How's that for a genre?

Could you explain to those who will be reading my article where the "Dr." in front of your name came from? (Even I've heard a few different explanations!)

My mother, like most mothers, planned for me to be a doctor when I grew up. So certain was she that her dream would become a reality that she began addressing me as "doctor" at around the age of 3. "Dinner's ready, Doctor." "You're grounded, Doctor." "Doctor, you're wanted on the telephone..." Etc. Even though I never did actually make it through medical school, the name somehow stuck.

When did the idea of a solo project first come up?

I've been idly planning it for years. In any band, there's always some tension between the songwriter and the band in that there are always going to be some songs that the band doesn't want to do. Over the years this conflict has happened pretty frequently, and I always had it in the back of my mind that I would take some of these rejected songs and do them myself. On the last MTX album (Revenge is Sweet...) a lot of my favorite ones ended up getting rejected, and so that's when I decided actually to do it rather than just talk about it.

What prompted you to do a solo record? Were you looking for a chance to be more creative, explore different genres of music, or something to that effect?

I guess the above answer gets at the first part of your question. As for the second part, I suppose you could say that. But really, it's a measure of the artistic failure of MTX records that nobody realizes that "exploring different genres" was part of my intention all along: "Revenge is Sweet" has many types of songs, and the demos of the songs (the ones I did on my own at home) sound very much like the solo album. There were country songs, there was a bossa nova song, bubblegum songs, hard rock, ballads, etc. But somehow, they all got fed through the "pop-punk-izer" and lost a lot of their individuality. "Show Business is My Life" was largely an experiment to see if it was possible to get these songs to come out the way they were intended, and, for better or worse, I think the answer is "yes, it's possible." And one thing I learned from the whole experience is that just leaving everything to chance like we've done on the last couple of MTX records (i.e., I start playing the chords and the band starts playing along, and that's the arrangement) is not the best way to do it. It really helped with the new MTX record (which we just finished) because I learned how to plan everything out so that it didn't get genericized. I realize, of course, that that generic quality is something that a lot of people specifically like (and it worked out really well on "Love is Dead") but I've got no interest in re-recording the same album over and over again.

How do you think fans of the MTX will respond to "Show Business is my Life"?

That's a really good question. I've been encouraged so far. I wasn't really sure if people would accept it. My hope is that fans of the MTX are largely fans of my songs, and that they'll be interested in the songs in whatever form they are cast in. So far, this seems to be the case, though that doesn't mean that they'll necessarily buy the record, which is the other hope floating around. I'll be interested to see how it works out, because the new MTX album goes out on even more stylistic limbs in some ways. "Show Business..." is kind of the guinea pig....

What is it like doing a solo record? After being so used to having to confer with other band members while making a record, it must be quite a change from what you're used to.

It's great. Having a rock and roll band is great fun, but it's also difficult because you have to try to please everyone, and nobody's ever happy with anything. So it was a relief to record on my own for a break. (Though Kevin Army, the producer, and I still had a lot of arguments...)

On "She Turned Out to be Crazy", you speak of some relationships gone awry. Are they from experience? (I read once that you had a girlfriend that attempted to kill you with a frying pan...tell me it's not true!)

The frying pan story is true, as a matter of fact. As for that song, I wouldn't say that particular Jasminlive song is really about me; my relationships all go awry in completely different ways than that. The narrator of that song is not the smartest guy in the world, and he doesn't have any kind of introspective insight into his own situation. And self-knowledge is what really drives you crazy and wrecks your life-- it's a more subtle wreckage than just ending up in jail. He's a character I saw on a Springer episode.

Are you planning a tour to support the record?(B.T.W.-how did your show go last night?)

There's probably not going to be much time for any solo touring because of all the MTX activity. I might do a show here and there. The show in San Francisco last night was really great, by the way.

No doubt your experiences in music have taught you a lot. What would be the single-most important piece of advice you could offer to the students who will read the review and are interested in pursuing music as a career?

