Rank Your Records: The Mr. T Experience’s Dr. Frank Portman
The frontman and KING DORK author takes a look back at his longrunning Berkeley pop punk band’s releases.
|Dan Ozzi||Feb 3|| 2||3|
In Rank Your Records, I talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Frank Portman always had the idea in the back of his mind that he’d one day release a comprehensive career-spanning reissue for his long-running pop punk band The Mr. T Experience. But when he finally started gathering up original recordings of his songs, some of which date back over 30 years, the process proved a lot more challenging than he’d ever imagined.
“I just naively went through ten years of dreaming of this, and thinking that when it finally came time to pull the trigger, all I’d have to do was pick up the phone and call somebody and say, ‘Hey, I need these tapes,’” Portman says. But as he would soon realize, there was no one to call and there was no archive of tapes. His longtime label, Lookout! Records, folded years ago and nobody seems to have been looking after decades’ worth of material.
“It was a learning experience for me. It’s a lot more fraught and complex than I thought,” he says. “The tapes were in a state of complete disarray and very hard to track down. I still haven’t gotten a handle on the inventory yet, but many of them were poorly labeled or unlabeled. There were all sorts of technical issues. There’s no comprehensive archive. They were in various garages, jumbled up among other bands’ tapes. Some of them are over 30 years old; they disintegrate.”
Amazingly, Portman was able to compile Mtx Forever, a double LP that weaves together 24 songs he restored after going through great lengths to track down the originals. A limited edition of Mtx Forever will be available for pre-order on Valentine’s Day along with a t-shirt and flexi, which can be ordered through Sounds Radical. Since The Mr. T Experience catalog was fresh in Portman’s mind, it seemed like a good time to have him rank his band’s releases. Here’s the order he came up with.
11. Night Shift at the Thrill Factory (1988)
What puts one at the bottom of your catalog in your mind?
Frank Portman: Basically, we were young and inexperienced. The cliché about the punk rock band is that they don’t know how to play their instruments, and then once you learn to play your instruments, it’s all downhill from there. I guess there are people who have that opinion about my band as well. We didn’t know what we were doing. It’s got some kernels of—if not greatness—goodness. Something has to be last, if you’re making an artificial list like this, because they’ve all got issues.
I know there are people who really love it. No matter what it is, there is someone for whom it’s their favorite thing. I’ve talked to people who will say with completely convincing sincerity that this record changed their life, which is a little bit hard to fathom for me. But I get it. There’s weird, strange sounding, not-competently executed records that I heard when I was at the precise age when they needed to come into my life that might be hard to defend beyond a reasonable doubt.
How do you receive those compliments?
I’m grateful that anyone pays attention to it at all, and enough that anyone wants to have a conversation with me about it. I respect that very much. But the consensus as to the best stuff, I don’t necessarily agree. There’s always caveats. Flaws really loom large when it’s something you’ve done yourself. This process of putting together this collection has been listening to things I haven’t listened to for decades in many cases. I approach it expecting it to be utter cringe, but I was pleasantly surprised that there were more bright spots than I expected. We took a poll to take the temperature of the fans, and there were people who ranked this record at the very, very top.
In doing that poll, was there a clear fan-favorite?
Yeah, it’s Love Is Dead, by far. And then there’s also, inevitably, if you think of yourself as the real elite kind of fan, Our Bodies Our Selves as the one you hear them liking as the unpopular opinion. I get it. I do the same thing with art and records I like. I don’t want to be someone who likes the obvious, most pedestrian thing.
10. Making Things with Light (1990)
This was your next album after Night Shift, chronologically. Do you feel like you improved in that time?
Yeah, in between was the Big Black Bugs [Bleed Blue Blood] EP, which was where we started to get our act together. Making Things with Light, when I listen to it again, it was recorded as a jumble. Parts were a demo tape, parts were in a studio. It’s got its good points. The Rachel Sweet cover is pretty great. There’s a thin sound to it that, if the opportunity ever came up, I’d like to remix it. If we’d been capable of executing it better and I had edited myself more as a writer, which I didn’t know how to do yet, it would have maybe been better. But these are historical documents. It’s largely irrelevant. It was what it was.
9. Everybody's Entitled to Their Own Opinion (1986)
This was your debut album. When you listen back, do you hear first-album charm or do you just hear the faults in it?
