Growing pains

After 11 albums, the Mr. T Experience is starting to abandon the punk-pop sound it pioneered

It's not surprising that the band named after the larger-than-life icon representing the overstimulated pop culture of the '80s would aim to mimic the cocaine-fueled power-pop of that era. But what may surprise new listeners and seasoned fans alike is the Mr. T Experience's (relatively) mature songwriting and unconventional recording techniques utilized on its 11th album, Alcatraz. Deliberately seeking out the sonically claustrophobic atmosphere of such '80s favorites as Elvis Costello's Armed Forces and Joe Jackson's I'm the Man, the album achieves a level of nearly paranoid musicianship, rife with extemporaneous fills and exceedingly tight instrumental interplay. While the sounds and performances remain hyperactive, the songs show a more expressive and traditional pop music structure than the buzz-saw guitars and punky pop heard on the group's 10 previous efforts. In other words, they've gone soft -- but in a creative and interesting way.

On the telephone from England, where he's vacationing, vocalist-guitarist Dr. Frank speaks with a bubbly camp-counselor demeanor as he describes the motivation behind the band's escape from its own pop-punk prison to the musical freedom found on Alcatraz. "We selected some songs that I think in the past we might have been afraid to do," he explains, "and we forced ourselves to not let pre-emptive embarrassment cross anything off our list."

On the album, the endearingly nerdy singing of Dr. Frank (he's not a real doctor) certainly remains as perky as ever, but he's given more room for expression without the wry snarl and backing fuzz that the Mr. T Experience and their Berkeley contemporaries Green Day and Operation Ivy helped define in the late '80s. Along the way, all three bands and a slew of others have turned the small independent Lookout Records into one of the world's most successful indie labels. Lookout has launched a number of alternative heavyweights -- the Donnas, Rancid, Green Day, Operation Ivy, Screeching Weasel, Pansy Division, etc. -- and almost single-handedly defined the happy-go-punky genre in its brief 11-year existence. And in celebration of that feat, and of the September 14 release of Alcatraz, Lookout Records hosted its first annual four-day, multiband event, the Labor Day "Lookout! Freakout!" (which features two performances by MTX) in San Francisco last weekend.

He's not a doctor; he just plays one on TV: Dr. Frank, left, and the rest of the Mr. T Experience, Jym and Joel Reader.
He's not a doctor; he just plays one on TV: Dr. Frank, left, and the rest of the Mr. T Experience, Jym and Joel Reader.

Dr. Frank -- or, as his doctor knows him, Frank Portman -- is a 35-year-old UC Berkeley graduate whose educational credentials certify him as a perpetually deferred Harvard graduate student several credits short of a doctorate. The Mr. T Experience is built around the airtight rhythm section of bassist Joel Reader and drummer Jym (who refuses to divulge his last name), both of whom joined in the mid-'90s, after a series of disastrous tours and releases on failing indie labels drove Dr. Frank's former bandmates off to such other local favorites as Samiam and the Rip-Offs.

Unfazed by such setbacks, Dr. Frank and the band's newly revamped lineup rallied for a 1996 return on their fourth full-length on Lookout (which has since reissued the entire MTX back catalog), Love Is Dead, which proved to be the group's best-selling album. While it didn't touch the commercial cash-in caliber of Green Day or Rancid, Love Is Dead has endowed MTX with considerable credibility in the now commercially viable pop-punk genre. It's an uncharacteristic success for the Mr. T Experience, which is probably why Dr. Frank now may potentially sabotage his band's growing popularity.

"Love Is Dead was a landmark for us," Dr. Frank admits. "That's the one that everybody likes the best, and I know why. It takes the singer-songwriter kind of song and gives it a pop-punk-style treatment. I think it's about the best that kind of thing can be. A lot of people would like to see us record Love Is Dead every year until the end of time." But he no longer feels compelled to explore those possibilities; he's written pop-punk out of his system. "If you go for years and years recording the same record over and over," he suggests, "you're going to bore everybody and yourself to tears.

