On the surface, it would seem that “Fat Mike” Burkett needs no introduction. He’s been the inimitable frontman of a highly influential punk band for three decades. He’s been founding co-owner of an even more influential record label for a quarter of a century. He’s produced (and continues to produce) more than a handful of important albums. He’s been a champion of progressive causes, both personal and political. He even co-wrote and co-produced an “unapologetic and catchy as hell” punk rock musical.
Though Fat Mike has long been considered a virtual open book, however, there seems to be a fair amount underneath that multi-colored mohawk that he has been slow to introduce. Bits and pieces increasingly trickled out over the years, but the floodgates opened when the SF-based quartet teamed up to publish their group autobiography, NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories (April 2016, Da Capo Press). Inspired in part by Mike having read the infamous Motley Crue tell-all (or tell-most, anyway) The Dirt, the band got brutally, uncomfortably honest in chronicling stories from their legendary career. “I said (to the rest of the band) that we should write a book. And everybody was like “really? Why?” Mike explains to me, continuing rather emphatically that “we know a lot of shit about each other, and if we tell about what actually happened and who we are, we’re going to write a book that’s better than (The Dirt).”
Getting honest…really, truly honest, would have to be the key in Mike’s mind. “I’ve read a few rock and roll books,” says Burkett, “and people don’t go that deep. They don’t want to say things that hurt, or might hurt their career.” When you’ve been one of the preeminent bands in the scene for more than two decades, however, the risk of hurting your career is probably comparatively minimal. Plus, this is punk rock, so the more debauchery is involved the better, especially knowing that the audience will call you out on even the faintest whiff of bullshit.
And so the stories started, though they did so without the band trading notes until the product was done. While Fat Mike may have been lauded for years for being honest and “telling it like it is,” much of that was related to Mike shining a mirror back on society; calling out institutional hypocrisy, championing the marginalized, at some level normalizing the abnormal. The book, and the resulting album writing sessions that followed, spawned First Ditch Effort, NOFX’s thirteenth studio album and, ultimately and unquestionably, its most darkly personal. While some of the album’s tracks (“Bye Bye Biopsy Girl,” “Sid And Nancy,” etc) might represent textbook NOFX tracks, roughly half of the album finds Mike turning the mirror on himself more than ever. I suppose it’s difficult to go back to writing songs about Tegan and Sara when you started your autobiography with a story about the first (not the only…) time you drank human urine.
One needs to look no further than the tracks “I Don’t Like Me Anymore” and “California Drought” for direct evidence as to the fundamental shift in Fat Mike’s lyrical process. The former is probably self-explanatory given the title, detailing, as Mike tells it, the after effects of “waking up in the morning after a bender and looking in the mirror and being like “oh fuck!” And really hardly recognizing yourself, and being like “what the fuck did I do last night? I said a bunch of things I shouldn’t have and was a total jerk.” The latter chronicles in somewhat brutal fashion coming to terms not just with what you did last night, but that you can’t keep doing it anymore and that it’s time for some changes. For Burkett, those changes were spawned by a bottoming out of sorts, though by his own admission it wasn’t a catastrophic rock bottom. “I slept too late for my daughter’s birthday party,” he explains, adding that he “didn’t miss it, I just was like “shit, that sucks…I’m late because I was doing drugs last night.”
And so, Burkett decided to make changes, but not before recording a new album. While the album is certainly more honest and personal and talks on numerous occasions about his drying out, he was not, in fact, sober during its writing or production. The ironic sad part, as he says, is that “this is the first album that I recorded while being drunk and on drugs every day.” The dark place that Burkett found himself in stemmed from a relatively recent addiction to prescription painkillers. While he began using recreationally, as was his history with myriad other drugs, the painkillers (Percocet, specifically) developed a physical dependency unlike any of the others. “I wasn’t doing that many,” says Burkett, clarifying that he “was doing about two Percocets a day, so it wasn’t a big problem. but it was enough of a problem that I couldn’t stop because I would get sick.”
A failed attempt at a doctor-assisted detoxification from Percocet, specifically by way of the medication Suboxone, lead Burkett to pen the track “Oxy Moronic,” the razor-sharp critique of the pharmaceutical industry that also resulted in the album’s lead video. “I went to see a doctor, a specialist in getting off painkillers,” says Burkett in a seemingly rare admission of defeat, or at least of a need for help. He continues: “And he said “I want you to take this Suboxone.” I’d heard of Suboxone before. So I said “alright. Give me a week’s worth and I’ll get off it.” And he goes “no, you have to take it for three months.” And I said “I don’t want to take it for three months.” And he goes “well, if you want it, you’re going to have to take it for three months. That’s how we run this program.” Toward the end of that program, during which Burkett was drug tested and met with weekly, an encounter with the above-mentioned doctor made the lightbulb shine bright. Upon asking the doctor what the expected outcome was now that he was in the process of weaning off, the doctor gave a rather telling answer: “his eyes kinda darted away like he’s about to tell a lie… And he said “well, most of them go back to opiates or stay on Suboxone.” And I’m like “you motherfucker! You just set me up to get addicted to this new drug!”
