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Don't Call Me Whitewashed: Fat Mike (second from left) brings NOFX to the Civic April 12, as part of the Rock Against Bush Tour in support of punkvoter.com.

The Fat Effect

NOFX's Fat Mike is a man on a punk mission, hoping to bring malcontents everywhere together with his Rock Against Bush tour

By Steve Palopoli

One thing's for sure about this new "punk voter" movement: voting sounds a hell of a lot more cool when Jello Biafra calls it a prank.

"I think pranks are not just fun, they're necessary," says Biafra. "Right now, they're a patriotic duty. After all, a prank a day keeps the dog leash away. But sometimes voting against corporate rule and voting against Bush and Schwarzenegger and all, that's a prank too--and it badly needs to be done."

OK, so there's nothing new about punks casting ballots. Despite a legacy of media hype about punk culture standing for little beyond destruction and fashion, the truth is that even way back when the Situationist-inspired Sex Pistols were wanting to destroy passersby and the Ramones were cheerily putting their faith in glue-sniffing, the Clash were already discovering a political solution as early as "White Man in Hammersmith Palais."

Biafra, of course, is in many ways the living embodiment of that old-school punk consciousness. If there's a better political-punk anthem than "Stars and Stripes of Corruption" by his landmark band the Dead Kennedys, I haven't heard it. And considering his ever more exacting examination of the stanky dirty laundry of the American political establishment over several solo spoken-word albums, you'd almost be pissed if Biafra wasn't currently on tour working to bring down the Bush administration.

What you might not expect, however, is that the Rock Against Bush tour he's on--which comes to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium April 12 and features Biafra taking the punk pulpit in between Alkaline Trio and headliner NOFX--was organized by none other than NOFX frontman/bassist "Fat Mike" Burkett. His iconic indie label, Fat Wreck Chords, has also put out a Rock Against Bush compilation and has organized punkvoter.com, a site that seeks to get the punk community thinking about progressive politics and actively engaged in this year's election.

"We're trying to inform our fans on how bad this administration is and how the administration negatively affects them," says Mike. "Because the stuff you watch on the nightly news does not tell you crap, and the real issues, no one's talking about."

The irony is that NOFX and Fat Wreck Chords have often been saddled with much of the blame for the slicker, poppier and less political direction that punk took in the '90s. Their success (along with that of newer bands on labels like Brett Gurewitz's Epitaph, which has distributed many of NOFX's records) has been embraced by younger fans who may have hooked in to the energy and anti-authoritarian attitude of the music more than any specific political message, but lamented by some older fans who wonder if the music has meaning any more.

War on Errorism

Burkett, however, dismisses much of NOFX's less-filling image as media distortion, and if his success has been divisive within the punk community in the past, he sees the opportunity to be a unifier on this tour.

"It's a rock & roll swindle is what it is," he says. "We were tired of being used by media before. They'd shape us into the kind of band they wanted to portray on their magazine and use us to sell issues. So we didn't do interviews for eight years. Now we're using them to get our political message across. It's simple. And it's perfect, because we haven't done press in so long that everyone wants to talk to us now. And I always get in a few good lines."

Indeed, NOFX deserve far more credit as Biafra-type pranksters than they've been given. Anyone who's followed the band closely knows they've consistently flown the finger at commercialism, releasing their least accessible material (such as 1999's one-18-minute-long-song EP The Decline) whenever they smelled success, and pulling clever little tricks like throwing a string of obscenities into the last verse of the otherwise pop-friendly "Please Play This Song on the Radio."

And though Burkett admitted in the liner notes of NOFX's last, searingly anti-Bush album, War on Errorism, that NOFX has never been considered very political, the man who gave the world The PMRC Can Suck on This in 1987 and past anthems like "Murder the Government" and "Reagan Sucks" says it's not so much that he never cared as that he's never been so pissed off and motivated.

"We've always been politically minded, now we're being politically active," says Burkett. "We sang about politics and sang about what we believe is right, but we didn't really act on it. We didn't take it on the road. Now we're putting our money where our mouth is."

