I did this interview with Dr. Frank at The Shelter (basement of Detroit, MI St. Andrews Hall) in the spring of 2000. MTX was on tour and had recently released the album ‘Alcatraz.’
How’s the tour going so far?
It’s going pretty good. We basically just started. We’re into our second week of it, we just played Canada. Canada is always so difficult, it’s sort of like it’s own country up there. It’s just really hard to tour there, but since we’ve been back to the states it’s been going good.
What do you mean, hard to tour in Canada?
Everything about it is difficult, I mean, getting in, getting out. The distance between everything is incredibly long, you know? The roads aren’t that good. Itresembles Europe in a lot of ways in that it’s not set up for the convenience or inhabitants of a touring band (laughs). And, every time I go to canada i get get furiously ill. I’m just getting over it and we’re actually going back tomorrow. But to answer your question the tour is going really well.
How did you get your start in music?
I guess the best answer to that would be, listening to the radio. Then, once I found the kind of rock-n-roll music that I liked, and that was sufficiently different from what all of the other people I knew liked, then I decided I wanted to try it myself. That’s when I started playing guitar, when I was 13 or 14. I got my first guitar as a confirmation present from my parents.
What kind of a guitar was it?
Actually, I still have it. It’s a Yamaha acoustic steel string guitar. I play it on our records and stuff. Then I just taught myself how to play guitar and then I started writing songs almost immediately.
What are your (musical) influences?
Well, a little bit of everything, positively and negatively by more things than positively. For instance, where you’d say “I’m never going to do that,” that’s probably most of being along the road of having this band. We started out where we were at, was the whole hardcore scene. So, I said “I”m not doing a band like that, no way.” There are people that I’ve admired and basically have influenced me but I’ve always been conscious that doing imitations of people is not always the best way to do it. The only way that works out is if you do an imitation and you’re so bad at it, or, so incompitent at it, that it accidentally ends up becoming your own thing, which is what happens to a lot of people, but, I mean, the list of people that I pay attention to and admire could fill up your whole tape with, or I could just pick the top three (laughs). I spent a lot of time listening to Elvis Costello, and the Kinks. Robin Hitchcock, country music and George Jones, Karl Perkins and Web Pierce. I like Gilbert and Sullivan and I like 30s cabaret music, I just like a lot of things.
What was your first band?
The first band I ever was in was a band that played KISS covers. I was the drummer and I got kicked out because I wouldn’t wear the makeup. They wanted me to wear the makeup. We actually weren’t trying to be like those people (KISS), we had all of our own characters, but I didn’t want to wear makeup. That wasn’t enough for them to kick me out actually, they were mad at me about that but they said “why don’t you wear the makeup and I told them makeup was gay. I think saying that KISS (or the makeup they wear) was “gay” got me balcballed from 7th grade rock-n-roll. I didn’t mean it in the literal sense, I just meant it as a 7th grader, your vocabulary is a little bit less than precise. So, anyway, I got kicked out of that band. I forget what they were called though. The first band I had where I was the main guy was called the Bent Nails. That was when I was in highschool.
How long has The Mr. T Experience been in existence?
Our first record came out in 1986. We were probably nominally in existence a few months before tha tso, end of ‘85 or so. Our first album was called “Everyone’s Entitled to Their Own Opinion.”
Are your fans a whole new generation now, or, have a lot of them stuck with you over the years?
I think at first we really didn’t even have a band. We sort of used to impose ourselves on people that happened to be at whatever place we were playing. They would either leave or try to boo us off stage. We were really good at resisting being booed off stage. That was our big talent, no matter what they did, we stayed on that damn stage. But I don’t think we had any fans until a bit later. The only people who really paid us any attention were college aged early 20s.
Then, starting around 1994-95, the people who came to our shows, the age went way down and now, the average is probably 16. These kids were taking their first steps when we were starting. It definitely has changed. There is a new generation of people who are paying attention to this kind of band and this band (MTX) in particular. One thing that we’ve done is tend to hang on a lot longer than a lot of bands in our genre. They come when they’re 13 and you sort of watch them grow up show after show. Some of those people I saw when they were like 14, are now in their 20s. It’s kind of cool. But it’s weird, because it’s not the norm thing to happen with a mid-size pop punk band. People get tired of it after a few years.
How did you make it to Lookout! Records?
Larry was a friend of mine, and when he started Lookout! We were on Rough Trade Records. Then, Rough Trade went out of business and he was basically the only person who would put out our forth record. We sent ito everyone and on one would take us. We were the 37th record on Lookout! So we weren’t on it at the beginning. But, in 1989 our first record came out on Lookout!
How has the band evolved over the years?
We gradually got better at doing some things and then consequently, perhaps worse at doing other things. I certainly have improved what I am responsible for, which is the singing and guitar playing. I mean, when i started out you can tell. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. Then gradually I’ve gotten better. The biggest difference is that I’ve learned to write effective songs after years and years of trial and error. Now, for better or worse, I’m at the point where I write songs that are actually unique to me. You can always tell if it’s one of my songs. I’m at the point now where I never do anything that I don’t absolutely intend to do. It took years and years and years of not quite being in control of everything, and trial and error to get to that point. A lot of people are in bands this long without making it big, they quit before they are able to have that much control over what they’re doing. I mean, there are a lot of factors; replacing band members and them being better than others and the other evolution, beginning with the album ‘Love is Dead’ we started having like 10 times fmore money to record with. Adn, really, to a large degree, you can put a dollar amount on quality with a rock and roll recording. All of our other recordings were done for around $1,000 dollars, and people say “you suddenly got good,” well, maybe, yeah, but we also were finally able to pay for studio time where we ould do stuff over and spend time on things. That’s actually more significant of a part of the evolution process for us. Wecan give credit to “money,” it made a big difference.