Well, for me it hasn't been much of a "career" for most of it. But it's a cliche that is certainly borne out by my experience that persistence does eventually produce results. I've been way more successful that I ever imagined. Everyone used to say "why don't you just give it up?" and "you'll never amount to anything" and that sort of thing. Up till about four years ago, they were absolutely right. Then suddenly, they weren't right anymore. It's a great feeling, in its own way. It took me 13 very uncertain years to get to the "moderately-successful-underground-rock-act" level. Most people like me give up long before they reach the 13 year mark, and I can't say I blame them. It's not a "smart" career path, and I'd make way more money driving a bus or something. But my advice, nonetheless, is if you really believe you've got something you should really stick with it. It can take a long time, but it's cool when it finally clicks.

Since I listened to the record, I've been trying to define what kind of music "She All Right" is, and I haven't come up with anything.

I suppose "She All Right" is kind of a 1930s-style white-folk-blues tune.

Here's where I'm supposed to say

I first came across Dr. Frank in the early 1980s, when as a DJ on the local college radio station, he did a rap version of "Green Eggs and Ham" over an instrumental version of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message." He was a fascinating DJ, with attitude and a great sense of what made good music, and it was no surprise when his band, the Mr. T Experience, reflected that attitude and that musical sensibility. MTX have been making albums for close to 15 years now, putting out great music deserving of at least Ramones-sized popularity, and have survived as a vital contributor to an underground scene with which they have a somewhat prickly relationship. On the heels of a new Mr. T Experience album, Alcatraz, Dr. Frank spoke to us about his early punk days, Gilman Street, his recent solo album, Show Business is My Life and more.

When did you first become exposed to punk?

My initial exposure to punk rock was mainly from radio. I was 13 in 1977, and at that time in the Bay Area you could hear punk rock on college radio stations like KALX, KFJC and KUSF, and on specialty shows on commercial rock stations like KSAN and KSJO. This included, strangely enough, the Dr. Demento show, which, if I recall was where I first heard the Adverts' "Gary Gilmore's Eyes," which was the first rock and roll song I can remember being really excited about.

At that age, and for many years to come, I was consumed with bitterness and hatred for my Chaturbate fellow man - or at least my fellow 8th-graders. Discovering a kind of music that I knew all of them would hate was quite fulfilling. I was in a school club called the Monty Python Club, which was about as dire as you're thinking it was: several nerdy 8th-graders - all at least theoretically potential serial-killers in embryo- discussing Monty Python sketches with our nerdy faculty sponsor. At some point someone started bringing in Dr. Demento tapes, as well as tapes from shows like the Outlaws and the Heretics, and soon it turned into a sort of unofficial punk rock club. I'm sure that's the least "hip" answer to that question you've ever heard, but it's absolutely true. And I suppose there are those that won't be surprised to learn that I came to punk rock by way of British sketch comedy and the Bonzo Dog Band.

What was your initial reaction to the music?

Well, as I said, because of its obscurity and strangeness it was a good backdrop for and emblem of all my anti-social pretensions. It was an artificial situation, because my suburban junior high and high schools were even more backward than most, and everybody's favorite rock bands were Boston, Steve Miller, Foreigner, Journey and Eddie Money. It wasn't too difficult to feel superior by virtue of even slightly cooler tastes in music.

Although I was initially very naive and undiscriminating, I did tend to gravitate towards the more "pop" punk groups, like the TV Personalities, The Boys, The Buzzcocks, The Dickies, as well as the more obscure artsy groups like The Swell Maps and Soft Boys. I was also a fan of the usual Elvis Costello/Joe Jackson/Graham Parker continuum as well. It was a pretty typical set of tastes for the time, unusual in my case only because I was so young and suburban. But I just appropriated the tastes of older and wiser college radio DJs.

You eventually became a DJ on KALX, right?

It's true. The Mr. T Experience began while I was involved with KALX - that's where I met Jon Von.

Did being on college radio help place you within a community?

