There's nothing to recommend Fat Wreck Chords' Bayview office from the exterior. Located in a beat-up suite in a tiny industrial park, a handful of withered LPs bake behind the shuttered windows. It's hard to believe they host live music here once a month, inviting snotty modern punk bands from around the world, cheap beer flowing while Fat's sizable back catalog is up for sale to all comers. Through the glass door, one can spot a few exciting sights: Good Riddance and Strung Out banners, shelf after shelf of vinyl, and a stockroom promising more. On the front door, a sign asks that you ring a doorbell that is nowhere to be found, despite this author's best attempts (Fat Wreck web administrator Pat Rush soon arrives and explains that the bell was recently stolen).
Inside, it's only marginally more intriguing. Most of the office suite is a massive stock room with shelf after shelf of Fat's catalog, on CD, vinyl, and, yes, VHS.
There's an abandoned basketball court in the back, currently occupied by yet more records, where the bands play, and a loft space where Fat's core office team -- including Western Addiction drummer Chad Williams -- are holed up, each facing a computer screen like any dutiful modern office worker. The main difference is that Williams doesn't have to lie to his boss to go on tour -- and in fact he goes on tour with his boss, label founder Fat Mike Burkett of NOFX. "The only problem is when three of us all want to go out at the same time," he explains.
In speaking with Williams, it becomes clear that the unremarkable storefront of Fat Wreck Chords is actually a link to the old artist-friendly San Francisco, one in which a business can thrive on the production of physical media. Even the indie-est of indie book and record stores cannot boast Fat's pedigree: not a single item at Fat Wreck Chords was produced or marketed by corporate interests. The business is perfectly punk rock: it make what it sells, and what it sells keeps it sufficiently well-vested to make more.
That success hasn't come without sacrifice, of course. As the record industry faltered, Fat Wreck Chords shed staffers worldwide and was recently priced out of its SOMA digs. "The rent for our place [by the ballpark] is now five times what we used to pay," explains Williams. "But we moved here [to Bayview] because we made a point to stay in San Francisco." Moving elsewhere in the Bay Area, which would have saved precious dollars monthly, was nixed in favor of remaining within S.F. proper.
Fat's monthly free live performances -- the next of which will be on May 22 at the Bayview office, featuring New Jersey's Night Birds and what we are told will be a steady stream of gratis PBR -- are part of its relationship with the community, one that becomes increasingly vital as the city changes.
Williams, an employee of the label for 14 years, has grown with the label from his humble beginnings bagging mail orders to working as a jack-of-all-trades at the office, occasionally providing remote management to Fat bands on tour. Like most modern musicians, he and his bandmates in Western Addiction are seasoned pros who've checked their delusions of grandeur. They each have jobs and lifestyles that they'd not like to leave behind to play the music they love. Guitarist/vocalist/mastermind Jason Hall is, ironically, the ultimate limiting factor on their touring plans, according to Williams: "He has a pretty intense office job working for a company that names things." Branding? "Yes," he laughs. This is perhaps why it's been nearly eight years since the full-length Cognicide and why Western Addiction's most recent EP, Pines, sounds so pent-up and pissed. The band will be gracing Thee Parkside with its vitriol this Thursday, May 22, along with the aforementioned Night Birds.
As a new economic order prevails over San Francisco, it's an inspiring feat to see bands continue to create the music they love while holding down day jobs. Like Fat Wreck Chords, they are doing something difficult and nearly untenable, simply out of sheer desire for that thing to exist. Looking at box upon box of vinyl records, an old media artifact seemingly obviated many times over by this point, one can't help but smile at the thought that this makes no real sense, practically or economically. Yet the love for the music keeps these bands, and this label, alive -- even in difficult circumstances.
Western Addiction and the Night Birds perform with the Briefs and Ruleta Rusa on Thursday, May 22, at Thee Parkside. 8 p.m., $17.