It captures something. I’m not saying it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. It was a weird time to be a band the way we were trying to be a band. So much of these recordings, the odds were very, very stacked against it even existing at all. We went to this studio we found in the phone book and spent an afternoon there doing this thing, mostly for ourselves. Then, when it was released, it turned out to have this unexpected popularity because of the novelty songs on it. I look back at it now, and in one way it’s like, these kids are just having fun and their ineptitude is just massive. It’s got some spark that I expected to cringe at more. I look at a lot of this stuff and it’s almost like it was done by someone else.
Can you pinpoint a moment in your career where something clicked for you where you found your sonic identity?
Yeah, it was in the early 90s when I finally consciously decided to take it more seriously and thought, ‘If I’m really doing this, I might as well do my best at it.” I had this vision where what I wanted to do was produce a text that you could read as well as listen to, where you could read it like a little mini book or something. I think I did kind of achieve it as time went on, but there were attempts that didn’t make it. Milk Milk Lemonade and Our Bodies Our Selves were theoretically high-concept albums where, in the end, all of the grand ambitions faltered for lack of budget and lack of determination. Where it finally worked was the ...Women Who Love Them.
8. Milk Milk Lemonade (1992)
You mentioned that there was a vision for this record that was not achieved. What was that?
I had intended for the songs to be, as I described, almost literary. I didn’t try hard enough and, for good reasons, it didn’t matter that much. No one would have liked it more, no one would have cared if it had been better. It was exactly as good or bad as it was required to be. But the themes of it were the contrast between immaturity and maturity, and the confusion and the transition between them. You can see bits of that in my more coherent moments. As it turns out, when you’ve got a thousand dollars to record an album and you show up to the studio with a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re doing and you’re unable to communicate what you want even if it were remotely feasible to achieve it, what you wind up with is what you wind up with. Sometimes that process of confusion and lack of control can lead to some genuinely good things that you couldn’t do on purpose if you tried.
The happy accidents.
Right, they’re all over this catalog because they’re always, by necessity, tentative.
7. Our Bodies Our Selves (1993)
Our Bodies Our Selves was a similarly themed concept album where all the songs were going to be based on children’s literature which, again, is too ambitious for the budgets and talents involved. You can see little vestiges of that in what it actually turned into. I had a long, slow learning curve as a writer. In some senses, unfortunately, I did it in public, though it was a very small public. They’re artifacts. On the other hand, it’s the reason I’ve got all this stuff to work with.
You mentioned on Milk Milk and Our Bodies, you were thinking of it in terms of something someone could sit down and read as a story. At that time, did you ever imagine you could have a career as a writer?
No, just because that’s a very outlandish idea. But, if there is anyone in my cohort of people to do that, I’d probably be the most likely suspect. The origin of my literary career was that a guy who had been a fan of my songs, going back to when he was a kid, became a literary agent and approached me with the idea, saying, “You’ve got this sensibility in these songs and if you could turn it into a piece of narrative fiction, I could probably sell it.” And that’s exactly what happened.
And you’d never thought that before?
Not at all. My career as a novelist is almost 100 percent attributable to the invention of the mp3 and the collapse of music as a viable way of making money. In 2004, when the then-final MTX album came out, we released a record in a world where no one bought records anymore and I had to figure out something else to do.
This album has “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” on it. To me, that’s the quintessential MTX songwriting. But I’m wondering, what makes for a good MTX song to you?
I’ve often thought of that song as the secret weapon. I’ve played for many sorts of audiences, from utter indifference to outright hostility, and that one always wins ‘em over. The most difficult audiences are high school students who are forced to go to a school assembly. Almost no one escapes that unscathed. I’d write it a bit different now, probably. It’s not a perfect composition. But I think you’re right. It’s unique.
6. Alcatraz (1999)
Perhaps I am reading way too into this, but I always saw the cover of Alcatraz as a response to Love Is Dead, since it’s a woman looking in the opposite direction and the colors are contrasting. Am I way off on that?
