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Lovers' Punk

Mr. T Experience
Pity the Fools: Jym, Joel and Dr. Frank (bottom to top) make a formidable punk-pop triple-decker on their new LP, Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You.

Photo by Robin Stock-Bernard

Under the musical guidance of Dr. Frank, the Mr. T Experience conducts open-heart surgery

By Todd S. Inoue

JUST LIKE Shakespeare and Danielle Steel, the East Bay punk-pop band the Mr. T Experience dallies in affairs of the freshly trod-upon heart. Lead singer and songwriter Dr. Frank spins yards of yarn about the ticker that has been broken infinite times but keeps a pair of frilly underwear in the dresser, just in case. As in Shakespeare, the wit is biting; as in Steel, the pleasures are guilty.

"Rock & roll is based on clichés," Dr. Frank proclaims. "The challenge is to recycle clichés into your own thing."

The most played-out cliché in rock--the love song--can mutate into various forms: I love you, but you don't love me. Why don't you love me like you used to? If you don't love me, I'll make your life miserable.

While the world gets laid around him, Dr. Frank strikes out but doesn't strike back. He pumps up his heart with ambition and confidence until he nearly hyperventilates. With Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You (Lookout!), the latest collection of immaculate ditties, the Mr. T Experience endorses a cohabitation of love and punk rock.

"There's nothing else to write about," says drummer Jym. "What else is there? Politics or what's happening in the world? Who wants to hear songs about apartheid? Why not write songs about girls?"

What MTX does is nothing short of revolutionary. The band has embraced the most predictable subject in a forum not traditionally known for sensitivity, injected some much needed humor and energy, and made it listenable and accessible. The result is disarmingly appealing tragicomedy swathed in the musk of dashing, precise pogo-pop.

From the goofy name to its antics (recording a two-minute version of Dr. Frank's graduate thesis, The History of the Concept of the Soul, footnotes included), the Mr. T Experience was considered a joke back in 1986. The Gilman Street punk-rock scene in Berkeley embraced this quirky band, and Dr. Frank, along with now departed partner Jon Von, managed to attract a diehard audience and peppered the underground with hits and rim shots.

A thematic shift from baring open sores to baring open souls emerged around the time of the band's 1995 EP, ... And the Women Who Love Them. New backing personnel (drummer Jym and bassist Joel--no last names, please) were recruited. A playful sobriquet--the MTX Starship--was adopted, and the group's songwriting focused almost entirely on unrequited love. The 1996 follow-up, Love Is Dead, was the year's can't-miss record, an addictive tome about self-loathing. Now on its third record, the soon-to-be released Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You, the trio punches in at the confessional and lets loose a tirade over love's labour's lost.

THE MR. T EXPERIENCE avoids the standard makeup-breakup songs produced by chart-toppers like Dru Hill or the Cardigans. The group's tales of woe are clever rallying cries for doormats of all persuasions.

"Hell of Dumb," a smart, country-accented twanger, adopts mall dialect to spin a tale of--what else?--unrequited love ("You were hella dumb for leaving, I was hella dumb for believing that you were hella coming back to me again" goes the chorus). Or consider this raison d'être for a crush from the straight-ahead power-pop track "Here She Comes":

    She's so hot and I love her a lot, she's got everything I haven't got
    Like savior faire, and joie de vivre and je ne sais quoi like you wouldn't believe.
    She's got a monopoly on how to do it properly,
    So even though she's mad at me, she's who I want to see.

The jumpy single from the album, "And I Will Be With You," begins with an adamant prediction: A couple will sit around the house and watch TV--American Ninja 2, in particular. "With My Looks and Your Brains" is an airtight, smile-a-second number that connects reproduction with success in chess:

    With my brains, your looks, your knights, my rooks
    they could win a lot of games
    but just think what if they end up with
    my looks and your brains?

