Dues & Don'ts

Punk pop has gone through its ups and down since the Ramones basically invented the genre in the mid '70s, taking simple pop song structures borrowed from Buddy Holly and early Beach Boys, and playing them with slapdash, revved-up abandon. For twenty years, the music percolated along under the radar of the big-business music industry, championed by bands such as the Dickies and the Descendents. By the early '90s, there was a bustling underground, featuring bands like All, Screeching Weasel, Operation Ivy and The Mr T Experience. Then, in 1994, two albums -- the Offspring's "Smash" and Green Day's "Dookie" -- broke the platinum barrier. Major labels, blinded by dollar signs as well as the apparent simplicity of this particular genre and the ease with which it could be duplicated by any three whiny suburban kids whose folks were willing to buy them instruments, signed up dozens of bands that seemed to have the sound. They're still wondering why these made-from-a-kit/just-add-water bands failed to ignite. If record executives had looked at the careers of the Offspring and Green Day, they could've learned why. Punk pop, like all punk, is a grass-roots music. Both bands had roots. Both had been recording since 1989 and had numerous indie releases. A band whose first-ever record is a full-length disc on Geffen doesn't connect with the audience as powerfully, as one who's done the van-and-7 routine. That's one of the things that made Dr. Frank, singer/ guitarist/songwriter for Northern California punk popsters The Mr T Experience, leery of the major label punk/pop sweepstakes and grateful that his band did not trade their hard-won, reliable grass-roots following for a long shot at the brass ring. Though All, Screeching Weasel and Operation Ivy bit the dust (the former two have since done reunion tours), MTX has plugged along since 1986, enjoying a slowly swelling, rather than dramatic, increase in their fan base.Some bands put everything on hold to chase a big money deal, Frank says of that go-go era of '94-'95. We made a conscious decision not to do that. Those bands had their one album. I didn't want to have to live up to the big business idea of what a successful rock band should be. It's nearly impossible to achieve that. I thought that, for a couple of years of my creative life, I'd rather have three albums of songs.Now, he says with relief, The fact that the pendulum of punk pop has swung back hasn't affected us. I'd like to sell more records obviously, but I'd like to keep making records. If songwriting is a vocation rather than a means of making a living, you want to do what is best for the songs.Dr. Frank formed the band and released the first album on his own label in 1986. Back then, MTX were a sloppy, jokey affair. Two albums followed on Rough Trade before the band shifted to Berkeley's Lookout Records, the label that also launched Green Day. They've recorded three EPs and five albums; the latest, "Revenge Is Sweet, and So Are You", features the band's lineup of the past three years, Joel on bass and Jym on drums. They were fans of the earlier incarnation. They think of themselves as continuing the tradition. he songs on "Revenge Is Sweet... "bear the familiar earmarks of punk pop, right down to the nasal vocals proclaiming romantic uncertainty (She's Coming Over Tonight). But the band has range: they can go from an earnest acoustic ditty like I Don't Need You Now, to a spirited sing-along like Our Love Will Last Forever and Ever to their very own version of the bluegrass tune Some Foggy Mountain Top. At a certain point in the last few years, says Frank, I got my act together and learned how to write songs. I had good ideas but I didn't know how to put them together. The first few albums had moments but a lot of misfires.Though the Mr T Experience is now considered one of the granddads of modern punk pop, Dr. Frank says they didn't cut a big deal. "MTX was affected by the Green Day explosion, introducing a younger audience to the music. It amazes me that kids do appreciate the songs. You have to have had really terrible experiences to understand George Jones, and I think of ourselves that way," says Frank. Dr. Frank's outlook on the business isn't colored by fantasies either. He says simply, "We tour a lot and when we're not, we're recovering or working on a record. We've got limited resources and we've got to be creative with how we use them. Wishing doesn't make it happen. You have to do a lot for yourself, but you're in control. When you do it yourself, it's better in the long run."But he adds, "There are weird situations you find yourself in. I just realized the last contract we signed was negotiated on the #40 bus from Berkeley to Oakland. I'm sure that's not how David Geffen does it! "

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