The psyche of pop punk

Like your friend whose romances are messier than yours, the Mr. T Experience is back to cry about it with its eighth album, Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You. The MTX is pop punk’s troubadour of love gone wrong, master of the "I loved you but you dumped me so I hate you but DAMN I wish we were still together" pop song. Following up last year’s concept album, Love Is Dead, Revenge Is Sweet continues where the MTX starship left off, offering 16 tracks of tortured love and loss.

Dr. Frank, Joel and Jym have a few tricks up their sleeves this time, resulting in a more eclectic bunch of songs than on Love Is Dead. The boys pulled their shitkickers out of the closet to stomp out "Hell of Dumb," an East Bay-vernacular ballad augmented by authentic pedal-steel-guitar twangs, and "Some Foggy Mountain Top," a blistering cover of a traditional bluegrass song replete with an "odelayee-oh" chorus.

Also, to enhance the MTX’s omnipresent juvenile edge, Dr. Frank recruited his grade-school-age cousins to sing back-up on the chorus of the "Love Is Dead" reprise.

Dr. Frank’s adroit lyricism is in top form on Revenge, exemplified by the double entendres of "She’s Coming (Over Tonight)" ("We won’t tell a soul tonight/’Cause our mouths will be full tonight/And talking with your mouth full isn’t polite"). The doctor keeps the lyrical sagacities flowing on "The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful," "Lawnmower of Love" and "Who Needs Happiness (I’d Rather Have You)."

Besides releasing Revenge Is Sweet, the MTX boys served as the backing band on the recent Bomb Bassets album Take a Trip With. Brothers Dallas and John Denery (of Sweet Baby and the Hi-Fives, respectively) make up the remainder of the Bomb Bassets, in which Dallas relieves Dr. Frank of his usual songwriting duties. The similarities between the two recordings are obvious; Take a Trip With is just a bit more optimistic (even the breakup songs here are proclamations of devotion).

The high points of Take a Trip With are the cover of Swamp Dog’s "Total Destruction to Your Mind," which features vocal freestyling by the Peechees’ Chris Appelgren, the acoustic long-distance love ditty "The Only Way I Know" and "Better Than That," Dallas Denery’s declaration that "I see you with him and I know he’s no good for you and I could do better than that."

I called Dr. Frank at his house last week to delve into the psyche of pop punk’s king of heartbreak.

This is the transcript:

Revolver: How would you differentiate Revenge Is Sweet from the rest of your records?

Dr. Frank: I think Revenge follows the thread of the other ones conceptually. Unlike Love Is Dead, which was a concept album and tried to keep a uniform sound and feel all the way through, the intention on this one was to make the listener bounce around a little more. Song to song and even within songs we tried to throw in different sounds and changes to make the listener kinda go "huh?" when they hear things in it.

That’s something our band has always kinda done unintentionally, but we wanted more of that this time. I wanted the songs to exist on their own and not really have anything to do with each other, as opposed to being a concept thing like Love Is Dead was. I think it turns out after it’s all over that the record actually does have a theme, but it wasn’t really intended.

R: What inspired the little-kid choruses and the hillbilly touches?

Dr. F: It gives a pretty ordinary song that little extra thing that makes it kinda weird, y’know. The thing I’m hoping is that you’ll be able to remember these songs after hearing them only once, because a band like us usually gets about one chance. We tried to put little things, like they singing, as tastefully and sparingly as possible in every song. Every song on the record has some kind of crazy, sometimes almost subliminal weird thing on it. The country thing--I’ve always been a real fan of country music, probably earlier than any other kind of music. I’ve written country songs for many years, although few of them have ever made it onto Mr. T Experience records. But "Hell of Dumb" isn’t really a country song. I don’t know what it is; it’s kind of a hybrid sitting in the periphery of what we usually do. The songs always come first and then you figure out what you’re going to do with them after they exist.

"Hell of Dumb" kinda cried out for the countrified treatment. I wanted to have a song with a pedal-steel player for a long time, ’cause I can’t play that. I think people might see it as more of a departure than it really is. On every album since about ’92, I wanted a song like that but could just never get it together or afford it. This time I was able to. Then there’s the weird thrashy version of the bluegrass song, which is a song I’ve loved since I was a kid and always wanted to do in some form. Conceptually, it seems to go along with the rest of the body of work.

R: Do you ever foresee the Mr. T Experience moving away from relationship songs, or is that what you’re all about?

