We had no clue that NOFX mouthpiece/Fat Wreck Chords founder Fat Mike was fast buds with British troubadour Frank Turner. What we do know is that now everyone can get in on this mutual admiration society. West Coast Vs. Wessex is a split album featuring NOFX and Turner’s band covering each other’s songs. And the year-end best-of list just got a little longer.
Throw your preconceived notions into whatever junk drawer you have left. West Coast Vs. Wessex functions as both a punk-rock valentine and an insightful homage. NOFX deliver sterling renditions, framing Turner’s songs into dynamic creations. (Check out that ska version of “Thatcher Fucked The Kids.”) Likewise, Turner pays back his West Coast punk faves with enhanced respect and great vision (“Eat The Meek”).
Turner and Fat Mike discussed their shared philosophy on doing cover versions and how punk-policemen need to chug a tall, cold glass of STFU already. They also divulged their top three punk records in life and the secret to making great albums. We promise you that West Coast Vs. Wessex is so good, you won’t be wondering about the return of live shows while it’s on.
West Coast Vs. Wessex is incredible. There’s new energy to the selections, but it’s not that the original versions needed it. It wasn’t just knocking out some cover songs in a “one, two, fuck you” punk way. It’s measured, and the arrangements are great. Was the attitude like, “Well, we know what we’re not going to do…”?
FAT MIKE: Well, we both agree [that] when you do cover songs, you got to make them different. You got to try to make it better or make it yours. And we take it very seriously.
FRANK TURNER: There wasn’t a huge amount of conceptual discussion before we did it. I think one of the things that made it work is that we’ve had conversations over the years about this kind of stuff, conceptually. Like Mike was saying, there’s no point in doing a straight cover song. You might as well just listen to the original. So with that in mind, we didn’t really discuss the philosophy of this very much till it was just like, “Do you want to do it?” And I think we both understood that we would come at it in a serious way. And try and do something worthwhile.
MIKE: And because we’re good friends, you want to do each the justice and show off the other person’s songwriting. Like, “This is a great song. I want to show people this is a great song by doing it this way.” A great song should be good in any style of music.
When we were doing that Barry Manilow song (“Mandy”) in Me First And The Gimme Gimmes, you can’t really think about what Barry’s going to think of it. Or the Eagles who, you know, contacted us when we did “Desperado.” [imitates band manager.] “The band wanted me to let you know this is the worst cover they’ve ever heard.”
TURNER: [Laughs.] Really?
TURNER: That’s a seal of approval, right there. [Laughter.]
We’re both fans of each other’s work anyway, so that initial respect is there. In fact, the only rule really is to not repeat yourself. In terms of choosing which songs to do, the ones that I toyed with and didn’t do from NOFX’s catalog were the ones where I found it impossible to get away from the original arrangement. For example, “Seeing Double At The Triple Rock.” I couldn’t get away from that original riff. And if you play that original riff, then you’re playing it the way that they play it. And I just ran into a dead end with it.
MIKE: We had the same problem because we actually recorded that song “I Still Believe.” We couldn’t get away from the original version. It just sounded like a distorted version of it.
So there was no discussion in advance of what you’re going to do?
MIKE: We purposely didn’t talk to each other.
TURNER: We didn’t discuss the fact that [there] wasn’t going to be any discussion. It was just understood.
MIKE: We agreed to do it, but we hadn’t talked for six months. So Frank’s like, “Oh, you’re still doing it?” And I’m like, “Yeah, we’re still doing it.” And then I called my band and said, “Hey, we’ve got to record these songs!” [Laughter.]
NOFX have had an album in the can for [around] eight months now. It’s just crazy, and it’s like, “Oh shit, we have two records. Let’s put out the Frank Turner split first.” I’ve never sat on a record for so long.
TURNER: My first hearing of the NOFX side of the split was finished mixes. It was cool that there wasn’t the possibility of me having any input into the tracks. It wasn’t like I was going to say, “I like what you’ve done there, but you should change this.” That would’ve been ridiculous. And if I had said that, Mike would have said to go fuck myself.
MIKE: It was funny when we did the Rancid split. We all met at mastering, and we flipped a coin. We listened to our songs first, and then we listened to theirs. And they decided to go back and remix. [Laughs.]
Are you two ever in a situation where somebody, maybe somebody older, somebody younger, is telling you what punk rock is?
MIKE: [Laughs.] Well, I hear a lot that I’m “not punk” or “This isn’t punk.” NOFX used to get it a lot more when punk rock broke in the ’90s. But we still get it. I get more shit than anybody. Can’t win. Ever since I got political, when I put out The War On Errorism. NOFX have always been political. But we’re funny onstage so people don’t think of us as a political band. Vice magazine gave War On Errorism a zero out of 10 and said I should “stay at the children’s table when it comes to politics.” Dang! I graduated college! I have an opinion! But when you stick your neck out and take stands, you’re going to get a lot of hate. Especially against country music fans.
