NOFX's Fat Mike: “You can play bass better with a thin pick. Our job, as bass players, is to play whole notes – not sharp ones – and play them smooth”

Fat Mike
(Image credit: Pedro Becerra/Redferns)

Fat Mike isn’t much of a guitar collector, at least not in the traditional sense. Though the much-beloved NOFX bassist-vocalist starts off his Zoom call with Guitar World by listing the minimal clutch of instruments he keeps around the house – including an SG, Jazzmaster, and the Danelectro DC Cooper bass he’s been slinging live for more than 15 years. 

He’s also got an ever-growing stash of other punkers’ six-strings piling up in the Punk Rock Museum he’s been building out in Las Vegas. 

And while spots like the Smithsonian would normally put iconic instruments behind glass or velvet rope, music fans entering Mike’s museum have full access to this collection — potentially creating punk rock history of their own with a few palm-muted power chords.

“We have a jam room, and you can play Pete [Koller] from Sick of it All’s SG through his amp; you can play my old Fender through my amp; or Fletcher [Dragge] from Pennywise’s guitar through his amp,” he explains. “We have Johnny Thunders’ fuckin ‘59 [a double-cut Les Paul]! It’s not just a guitar museum, you know. It’s what they played, and you get to play them.”

Though Fat Mike is psyched to be preserving so much history within the museum’s walls, when it comes to writing music for NOFX these days, he’s only looking forward. 

Last year, the quartet delivered Single Album, which paid homage to NOFX’s melodic hardcore slam of bright octave work, sleek bass melodicism, and double-kick speediness while also exploring erratic meter-shifting (The Big Drag) and devastating lyricism (I Love You More Than I Hate Me). 

Their new Double Album – a sequel that was to have been stitched to Single Album, were it not for the fact that the songs weren’t up to snuff at the time – is melodically a more upbeat affair, but finds quirks in places like Punk Rock Cliché, a deceptively poppy, electronic-production-peppered piece written for but turned down by blink-182. 

Despite Double Album’s delay, Fat Mike confesses it’s been a prolific couple of years. While the band recently announced they’re ready to retire from the road (“It’s not a Sabbath thing, I’m done”), another three NOFX albums will see release in the near future. Mike’s also been working on string concertos, tunes with genre-less collective The Codefendants, an on-screen adaptation of his Home Street Home musical, and more. 

Speaking with Guitar World, Fat Mike further gets into finally completing the band’s Double Album, the new music he’s even more excited for, batting .500 with his NAMM solicitations, and more.

On top of looking at punk rock history through your work with the museum, we’re also crossing over into 40 years of NOFX. How much of your teenage bass playing can you still hear in your style these days?

“They’re worlds apart. I never had a lesson, and I didn’t watch videos – because there weren’t any. I played upstrokes, which is strange. The only advice I ever got was ‘play a thin pick,’ from this guy that used to beat me up, Mike Knox. He told me to play a .60 mm.

“This is a pretty cool story: I have a [signature] .60 mm pink pick from Jim Dunlop. It’s a nylon pick. I met him the one time I went to NAMM, and was like, ‘Oh, hey, Jim Dunlop! Can I get a [signature] pick?’ But he was like, ‘We haven’t changed our molds since the ‘60s!’ ‘Well, it’s about time you made a new one. I want my name, Fat Mike, put on a nylon pick.’ 

“He asked why, and it’s because I have a different style of playing. You can play bass better with a thin pick, which people don’t realize. Our job, as bass players, is to play the whole notes – not sharp – and play it smooth. Bass players play thick picks because they think they have to hit a guitar like they’re beating a person. That’s not how it’s done. So, I sold him on it, and he spent $10,000 to make me my own mold.”

So, you started off with the .60 mm, but did you experiment with a heavier pick over the years?

“When I can’t find one of my picks I’ll use a thicker one, [but] it makes your thumb really tired; it hurts. People think because you hear more attack that that’s what you want [out of a solid bass tone], but a bass player’s job is to make everyone else sound good.”