I don't think so. I was always very hostile to the radio community. My radio show was mainly intended to irritate as many people as possible. Most of the people at the station hated my show! I grew up listening to KALX during 1976 through '8` or so - some of the most exciting years for underground rock and pop music that ever occurred. By the time I went to college and got on the air myself, it was right in the middle of the '80s, which is probably the lowest music has sunk, ever. The punk scene had turned into the hardcore scene, typified by MRR and bands like MDC, with a sound and an attitude I found extremely alienating and unappealing. It was a terrible time for culture as a whole, not just rock and roll. I guess it's an exaggeration to say that there was nothing of value in the '80s, but that's the way it seemed to me at the time.

I suppose that on my radio show, as later in my band, I reacted by deliberately being contrary for its own sake. It was quite childish really, but by that time I was absolutely conditioned to reject the status quo as a matter of principle. It sounds funny to say it, but in my world at the time, the status quo was hardcore, which seemed to me to be the most tuneless, humorless, least rockin' music the world had ever seen. So my knee-jerk reaction was to try to do what I saw as the opposite.

Of course, playing records by other people is easy, but when I started the band I ran into a big stumbling block: utter ineptitude. I couldn't sing, play, or write songs, and neither could anyone else in the group. But, as it turns out, it's possible to work within even such extreme limitations. In fact, if you make the most of your limitations they can almost be assets. That's one way to develop an individual style.

That seems to relate to something you told me earlier. You called punk the "exaltation of the amateur."

What that means is that you don't necessarily have to have any talent or skill or resources - like a record or a management deal - whatsoever. All you have to have is an idea, and then you do your best to bring it about, your screw-ups become part of the project. You adopt an "I-meant-to-do-that-all-along" attitude. Some absolute works of genius were made possible by this kind of aesthetic, like Wire's Pink Flag, the TVP's catalog, "Where Were You," "Oh Bondage, Up Yours," not to mention the Velvet Underground.

Unfortunately, in punk you also get people with no talent, skill, resources, and no ideas. Eventually, the superficial characteristics of the Livejasmin music, the sound, the politics, the beat, whatever, get turned into cliches and professional musicians become adept at aping the sound of the brilliant mistakes of their predecessors and everything gets extremely predictable and boring.

Indeed, this meaning of "punk" is no longer current. "Punk" has really lost any meaning it may have had as a descriptive term. You can't really even say the word without at least a bit of irony.

Your time at KALX was before Gilman Street existed even. I know my own connections to East Bay punk was almost entirely due to KALX at that time.

Right, Gilman didn't come along until a few years later. Up 'till then we played open mic nights at bars, self-produced shows at pizza places and occasional spots on hardcore bills - where the reaction ranged from bemusement to condescension to outright hostility. Gilman was an improvement. I think its overall wonderfulness has been exaggerated - people sometimes describe it piously as some sort of paradise on earth, which it certainly wasn't. It grew out of a group of bands and individuals who felt shut out from the "scene," and that included my band. The result was an environment where it was definitely safer to be a goofball, which was a help, because you didn't have to pretend to be some kind of tough guy. It was usually more like Mad magazine than Lord of the Flies in there. And it was possible to play our little messed-up pop songs without getting booed off the stage, though of course it helped that there were usually only about 50 people there at any given time. Usually, the Gilman crowd couldn't boo their way out of a paper bag.

And at last, my prayers were answered and I finally found a sense of belonging and something to believe in." I've heard this sentiment expressed by several people, but it didn't work out that way for me. For some reason, I have this propensity to be severely alienated in absolutely any situation, and Gilman was no exception. Call it a talent. My self-image, especially in those days, had a certain precious quality, and the thought of fitting in or believing in something just seemed horribly banal. I've never really felt like me or my band was ever part of any "scene," though we've been associated with several of them over the years.

You certainly have. The Mr. T Experience is on most people's short list of bands that embody that East Bay punk scene.

