"I think my whole deal -- my band and my project -- has been pretty much misunderstood," says Frank Portman, more popularly known as Dr. Frank, lead singer and songwriter for Berkeley band the Mr. T Experience, or MTX. "People would listen to a whole album of these very carefully composed, multilevel compositions, and you'd still read, 'Oh, here's more of the same happy, poppy, silly songs.' And there's a silliness about it certainly, but it seemed like many people were not getting the point."
Yes, MTX is known for funny, almost gimmicky songs like "Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend" and "More Than Toast." Yes, Dr. Frank infamously admits to writing different variations of "a song about a girl." Yes, the band can be loosely described as pop-punk.
But after nineteen years and twelve albums, Dr. Frank's songs have evolved into more than just goofy gags about a kinda-nerdy, kinda-edgy guy fumbling through relationships. Somehow, an undercurrent of emotional resonance has seeped into the music. Anger, alienation, and frustration often bubble beneath the humor and multisyllabic words. And MTX manages to do all this while still staying light and danceable.
Not that that stops anyone from comparing the band to certain other, more famous punk rockers. (*Cough* Green Day *cough.*)
Yesterday Rules, MTX's first full album in more than four years, might further distance Dr. Frank from his dookie-slinging contemporaries. Its thirteen tracks are slightly mellower than previous MTX albums and explore a wider range of sounds: Songs slip from punk rock to '60s easy listening to acoustic folk to country.
Which was Dr. Frank's plan: He wanted to explore as many guitar sounds as possible on Yesterday, so that each song would be distinct and stand on its own.
To do this, he continued the process he started with his last album, Alcatraz, of experimenting with different songwriting techniques. MTX made that record in six different studios to see how it would affect the mood, sound, and energy. But for Yesterday, Dr. Frank abandoned this rather expensive method in favor of recording some of the material on home equipment and prereleasing it. He sold Eight Little Songs exclusively from his Weblog (DoktorFrank.com), and it did extremely well.
"I was a little bit sheepish about prereleasing material," he says. "I'd never done it before. But I sold like a thousand of them. In my financial position, that's really substantial. That's more money than I've ever made from any recent record."
While the sales were nice, the point was also to get feedback from fans about the tunes that would eventually become Yesterday. Dr. Frank even kept an online journal detailing the recording process, and asked readers their opinions about everything from potential lyrics to the name of the album.
As MTX seems to attract smart, articulate people somewhat like Dr. Frank himself, the responses could occasionally be long-winded. "It was a little bit weird sometimes," he admits. "Some people wrote these lengthy essays and analyzed the songs in detail. They almost approached it like a school assignment. That's not very rock 'n' roll, but you know ..."
The gamble paid off: Five tracks from Eight Little Songs made it onto Yesterday Rules in revamped versions. Some even used parts of the original recordings. And at 39, Dr. Frank feels as if he is finally getting a hold of this songwriting thing. At least he's starting to achieve some of his goals, like writing songs that express emotions through the music and lyrics combined, rather than the lyrics alone.
"One thing I'm proud of in the song 'London,' for example, is that the melody and the harmonic angle is very much in tune with the literal concept, which is not as natural as you might think," he explains. "That song captures some essential truth of how it is when you're feeling bad and you're looking for something outside yourself to attribute it to. I've been trying to be a songwriter for a long, long time, and I've only recently figured out how to do that to any significant degree. "
But MTX's classic "song about a girl" blueprint still pops up throughout Yesterday. Even though Dr. Frank recently got married, it hasn't had as much of an impact on his songwriting as you might expect.
"The way that my songs are autobiographical is a little more complicated than just, 'Well, you're all wondering what I did in the last year, so here it is,'" he says. "There's a level of contrivance and a distance from the actual experience. You present it in a form that feels real so that when someone hears it, they will hopefully, presumably, say, 'I know that -- I understand what that guy's talking about. '"
Love songs, for Dr. Frank, make good metaphors for most other things in life. If you want to describe someone who, say, feels rejected, nothing demonstrates that emotion better than being dumped by your significant other. Yesterday love songs like "Sorry for Freaking Out on the Phone Last Night" and "She's Not a Flower" deflate the usually flowery language of love to create a more realistic depiction of relationships. On another level, Dr. Frank says many of these tunes deal with "personal propaganda" -- lies we tell ourselves to make us feel better about a given situation.
Still, he admits, this all "sounds maybe a little bit too heavy for pop music." It's not that Dr. Frank necessarily started out writing about such intellectual topics. It just sort of happened. But now that Yesterday is finished, he seems cautiously optimistic.
"Of course, it's never what you originally imagined," he says. "Everybody who makes recordings is bitter with the results, without exception, I would say. I'm proud of many aspects of the new album, but you start out with boundless possibilities, and eventually, no matter what you do, you end up with a compromise."
But don't worry: It's all still light and danceable.
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