And go back to opiates Burkett did through the writing of the album and the book tour that followed, though he at least had a plan in place that included a chaperone on said tour, responsible for doling out his medication. It also involved what is now a rather note-worthy entry into a detox program and the first real attempts at true sobriety. All of this was chronicled of course, because this is 2016 and because Mike has been no stranger to attention, on Instagram. While some (myself included) may have assumed that it was another Cokie The Clown-style attempt at sick humor or a late April Fool’s Day joke (a story not unlike one I, myself, jokingly/clumsily wrote about Burkett a few years ago), the stay in detox was not only real but, as it turns out, widely appreciated. “What was surprising to me is how many people were so supportive,” says Burkett with more than a little bit of happiness and sincerity in his voice. “That really made me feel good. People I hadn’t talked to in a long time, strangers… Tim and Lars from Rancid both reached out if I needed anything. It was really sweet. And it really goes to show how the punk community is just the best community and really just an extended family.”
The Instagramming stopped at around the two month mark, and the sobriety came to a close after day 85, though it was never intended to be a lifelong change. While the use of prescription drugs, painkillers specifically seems over for good, Burkett reports to be “at peace with the fact that I’m not going to be a clean person my whole life. I don’t want to.” Playing shows while under the influence — at least a modest influence — will become the norm, but not necessarily the rule. “I don’t want to play punk shows sober,” he says, honest as ever, though he continues that in spite of that, he “did two shows (this past weekend) and I did the first one totally sober and it was really fun. The next one I had a couple beers and it was also really fun. That’s where I have to be. I’m just trying to get back to where I was in my thirties, when I partied on occasions. But I definitely got too deep last year.”
Partying too hard, and getting too deep, has been an unfortunate and all-to-common occurrence in the punk scene and in all too many scenes. Slowly but surely, Burkett started to examine his own behavior thanks (for lack of a better term) to the death of a close friend: Tony Sly. “It changed my life in many ways. It was the worst death of my life, and my drug habits and the time I spent with my kids kinda changed. I stopped mixing certain drugs and I stopped doing all-nighters. I didn’t stop using drugs, I just started using them more responsibly.” Though it would still be some time before he would develop, and overcome, an addiction to painkillers, Sly’s death resonated in ways that culminated, in part, with “I’m So Sorry, Tony,” First Ditch Effort’s penultimate track, and easily the most gut-wrenching, tear-jerking (I’m not afraid to say that) song in the Fat Mike canon. The song didn’t, necessarily, come naturally.
“I had to rewrite the lyrics six different times. The first version was really too graphic and told stuff that didn’t need to be told,” says Burkett. After submitting the original song and its numerous revisions to Sly’s widow, Brigitte, what resulted was a track that not only expresses regret as to how Tony died, but forces Mike to examine his own behavior and how it impacts his family. “The last stuff I wrote,” he says, “was “sometimes the weekends when our kids hang out together / Keira tells Darla that her dad’s songs are better.” Those lyrics are so sweet and sad and I wouldn’t have come up with those had I not kept on writing.”
A large part of the reason that Burkett had difficulty in not making things too graphic comes, as he says repeatedly in The Hepatitis Bathtub, that his “Weirdness Barometer” is faulty, that he lacks not only an ability to filter what he says but lacks an understanding as to why he should bother filtering himself in the first place. He also thinks he may, at the age of 49, have found a cause: “I’m just realizing that I’m somewhere on the spectrum of autism.” The genesis of this revelation, however, well, we’ll let him tell it. “I saw a play about an autistic kid on Broadway. The Curious Incident Of the Dog (In The Nighttime). It was really good. And my wife, Soma, every time the kid would do something, she’d look at me and I’d look at her like “shit, I do that.”(*laughs*) Like everything he does, I do!” Burkett says this with some amount of relief in his voice, and doesn’t come across as being provocative or mocking the diagnosis, and expresses an interest in actually undergoing testing to confirm his thoughts, albeit primarily for fun. Still, he believes that a lot of what has made him an honest and provocative songwriter over the years may come from his not really knowing “what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable. I’ve always done things that are weird.” And so perhaps it was luck but more probably it was destiny that he stumbled into the punk rock world. “When I found punk and I was 13 or 14 years old, I thought that I fit here. That I belong here. Because I could do anything and people don’t think it’s weird, they just call it punk.”