There's Always Room for Jello

Biafra, for his part, seems to think this could be an important moment for a youth-activism movement mired in the politically correct, don't-offend-our-corporate-sponsors blandness of the MTV-Rock-the-Vote mentality.

"Part of what's powerful about Fat Mike coming out of the closet with where he stands on things and starting Punkvoter and organizing the Rock Against Bush compilation is it's being done by somebody who doesn't have an activist reputation," says Biafra. "It shows that even people without that reputation, when push comes to shove, faced with four more years of Bush and his gangsters, he felt he couldn't just sit on the sidelines anymore. I think Bush stealing the election in Florida really rubbed Mike's fur the wrong way."

He also seems a little surprised--but fiendishly pleased--to have been asked to help storm the tour stops.

"It's an interesting challenge for me, because I'm sure as hell not preaching to the choir with NOFX fans," says Biafra. "But that's half the fun in a way. The less they've heard about this in the past, the more they're in need of being mindfucked by somebody like myself and others. So if this is what jolts that sentiment in their brain and gets them aroused and gets them curious, why not?"

He thinks this particular audience has plenty of reason to listen. "The unemployment rate of people age 18 to 24 is over double the national average. It's 16 percent. That right there shows how completely fucked up the economy really is. ABC News reported about a year ago that 60 percent of the graduating class, college presumably, of 2003 was going to have to move back in with their parents," he says. "When the Sex Pistols were singing about "No Future," they were looking into a crystal ball at the world under George Bush Incorporated."

Some of the other Rock Against Bush regulars are rather in awe of their tour mate. Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio counts the Dead Kennedys as one of the bands that turned him on to politics a generation of fans ago.

"It's cool, you know, it's a real treat meeting someone you've looked up to for a long time," says Skiba. "Even after the DKs, his spoken-word records and his projects with DOA and No Means No were all really cool stuff. It's great when you meet your heroes and they're really cool, neat people."

Biafra's reputation for being a guy who has every fact and figure at his fingertips can also be a little intimidating for guys who chose the punk life to get out of homework.

"We did a press conference in Eugene, it was this media thing and then a Q&A with like 800 kids," says Skiba. "On our way there, we were talking about what we were going to say, and Jello's just whipping out all these 'Well, you know, the Clinton administration really kicked this and that work party in the teeth.' And I'm like, I have no idea what you're talking about. He's really good, he knows all these statistics. I just know right from wrong."

Which Burkett thinks is plenty.

"We make a really good team," says Burkett of Biafra, "because he knows all his facts and figures and all his history, and I know how to reach kids. I know how to speak to kids. That's one of the reasons NOFX is successful, is that they don't feel like I'm talking down to them--I'm just talking to them."

Burkett admits it's not always easy to make doing the right thing sound like as much fun as paying lobbyists to kill themselves and literally overturning the White House a la past NOFX songs, but he likes combining the band's trademark humor with politics as they did on the last album.

"People always think we're a goofy band--because we are kind of goofy," he says. "You can do both. There's no rules to punk rock. And I find people who get their point across the best are people who mix facts with humor, like Al Franken or Michael Moore. They're entertaining, and they're getting their point across."

Certainly, as War on Errorism proved, Planet of the Apes references (on "The Idiots Are Taking Over") and some very funny lines that manage to include a precarious rhyme for "Noam Chomsky" (on "Franco Un-American") don't hurt. Burkett also extended his philosophy of mixing politics with a strong dose of personality to the other bands he asked to be on the Rock Against Bush compilation.

"A lot of bands were like, 'You don't want us on there. We don't have any political songs,'" says Mike. "I went, 'I don't care. It's about showing your support for this cause. Just having your name on this comp is good enough.' I mean, the Ataris, A New Found Glory. Them being on the comp says a lot. NOFX, our song on the comp isn't political, and I purposefully didn't want a political song."

The Real Reagan Youth

Biafra has been around long enough to know that even in the punk world, you're going to take a lot of flack for speaking out about your convictions. This is, after all, the man who had his house raided under the Reagan administration and was put on trial for obscenity (or, more accurately, distributing "harmful matter") when the Dead Kennedys included artwork by Swiss artist H.R. Giger (of Alien fame) in the packaging for their album Frankenchrist. Burkett's "coming out of the closet" as an activist artist ain't always gonna be easy,
he says.