How long has the existing band been together?
This lineup has been from 1994.
Yeah, it’s called “Alcatraz.”
What inspired you to do a solo album?
Well, one, I did it because I could. I talked Lookout! Records into putting it out, so, why not? Also, I was just getting this sense that a lot of my songs are getting lost in the shuffle and that I wanted to see what would happen without putting it through the “punk-rock-ifier.” I write all of these different songs about all sorts of different things and all sort of different idioms and styles, and then we put them through the punk-i-fier and they all sound the same, like the poor man’s Green Day. But, I thought I’d see what would happen if I eliminated that step in the process.
So, is this how you write your tunes, you sit down and strum, then make them punk rock later?
Yeah, they all start off like that. Up until the past couple of years, I’ve been writing songs using more machinery like drum machines and stuff like that. It all starts off like that though. In the past, I’d write the song, go into the practice space and play chords and everyone else would just join in playing and that would be the arrangement. I guessI shouldn’t have been surprised when all the songs began sounding the same when we did it that way, because we were doing things the same every time. So, the thing I’ve learned from my solo album, the thing to do, which we applied these lessons to the new MTX album, to have a total plan and build it from the ground up. So I spent a lot of time with the producer figuring out how the drums were going to go before Jim even had any inkling of what the songs were, so that we knew and it couldn’t end up getting diverted into that sort of generic slump that we might get into. But, they all start as songs and then get electrified when we record them.
I read articles from ‘94/95 about a girl named Bella (from England) that inspire your lyrics. Does she still have an influence on your work?
Yeah. She’s’ the girl that the album ‘Love is Dead’ is based on. All of the songs on that album are written about her. She was breaking up with me all the time. It was a real roller coaster of a relationship. All the dust has kind of settled now. I guess she’s my ‘fiance’ now and we are (in theory) going to get married pretty shortly, but, there was a time that I never knew whether I was really together with her from day to day. It’s been going on for a while.
You guys live in California? What’s the scene like in your city?
Berkeley. I have no idea. Maybe there’s this big scene going on that I’m not aware of, I don’t get out much.
Are you guys all friends outside of the band, do you hang out?
No, I mean, we aren’t enemies or anything, but you spend months with a group of four or five people, you don’t say “Hey let’s go bowling” or anything like that. See, that just might be me too, because I hate all people I’ve learned to tolerate these guys to an amazing degree and actually kind of like them in a way, but when I’m home, I like to keep my distance from all people. That’s just me.
What do you all do outside of the band? I read that you have a doctorate in criminology?
I claimed to have a doctorate in criminology and everyone believed it for a while. I don’t actually. I’m a dentist, but I don’t practice. I’m a punk rock musician professionally now, but there was a time when I used to be a dentist, but, I admit I wasn’t very good at it.
Did you ever pull any teeth?
Actually, pulling teeth is the easiest thing. The hardest thing is wisdom teeth. It’s very easy to make a mistake. You make a mistake and they’ll sue you right away. It’s just not a good profession to enter. You make one wrong move and sever the wrong artery, you’re toast. It’s just too risky.
What do the other guys do outside the band?
Joel is a hair dresser but whe he’s on the road he doesn’t do much.
Does he cut your hair?
He’d do it, but he charges an arm and a leg (laugh) and Jim doesn’t sem to do anything. But before he started the band, he used to repair electronic equipment. He had a little shop in town. I don’t think he does that anymore.
Where do you want to be in a few years?
I think I want to win the nobel prize for rock-n-roll. Which they don’t have yet, but, I believe I’ve earned it, I believe I deserve it. So, I’m working on it. I want to be the first person to win the Nobel prize for rock-n-roll. I’d settle for, if they’d give me the prize for literature, I’d accept that as well.
Looking back, would you do anything different?
Sure. I would do everything different. Every single thing i’ve ever done, from the minute I was born i would do differently (laughs). If I had been thinking , I would have and didn’t so, too late, although you never know, maybe you get another chance. Man, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve made so many mistakes, knowing what I know now, if I started out again, I would be the ruler of the world right now, this minute. I would have the power of life and death over (points to me) you and you and everybody here, but instead, I made all the wrong decisions. So, I’m just this little marginal man, but that’s all going to change next time around.
You guys being veterans of the scene, what do you think has become of punk rock?
It’s kind of hard to really know what you mean when you say ‘punk rock’ anymore. I think that the idea of someone that really doesn’t have any qualifications just wanting to pick up a guitar and play rock-n-roll music, it’s always going to be there. And, whether you call that punk rock or not, that’s what is interesting about punk rock. I’m not very interested in people who are trying as hard as they can to try and sound punk. Or, to try and sound like some other punk band or whatever, because that’s just boring. I think if you’ve heard something once, that’s enough, but it’s very hard. The current climate of punk rock is extremely conservative. And, I look at some of these bands that have been doing the same exact thing for 20 years and I just can’t imagine how they can stand it. WhatI hope happens to punk rock is that people adopt the attitude of trying to, just surprise people with really off the wall things, to try to stir things up and make it interesting, so, we all know that could happen. That’s what I wish would happen, but it’s not going to happen.
I read something about you guys were going to do something with MTV, a video or something?
Well, we’ve had videos before. Currently, we don’t plan on doing videos for this record because we can’t afford it. We were on 120 minutes, and the last video was on 12 angry viewers and lost to an Ozzy Osbourne video. I regarded that as a personal insult.