Over the course of a forty-five minute conversation, Burkett and I covered an awful lot of ground; what’s quoted above merely scratches the surface, though you could say that the full conversation itself may promote infinitely more questions. We touched on the recording of the album, including some technical (read as: geeky?) discussion about when to record what, and how certain sounds were achieved. We of course touch on his kid, who seems by all accounts to have her head squared securely on her shoulders. And, of course, we talk about Mike’s involvement in not only the BDSM world (where he and his wife, Soma, found themselves outcasts even amidst that taboo scene) but his recent forays into publicly cross-dressing. We think it’s pretty engaging and insightful, and we think you’ll do the same.
Head below to check it out! First Ditch Effort, as you probably know, is due out this Friday (October 7th) on Fat Wreck.
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): (After an initial time zone-related scheduling snafu) – Hey Mike, is this a better time?
Fat Mike: (*burps*) Yeah, I’m good. I’m ready. (*editor’s note – I left the “*burps*” thing in there for a reason. Keep reading.)
Awesome. Let’s do this. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to Dying Scene. I think it’s the first time that the site has actually talked to you this way. And it’s really not hyperbole to say that without NOFX and without Fat Wreck Chords, that Dying Scene wouldn’t actually be a thing, so thank you…and I guess this is all your fault. (*both laugh*)
I’ve got like 24 years worth of questions for you but I’ll try to narrow it down a little bit. Congratulations on First Ditch Effort. Vanessa (Fat Wreck Chords PR leader extraordinaire) sent it out to me I think Thursday or Friday and I think that as a longtime fan of NOFX I can be pretty critical of the band at times, like a lot of fans are; but I really think that this is the most interesting and compelling thing that you’ve done in a long time. I sincerely mean that. It’s a great album.
Thank you very much. I’m pretty happy with it. It still sounds like NOFX, but like nothing we’ve done.
Well right, and that’s sort of what I wanted to start off with. We’ll talk later about how the album is more personal, but I think from a musical perspective, like you said, it’s obviously a NOFX album, but it sounds more intricate and more elaborate and there’s some stuff that we haven’t heard before. What do you credit that to? Is that evidence of giving more of a shit about how it sounds, or of giving less of a shit and just kinda doing what you feel like doing?
Well, the sad part is, this is the first record that I’ve ever recorded while being drunk and on drugs every day. I was kind of in a bad place, and I knew I needed to get off painkillers, but I didn’t want to do that right before an album. So, I’d just go to the studio every day and drink and do painkillers and coke and it turned out that I just had the time in the studio to actually spend trying new things. Usually I just write the songs and teach the band the songs, then go in with Bill (Stevenson) and Jason (Livermore) and do the songs. This time, I just kinda jammed more and tried out new things. The guitar rhythm in “California Drought,” I don’t think anyone has used that guitar rhythm before, ever.
Yeah, right. That’s a tough song to figure out, as someone who has tried to pick up a guitar and figure out.
Yeah, writing that, it took me like an hour-and-a-half with my guitar and a practice amp, trying to come up with a new rhythm. And it’s so hard to come up with a new rhythm…
Particularly when you’re actively trying to come up with a new rhythm.
Yeah. I just kept hitting the guitar strings in different ways and recording it. And finally I found one that made me go “ooh, that was kinda cool!” And then it took me fifteen or twenty minutes to figure out what I did. Even though I had done it, I had to figure out how to do it! (*both laugh*) And when I showed it to the band, they were like “are you fucking serious?!?” (*both laugh*)
So if it takes you fifteen minutes just to figure out what the hell you did, how long did it take you to teach them how to fucking do it?
I just had to give them the tape and say “figure it out.”
This is the first time in a while — in a decade or whatever — that you didn’t work with Bill and Jason and you worked with Cameron Webb instead. Was that just a timing thing, or was that a conscious decision to work with the guy from Yo Gabba Gabba?
(*laughs*) Does he do that?
Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s like the musical director for Yo Gabba Gabba (editor’s note: he’s credited as being mixing engineer. I was close.).
I didn’t know that… We’d recorded one song with him before. Bill and Jason were going to squeeze us in but they’ll give you three weeks, twelve-hours a day, and kick ass. Cameron said he likes to work five days a week and take weekends off. He’s like “yeah, I’ll come to your studio in SF for some of it. We’ll do some of it down here (Santa Ana).” It was way more relaxing. It’s great to have the weekend to listen to what you’ve done and think about it. I really do think that the basslines are maybe not the best, but the most thought-out basslines I’ve ever done. I had time.
