When Dr. Frank started writing songs in the early 1980s, he hardly imagined he'd still be doing it twenty years later. Being in a band was mostly a cool way to stay up late, drink a lot, and meet girls. Frank is the lead singer for the Mr. T Experience, a Bay Area band that has gone through as many lineup changes as Sha-Na-Na, and has just about as big a cult following. Hailed by his followers as the "Cole Porter of Punk," Frank's been pegged a key architect of the aggressively melodic pop-punk style. Recently, though, he's been drawn to more complex, textured music, much to the dismay of his head-bobbing, pogo-dancing fan base. He's also a staunchly pro-American presence on the Web, setting up his own site generally devoted to the war on terrorism. The politics might ruffle the liberal feathers of some, but perhaps in true punk rock form, this odd mixture of attitudes and influences may just set him apart.
As a cofounder of the East Bay punk scene, Frank's influence has been considerable -- most obviously on Green Day, whose teenage members regularly attended Mr. T shows at 924 Gilman Street long before they were able to get themselves booked into sexy venues like La Val's Pizza and the on-campus Bear's Lair. Like Green Day, bands like Blink 182 have also appropriated their sound and taken it into the Top 40 -- a mix of melodic power-pop and grinding, power-chord punk, leavened with glib, clever lyrics. But the Mr. T Experience never became a household name, even after sixteen years of constant gigging and the occasional props from other bands.
Frank, it seems, was in the right place at the wrong time. In the early 1980s, he wove the strands of snotty LA-style hardcore and the bubblegummy power chords of the Dickies, Descendents, and Ramones into one nice, neat little package. But the market for his brand of rock didn't emerge until the early '90s, when Nirvana and Pearl Jam brought "punk" into the mainstream. Fresh faces like Green Day and Rancid were pulled out of the local scene and transformed into MTV darlings, yet Frank and his bandmates still had to lug their own equipment from small nightclubs to tiny bars and back again. On the whole, though, Dr. Frank is pretty philosophical about the direction his career has taken. "I always like to say that the lack of interest in the band has left us free to pursue our unique creative vision," he jokes, speaking from his cluttered Oakland apartment. The flat is crammed with hundreds of novels, political science and philosophy tracts (which he actually reads); old songbooks by Noel Coward, the Gershwins, and Frank Loesser; votive candles and Catholic tchotchkes, and an impressive collection of plastic toys that stands like a small army poised to do his bidding. A makeshift recording studio dominates his bedroom, with guitars, keyboards, four-tracks, mixers, and a microphone shielded by a nylon stocking. Frank went the home-recording route a few years ago when his interests shifted from penning 4/4 punk ditties towards a more expansive sound, as much influenced by Elvis Costello as by Joey Ramone or Stiv Bators. Now he delves deep into audio production, adding keyboards and vocal effects at will, conserving his time in "real" studios for trickier, more expensive techniques. The arrangement works fine, except when neighbors complain about the noise. Then he has to dig out the headphones, turn down his guitar, and croon his new tunes in a whisper. This quieter side of Dr. Frank has been emerging for some time. Since the release of his first solo album in 1999, he's occasionally performed as an acoustic act. Whether this route indicates a step back from rock 'n' roll frontman into a more introspective phase remains to be seen, but it wouldn't be much of a leap.
Dr. Frank grew up in the hinterlands of the San Francisco peninsula, the eldest son of a fairly normal suburban family. Sports were big in his household, but he never played on a team; instead he was a bit precocious, a bookworm and loner whose interests flitted between music, philosophy, and chess. It was music that lured him out of his shell. In the early '80s, when he moved across the Bay to go to UC Berkeley, he joined KALX and entered its punk rock circle, meeting Jon Von Zelowitz, a fellow Cal student with an obsessive admiration for the Ramones. Discovering a mutual passion for power chords and free beer, the two joined forces to haphazardly form the band that would become affectionately known as "MTX."In '86 they scraped the money together to self-release their first album, Everybody's Entitled to Their Own Opinion, reveling in dopey pop culture with songs such as "Danny Partridge Got Busted." Subsequent albums found Frank tackling more strenuous songwriting feats, like condensing a philosophy term paper into a two- minute pop tune ("History of the Concept of the Soul"). But the silliest songs with the catchiest hooks -- like "Psycho Girl" and "My Stupid Life" -- remained the big crowd-pleasers. MTX became one of the headliners that packed in crowds at the all-ages 924 Gilman, along with bands such as Sweet Baby and Operation Ivy. Even so, disgruntled hardcore fans derisively dubbed the East Bay sound as "pop-punk," which was fine by Frank, who considered his music a return to the style's real roots. "The first wave of punk rock was really pop songs," he says. "That was the first thing they jettisoned with hardcore -- the rock 'n' roll song structure, melodies, and everything. In the process of stripping it down, they sort of threw out the wrong things."
Despite constant touring and a devoted fan base, it became increasingly difficult for him to hold the group together. Along with the goofy songwriting, MTX also gained notoriety for its slow cycles of disintegration. Bass players and drummers came and went, and in 1992 Von Zelowitz quit the band, leaving Frank to re-form the group as a three-piece. By '93, after releasing six albums, he was ready to throw in the towel on what he had jokingly come to call the "MTX Starship." His friends convinced Frank to at least record the latest stuff he'd written, and his label -- Lookout Records -- agreed to put the songs out as a farewell EP, The Mr. T Experience and the Women Who Love Them. "Making that record was a disaster," he recalls. "The band was breaking up, we didn't have any money, no one was really interested in us, and whether we were still really a band at all was just a matter of opinion. Given how bad the situation was, I was really surprised how well the record came out." The EP also sold surprisingly well, re-igniting interest in the band and reinvigorating Frank's waning fascination with songwriting. Armed with a powerful new rhythm section featuring teenage fan-turned-bass-player Joel Reader and MTX's stalwart drummer Jym, the band gelled really well, and in '96 the trio recorded the relentlessly uptempo Love Is Dead, a full-length album packed with tightly crafted, hook-laden rock songs. The record was a half-spoof of teen angst themes and a densely constructed, witty pop album full of intricate wordplay masquerading as perky, lighthearted fluff. Frank's newfound poetic precision seemed to fly in the face of an ultra-indie ethos that placed a premium on unartful lyrics -- spending too much time on composition was seen as "inauthentic," or "not punk enough."
"I try to take the forms and clichés and conventions of a love song and come at it from an unexpected angle," he says, admitting that sometimes he puts more into his songs than is absolutely required. "The most effective songs are the ones that you don't have to think about, they just sort of hit you, and give the impression of being very simple. To get something simple is hard; you've got to really work at it."
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