"I remember when I was talking to Chris [Appelgren, label president] at Lookout about my initial plan," he adds. "I said, 'I just want to warn you that the new MTX album isn't going to have any generic pop-punk songs on it.' So his reaction was, 'OK, we respect that that is what you want to do: make a less commercial record.'" Retelling the story, Dr. Frank laughs at the irony he now faces. "That's not what I was thinking at all...I was surprised at that reaction, because I was talking about including some ballads and including some more modern sounds like a traditionally commercial record. But he was absolutely right. There are some people that would think [Alcatraz] is not the product that is expected and advertised."

It's an odd paradox that when MTX released its 1986 debut, Everyone's Entitled to Their Own Opinion, the East Bay's bastard children of the Ramones and Buzzcocks would never have been considered the vanguard of the "next big thing." And yet, today, the rough-hewn, cultivated amateurism of pop-punk is a better guarantee of commercial success than the more traditionally popular power-pop sound heard on Alcatraz. Dr. Frank explains, "The real irony is that the rock music which is commercially accessible right now is 'the harsher, the rougher, the better.'"

Alcatraz opens with the bitingly sarcastic yet jangling attack on rock criticism "I Wrote a Book About Rock'n'Roll" -- a tune not unlike the cynical jabs of their inspiration, Mr. Costello ("I use words like 'sobriquet,' 'malaise,' and 'plutocrat' / And I compared the Shaggs to Wittgenstein -- how cool is that?"). Elsewhere, the catchy, squeaky-clean horn section blasts of "Naomi" and the lilting vocal harmony, shimmering organ, and acoustic guitar strums of "Hey Emily" demonstrate the group's penchant for catchy pop -- even with the distortion pedals turned off. "We'll Get By" boasts a cheery guitar chime similar to the chirpy Moog and electric piano overture of the Cars' classic "Bye Bye Love." As a whole, Alcatraz could easily be passed off as a long-lost gem from new wave label Stiff Records.

Compared with the band's earlier, gruff efforts, it's a bold departure. But considering the calculated preparations that went into the making of Alcatraz, the album is also a clever period piece. To prepare for the album, Dr. Frank recalls, "we analyzed the strange wall of noise of Armed Forces, and what goes into it. We tried to figure that out and put it into a couple of songs. We also tried to get an uncomfortable-sounding, awkward '80s power-pop kind of style on a couple of songs too." To achieve the album's textured sound, the group pursued what the singer calls a "method recording" approach. "We tried to put ourselves out of balance by putting us in weird situations to see if anything interesting would happen...we did a lot of experimenting, like turning the heat up in the studio to make an oppressive atmosphere. Just crazy stuff like that. We wanted to do every little thing that would shuffle things around a bit."

Recording Alcatraz with longtime producer-engineer Kevin Army -- who has recorded the lion's share of Lookout's releases and has produced all MTX albums but the second -- the band deliberately aimed for sonic inconsistencies by capturing songs at six different studios throughout the Bay Area. "We wanted to maximize the chances that the songs would come out sounding different from each other," explains Dr. Frank.

Describing his enthusiasm for the album's challenging, retrogressive departure, Army chuckles, "I've done that pop-punk record a lot of times now." It was a change of pace that the engineer welcomed with precise calculation. "Depending on the song, I planned to get us into studios that they would've used back then," the engineer explains, "and using a different guitar sound than we'd used before." This time, Army says, "we were going for a more brittle, Fender amp type of sound."

"We dictated what we recorded, and where, by the size of the room and the equipment at each studio," Dr. Frank explains.

"I'm a real fan of engineering from the '70s and early '80s," says Army, "but I've never had the luxury to choose the appropriate room for each song to represent that sound." Rather than mimicking the effects-drenched sounds of that era's multitrack recordings, Army and MTX focused their energy on harvesting the enduring elements of their favorite records and attempting to discover whether those nostalgic tones could be infused into the current age of pop songwriting. The result is an experiment of studied homage, and in that effort, an ironically bold break from the Mr. T Experience tradition. "I was always aware that the whole thing could blow up in our face," Dr. Frank admits, "but I think we succeeded."

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