Was that a conscious decision to make them “the best,” to raise your level a bit or…
No, no the songs had space for the bass. One of the things bands do wrong is that bass should be recorded last.
Really? I’ve never heard anybody say that.
Yeah. It makes the most sense. The bass has to go around the vocal line. The melody gets set … like if you’re playing an A minor, it gets set on the A chord. You have to keep the bass playing that note, so the melody stays the same. So the melody is good, and then when there’s no singing, that’s when you fuck around with the bass. If you fuck around with the bass and try to put the vocals over it, you could mess up your melody.
Why do you think nobody does it that way? It sounds like it makes sense the way that you explain it.
Because people don’t think about it. I’ve recorded so many albums with so many bands…like, on early Lagwagon records, there’s a lot of times on the melodies where Jesse would go to the fifth of the chord, and it messes up the melody. It all sounds good if you’re practicing, but then it makes so that you have to sing a certain melody.
Yeah, yeah. I hadn’t thought about it that way.
And also if you record the bass first, after drums, you don’t know if you’re in tune or not, where you do know if a guitar is out of tune because you can tell. You can’t tell when a bass is out of tune by itself. So…there you go. Not interesting, but interesting for people in bands who want to know how you should record.
No, it’s absolutely interesting. It’s very interesting to me, and I wonder if that (mindset) comes from the fact that you’re not just the principle songwriter but you’re also the bass player, so maybe you view things differently than if it were a guitar player or a lead singer that were writing the music, you know what I mean?
Right, right. Yeah I do. It’s through trial and error. We used to do bass first, like everyone else does. But we just learned what order you’re supposed to record the instruments in. But I also think about everything kind of weird. I’m just realizing that I’m somewhere on the spectrum of autism.
For sure. I saw a play about an autistic kid on Broadway. The Curious Incident Of the Dog (In The Nighttime). It was really good. And my wife, Soma, every time the kid would do something, she’d look at me and I’d look at her like “shit, I do that.”(*laughs*) Like everything he does, I do!
Was that based on a book? I feel like I have it but I either didn’t start it or didn’t finish it.
Yeah, it was a book.
I’m wondering if you can sort of establish a timeline for us. What really happened first: The beginning stages of writing “Hepatitis Bathtub…” or the beginning stages of writing the album, or the death of Tony Sly? Because those things all have happened since Self-Entitled came out, and I have this sort of narrative that I created in my head…
Tony died first. And then we started doing the book, then the record. There were 18 or 19 songs recorded for the album, and once you start recording, an album starts to get a feel, and some songs we didn’t want to put on because they’d throw (that feel) off. The album, lyrically, definitely came after the book. The book wasn’t out, but it was definitely already written. Like, I have that cross-dressing chapter in the book…I said a lot of things on the album that I would not have said if I hadn’t made my life so public.
How long a process was writing the book? Did you all jump on board right away? Because obviously it’s a very graphic and detailed book and you’ve said how you guys basically peeled your skin off for it…
…were you all signed on to doing the book right away or did that take some time to get everyone into?
We had talked about doing a book for some time. I told the band that…I had read Motley Crue’s “The Dirt,” and I liked it, so I said we should write a book. And everybody was like “really? Why?” And I said “because it’ll be better.” We know a lot of shit about each other, and if we tell about what actually happened and who we are, we’re going to write a book that’s better than that book. That’s the thing; I’ve read a few rock and roll books and people don’t go that deep. They don’t want to say things that hurt, or might hurt their career. And you don’t say things that’ll make you look bad. Maybe some things, but not everything.
And you tell everything right from the opening chapter.
You talk about the first time drinking human pee…
Yeah, the first sentence. It should have been “Call me Piss-shmael.” That would have been a good first line. (*both laugh*)
That would have been hysterical, actually. Did you guys really not read each other’s stuff or compare notes? I feel like I’ve read that.
Yeah, that’s true. Jeff Allulis interviewed us all and he wouldn’t show us anyone else’s chapters. He would send us our chapters and we got to edit out chapters. I actually edited the whole book, which took really long. We had to cut a lot out because it was getting way too long.
Oh really? Well I can imagine that with 25 years worth of stories you could have done Volume 1 and Volume 2 if you had wanted to.
Yeah. Some stories were really good but they didn’t really connect with anything else so they’d just be floating there. That didn’t feel right.
So you’ll release them as B-sides, along with the B-sides from the album?
Yeah! (*laughs*) That’s a good idea! A B-side book!