This has been exaggerated as well. I think that to an extent my band helped set the general tone of what became the East Bay punk scene, for better or worse, but I don't think it goes much further than that. Even when I was less than adept at executing it, I always had a very clear vision of what I thought rock and roll, punk rock, and pop music ought to be, and this vision was always competing with others. I've said before that when pop punk was the most popular rock music in the world - for about three seconds in 1995 - I felt like our side won, at least in the battle of pop punk vs. hardcore. But I don't feel like I was actively involved, but rather that some relatively like-minded people managed to make something of themselves. When I say "like-minded," I'm speaking in extremely broad terms. There's a sort of affinity in the idea of succinct songs with verses and choruses - which is not a foregone conclusion in this day and age - loud guitars and perhaps a general vocabulary of ironic disaffection. But beyond that, I don't think my band has all that much in common with those that made it big.

Which relates to some of your songs. There's lots of wonderful irony in many of your songs about fame - or at least the lack of fame. It remains a crucial question for punk: What are the implications of success? What are your thoughts about the connection between success and artistic creation?

It's true that you can't put a dollar amount on success. But if the amount approaches zero, it does make you step back and wonder if you've made the right choices in life. If you stick with a less-than-successful band for long enough, you end up spending a lot of your time explaining yourself, coming up with justifications to offer as proof that you're not a total idiot. So maybe a good portion of it is simply rationalization, but I believe that my songs are successful. They affect people, even if they're not "hits."

Financial success

Do you find yourself wishing that your band could be more successful?

I'm never satisfied with my situation financially - which I take as a given - or artistically, which is more important because it's something I can theoretically do something about. That's one reason I keep trying to screw around with the songwriting and the production and everything to not repeat myself, and to try to have constant movement. It disappoints some people to be presented with the unexpected, but I really believe that in the end it keeps them more engaged. It certainly keeps me more engaged.

Financial "success" is a mixed blessing. It can limit you, even if you don't have a consciously mercenary outlook. I know from my own limited experience with Love is Dead, which was our first album to do much more than break even, that even modest success can cause a subtle pressure to stick to what worked once and to avoid rocking the boat. I can only imagine the kind of pressure when your record makes millions of dollars.

But rock and roll does cost money. It's yet another difficult balance to try to strife. In our early years, we had absolute freedom to do whatever we wanted, because nobody cared what we did. Unfortunately, we didn't have the financial resources to make recordings that matched our relatively grand ambitions, so many of these experiments were utter failures. At a minimum, you have to be able to pay your way. We're fortunate - you could almost say successful - in that each of our records basically stays afloat and justifies its existence to an extent that we can still make more.

One experiment you've done recently was break off from the Mr. T Experience entirely to release a solo album, Show Business Is My Life. What prompted that move?

I'd had a growing sense that some of my songs were getting lost in the thick miasma of punk rock on Mr. T Experience records. On the last album especially, I felt I'd made some great strides and written my most fully-realized lyrics ever, but every review still said "more of the same from those wacky, jokey pop-punksters." When I went back and listened to the acoustic demos of those songs, it seemed that occasionally there was a quality that came across in the demos that somehow didn't end up on the album. So Kevin Army and I decided to try to do an album that was more like the demos, mostly as an experiment to see what would happen. It was extremely low-key and casual, and hence was a lot of fun. I learned a lot from the experience, and I was able to apply some of the lessons to the next MTX album that we recorded a few months later.

How does the solo album differ from your MTX work? What makes the Mr. T Experience more than just Dr. Frank and His Band?

Well, MTX is a rock and roll band, and I'm not. On the solo album I wanted to put as little as possible between the songs themselves and the listener, to make the songs the sole focus. In a way, I was trying to make an album of disembodied songs. But you can't fake rock and roll, and you need a real band to make it happen. IN a way, there's an inevitable tension between the intensity and excitement of rock and roll and the integrity of individual songs. At one extreme, you're in danger of losing nuances and subtleties, while at the other, you lose the energy and end up with lifeless music. you've got to try to strike the right balance, which can be very difficult. In fact, a pretty good case could be made that the hybrid of singer-songwriter plus rock and roll band is an impossibility, that each diminishes the other, and that subtlety has no place in rock and roll in any case. But I've always felt it's worth a try anyway.

Moves like putting out a low-key solo album when you're known for pop-punk rockers seems like a risky venture. Do you consciously refrain from making artistic moves that might result in superstardom?

No, just being who I am seems sufficient to prevent any unexpected superstardom.