Melody works so much better over one note. That’s why the Beatles are so fucking good, because most of the melodies are based around a bass note. When you base a melody off a six-string chord, the melody gets a little lost

Do you have good finger control, or is it all pick?

“I play with my fingers on certain styles, like reggae and jazzy stuff. But Steve Harris – who I do think is a great bass player – fuck you and your finger playing [laughs]. Use a fucking pick! I met him once and was like ‘Dude, Iron Maiden… it’s way the fuck better with a pick. Duh!’”

Darby Crashing Your Party starts Double Album with a lot of heavy bass noodling… 

“My best lines ever are on this album.”

Were you aware of that while making the record?

“Like I said, I think our job is to make the guitar chords sound sweet. Mostly, melody is based on bass. I have a musical called Home Street Home, and there’s this one song called Three String Guitar, but it’s all played on one guitar string. It’s melody, one string, and no pattern. There’s no repeated chord progression. When the musical got reviewed, this guy from Broadway was like, ‘this is the most sophisticated song I’ve ever heard, because there’s no pattern.’

“Melody works so much better over one note. That’s why the Beatles are so fucking good, because most of the melodies are based around a bass note. When you base a melody off a six-string chord, the melody gets a little lost. If you play a minor chord, you can’t sing a major melody. 

“But if you play one note [as the basis of a melody], you can do whatever the fuck you want. You can be so beautiful when chords are vague – it’s magic what you can do. So many bands, they’ll write a song before the singer gets to hear it. Like, ‘sing over this!’ You’re just painting that dude in a corner.

“My [approach to] theory, especially on our new album… I have one song that’s fifty-four chords in a row, no pattern.”

Fat Mike of NOFX

(Image credit: Thomas Cooper/Getty Images)

Is that Double Album’s My Favorite Enemy? It feels like there are a million switches through that.

“That’s a complex song, but I don’t think it’s a great song. I spent too long on it; it’s not a perfect song. [I’m talking about] a song called I’m a Rat, which comes out next year – we have records coming out every year; during Covid I did a lot of shit. [Also,] a song called I’m Not Dead Anymore. That’s a sixteen-chord progression with some bad-ass chords in there – great passing chords.

Can you get into how you arrived at those kind of chord selections? In 1983, NOFX started as a hardcore band…

“We’re still a hardcore band, but we’re melodic.”

Not like a Negative Approach or Negative FX-styled, early-era hardcore.

“Oh, we tried to be like Negative Approach and Negative FX. We’re a hardcore band, but over the years I realized that Southern California punk – Bad Religion, Social Distortion, the Adolescents – that’s where it’s at. 

I was trying to make a good double album, which pretty much no one has done [other than] Pink Floyd or The Who

“Bad Religion’s Suffer changed everything; that’s where I learned [vocal] harmony. I also learned not to do three-part harmonies – because I’m not a good enough singer – but two-part is great, because you can hear it. 

“Over the years, though, I’ve learned chord progressions. When you realize what the Beatles did… It’s so incredible what they did in eight years. Even a song like She Loves You, which sounds so simple, is so fucking complicated. And that’s the goal, to play chord progressions that no one’s done, and sing sweet-ass melodies [over the top]. 

“That’s what I’m doing on our next album – not Double Album. This one’s funny, with cool bass lines; it’s old school NOFX. The new one also sounds like old school NOFX, but the songs are so complex.”

Single Album and Double Album were supposed to be connected as a legitimate double album, right?

“I had 24 songs recorded, but I wasn’t happy with how it came out. I was trying to make a good double album, which pretty much no one has done [other than] Pink Floyd or The Who. I realized that it’s a terrible decision to try to write a double album. It's arrogant, and so fucking hard. So, we released Single Album, which I think is a very good album, and I worked on the second half a lot [to make] the songs better.”

