If there's an antidote to the portentous, angst-ridden self-indulgence of hard rock, it's to be found in the anthemic blitz of pop-punk bands such as MxPx. Like Green Day before it, the Seattle three-piece mines sunny, early '80s Cali punk, creating a yin to the yang of ponderous nü-metal temper tantrums that Nirvana inadvertently ushered in.
Calling the latest wave of acts -- from New Found Glory and Good Charlotte to Sum 41 -- a resurgence hardly seems appropriate, since it's been a steady market for nearly a decade, from Dookie through Blink and on into the 21st century. MxPx has been surfing this persistent musical breaker as long and successfully as anyone; it's something of a gold standard to which the others are compared.
The trio started playing before they even got their learner's permits, touring in support of their first record while still in high school. With a decade-long history, they now rank among neo-punk's elder statesmen. And, of course, they are still in their 20s. It's a handful for guitarist Tom Wisniewski to grasp.
"It's weird, because people give us that whole thing like we're staples of the scene now, and I'm like two years older than most of these bands that are coming up," Wisniewski says before a show in San Francisco. "We've been doing it for so long that we are kind of elder statesmen, just by experience, but not by age. I still look up to Bad Religion, and they're all older than me, and they've been doing it 10 years longer than us. I mean, I could be doing it Rolling Stones-style. They got started in their 20s, so I've got a head start on them."
The band broke out of the underground in '96 with the release of its third album, Life in General, paced by the surprise hit "Chick Magnet." From the swinging bass line to the throttling guitar bounce, the song harked back to the cheeky, high-energy irreverence of the Descendents (Wisniewski's first punk-rock love), a template that MxPx has used throughout its career. The album sold more than 200,000 copies -- a virtually unprecedented number for a small label like Tooth & Nail. By Wisniewski's account, it couldn't handle the extra business MxPx brought in.
"We were selling so many that they were having to wait for checks to come in so they could press more, because they were all out of money. Kids would be like 'Yo, we can't find your record in stores.' We'd call them: 'What's up with that?' 'Yeah, we're out right now.' And we're like 'Isn't it part of your job to make the records that we recorded?'" Wisniewski asks with comic bemusement. The episode made the band's decision to sign with A&M that much easier. "It was a no-brainer. Our label was ripping us off pretty extensively, so it just made sense."
As well-established scions of the scene, MxPx wanted to open up its retro-punk sound a bit on Before Everything & After, the band's third album with A&M. Thus, the three-chord, three-minute anthems are joined by gentle power ballads, as well as cello, strings, keyboards, and piano on tracks such as "Quit Your Life," "Don't Walk Away," and "More Everything." Wisniewski, whose musical tastes span everything from country to reggae and pop to hip-hop, welcomed the chance to experiment.
"The thing is, if you're listening to music and you're trying to make records, you've got to keep your ears open to what's going on," he says. "You can't just shut yourself off and live in your little cubbyhole and make the same record 20 times. It's just going to be gay, and people are going to be sick of you.
"With this new record, we tried to throw those rules away. We always had rules about ourselves that, you know, this is what makes an MxPx song, and this is what would make it not an MxPx song. We decided, with those rules, their time had come and gone, basically. It was kind of liberating. If someone had an idea, and it was kind of out there -- do it anyways. Run through it, and see if we liked it. We'd just do whatever would make a song rock a little harder."
In addition to using broader instrumentation and more varied arrangements, the band invited Benji Madden (Good Charlotte), Kris Roe (the Ataris), and Jordan Pundik (New Found Glory) to join in on the new album.
"We always try to get people to come sing and play on our records. It's a friends thing. Like the punk-rock community," Wisniewski says. "We're all buddies and everything, so when it comes time to do the records, it's 'Let's get your buddy in here to play a little solo, let's get your buddy in here to do oohs and ahs.' I've known Benji for like three and a half years. And Jordan, I've known him since New Found Glory were a new band, handing us their demos at shows and stuff."
MxPx may be older now -- and better known -- but Wisniewski asserts that they're still the same people they were at the start. He now owns a house, but he still rides his BMX around the neighborhood. Only now, he's doing it with kids younger than he is. Pretty much like his music.
"I got a house in a cul-de-sac, and I ride my bike with a bunch of 5- and 10-year-old kids," he says. "I get out my bike when they're all riding around the cul-de-sac, and I race them around and stuff. I showed this one kid who lives next to me how to ride without his training wheels on. It's like the cool-young-uncle thing to some of the kids. When I'm home, they know that I'm pretty cool, and they always come try to talk to me and stuff. And they all like my band now, because of it. It's awesome. Just making fans any way I can."
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