of the biggest NOFX songs don’t have choruses, most of our songs don’t have choruses. That’s all I can guess about why it’s so popular.
But writing “Linewleum” was so fun because I like to fuck with people’s brains, and I don’t think anyone’s written – first of all – a song about retiring their biggest song, but also, when you change chords, melody, and lyrics and you hear it for the first time, it fucks with your brain.
“What I strive for, is to write songs that fuck with people, or surprise people, or make you think differently.”
You’re right, because it feels so familiar and so jarring at the time. It’s just a very strange experience overall.
But that’s what I strive for, is to write songs that fuck with people, or surprise people, or make you think differently. It’s just what I do, how I find pleasure in life is by making art that hasn’t been done. I think “The Big Drag” does that too, I’ve never heard a song like “The Big Drag” before.
Yeah, it’s one of the longest songs on the album, it’s so musically varied, and the subject matter is quite liberating as well.
Right, and no measure in the song is the same length, and every time you switch chords, it’s a different rhythm for each chord. I love that song, it’s the only song I’m not sick of.
It’s a technically ambitious song, so was that one that took quite a lot to get down in the studio?
I actually wrote that, like all these other songs, on drugs late at night. I just kept writing, and I had about 40 minutes of what I put down on my voice memo, and I just put it together and I wanted to make sure that you never knew what was coming up. And it was recorded like that too, we could not record that song in one take. I put down the guitar and the vocals, and then we put drums in. Because it’s too fucking complicated, and I didn’t want anything to be expected. What a weird opener – it sets the mood for the album.
NOFX’s Single Album is out now via Fat Wreck Chords.