Thursday, September 21, 2000
The phone rings. It's Dr. Frank from MTX, aka The Mr. T Experience.
"I'm actually calling you from a pay phone at Chili's," he says. "We're somewhere around Boston, I think."
Though The Mr. T Experience arose from the same Berkeley punk scene that spawned Green Day and Operation Ivy, the band never seemed to garner the support or respect of those bands. The ever-so-wry Frank even sang about the mainstream success of East Bay punk on "Dumb Little Band" ï¿½ "Our friends are busy with their own affairs/becoming punk rock millionaires/They're taping their live album at the Hollywood Bowl/we're taping our flyers to the telephone pole."
Rather than compete with the pop-punksters that were making money off the MTX sound, Frank turned down the distortion and has spent the last several years trying to shed the band's trademark style.
"I made a vow to myself that I was never going to repeat myself again, and that's hard to do when you have 10 albums," Frank says. "I thought all our songs sounded the same. Making that vow is easy, but coming up with 13 wholly different guitar sounds is a challenge."
Living in Exile
MTX's newest EP, "The Miracle of Shame," finds the band straying further from its pop-punk roots to delightful result.
"I just had a whole bunch of new songs that I wanted to do," Frank says. "I always have way too many songs so any chance I get to put them out, I try to do. We didn't really have the time or the resources to put out a full album. So, we just thought we'd do half an album. We've done it before, and every time we do a little record like this we take the approach that we're recording an album. We try to give it a beginning, a middle and an end."
Interestingly, Frank opted to create much of "The Miracle of Shame" at home, a move that proved fruitful, if not odor-free.
"A lot of the new record was recorded in my house," Frank explains. "A lot of the vocals and weird keyboard sounds were made at home. I did the vocals in the kitchen, and Kevin was in the bedroom and it was very strange. I'm not the most hygienic person in the world. My kitchen doesn't smell very good because I sort of forget to take out the garbage ï¿½ which is like a lot of the studios that we've worked at, actually."
So, it's sort of your own "Exile On Main Street?"
"Well, yeah, but like most things we do, on a very pathetic scale," Frank says laughing. "I hope that the funkiness is as satisfying to others as it is to me. "Exile On Main Street" is brilliant, but it's one of the strangest records ever made. When it came out, people were freaked out by it and a lot of people could never really go there. When you hit that point, when you confuse everybody, then you're doing the right thing."
Dividing its audience
A percentage of MTX's original audience felt abandoned by the band's decision to move away from bubble-gum punk. All part of the plan, according to Frank.
"We made the decision a few years ago to go out on as many limbs as possible so that at least we'd still be engaged in this thing and not bored to tears," he says. "For the whole first seven years of this band, our recordings and everything we did was very tenuous and slapdash. ... We didn't have much money to work with, we didn't have much talent to work with. Then we reached the point where we had an actual budget and we recorded 'Love Is Dead,' which is still our most popular record. The secret to that record was that I basically had all these singer-songwriter folk songs and I had a band that played them as punk rock songs. The follow-up ('Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You') sounded too much like it, and that always really depressed me because I always try to make it sound not like it, and I failed. So, "Love is Dead" is great but we didn't need to do it again. I felt like we were plunging irrevocably into generic-ness. There's pressure when you do something that's successful not to rock the boat. I wanted to sink the boat ï¿½ take a sledgehammer and destroy the whole thing."
Now that the whole thing has been destroyed, the members of MTX are free to rebuild their sound and career to suit their tastes. Fortunately, there's still a rabid throng of MTX fans out there.
"Basically, there are two kinds of MTX fans: the ones that used to like us and the ones that still like us," he explains. "It's evenly divided into people who don't think that the latest stuff we've done is punk enough and people who get it. So I enjoy giving those who still like us something to get their teeth into, and I enjoy any further alienation that's possible with the other people."
Is there a degree of elitism in the punk audience, then?
"It's conservatism," Frank says. "It's really easy to shock people in the punk rock world. Nobody really wants to hear anything that hasn't been previously certified by the holy institutions of punk rock. To break that mold requires a lot of determination and even a little bit of courage and foolhardiness, which are really two sides to the same coin.
"I wish more people would take chances with what they did with their bands. Then you'd have way less generic bands and more interesting music. But, there's a pressure. It's definitely a commercially sound move to consolidate your product in such a way that no one is really surprised at what you do. There are whole labels that have bands that are completely interchangeable, and each record sounds exactly the same, each band sounds exactly the same. They're very successful with that. Commercially, it's a good idea but if it's an artistic thing, it's the opposite of a good idea."