Like I said before, I feel like I’m creating a narrative that doesn’t actually exist, but I get the sense that even though you didn’t change overnight, a lot of the self-reflection stuff from the book and from the album sorta took off when Tony passed away. Is that a fair statement?
Um? I don’t know. It changed my life in many ways. It was the worst death of my life, and my drug habits and the time I spent with my kids kinda changed. I stopped mixing certain drugs and I stopped doing all-nighters. I didn’t stop using drugs, I just started using them more responsibly.
I guess, in terms of the album, we’ll start with “I’m So Sorry, Tony,” because I like the song that Joey Cape wrote about Tony on the last Lagwagon album and I thought that that was sort of a punch in the stomach. And then I heard “I’m So Sorry, Tony,” and it legitimately moved me to the point of tears, and I’m not ashamed to say that. You can just tell from the first couple of words of that song, without knowing the name, what it’s going to be about…
Wow. That’s pretty cool. That’s so nice to hear. And you’ve got to be sure to hear the LP version.
The LP is so different than the CD. It’s very different.
Lyrically it gets deeper as it goes because you talk not only about losing your good buddy, but then you talk about getting honest with your own shit.
Yeah. Well, you know, that song, I had to rewrite the lyrics six different times. The first version was really too graphic and told stuff that didn’t need to be told. I think that part of my autism is why I found punk; I fit in perfectly. I’m so blunt and I just tell things how it is. People may think I’m rude or something, but I just don’t know the difference. So I wrote the lyrics to the song and I sent it to Brigitte Sly, Tony’s wife, and she said “Mike, you can’t release this. You can’t. It’s too painful. People don’t need to know all this.” And I was like “oh, okay.” At first I was kind of indignant, like, “man, she can’t tell me what to do.” But then I showed my wife, and she was like “she’s right…” So I kept rewriting it and sending it back to Brigitte and I’m really happy with how it came out. The last stuff I wrote was “sometimes the weekends when our kids hang out together / Keira tells Darla that her dad’s songs are better.” Those lyrics are so sweet and sad and I wouldn’t have come up with those had I not kept on writing. I really tried to make it — not more about me, but I wanted to put me in the equation. About how it impacted me and our kids, and not just telling what happened.
That’s literally what I was just going to say; it sounds like you changed the song from being about Tony and how he passed to about how it impacted you more.
Yeah. And that makes it a more interesting song. It’s more personal.
You’ve talked a lot over the years about being honest, and I think you’ve sort of been seen as one of the more honest songwriters in the scene, and you can’t really fake that shit. I feel like a lot of times that is especially true when you are pointing the mirror outward and looking at society or marginalized classes or politics. I think that a lot of your honesty when it comes to yourself has been more self-deprecating, but this seems like the first time that you’re really, consistently unapologetic. On songs like “California Drought” or “I Don’t Like Me Anymore”…do you think that’s what makes it seem more honest? Because you’re not being funny about it, you’re being serious.
Yeah. With “I Don’t Like Me Anymore” I was kind of afraid that people would think that I don’t like myself anymore. That I was suicidal or something. But it’s just about waking up in the morning after a bender and looking in the mirror and being like “oh fuck!” And really hardly recognizing yourself, and being like “what the fuck did I do last night? I said a bunch of things I shouldn’t have and was a total jerk.” I just went for it. That song is brutal, you know?
It is brutal, and I think “California Drought” is brutal in a similar sort of way because you’re honest about the things that you want to do, but that you can’t because you’re actually trying to be clean.
Yeah, and that’s something I’ve been fighting and battling with for a while now, but I’m in a good place right now. I’m at peace with the fact that I’m not going to be a clean person my whole life. I don’t want to. I don’t want to play punk shows sober, even though this weekend I did two shows and I did the first one totally sober and it was really fun. The next one I had a couple beers and it was also really fun. That’s where I have to be. I’m never going to do painkillers again. I’m just trying to get back to where I was in my thirties, when I partied on occasions. But I definitely got too deep last year.
How long do you feel like you were too deep before you realized it was time to dig out of it? They talk in the program about hitting bottom. Did you have a one-time thing that made you go to detox?
No, that’s the thing. I never really hit a bottom. Well…I did. I hit my bottom. But my bottom wasn’t bad. It wasn’t like I had a near-death experience or anything. It was that I slept too late for my daughter’s birthday party. I didn’t miss it, I just was like “shit, that sucks…I’m late because I was doing drugs last night.” So that sucks, but I think “bottom” is a lot worse than that. (*laughs*)
Right, you didn’t get arrested. You didn’t OD.
I didn’t hit someone with my car, I didn’t lose my job. I was late for Darla’s birthday. For me, that was unacceptable behavior. I needed to stop. But that’s why I wrote that song (“It Ain’t Lonely At The Bottom”) because my bottom ain’t so bad.
