"Everyone comes in, gets drunk and buys shitloads of records, says Fat Mike, 48. "We have a scene. We have bands play. It’s this f--ing cool community that comes together every other week."
Mention punk rock, and Fat Wreck Chords is one of the first labels that fans will cite, a source of albums by top bands in the scene including NOFX, Me First & The Gimme Gimmes, Lagwagon, Leftover Crack, Descendents, MxPx, Anti-Flag, Against Me, Rancid, Rise Against and Propagandhi.
"Fat Wreck Chords has inspired fans and musicians, and pissed off parents for 25 years," says Kevin Lyman, promoter of the annual Vans Warped Tour, which always features the label’s bands. "Oh, how time flies," adds Lyman. "That’s why Mike dyes his hair green -- it would be gray otherwise."
Dustin "Duddy B" Bushnell of Dirty Heads adds that Fat Wreck "really did build a scene. I think there's a lot of nostalgia with that company and those bands for me and, I think, a lot of people growing up in southern California and really getting into the punk scene. And they`s still doing it."
Kelly-Burkett, 46, calls the company "sort of an accident, something we started as a hobby and side project, mostly because we wanted to put out NOFX records." The couple were both still attending San Francisco State University; Fat Mike studying social science and human sexuality, Kelly-Burkett majoring in creative writing and working in public relations.
"We didn’t ever really think we were going to make money off it, but we thought it would be fun for us," Kelly-Burkett says.
But Fat Mike had other ideas. Confident in the market for punk, he and Kelly-Burkett took out a $20,000 loan with help from his father and established their own vision for the label.
"We wanted to have a punk rock label," says Fat Mike. "So many labels these days, they sign bands that are trendy or whatever’s going to make money. We weren’t interested in that."
From the outset, Fat Wreck Chords signed bands, with rare exception, to one-album deals, and never more than two at a time. And some, says Fat Mike, never even had contracts, just handshakes -- if that. "We’ve had lots of bands leave to go to majors and then come back," he says. "Every band says, ‘You’re the only label that didn’t rip us off.’ "
"There’s something to that," he adds. "We don’t spend millions of dollars marketing bands. We’ve never had a platinum album or anything like that. It’s just a family record label. I tell all the bands when I sign them, ‘If you’re looking to get huge, this isn’t the label for you. If you’re looking to have a good time making music, come to Fat."
He’s not shy about turning away bands either. "If I don't like it or you're going to sing about something I don’t believe in, I will not sign your band," he says. "I have to be that way. That’s how you last for 25 years, by putting out quality bands. That’s why people who have Fat Wreck Chords tattoos are proud of them still."
Kelly-Burkett adds, "If you’re looking at the roster, you’re looking at our personal music tastes. We put out music we want to listen to, with bands that we like personally. Obviously you want to have hard-working bands that are going to want to go out and tour, but mostly you’re looking at a little niche of our musical tastes."
Fat Wreck Chords has remained prolific: It released 31 albums in 2014, and 20 are on tap through Oct. 2, including the latest Fat Music compilation and concert set, Going Nowhere Fat. In 2003, the label released an album to benefit animal rights group PETA, and a favorite project of Fat Mike’s were two Rock Against Bush albums in 2004 with non-label punk luminaries like Green Day and Bad Religion that opposed the re-election of George W. Bush.
To mark Fat Wreck Chords’ -anniversary, NOFX, Lagwagon and other bands hit the road Aug. 6 for a 10-city Fat Wrecked for 25 Years Tour, while a festival in San Francisco on Aug. 22 and 23 will feature label bands past and present, preceded by an Aug. 21 screening of NOFX’s Backstage Passport 2 DVD, to be followed by a Q&A with the band. There is also a documentary in the works, titled A Fat Wreck, from filmmaker Shaun M. Colon.
The company -- which Fat Mike and Kelly-Burkett still run together despite divorcing earlier in 2014 after 22 years of marriage (they have a 10-year-old daughter, Darla) -- is gearing up for the next 25 years, despite -getting leaner, downsizing to 10 staffers from a peak of 22 to remain profitable. But its ethos remains the same.
"We didn’t start this for success. We started it to do something cool," says Fat Mike. "Making a lot of money -- that’s awesome, but that’s not the reason to do this. Our motto is just find bands that you like, and we’ve never really gone astray from that. And it’s worked for 25 years."
This article first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of Billboard.