It's not surprising that the band named after Mr. T, the larger-than-life icon representing the kinetic, opulent, and overstimulated pop culture of the '80s, would aim to mimic the tense and cocaine-fueled power-pop of that era. But what may surprise new listeners and seasoned fans alike is the Mr. T Experience's (relatively) mature songwriting and unconventional recording techniques used on its tenth album, Alcatraz.
Deliberately seeking out the sonically claustrophobic atmosphere of such '80s favorites as Elvis Costello's Armed Forces and Joe Jackson's I'm the Man, the album achieves a level of nearly paranoid musicianship, rife with extemporaneous fills and exceedingly tight instrumental interplay. But, while the sounds and performances are hyperactive, the songs show a more expressive and traditional pop music structure than the buzzsaw guitars and punky-pop heard on the group's nine previous efforts. In other words, they've gone soft -- but in a creative and interesting way.
The bubbly, camp-counselor demeanor of singer-guitarist Dr. Frank (Frank Portman), speaking by telephone while vacationing in England, shines through as he describes his motivations behind the Mr. T Experience's escape from its own pop-punk prison, which led his search for the musical freedom found on Alcatraz.
"We selected some songs that, I think, in the past, we might have been afraid to do," he explains, "and we forced ourselves to not let preemptive embarrassment cross anything off our list."
On the album, Portman's endearingly nerdy singing certainly remains as perky and impelling as ever, but he's given more room for expression without the wry snarl and backing fuzz that the Mr. T Experience and Berkeley contemporaries such as Green Day and Operation Ivy helped define in the late '80s. Along the way, all three bands and a slew of others turned the small local independent Lookout Records into one of the world's most successful indie labels. Considering Lookout's launching of several alternative heavyweights -- the Donnas, Rancid, Green Day, Operation Ivy, Screeching Weasel, Pansy Division, et al -- the label has almost single-handedly defined the happy-go-punky genre in its brief eleven-year existence. And in celebration of that feat, as well as the recent release of Alcatraz, Lookout Records hosted its first four-day, multi-band event, the Labor Day "Lookout! Freakout!" (which featured two performances by the MTX) in San Francisco.
Portman is actually a 35-year-old UC Berkeley graduate whose educational credentials certify him as a perpetually deferred Harvard graduate student several credits short of a doctorate. Nonetheless, it's perhaps his cheery bedside manner and tenure in catchy songwriting that have earned him his honorary title. Aiding in the experience is the airtight rhythm section of bassist Joel Reader and drummer Jym (who refuses to divulge his last name), both of whom joined in the mid-'90s, after a series of disastrous tours and releases on failing indie labels drove Portman's former band members off to such other local favorites as Samiam and the Rip-Offs.
Unencumbered by such setbacks, the newly revamped lineup rallied for its 1996 return on its fourth full-length on Lookout Records (though the MTX back catalog has since been reissued by the Berkeley label), Love Is Dead, which proved to be the band's best-selling experience. While nothing close to the commercial cash-in caliber of Green Day or Rancid, Love Is Dead gave the MTX considerable credibility in the now commercially viable pop-punk genre. It's an uncharacteristic success for the band, which is probably why Portman now sees fit to potentially sabotage his band's growing popularity.
"Love Is Dead was a landmark for us," he admits. "That's the one that everybody likes the best, and I know why. It takes the singer/songwriter kind of song and gives it a pop-punk-style treatment. I think it's about the best that kind of thing can be. A lot of people would like to see us record Love Is Dead every year until the end of time."
But Portman no longer feels compelled to explore those possibilities. He's written pop-punk out of his system.
"If you go for years and years recording the same record over and over," he suggests, "you're going to bore everybody and yourself to tears. I remember when I was talking to Chris [Appelgren, label president] at Lookout about my initial plan, I said, "I just want to warn you that the new MTX album isn't going to have any generic pop-punk songs on it.' So, his reaction was "Okay, we respect that that is what you want to do: make a less-commercial record.'"
Retelling the story, Portman laughs at the irony he now faces.
"That's not what I was thinking at all. I was surprised at that reaction, because I was talking about including some ballads and including some more modern sounds, like a traditionally commercial record. But he was absolutely right -- there are some people that would think [Alcatraz] is not the product that is expected and advertised."
It's an odd paradox that, when MTX released its 1986 debut, Everyone's Entitled to Their Own Opinion, the East Bay's bastard child of the Ramones and Buzzcocks would've never been considered the vanguard of the "next big thing." And yet, today, the rough-hewn cultivated amateurism of pop-punk is a better guarantee of commercial success than the more traditionally popular power-pop sound heard on Alcatraz.
"The real irony is that the rock music which is commercially accessible right now is harsher -- the rougher, the better," he explains.
Alcatraz opens with the bitingly sarcastic yet jangling attack on rock criticism, "I Wrote a Book About Rock 'n' Roll" -- a tune not unlike the cynical jabs of their inspiration, Mr. Costello. Elsewhere, the catchy and squeaky-clean horn section blasts of "Naomi" and the lilting vocal harmony, shimmering organ, and acoustic guitar strums of "Hey Emily" demonstrate the group's penchant for catchy pop -- even with the distortion pedals turned off. "We'll Get By" boasts a cheery guitar chime similar to the chirpy Moog and electric piano overture of the Cars' classic, "Bye Bye Love." As a whole, Alcatraz could easily be passed off as a long-lost gem from the penultimate new-wave label Stiff Records.
Compared to the band's earlier gruff efforts, the album is a bold departure. But considering the calculated preparations that went into the making of Alcatraz, the album is also a clever period piece. To prepare for the album, Portman recalls, "we analyzed the strange wall-of-noise of [Elvis Costello and the Attractions'] Armed Forces, and what goes into it. We tried to figure that out and put it into a couple of songs. We also tried to get an uncomfortable-sounding, awkward '80s power-pop kind of style on a couple of songs."
To achieve the album's textured, early-'80s sound, the group pursued what Portman calls a "method recording" approach.
"We tried to put ourselves out of balance by putting us in weird situations to see if anything interesting would happen," he explains. "We did a lot of experimenting, like turning the heat up in the studio to make an oppressive atmosphere. Just crazy stuff like that. We wanted to do every little thing that would shuffle things around a bit."
Recording Alcatraz with longtime producer/engineer Kevin Army -- who has recorded the lion's share of Lookout's releases and has produced all but the second MTX album -- the band deliberately aimed for sonic inconsistencies by recording specific songs at six different studios throughout the Bay Area.
"We wanted to maximize the chances that the songs would come out sounding different from each other," Portman explains. "We dictated what we recorded and where by the size of the room and the equipment at each studio."
But rather than mimicking the effects-drenched sounds of that era's multitrack recordings, Army and the MTX focused their energy on harvesting the enduring elements of their favorite records and attempting to discover whether those nostalgic tones could be infused into the current age of pop songwriting.
The result is an experiment of studied homage and, in that effort, an ironically bold break from the Mr. T Experience tradition.
"I was always aware that the whole thing could blow up in our face," Portman admits, "but I think we succeeded."
Some might consider Alcatraz unnecessarily risky, but we'll consider it their heroic jailbreak.
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