As somebody who’s day job is in the addiction treatment field, one of the things we tell people all the time is that you don’t have to compare your bottom to somebody else’s. If it’s bad enough for you to change, it’s bad enough for you to change.
So that was my bottom. That was when I decided I needed to quit. At least for a while. I had 85 days, and I really thought my head was on straight, and I really had time to regroup. My wife has been sober for five months now.
And she’s sticking with it.
Did you guys basically quit around the same time?
She quit a little bit before me. It’s interesting. We have to relearn a lot of stuff, especially in the BDSM world. We used to just go crazy, me getting beat up and just doing crazy shit all night. Now we’re just taking like an hour. (*both laugh*) And some things I used to think were totally acceptable and think “Oh, I can do that!” now I think “Oh, I can’t do that so much anymore!”
Oh really? (*both laugh*)
Yeah! Like “quit it! That hurts!” (*both laugh*)
You sort of rather famously chronicled the early stages of going to detox on Instagram. First off, are you sorta surprised at how much publicity that got? It was on TMZ for god’s sake.
Yeah, that was very surprising. And what was surprising to me is how many people were so supportive. That really made me feel good. People I hadn’t talked to in a long time, strangers… Tim and Lars from Rancid both reached out if I needed anything. It was really sweet. And it really goes to show how the punk community is just the best community and really just an extended family. I stopped Instagramming around day 60 or something, not because I was going to start using again, but because I was getting kinda sick of it. I didn’t want to count days anymore, I was just going to not use anymore…no need to keep counting.
Were you also kind of mindful of becoming “Mr. Sober Guy.” Like, you’ve made this whole career out of pushing boundaries, and Cokie the Clown and notoriously not playing shows sober, then all of a sudden you’re Mr. Sober Guy? Almost like people would think it was just another Fat Mike, April Fools-style prank?
Nah, I really just needed to do it. I hadn’t done more than two weeks sober in thirty years. But, that’s the thing about me using, is that I always used to quit after tour for a couple weeks. I knew how to quit, because I quit all the time. I just didn’t know how to do it for a longer period of time. So I did a European tour sober, and it was fine. I could do it. But the second European tour, I started to kinda miss the celebration of it. It started to feel like a job, and I don’t want it to feel like a job. I want it to be fun. So now I have a few beers before a show and I have a way better time.
What felt the most different about playing those first shows sober?
Well, I didn’t like playing clubs. People still throw shit at me. I’ve kind of grown some sort of PTSD because of it. So when I’m drinking a lot, I don’t notice. It doesn’t bother me as much. When you hear that, I sound like a pussy. But when you’re sitting at your job and you get hit in the side of the head with a full beer, you’re going to start to stress over it. Even though you know shit will get thrown on stage, when you get hit is always when you don’t see it coming.
Right…that’s why you get hit..
Yeah. It’s stressful. So, playing festivals felt normal, but playing clubs I would get nervous and I would start to not want to play.
Really? Out of fear of being hit with a beer or whatever?
Yeah. Or spit. Anything, really. That’s what happened in Australia when I kicked that kid in the face. I had a really sore neck, and that was before I went clean but I was still trying to do the tour sober.
Oh I didn’t know that part.
And that first show, I was sober. But my neck was in such pain, that when the kid grabbed me I was just so frustrated. Already I’d been hit with three different things. You can see a video where there’s just beer cans being flung everywhere. I was like “fuck, what am I doing? I’m standing here trying to perform and I’m a fucking target.” That’s the one bad thing about punk rock. It’s the only style of music where it’s acceptable to throw things at the band.
I was just thinking that. It doesn’t really happen at anywhere else, but I can imagine you getting blowback from people in the punk world because you complain about getting beers thrown at you or whatever. That wouldn’t happen in country music or whatever…
Jazz… (*both laugh*) Certainly not at the symphony! (*both laugh*)
I think May 17th, in looking back through Instagram, was the day you posted was detox day number one. Were there other times…it sounds like from the album that you were mindful of having to stop before….had you ever actually tried to go the detox route before or was that the first serious attempt?
No, it was the first time, but it was also the first time I got hooked on painkillers. I wasn’t doing that many. I was doing about two Percocets a day, so it wasn’t a big problem, but it was enough of a problem that I couldn’t stop because I would get sick. The big problem for me, and why I was so pissed off and why I wrote the “Oxy Moronic” song was that months before that…I had a problem for like maybe nine months or ten months. And in the middle of that, I went to see a doctor, a specialist in getting off painkillers. And he said “I want you to take this Suboxone.” I’d heard of Suboxone before. So I said “alright. Give me a week’s worth and I’ll get off it.” And he goes “no, you have to take it for three months.” And I said “I don’t want to take it for three months.” And he goes “well, if you want it, you’re going to have to take it for three months. That’s how we run this program.”