Is it fair to say that Single Album is a much darker record, at least melodically? There are some heavy themes on Double Album – like queer erasure (Three Against Me) and rehab stints (Fuck Day Six) – but arrangement-wise there’s nothing quite as dark and discordant as Single Album’s The Big Drag.

The Big Drag is a masterpiece of mine. No measure is the same length. You always feel awkward and uncomfortable, but you feel that release when it finally hits the next chord. I never get bored of that song. It’s one of the only NOFX songs I can listen to over and over, because even I forget when it changes. There’s no pattern! 

“The bass never really lands on a note; you never land somewhere where you feel safe, which was really fun for me. That song was really hard to write and record. I had to go against every instinct.”

Does it keep it on your toes live?

“We can’t play it live [laughs]. It’s impossible. Our drummer couldn’t play it, nor could we. It’s anti-intuitive. Last Resort, the last song on [Single Album], I may like that more. Especially because [of that] new theory of music that I started [using] – not that I came up with it – of playing one chord for so long and then finally giving in.

Punk Rock Cliché is one of the worst songs on our album. It’s an ok song, but when I played it for friends, they weren’t into that song… But it would’ve made a great blink-182 song!

“It's about an old relationship; it’s so dark and harmful for me to sing those lyrics. I sing the one line, ‘I was battened down with minor chords / As we set sail into the dark and sharpest sea,’ and I hit a C sharp minor. I didn’t even plan it. I went to sing the lyrics and went, ‘Holy shit, [the arrangement’s] in A, so it fucking works.’”

Somewhat on intuition and music composition, what can you say about the experience of making Double Album’s Punk Rock Cliché, which you’d originally written with Matt Skiba for blink-182. With the song title in mind, were there beats you felt you needed to hit while writing for the band?

“I think Blink’s a pretty good band. I like some of their songs, they’re catchy. I wanted to bring them a chord progression that was eight chords, and something they’d never played before. Something that was darker, and minor. This sounds rude, [but] it was Travis’ favorite song, because it didn’t sound like a Blink song. 

“You don’t have to play poppy chords to [make] pop songs. I’ll go back to the Beatles: the Beatles’ secret was playing sad chords and melodies with joyful lyrics. The sad thing is, I think [Punk Rock Cliché] is one of the worst songs on our album. It’s an ok song, [but] when I played it for friends, they weren’t into that song… But it would’ve made a great blink-182 song!”

You’ve pushed your songwriting with NOFX in a lot of different directions, the past few years especially. Is there such a thing as a NOFX cliché at this point?

“We’re not cliché, anything but. I don’t write songs to please people, I write songs to make people think – musically and lyrically. It’s weird, because I just [heard this] David Bowie quote [along the lines of], ‘If you start trying to please people, you’re dead.’ I believe that! 

“And I believe that NOFX, [despite] how many records we have, our new records are still relevant. We’re not a nostalgia band. I think our best record is Wolves in Wolves' Clothing, which was 2006, [but] Single Album was our best reviewed record, ever. You go back to [1994’s] Punk in Drublic or [1992’s] White Trash [Two Heebs and a Bean], they’re good, but people want to hear our new songs, which is so fucking cool. It’s very rewarding. 

“I work so hard to write songs that no one’s heard before. Double Album, which I like, is just a cool punk album. But our next album, Everyone Else is Insane… It’s not progressive rock [but] I’m a Rat has 54 chords in a row without a pattern, and it’s the catchiest song on the album. And there’s a string version – I have a concerto album coming out.”

The Beatles hit their stride from Sgt. Pepper’s to Abbey Road, except for that one George Harrison song on Sgt. Pepper’s [Within You Without You]. Fuckin’ ruined the whole thing. Sitar? Ugh

Something you’d hinted at on an Instagram post last summer is that NOFX will be stopping touring soon. Since you keep mentioning the Beatles: if the songwriting is getting more complex – either structurally or by working with string sections – is this NOFX entering the post-Revolver stage?