Dr. F: Occasionally, there’s songs that don’t fit that chaturbate category; there aren’t any on this record, but I don’t think it’s an accident that the lion’s share of songs and novels and movies and plays and everything else have to do with the idea of looking for love and all the pitfalls inherent to that. I’ve always felt that if you’re going to try to say something and go into different territory, that’s a great idea, but you’ve gotta have something really important to say, and I never really felt that I did. In the punk scene we came from when we started, there was a pretense that everything had to be political, and it didn’t really mean anything except that’s what you’re supposed to do. They recycled the clichés and left-wing slogans of an earlier era and made them into punk songs. Sometimes they were unintentionally funny and sometimes they were unintentionally good, but they always lacked a certain base, and they didn’t have that much resonance for me when I listened to them as a kid.

I think that the love song as a general entity is something that encompasses life. Having a girlfriend that’s not working out or being in love with someone who doesn’t like you or whatever, practically everything you can ever think or feel comes into play in some way in that situation, and that’s why so many great songs throughout the history of pop music are love songs. That might be a good idea for another concept album, though--can Dr. Frank do an album with no songs about girls on it?

R: Is your love life as tragic as you make it sound?

Dr. F: There are people I know who’ll look at this record and say, "Okay, here’s 16 songs, that means Dr. Frank had 16 girlfriends between Love Is Dead and now." It’s not literal to that degree. Writing songs like this, you have to be deliberate and have enough distance from what you’re writing to manipulate the song and make it about a particular thing. To make a pop song that works, you have to present reality in a structured way that reality just doesn’t have--reality doesn’t rhyme and have verses and choruses and all that.

Basically, my attempt is to take traditional subject matter--the love song, which can either be a breakup song or a romantic song---and I try to figure out an angle to present it in a way I’ve never heard it before so that it justifies its existence. That means drawing on experience, but also a lot more than that. Some of the songs I don’t even think of myself as the narrator. There’s a character that kinda narrates all the songs and he’s got points in common with me most of the time, but not always, and it’s certainly never exactly identic

Eat Subway

On Saturday, May 9th, Mik and I went to Coney Island High in NYC, to see the famed Mr. T Experience. We were quite hyped for this show because we were on the guest list. Let me say that one more time to let it sink in: we were on the motherfucking guest list for The Mr. T Experience! When we arrived we used our superpowers (guest list) and went backstage (which is really downstairs in the Porno Lounge, not backstage) to hang with the bands.

We began our interview with Joel and Dr. Frank of MTX while the Heartdrops were playing upstairs. About halfway through the interview I realized my tape recorder was busted and wasn't working. FUCK! I was as pissed as if all Hell had broken lose and sentenced the world to a morbid existance of watching Hanson play live for eternity. Just before I was about to explode from the frustration of not being able to do the interview, a girl who was interviewing them for her own zine saved the day. She let us use her tape recorder. (We love you, Julie!)

In the process of getting Julie's tape player, Joel left, so we did the interview with just Dr. Frank. Then after we finished the jasminlive interview, we found Joel again, and interviewed him after. That is why this interview looks like a pile of dog shit on a rainy day. Anyway, without any further ado, I bring you:

This interview took place on May 9, in the Lounge at Coney Island High, in New York. Since Mik and I did this interview together and it was so long ago, I don't remember which one of us said what, so "Sploosh" is either one of us. The Dr. Frank part comes first.

Sploosh: How long have you guys been together?

Dr. Frank: twelve years

Sploosh: Where are you guys from originally?

Dr. Frank: California

Sploosh: Have there been any other members, or is this the original group?

Dr. Frank: This is the third lineup. There have been seven members total, of which we are three. It was a four-piece originally. In 1992 the other guitar player quit, making us a three-piece. Then the bass player and drummer were replaced by the current bass player and drummer.

Sploosh: When was that?

Dr. Frank: That was 1994-95

Sploosh: Which group do you think sounds the best?

Dr. Frank: This one is definitely the most together.

Sploosh: What are some of your influences?

Dr. Frank: Everything. The negative influences are probably more important than the positive ones. The things that I really hate are those that make me say, "I'm never going to do that." Everything influences me, and right now my biggest influence is this, unfortunately it's Heiniken. Here you go, you can hold up a bottle of Heiniken to describe my main influence right now.

Sploosh: Any bands that influenced you a lot?

Dr. Frank: Yeah, the Buzzcocks influenced me a lot.

Sploosh: How many albums have you guys put out?

Dr. Frank: Eight albums so far.

Sploosh: Do you have a favorite?

Dr. Frank: They are all like my special. I love them all equally. I don't want to play favorites because I hurt their feelings. You know, I see other ones making fun of them. I feel bad about it and I tell them that I'll rip their fucking heads off if they ever say anything like taht again, because, you know, they're sensitive.

Sploosh: When you were young did you always want to be in a band?

Dr. Frank: No. I fantasized about being a rock and roll star, but I never thought it was something that people like us do. There's like rock star type people and then there's people like us who just pretend to be rock stars in our living rooms and bedrooms. I mean, I never took it seriously being in a rock and roll band.