Yeah. He would not take me as a patient if I didn’t take it for three months.
So I did. I had to see him every week and get drug tested every week, and right towards the end I said “now what do I do.” And he said “now you’ve got to wean your way off it.” And I’m like “but I’ll still get sick? Because I heard it’s really hard to quit. Most of your patients, what do they do?” And his eyes kinda darted away like he’s about to tell a lie. That’s a poker tell. And he said “well, most of them go back to opiates or stay on Suboxone.” And I’m like “you motherfucker! You just set me up to get addicted to this new drug!” Meanwhile, I’ve been having to pay him for weekly visits. And then I had to go record the album. So all those songs I wrote, especially the ones about me being clean, I wasn’t clean yet, but I knew that I was going to detox. I had a date that I was going to detox. In the meantime (after stopping Suboxone), I went back to opiates, because if I’m going to be hooked on a drug, I want to be having fun. So I went back to opiates, and I went to detox and the doctor said “I’m going to give you Suboxone for six days and you’ll be fine.” So that’s what I did and I thought “What a scam!” That first doctor just scammed me. When I wrote “Oxy Moronic,” I thought “even I got duped.” My friends weren’t dying from cocaine. They’re dying from mixing prescription drugs.
Did you get into Percs because they were prescribed or did you get into them recreationally at shows or whatever?
I got into them for fun. But other people I know…a lot of other people…got into them after surgery. Dental surgery, or boob surgery (*both laugh*). That’s when they get hooked on them. They get hooked on the Vicodin, and start buying street drugs and people can’t afford them because they’re so expensive so they move to heroin. It’s such a scam.
Did they try to get you back on Suboxone on an outpatient basis when you got out of detox?
No, I’ve been off painkillers and Suboxone ever since then.
Good for you! Was that the hardest thing to give up?
No. I didn’t even like painkillers that much. Drinking and doing coke was one thing, but with painkillers you start to feel a little edgy, or if you don’t take them the next day you feel like shit. It just kinda got put in the mix and the problem was that I had so much shit to do. I had the album, I had the book tour, I was working on Home Street Home. So I went four or five months without a break because I was just too busy, and that was my downfall.
I seem to recall that when you played up here in Boston in April, not long before you went to detox…I remember you coming out on stage and saying that you hadn’t had a drink yet and that you weren’t going to have a drink until somebody messed up, or until you made a mistake or something like that.
Oh, I still had a drink. But it was that I wasn’t going to drink any more…because I was pretty wasted already. That was a funny tour because I had a companion on that tour. Brandon from Dr. Know. And he had my drugs in a safe. We actually saw a doctor — this was right before I was going to go to detox — and the doctor is like “well, he can’t go off of painkillers now, and if you’re going to go on tour, you need someone to only give you two a day so your habit doesn’t get worse and so you’re careful not to die.” So he flew with us and gave me my drugs! (*laughs*)
So it’s like you had a visiting nurse on tour with you.
Yeah, and it was cool, because I could still party and have fun, but I was asleep by 2!
Do you find yourself comfortable now playing shows not sober, but comparatively sober? Like you’re in a good place where that’s concerned now?
Yeah, it’s a much better place now. I play better. My energy is better. My band tells me I’m funnier. But that’s after like two or three beers. I used to drink a lot before shows. I’d drink a half-bottle of vodka before a show.
But also, overlapping this time, you’ve become more comfortable and confident in public with the whole cross-dressing piece. You’d been outspoken a lot about the BDSM piece over the years, but the cross-dressing part is new. That’s what makes the song “Transvest-lite” so interesting, because you talk about going back to the age of thirteen years old and having that impulse.
Yeah, I’ve always done it. For some reason, I was embarrassed by that. So I’ve been publicly cross-dressing in the BDSM world for, I don’t know, eight or nine years. But in the punk world, or in public…like, I’m in Atlanta right now at my sister’s house…and we just went to breakfast and I wore a mini-skirt! (*both laugh*) I just don’t give a fuck anymore.
