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An Interview with the Two Filmmakers Who Spent Years Documenting the History of Fat Wreck Chords

After years of filming, dozens of interviews, and a successful Indiegogo campaign, 'A Fat Wreck' will soon premiere at the Dallas International Film Festival.

by Cam Lindsay
Apr 12 2016, 4:20pm

Dallas, TX native Shaun Colón has spent the better part of his life worshipping the catalog of San Francisco-based punk label Fat Wreck Chords. As a filmmaker, he wanted to combine his two passions in life: his filmmaking profession and the punk rock that has emanated from his favorite label over the last 25 years. Originally beginning in 2013 as a short film, Colón’s project quickly blossomed into a feature-length documentary once he got writer Greg Pratt on board and hit the $7,500 target of an Indiegogo campaign on its first day. Over the next month though, to his amazement, the Indiegogo quadrupled, and Colón soon realized that there were countless fans out there like him dying to watch his film.

Described in the opening credits as “A Film By Fat Wreck Fans,” A Fat Wreck: The Punk-U-Mentary explores the significant role label owners “Fat” Mike Burkett and Erin Burkett have played over the last quarter century in “ruining punk rock.” By following their unwavering taste in high quality pop punk instead of dollar signs, the label has found incredible success with bands like Lagwagon, Against Me!, Propagandhi, and No Use For A Name, not to mention Mike’s own bands, NOFX and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. Using puppets, 8-bit music, animated album covers, and one hell of a drug-trip sequence, A Fat Wreck goes beyond the usual conventions of the standard music doc. But beyond the frills, the film triumphs because of its ability to get in-depth with the bands and key personnel, who use their most colorful anecdotes to paint the picture. But it’s not all dick jokes; there are even touching tributes to fallen Fat Wreck family members, Jim Cherry and Tony Sly, that will leave even the crustiest punks in tears.

Ahead of the film’s world premiere at the Dallas International Film Festival on April 15, Noisey spoke with Colón and Pratt about getting A Fat Wreck off the ground, why puppets were a crucial narrative tool, and how hard Propagandhi rules.

Noisey: How did this film get off the ground?
Shaun Colón: I initially started it in 2013. My wife and I went to Punk Rock Bowling and it was going to be a 20-minute short, but then it snowballed from there. The next year, we did crowdfunding, and it blew up, so we turned it into a feature-length film. Greg came in around September 2013, after I put together what I’d done at Punk Rock Bowling. He wrote a Propagandhi article on their history. There was a whole lot that I learned about Mike in that article. So I reached out to Greg to see if he’d be interested.

Greg Pratt: Yeah, so they got in touch with me. And Shaun, as I’ve said before, I thought you were a psycho.

So why make a film about Fat Wreck?
Shaun Colón: For me, it’s beyond just the music. I was originally drawn to the music, but then there seemed to be a certain theme between the bands. Propagandhi is my favorite band, and they’ve had a huge influence on what I’ve chosen to do in my life. I saw it as an important story to be told.

Greg Pratt: For me, and it sounds cliché, but Propagandhi literally changed the course of my life when their first album came out. Bands like Lagwagon too, this music just meant so much to me as a teenager. And as an adult, it continued to mean so much to me, and that’s pretty rare to find music that changes your whole way of thinking as a teenager and sticks with you through adulthood. Now I’m 39, and this stuff still means just as much to me. And the label has remained just so consistent over the years. They’ve never really put out a dud, and they’ve certainly never chased the dollar signs. So without making a movie that just kisses their ass, we’re just trying to tell the story of a really cool label that means a lot to a lot of people.

In the opening credits you put “A Film By Fat Wreck Fans…” Was it important to establish that you guys are fans first and foremost?
Shaun Colón: This is my first film, and I couldn’t have done it without the fans. I did it as a fan because I thought, “Why isn’t there a Fat Wreck Chords documentary?” Literally the fans helped make the movie. It was the huge response we got to the Indiegogo campaign. We were just trying to get $7,500 to complete a short and fly some people out to California to do some more in-depth interviews. And we hit that number on the first day. I got all sorts of emails from people saying how important it was. It’s like I was curing cancer. I know it’s not that, but it meant a lot to people.

What did Mike and Erin say when you told them about the doc?
Shaun:
Let me just say that naiveté is probably the mother of all inventions. If I were to reach out to them early on and ask to make a documentary on them with the very little experience I had, they probably would have said no.

I liked how you decided to make it warts-and-all instead of just glorifying the label. For instance, you have Mike’s beef with Propagandhi and Mike Park from Asian Man, but also Get Dead making fun of Mike.
Greg Pratt:
To me, that stuff was super important. Approaching this as a journalist, I wanted to make it more than just a puff piece. It was super important for it to be well-rounded. We tried asking people their criticisms of the label, and we didn’t get much. And I think that’s very telling that a record label can be around for 25 years and you can hardly find someone to say a bad thing about them. Off the top of your head, name me three record labels you can say that about. It’s impossible. Everyone hates their record label.

Shaun: I think anything critical that was said, we put in the movie, if it was addressed from both sides.

The tributes to Jim Cherry [Strung Out] and Tony Sly [No Use For A Name] were a nice touch.
Shaun:
It’s really interesting, and we’ll probably make the whole interview with Mike available at some point, but he pivots so quickly from joking about Jim Cherry right to the other story. He’s an interesting guy to talk to. And the thing is, he really cares. I think there is a Fat Mike persona, and then a guy who takes care of the people around him.