"Mike had a baptism of that the other day when he did a story for CNN, who showed up at the Punkvoter show in Seattle." Says Biafra. "And it turned out to be a quick mention of Punkvoter, before they did a big piece on a rival website organized by a handful of people called conservativepunk.com."

Burkett doesn't seem to mind a little controversy, but he's quickly learning that corporate journalism mechanics require anyone expressing a political opinion of any type to be countered by someone who hates them, thus providing a story with instant drama for legions of lazy reporters. The truth is, many reporters don't know how to weigh the significance of one source or another. Using CNN math, for instance, a 30-second story about politics in punk music must include 15 seconds in support of such an idea, and 15 seconds against.

"We got fucking 14 million hits on our website last month, and we're trying to get kids involved in politics," says Mike. "All they do [on conservativepunk.com] is bash us. The only reason they're here is because we're here."

The organizers of conservative punk.com don't really deny that, per se. (They also claim not to have any numbers on the number of hits they've gotten.)

"We are sorry if Mike feels this way," says Nick Rizzuto of conservativepunk.com, "but the fact of the matter is that we do disagree with his politics, and feel obligated to speak out against them. We have no personal animosity toward him, nor anyone else involved in Punkvoter. This doesn't mean that we don't find their politics distasteful. Truth be told, I am of the opinion that Punkvoter has become a mouthpiece for the Democratic party rather than an outlet to actually inspire debate, or discussion. Punkvoter is relatively clear about their agenda; however, I believe that they promote sloganeering over independent thought."

Rizzuto admits the main question they get on their site is how they can possibly exist in the first place, and he seems to take particular umbrage at my inquiry as to how a punk culture built on challenging the status quo can be integrated into conservatism, which is defined in the dictionary as "tending to preserve established traditions or institutions and to resist or oppose any changes in these."

"The dictionary definition of conservative does not accurately describe the American conservative mind-set, one which is built on the idea of personal responsibility and self-reliance, and a government of limited scope," says Rizzuto. "Oftentimes, people believe that conservatism is some sort of lifestyle which is in direct opposition with punk. They fail to understand that conservatism is a political philosophy and not a way of life."

Skiba of Alkaline Trio is not shy about being one of those. "Conservative punk is the stupidest thing I've ever heard of," he says. "It doesn't make any sense. That is the biggest oxymoron."

Biafra, however, considers the whole thing old news. He's dealt plenty with conservative elements in punk culture that oppose its tradition of standing up against the status quo.

"Oh yeah, I've crossed paths with them over the years," he says. "The original bass player of Jodie Foster's Army [Mike Cornielius] was kind of a young version of Clarence Thomas, only a lot smarter and a much better bass player."

Biafra seems comfortable with living in a big, punk tent, as long as people keep the reality of the situation in perspective.

"Being the high-energy, high-octane music that it is, punk has always drawn reactionaries and extremists from all sides," he says. "But by and large, it's from the anti-corporate, anti-government side. But even if it's people who want to be apathetic party animals, they're militantly apathetic party animals."

The controversy has, if anything, only made Burkett more determined, and perhaps even a little gleefully in-your-face about sticking it to naysayers with the success of Rock Against Bush so far. And he's getting perhaps the most satisfaction not out of the huge crowds they've been drawing, but out of the fans who've been showing some real interest in the issues.

"Out of 1,800 seaters, we're getting about 100 people a night registered to vote, plus about 500 people a night signing up to get information," says Burkett. "It doesn't sound like that big of numbers, but every person we turn into a liberal is going to turn other people."

For Biafra, it's none too soon.

"I'm all for insurrection in the street, I've had a great time with that over the years," he says. "But it doesn't get much done without insurrection in the voting booth, too. You gotta have both."


NOFX plays with Jello Biafra and Alkaline Trio April 12 at 7pm at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. Tickets are $22; for more information, go to numbskullshows.com.

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From the April 7-14, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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