Sploosh: What are the future plans for you guys?

Dr. Frank: Well, I'm working on a solo album now, it should be out by the end of the summer. Then we'll do another MTX record followed by more touring, same as this. We're going to keep doing the same exact thing until we crash and burn.

Sploosh: What do you think about playing in New York?

Dr. Frank: It's fine, but back home we have maybe bigger Jasminelive shows. This is a good show, but our last few shows in Connecticut really were bad. So it's nice to be in a place where people actually show up.

Sploosh: Thursday night you played in Pennsylvania and one of our local bands, Humble Beginnings opened for you. What did you think of them?

Dr. Frank: They were cool, a young band. They should definitely stick with it.

Sploosh: What labels were you guys on before Lookout?

Dr. Frank: Our first record was on our own label, called Disorder Records and we have two records out on Rough Trade U.S.

Sploosh: How did they compare?

Dr. Frank: On our own label we paid for the privilege of having hundreds of unsold records in my closet for years and years and years. With Rough Trade, we paid for the privilege of having hundreds of unsold records in their closet. Now we're on Lookout Records, and for many years we haven't had to pay for it anymore, but the constant theme of hundreds of unsold records in somebody's closet is still operative. Now they've been able to sell some of those records in the closet. It's all the same thing, you're making a commercial product, but it's not very commercial. The people who buy it are maybe a little strange or are buying it to sort-of prove their individuality or something like that. It's a bizarre thing being in a band in that position. With Lookout it's pretty good because they don't expect too much from us and we don't expect too much from them, so it works. It's a good reciprocal relationship.

Sploosh: What exactly was your experience with Mr. T?

Dr. Frank: I never really had an experience with Mr. T, but I'm sure he would win in a fight. I couldn't fight my way out of a paper bag.

Sploosh: Who would win in a fight, Tony the Tiger or the Trix Rabbit?

Dr. Frank: The tiger beats the rabbit every time.

Sploosh: Would you rather remove a thirty-foot tape worm from a rhinoceros or be ejaculated on by Snufalufagus?

Dr. Frank: Well, the contingency is a remote one. I don't imagine I am ever going to be in a position where I have to make that decision, but if I were, I hope that I would act in accordance with my principles.

Sploosh: Which would be?

Dr. Frank: (laughs) Watch a lot of television and try not to harm anyone else, if I can avoid it.

Sploosh: Who do you think would be better in bed, Jessica Rabbit or She-ra from He-Man?

Dr. Frank: You know what? I can't really picture She-Ra from He-Man. But neither one of those girls are really my type.

Sploosh: You don't go for the cartoons?!?!

Dr. Frank: Right. I don't go for cartoon women, really. I like the little sort-of sad ones that are like in a corner weeping about something, and they won't tell you what's wrong and you have to sort-of protect them and try to talk them into telling you what's wrong. The bombshell type, they just chew me up and spit me out. I like the ones who are a little insecure, or else I'm out of my league.

Sploosh: Would you rather win a million dollars but be forced to permanently remove all your body hair, or watch the Coyote finally catch the Roadrunner but have the voice of Gilbert Godfried?

Dr. Frank: Actually, I don't think the voice of Gilbert Godfried is that bad, but shaving all the hair off your body, have you ever tried that? It's not that bad. It's actually kind-of cool. I think they're about even.

Sploosh: In your opinion, what is the meaning of life?

Dr. Frank: Life is some cereal that is supposed to be good for you.

Sploosh: Any final words of wisdom?

Dr. Frank: Love is like oxygen, you get too much, you get too high, not enough and you're going to die. Love gets you high.

(A brief commercial break followed by the entrance of Joel)

Sploosh: What were some of your influences?

Joel: Well, actually, I was a big fan of the band before I joined it. In fact, the first punk band I ever heard was the Mr. T Experience, and the first punk rock show I ever attended was the Mr. T Experience. I used to sing along in my room and play along with their records, so honestly, I would have to say that Dr. Frank has influenced me. I was sort-of lucky because it was like I had been training for this position. It's like I was bred for this position.

Sploosh: What exactly was your experience with Mr. T?

Joel: I haven't had any, personally. I'm sort-of hoping to avoid it, since he seems kind-of a scary guy. Although, I understand that he is under the weather, and I'm pulling for him.

Sploosh: Who would win in a fight, Tony the Tiger or the Trix Rabbit?

Joel: The Trix Rabbit seems kind of inept and bumbling, and Tony the Tiger is the athletic type so... I mean, in reality a jungle cat versus a domesticated bunny. One of them would be in for a rough time and I don't think it would be Tony there.

