By now, I’m sure everyone here is quite familiar with Fat Wreck Chords and the ever-so-colorful Fat Mike. Some of us may even be familiar with how it began and the hundred plus bands that have touted the Fat Wreck seal of approval on one or all of their releases. The alumni list is pretty hefty, particularly if you include subsidiary labels Honest Don’s and Pink & Black, which unfortunately, were barely mentioned in this documentary. I have more complaints being a terminal curmudgeon, but we’ll get to those later.
Years in the making and finally seeing a recent release, this film is most certainly a fan production via the fine folks at Open Ended Films based out of Texas. It is a fully DIY effort proving you can learn to do anything as you go if you have a solid foundation of skills, knowledge, and love for what you’re making. With the original intent of only being 20 or so minutes long, filmmaker Shaun Colon found that with a crowdfunding campaign, a dream, a camera, and maybe a little help from friends, an idea can grow much larger like a goldfish if you give it enough space. And grow it did.
A Fat Wreck grew into a full length documentary that, as I said before, is a film by fans for fans. You won’t find any crazy drama, uncovered scandals, or vast amounts of shit talking as one might expect from a punk documentary, but rather a well shot and edited film that included more than just the musical aspects of a label that has kept itself going for over 25 years now. The addition of puppet scenes courtesy of Bad Cop/ Bad Cop‘s Jenni Cotterill was also an odd yet excellent call to break up the potential monotony of a bunch of old farts talking about the glory days. This was an inclusive labor of love project and it shows.
As far as the content of the film itself, we’re going to suspend the pop-punk vs real punk argument as well as personal opinions on the Fat Wreck roster and focus on the label itself for the sake of this review. Fat Mike himself is no stranger to hi-jinks, gossip, finger-pointing, and controversy with a number of bands over the years, but as these things aren’t really relevant to the film, I’ll let you fine folks check that out on your own time.
We begin this little ride with a quick overview of Fat spawning from a group of friends playing shitty punk, not being able to find a label (which was almost required to even think of putting out an album in those pre-internet days of 1990), and realizing that it could be done with a little elbow grease and some ingenuity. Fat Mike recounts going to college for a degree he would never end up using, borrowing a large chunk of change from his dad, and pressing some records which turned out to be easier than originally thought. Eschewing a traditional business model and bringing in the help of his then-wife and partner-in-crime Erin, they built a family from bands they dug and like-minded folks building an empire in its own right.
The first band other than NOFX was Lagwagon in 1992 with bands like No Use For A Name, Propagandhi, Rancid, 88 Fingers Louie, Face To Face, and Strung Out to follow creating that Fat Wreck sound we were all familiar with in the 90’s. This humble beginning was built off a no-pressure system of a handshake and signing with folks that were real people as opposed to the largely corporate options available at the time. You didn’t have to sign your life away or have your people contact their people, but you could knock back a few beers and actually get paid. It wasn’t rocket science but it wasn’t status quo either.
From there Fat Wreck plugged along doing their thing and became a heavy hitter of now legendary bands during the late 90’s for that last golden era of back page mail order records before digital media rolled in like a hurricane. While a lot of excellent labels collapsed during the mp3 and Napster craze, Fat Wreck hunkered down, cut operations back to its bare bones, and still just did their thing while continuing to support their family of miscreants. When the times changed, they started bringing in a more diverse line up of bands and still continue to grow today.
Most of the bands interviewed were important to the story development here but I can’t seem to shake the notion that some of the choices were a bit biased. Fully realizing that these choices were most likely due to availability, one can’t help but notice there was little mention, if any, of a lot of important current and former Fat bands that didn’t fit a particular sound while plenty of air time was given to bands that appeal to the newer fans. While that’s all good and fine, Fat is a label that is often considered a gateway drug into punk rock for most, so this leaves a lot of new punk fans missing out on a ton of good shit and lends itself to being stuck in one particular corner of the genre. I will point out, however, that taking a Russian Roulette approach to picking out unknown albums from the Fat catalog is definitely stressed in this film and that’s usually good advice because you’ll certainly find some really great gems.
Additional thumbs up for giving Erin Burkett an equal amount of appreciation for being a cat herder/ punk mom to all these wily punk bands and for keeping the lights on, bills paid, orders shipped, and all that other boring business bullshit throughout the life of the label. She may not have been in the limelight over the years, but she’s definitely held it all together while the musicians partied on the road. In my opinion, she’s the real star here, but that’s just my opinion and I may also be a bit biased myself there.
I also thought Mike Park of Asian Man Records’ stories were great and it was wonderful to see the likes of Cinder Block, Wizo, and Hi-Standard again, even if it was only briefly. There are some bits acknowledging staff over the years with a look through the Fat Wreck office and a little nod to the self-awareness that set NOFX apart in the first place. Throw in some parts about learning curves (Punkvoter/ working at Epitaph/ getting dosed) and you might finally start to tip the iceberg of everything that’s gone into making Fat Wreck one of the West Coast Punk greats.
So, to wrap this up, there is an overall positive theme to this film and its about as heartwarming as a punk film can be despite not being a complete picture of the subject. The overall message I took from it was that if you love what you do, keep doing it despite what anyone else has to say, treat everyone like family, don’t bullshit people for the sake of appearances, and just plain don’t fuck over those supporting you then any crazy idea you have is definitely a recipe for success. That, my friends, is a great way to leave a movie even if it’s not very punk thing to say.
Watch the trailer.
You can find out more or purchase a copy of A Fat Wreck here.