Greg: That was something I found interesting, because we all know about Mike as this punk rock cartoon guy. But even when we started the movie I thought he was like that, but after all of these interviews it became clear that he is a record label boss who takes care of his bands to a degree that no other record label boss does. Like, I had literally no idea that Fat Wreck Chords operated in such an ethically sound manner. When there are labels out there that have strong ethics and run their business where they aren’t fucking the bands over rampantly, you hear about it. And that’s cool, but to hear about a label that has quietly not been fucking their bands over for 25 years blew me away.

Do you think Fat Wreck gets enough respect outside of the punk community?
Shaun:
I definitely don’t think so. That’s why I wanted to have the movie out there. It’s interesting you say that, because we were very cognizant of making sure that people didn’t necessarily have to be into punk rock to be entertained by it. There was a certain format we had to follow where we introduced everybody, but then by the end of the movie, we wanted to show that you don’t have to fuck people over in business to get ahead. I hope that comes through.

I think you achieve that just in the look of the movie. The 8-bit songs and animation, the puppets, the animated album covers. It’s a lot of fun to watch.
Shaun:
I was trying to ground things in that time era. And 8-bit is kind of on that cusp. The songs already existed. There’s a guy who did Punk Goes 8-Bit and I really wanted to use those in the movie, because if you’re a fan of those songs, to hear them in that context is always funny. And if you’re not a fan, it’s just interesting to hear 8-bit songs. It was a little pricier than I thought it would be to get those made, but I’m glad to hear you say that.

And where did the idea to use puppets come from?
Shaun:
I think puppets have had some kind of resurgence lately, and we thought of ways to do something different. Jennie Cotterill, the singer of Bad Cop/Bad Cop, is an artist who’s done the backgrounds for Metalocalypse and some murals for Parks and Recreation, amongst all of her other amazing art. So we were talking to her after a concert and she said, “Just so you know, I can make puppets.” And it was an epiphany—that we could bring the stories people are telling to life with re-enactments. No documentary that I know of has done re-enactments with puppets. I wanted to eliminate as much talking head as possible. Our documentary is people sitting down and talking to us. It’s very static. So once she said that, I knew we had to do it. Luckily having the money from the Indiegogo campaign allowed us to do some of these things.

What was your favorite bit of Fat trivia you learned from making the film?
Shaun:
It was Erin. I had no idea that Erin is Fat Wreck Chords. Mike signs everybody, but since the beginning, Erin really made it happen.

Greg: I was also really surprised to find that out. Because Fat Mike is always the guy with the camera on him, so I was amazed to find out how much Erin did as well. For me, probably Fat Mike talking about Jim Cherry. It’s a very sad, tragic story, but what I got out of that story was a really strong feeling of how much being on that label means to these people. From the story that Mike tells us, someone who is in this deep, dark moment of his life, and he was thinking of Fat Wreck Chords in that moment, is very touching to me. So that was a very interesting moment.

Shaun: I have to totally agree with Greg on that. When he told that story, you couldn’t hear a pin drop. We had just been laughing hysterically, too. You could feel in that moment just how strong it would be in the movie.

You mentioned Erin. I think even the biggest Fat Wreck Chords fans will be surprised to learn just how vital she is to the label’s day-to-day operations. That was pretty eye-opening.
Shaun: I’m thrilled to hear you say that. For 11 months, I tried to get her, and I knew that I couldn’t tell the story if she wasn’t in the movie. So I really pushed, and at a certain point Mike and Vanessa [Burt], who does PR at Fat Wreck, told her she had to. And then she gave such a great interview! She was apprehensive about doing it, but she was great and we had a lot of fun doing it.

Early on there seemed to be this philosophy with the label where “If you have the right bands, success will come,” and that the success came from the label “never straying from a particular sound.” But it also became a criticism.
Shaun:
I think it’s a strength. For what they’re doing, and being committed to it, one label doesn’t have to have everything on it. That’s what labels are for—you can expect what to get. But there is a downside to it that there isn’t much diversity. I would argue that there is a lot more now than there was in the first ten years or so. You’ve got Old Man Markley doing bluegrass, but then Strung Out doing more metal. Epitaph, on the other hand, went the other route. Fat continued their sound, but they also had to reduce their staff. That was the sacrifice they had to make to stay true to their sound.

Greg: I was going to mention Epitaph too, because in the 90s, it was always either Fat or Epitaph if you were into melodic punk rock. And they went in very different directions over the years. Fat kind of stayed their course, and Epitaph signed a lot of crap. I’ve never seen a Fat release and thought, “Okay, they’re trying to pay the rent here.” Yeah, sometimes I can hear people saying, “It’s starting to all sound the same.” But I kind of like that because it means they’re just putting out music they like. My tastes haven’t changed much over the years, so if I was running a label too it would probably be consistent too.

So what is your favorite Fat Wreck Chord?
Greg:
Mine is Propagandhi’s Potemkin City Limits. It’s maybe my favorite album of all time. I’m speechless. It’s one of the most powerful albums I’ve heard in my life.

Shaun: I was going to say Potemkin too! I was going through the Propagandhi records because they’re my favorite band, and there is just something about the mood of that record. And musically it’s just amazing. I could geek out over Potemkin for the next 20 minutes if you want.

A Fat Wreck premieres at the Dallas International Film Festival on April 15. Also, watch "The Making of Fat Mike's Punk Rock Musical":