Well right. But as you get more comfortable playing in a skirt or playing in a dress, and you are also more comfortable playing less fucked up and just being yourself, do you think that there’s sort of a correlation between those things? Not to totally psychoanalyze you, but in how comfortable you are with yourself…
I don’t think so. I was in Luxembourg and I was wearing a pink nightie in the hotel room with my wife, and she was doing my hair. And I just said “hey, I’m going to go to dinner wearing this.” So I went to dinner in the nightie and I felt like a punk rocker again. Like it was 1982. Everyone was looking at me. I was like “oh, I haven’t had this feeling in so long! I feel like a total fucking freak!” And we went to a really nice restaurant and I played a show, and Lagwagon were there and they were like “holy shit, dude! What the hell are you doing!?” It was fun. And ever since then it’s just something to do.
Was the level of drugs and drinking the same in the underground BDSM world as it was in your sort of more outspoken punk rock persona? Or are they different?
That was fucked up. I came in and I was really frowned upon in the BDSM world, because drugs are not accepted. Some people do MDMA, but you’re not supposed to even drink and top somebody. If you’re going to take someone’s life in your hands and play hard and suspend people from the ceiling and cut people…you can’t be fucked up.
So you became an outcast in that world? Or were you sober when you were doing the BDSM piece?
No, I was an outcast. And Soma was too. We were the ones that were always the last ones at the parties, doing the craziest shit. It was frowned upon, when I first met her through a party at her dungeon, I said that I was going to do some coke, and she said “oh, can you please go to the bathroom? That’s unacceptable here.” And in rock and roll, it’s totally acceptable. You want to. And I’m like “oh…taboo in this scene. How weird.”
Right, so you’re in a taboo scene, but you’re doing something that’s taboo inside that scene.
You talk both in the beginning and in the ending of the book about your “weirdness barometer” being broken. Has that changed at all since writing the book and writing the album? Or do you feel like you’re still a little off that way. Because I could see where writing and talking about a lot of this stuff normalizes it and then it’s not a big deal anymore.
Yeah, another reason that I think I’m autistic is that I don’t know what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable. Like, farting in public…when I fart on a plane, I always raise my hand, like “that was me!” (*both laugh*) I’ve always done things that are weird. So when I found punk and I was 13 or 14 years old, I thought that I fit here. That I belong here. Because I could do anything and people don’t think it’s weird, they just call it punk. But I’m also thinking that “weirdness barometer” is a good way to put it, but people who don’t live out all their sexual fantasies? They’re weird. Not me. They’re the ones that are bummed their whole lives and are watching things on the internet that they want to be doing but they don’t actually do them because they’re too fucking scared.
Do you think the autistic piece plays into that for you, insomuch as that if you don’t think anything is weird, then you’re open to doing whatever, and that keeps you from being one of those boring people who just looks shit up on the internet?
Yeah! I think so! And also, that play we saw, when the kid was freaking out, he used to like to get into his sleeping bag and go to the corner of the room. And that’s like me. When I’m freaking out about something or I’m having a hard time, I want to be put into severe bondage and put in a cage. It makes all my problems go away and it makes me feel comfortable. That’s another thing where I totally fit that description.
Is that something that you have to follow up with now, or you just kinda know. Not that there’s meds or that sort of treatment for it, but…
I want to take the tests. I’m going to see a doctor to take the tests and see where I am. But I just know. I’ve always been this way. I don’t follow the rules of society, I never have, and I don’t know why I should.
So then, I guess, why bother taking the test and getting diagnosed?
Just for fun. Because I can. Why not?
Do you worry about “weirdness barometer” stuff with Darla, or does it seem likes she’s got her head screwed on straight?
She’s totally normal. She saw me in LA in lingerie, and she’s like “dad, I know you like to wear a dress on stage, but you look like a stripper tonight.” And I was like…she’s 11…she’s the coolest kid. And my stepdaughter bought me a pair of high heels for Father’s Day, which was like so fucking cool that it was unbelievable. And it wasn’t a joke, it was legitimately because she thought I’d like them. It made me cry. It was such a sweet thing. That’s how it should be. That’s how families should be. So I’m not worried about Darla.
Do you worry though that she’s normalized some of that weirdness and how that lands with other kids though?
Yeah, I mean the only thing I worry about is her friends reading the book and making fun of her. That’s what we all worried about. That was a big hurdle to get over for everyone in NOFX. Like, ”look this could come back and our kids could get blowback.” But great art hurts sometimes. You have to lay yourself on the line and there have to be consequences.
Have there really been many? Obviously nobody has heard the album yet, but since writing the book have there been many consequences or has blowback been pretty minimal?
I don’t know. People look at us all differently now. People think about NOFX differently. We hear that all the time. But I think it’s a good thing.
Did it bring you guys closer or change the dynamic in the band, once you were all…
It did bring us a little closer, especially because doing the book tour, we spent so many hours in a van every day driving to weird bookstores, that it was kinda like the old days of just hanging out and having fun.