TURNER: [Laughs.] I can’t really say any of this without sounding slightly defensive. I talk about punk in my public utterances. It’s the music I grew up with. And it’s where I regard it as home in the final analysis. And obviously, I understand that if there’s a kid out there who came across my music through “The Way I Tend To Be” or something like that, they might be thinking, “Why the fuck is this guy talking about punk rock?” I get that. But in terms of getting the punk-rock blue tick, as it were, you can’t really do much better than a split with NOFX. So I’m feeling quite fuck-you about them.
I think arguments about what punk is and isn’t is the most boring thing in the world. And possibly the least punk thing in the world, as well. If you could take all the time and energy that has been spent collectively over the last four years of people arguing about what is and isn’t punk and divert that energy to something constructive, we probably could have killed cancer by now. It’s just a fucking waste of time.
MIKE: Oh, it’s fun. I always had a line, a certain standard I’d have to hold myself up to and Fat Wreck Chords. It was the Tim Yohannan litmus test. Fat Wreck Chords was able to advertise in Maximum RockNRoll. [Yohannan was the founder and publisher of the respected punk-rock fanzine prior to his death in 1998.] We were the only label that never got kicked off. That was the test for me: if Tim Yohannan said it was OK. If you just had good business practices, that’s punk.
Discounting your own works, what are the three greatest punk-rock records of all time?
TURNER: That’s an interesting question. I’m going to discount NOFX records from choices. Otherwise, this interview will get fucking sickly.
MIKE: Not me. I’m picking three!
TURNER: I’ll pick Everything Sucks by Descendents. It’s one of my favorite go-to punk-rock records of all time. That was my way into them, and I appreciate that a lot of people have more time for the earlier records, but that was the one for me. I’d also pick the first Clash record. And Mike, you might roll your eyes at this, but I might pick Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes by Propagandhi, as well. I fucking love that album.
MIKE: I wouldn’t pick that album. I’d pick their first one, How To Clean Everything. My list is boring. Never Mind The Bollocks was the first vinyl I ever bought. Bad Religion’s Suffer because that changed my life. And I’m going to say the dark horse [is] Rudimentary Peni’s Death Church. It was so unlike anything else in the production. NOFX listened to it so much before we’d go onstage.
Really? Was that your psych-up thing?
MIKE: One of them. Not Milo Goes To College, anyway.
What would a D-Composers-produced Frank Turner record sound like? (D-Composers are the production team of Fat Mike, Baz and Old Man Markley’s Johnny Carey.)
TURNER: That’s an interesting question. Maybe let’s find out.
MIKE: Yeah, let’s find out! D-Composers are doing all kinds of styles of music now. It would sound fun. I don’t know.
We’re doing this thing called the Melvinator, which I haven’t really announced yet. It’s Eric Melvin. It sounds like the worst idea ever. But it’s EDM music with NOFX songs. Frank, have you heard it yet?
TURNER: No, not actually.
MIKE: I’ll send you a track. Every single person who hears it is like, “Oh!” [Laughs.] Danny [Lohner] from Nine Inch Nails did one of the mixes. I think it’s pretty cool. Of course, I would. It only worked on seven of our songs. It doesn’t translate for most of it. You need really cool riffs. I’ll send each of you a video, and you can tell me the fucking truth. I need truths. Can’t hurt my feelings.
TURNER: I think Mike has been very generous in terms of presenting [West Coast Vs. Wessex] as a meeting between equals. In terms of the way it’s presented to the world and all the rest of it. I’m very grateful for that.
But there’s one way in which it isn’t, which is that I grew up listening to NOFX records, and Mike did not grow up listening to my records for simple reasons of timeline. One of the realizations in this for me is that there is a fair amount of their influence in my own songwriting and work that I really appreciate. There were moments where it was like, “Oh yeah, that’s been in my armory of thinking about how a song works.” It was a cool realization.
MIKE: I didn’t grow up listening to your music. But I’m dying painfully listening to it. What’s interesting about producing is that I don’t think many producers are very good. I think there are some really good ones: Brett Gurewitz, Gil Norton, Eric Valentine. People who know how to write songs. Most producers don’t know shit. They can get good tones. I used to work with Brett when I was learning how to write. He has a great sense of melody, and he can hear things that I didn’t hear. What I like about producing is working with songwriters.
TURNER: There’s the age-old thing. I think it’s a Steve Albini line: The best thing that a producer can do is turn a shit band into a mediocre band. If you’ve got a good song, it’s going to be a good record.
MIKE: I hate polishing turds. If your singer’s no good, the record’s never going to be good. The Gimmes had a rule of tuning: You can be as drunk as you wanted to and play as badly as you wanted to, but you had to tune. Because if you don’t tune, everything’s bad. But if you’re in tune once in a while, the song is going to be OK.