“Is that when they stopped playing live? They hit their stride from Sgt. Pepper’s to Abbey Road, except for that one George Harrison song on Sgt. Pepper’s [Within You Without You]. Fuckin’ ruined the whole thing. Sitar? Ugh. 

“No, we have three more NOFX albums in the can right now. And I’m never going to stop writing. I’m also in a band called the Codefendants now – I’m not a touring member, but that’s way more exciting to me. 

“It’s for sure the best record I’ve ever produced. It’s a whole different style of music – [Rapper & N.W.A. collaborator] The D.O.C is in the band! But the concerto album, that’s where I’m at right now. That’s where my brain is: four-or-five different string parts.”

How different is it to arrange for a string quartet than it is for a four-piece punk band?

“Same exact thing. NOFX has a bass note, the octaves, the melody, and the harmony with the melody. Nobody would notice this, but NOFX’s [vocal] harmonies are not parallel – we don’t just do fifths or thirds. No one notices, because you’re not supposed to. 

“But concertos, [they] just makes my brain so fucking happy. I particularly love to write the cello parts.”

Despite that, what’s your general bass rig at the moment?

“Live, I’ve been playing the same Danelectro for 15 years. I bought it for $300; I’ve broken the neck three times. Bob Rock saw us play once and he goes, ‘What the fuck did you do? Your bass tone is amazing!’ I just said, ‘It’s a stock Danelectro bass. I just play with a soft pick…and I play tasty.’

With Danelectro, I’m the only bass player on their website, but they will not give me a free bass

“I used to use a [Mesa/]Boogie amp, but they stopped making them. I think I use an Ampeg now, but I’m not sure. With Danelectro, I’m the only bass player on their website, but they will not give me a free bass.”

They know you keep fixing the neck!

“When I went to NAMM, I was like, ‘Hey, Danelectro! I’m Fat Mike, the only bass player on your website. Can I get a bass just like this one?’ They gave me two T-shirts [laughs]. It’s fucked up.

“One more thing… When I do NOFX albums, I [also] play rhythm guitars. I’ve got an SG and a Jazzmaster, The Jazzmaster, you can hear chords on that thing like no other guitar.”

Going back to the Punk Rock Museum, there are some basses that you’ve teased will be in there. Some that you literally won’t be able to play in the jam room, specifically your old, broken Steinberger headless bass. How long had that been a part of NOFX?

“Well, first off, it wasn’t a Steinberger, it’s a rip-off. An Arbor.

“You want to know why I play that bass? It’s because the most progressive punk band of all time is Rich Kids on LSD, or RKL. If you listen to a record called Rock ‘n Roll Nightmare, or a song called Blocked Out, every progressive or metal band will go, ‘What the fuck just happened to me?’ 

“That’s because no one can ever touch the musicianship of RKL: the drumming, the bass playing. The guitar playing? People can touch that, but they were our heroes and we tried to be like them. Their bass player [Joe Raposo] played a headless Hohner; I got the cheaper [knockoff]. 

“Our drummer bought the same four-piece Ludwig set because we wanted to be exactly like RKL. If you listen to RKL, the layman would think, ‘Man, this is a NOFX rip-off band,’ but, no, we ripped them off. Though we could not play nearly as good. Thank the great goddess I learned how to write melody.”

How did you break that bass?

“We were doing a video [for 1992’s Stickin’ In My Eye], so I broke it. You can’t break a bass and say, ‘That’s jazz!’ But you can break it and say, ‘That’s punk!’

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Gregory Adams

Gregory Adams is a Vancouver-based arts reporter. From metal legends to emerging pop icons to the best of the basement circuit, he’s interviewed musicians across countless genres for nearly two decades, most recently with Guitar World, Bass Player, Revolver, and more – as well as through his independent newsletter, Gut Feeling. This all still blows his mind. He’s a guitar player, generally bouncing hardcore riffs off his ’52 Tele reissue and a dinged-up SG.