"The love songs have a twist," Frank explains. "The interesting thing that people miss is that a lot of thought goes into presenting it from different angles." From recruiting his young cousins to croon "la-la-la" on "Love Is Dead" to performing a cover of Elton John and Kiki Dee's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" with the Muffs' Kim Shattuck, Dr. Frank explodes angles most bands refuse to acknowledge.

DURING THE halcyon days of Gilman Street, Dr. Frank began a tradition of announcing "this is a song about a girl" to cheese off the hard-core punks who came to hear messages, not mushiness. It's a tradition that exists to this day.

"The main motivating factor when we started was to irritate as many people as possible. Love songs do that," Frank confesses. "In the tiny punk scene, we played in front of a small and hard-to-please group of people. It would irritate the audience who were there to hear songs about El Salvador, anti-Nazi and KKK or whatever. Most people who have a PC attitude--we alienated them a long time ago."

There is a fear that as the Mr. T Experience grows, so will its audience. Original fans are easily alienated when a support base jumps from 1,000 to 10,000,000--just witness what happened to Green Day. The immediacy is lost when the distance between the band and fan becomes a chasm, when band members play to the backs of security guards while front-row fans gets jostled by jocks in $20 bootleg Dookie T-shirts.

Dr. Frank remembers what it's like when you get attached to a band and everyone else discovers it. "I think we're always going to appeal to an oddball fringe," he says. "We still want to provide people with an emblem that only they know about and [that makes them] feel superior. That was very important to me, that contrariness--despising what all the other kids like. It was an important part of my identity when I was growing up."

The MTX audience is overwhelmingly youthful. "They approach music free of prejudices," Frank says. "I can't tell you how many times I'd have these perceptive, intelligent questions posed by younger kids as opposed to 20-somethings who can only say, 'That was cool' or 'You rock.' "

I politely ask Dr. Frank for his age. He is 32. "Much of my sheepishness is based on the fact that people generally assume that 32 is an unseemly age to be in a rock & roll band. Who made that rule? The life of the Bohemian was open to all ages. Now the cutoff is getting younger and younger. Well, at least I'm not bald."

Mention popularity, and Dr. Frank's hair turns gray. He saw firsthand what happens when friends from Gilman Street suddenly appeared in heavy rotation on MTV. He watched silently as Green Day and Rancid skyrocketed--and as Jawbreaker, after infinite buildup, imploded in a cautionary tale of believing your own hype.

Green Day even asked MTX to open dates on its European tour in 1994. Two weeks in, Green Day canceled. What should have been a big break turned into a bust. The band quickly learned that an audience that doesn't speak English will have little patience for lyrics about the intricacies of relationships. It was peppered with ham sandwiches in Italy and showered with enough coins to start an enviable international collection. After accumulating these experiences, Dr. Frank pooh-poohs the idea that MTX will ever gain international acclaim.

"I find the idea of MTX being megapopular so far-fetched," Frank says, flatly. "We're doing OK, and we keep making progress step by step. I believe most people who reach the point of having a marginally unsuccessful band for so long would have had the sense to give it up. I haven't. I keep wanting to make records. I'm not the busy squirrel hiding away nuts. I'm the grasshopper fiddling away, who is unknowingly about to get squashed by the farmer."

The lasting question: Who is this girl that these songs are about? Dr. Frank's personal life is markedly different from the one documented in his musical library. He has a girlfriend, Bella, who resides in England. He does his part by amassing phone bills upward of $1,000 while writing letters and flying over during tour breaks.

I joke that if Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You takes off, Frank could write off the phone bills and plane tickets as business expenses.

"My roller-coaster relationship with my girlfriend has provided me with material to the tune of hundreds of dollars," he admits. "It sums up my life so well--so close, yet so far."

And another song is born.

The Mr. T Experience, the Odd Numbers, Inch and the Infinite Loop perform Saturday (Aug. 2) at 9pm at the Cactus Club, 419 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $6. (408/491-9300)

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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of Metro.

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