Sploosh: Would you rather remove a thirty-foot tape worm from a rhinoceros or be ejaculated on by Snufalufagus?

Joel: I don't think I have to answer that.

Sploosh: Well, if you had to pick one...

Joel: Luckilly for both of us, I don't. (Uh oh! After that and a few dirty looks, we decided not to pursue this question any further.)

Sploosh: Who do you think would be better in bed, Jessica Rabbit or She-ra from He-Man?

Joel: Jessica Rabbit. She was drawn for it! Well, at least, that's what she said.

Sploosh: Would you rather win a million dollars but be forced to permanently remove all your body hair, or watch the Coyote finally catch the Roadrunner but have the voice of Gilbert Godfried?

Joel: There is no way in hell I'd wanna speak like Gilbert Godfried. He's one of my least favorite people in the world.

Sploosh: But the fun of watching the Coyote finally catching the Roadrunner...

Joel: Well, I mean, I'd definitely like that, but it's a horrible price. Did Frank answer these?

Sploosh: Yeah, he gave intellectual answers... In your opinion, what is the meaning of life?

Joel: It's probably to make a lot of money and meet a lot of chicks

Sploosh: Sounds good to me.

Joel: I defy someone to come up with something better than that.

Sploosh: Any last words of wisdom?

Joel: Did Frank do the "Love is like oxygen..." speech?

Sploosh: Yes... That wasn't an original quote?

Joel: (sympathetically) No. No, sorry it's not! My advice is to stay out of the rain. Know enough to come out of the rain.

(Jym enters chomping on a Subway sandwich)

Songs about girls and television

Ruud de Wild: "We've got the Mr. T. Experience here. Nice to meet you guys!"

Joel, Jym, Dr. Frank: "Yeah [...]"

Ruud de Wild: "Nice to meet you. Okay, who and what is Mr. T. Experience?"

Dr. Frank: "... is a Punk Rock band from Berkeley, California ... and ... it's ... just a ten-year-old Punk Rock band with songs about girls and television ..."

Ruud de Wild: "Songs about girls and television? Nothing about cars and accidents?"

Dr. Frank: "No, no cars and accidents. Mostly girls and t.v., the television shows we watched when we were young and the girls that are destroying us now and in the future. There's not much more to say than that, you know, it's: Punk Rock band, Girls, T.V."

Ruud de Wild (looking at Joel): "Okay, what are you doing in the band?"

Joel: "What am I doing in the band? Yeah, that's a good question. I often asked myself the same thing. But ... truthfully ... uhh ... I think that I was born to be in this band. I think it was destiny. That is as good an answer as anyone ... uhh ... it was fated to be, by a power greater than us, and far beyond our understanding."

Ruud de Wild: "Are you guys like Green Day?"

Jym: "Are we LIKE Green Day ?!?"

Ruud de Wild: "DO you like Green Day?"

Jym: "Do we like Green Day? Yes, we like Green Day. We're not LIKE Green Day, though."

Ruud de Wild: "You're playing with Green Day ..."

Joel: "Absolutely correct. We're playing a European Tour with Green Day, eight weeks. It is fairly comprehensive. It should hit every major Western European nation, and a few Eastern ones as well. And we're greatly looking forward to it." [NOTE: THIS TOUR WAS CANCELLED]

Ruud de Wild:

"Who's the song-writer?"

Dr. Frank: "Me ..."

Ruud de Wild: "On your own?"

Dr. Frank: "Yes, I'm Dr. Frank and I make up all the little songs about girls and television."

Ruud de Wild: "Only girls & television?"

Dr. Frank: "You know ... that's pretty much ... uhh ... I try to think of an exception, but I ..."

Joel (to the rescue!): "That's fair to say, I think that ... uhh ... Dr. Frank's song-writing genius is exclusive to girls and television. Sometimes girls and television in the same song, sometimes only television."

Ruud de Wild: "Can we expect in the near future a song about bottles and beaches?"

Jym (slightly irritated by this question): "I DON'T THINK SO !!! Just girls and television."

Joel (in the meantime, to Dr. Frank):

"Beaches ..."

Dr. Frank: "Oh ... bEAches ..."

Ruud de Wild (laughing):

"Girls and bitches ... Is there a message in the music of Mr. T. Experience?"

Joel: "Uhh ... if there's any message at all, it would be the ..."

Ruud de Wild: "Girls and television?"

Joel: "Girls and television and just that ... it's easy to be hurt by love. But it's not so easy to be hurt by television. Television is our friend!"

Dr. Frank: "Television is our friend ..."

Joel: "Girls are not!"

Jym: "Girls bad, television good ..."

Ruud de Wild: "What? Sorry?"

Jym: "Girls bad, television good .............."