You’re absolutely right. We were trying to invoke Love Is Dead in a different context. It’s a similar emotional framework. That record, I think, has its flaws, sonically. But I think it’s terrific writing, but it was very poorly received by the people who liked what had come before, so much so that the response to it was personally demoralizing. I’d been used to people rejecting my stuff for years and years. We had a couple of quite successful records, relatively speaking. And then I had this idea that I could behave like “a real artist” and my fans would go along with it. And, as is often the case, most of them didn’t. Now, in hindsight, a lot of people who hated it will say they like it. A lot of people will say it’s their favorite record. It’s not my favorite record. There’s lots of flaws in it. I didn’t want to do Love Is Dead over and over and over again. I felt like I had to take a sledgehammer to that model. I’m not the first person to be in that situation. I’m not the first person where it went commercially horribly awry when they tried to do that. But that’s what happened.
Did you feel like you weren’t challenging fans enough?
I don’t know about not challenging the fans enough. I don’t know that that’s a role or position that’s wanted on either side. I like for things to be well received, obviously, but with each of these records, even the ones that were slapdash and less comprehensive artistic statements, I always wanted to do something different. But when you have a successful enterprise, there’s lots of reasons to stick with it. People often think they would like that more than they would. If there had been an endless stream of Love Is Deads from my band for ten years, I think they would have stopped being interesting. I’m not saying I would have done it different, but had I known the degree of the enmity that would have resulted, I’m not sure I would have done anything at all. It was quite unpleasant.
What was the most extreme response you remember?
When someone sent a dead animal to my P.O. Box. A decapitated squirrel or rat or something.
Yeah, I got literal death threats. People take this stuff seriously, that you’re betraying the true spirit of pop punk or something.
5. Yesterday Rules (2004)
This came out the year before Lookout!’s financial troubles started becoming public. A lot of bands were complaining about not getting royalties. Was that the case for you?
There were no royalties. I did the record thinking it was going to be like all the other ones where we would do it and it would be a modest success, meaning we’d sell enough units for its budget. We went on the road, we did all these things, but people had stopped buying records. There was no money to be got. It was a dry sponge. I think that’s a thing that everyone doing music has had to struggle with. I’m not unique in that.
But someone like you who had been making records for 20 years, how did you adapt once you realized the model had changed?
We stopped and I was silent for ten years. There was no way to move on from the fact that recorded music went from having value to having zero value. What do you do with that? How do you spend money recording another thing when it’s guaranteed that there will be no way to make it back? People at the time were like, “No, you don’t understand. It’s free now, it’s great. Now you can just sell hoodies.” That wasn’t workable for us. On the level I’m operating now, it’s sort of boutique-style specialty market where you’re creating tchotchkes for people who want to collect things. People will pay $40 for a deluxe vinyl special edition and not listen to it. They listen on Spotify.
Did you see any potential benefits of the internet at the time? Some bands broke in this era because they innately understood the benefit of being online and being able to reach a global audience.
No. I mean, I get it, sort of. It’s challenging enough just to make it happen under circumstances as they were. It wasn’t like I wasn’t in tune with what was happening online. I very much was. If you think of what makes something “viral” now, whatever it is, the thing I’m doing is not that. Me plodding along and releasing these little albums when I can, that’s not Rebecca Black, you know? Granted, some people were able to profit in that way, but mostly not. I don’t know how you could make a quantitative analysis of it, but there’s got to be substantially fewer people making a living at being musicians now than there were then. It was hard then, but it seems almost impossible now.
4. King Dork Approximately the Album (2016)
One of the reasons I rank this so highly is that it was an example of the execution meeting the architecture of it. I don’t have a lot of examples of that in my career, where I had the idea and the result was in line with the idea. The start of that was just one song and instead of just a half-assed recording on my laptop, I explored the idea of getting the band to do this one song. We got together to do this one song and it kind of clicked in a way that I hadn’t expected. Then I started thinking maybe I could do this album, and that’s what happened.
We just talked about how you wrote all these albums that got incrementally better as you chugged along, and then you have this first novel and it really takes off. How did you see your music career once you got success as a writer?
Well, at the time, I didn’t have one. I just thought I had this weird thing I used to do. I did a series of posts on Facebook where I went through and listened back to all these records. I had a very severe assessment of them. Still, I came away with the idea that it was not worthless and something could and should be done with it. But I had thought that it was all over. It seemed strange to me that anyone cared about it. I think of it all as the same ball of wax, really. It’s all writing. There’s a rock and roll version and there’s a narrative fiction version.
3. Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You (1997)
This is one of the most popular ones. I’ve got a lot of complaints about the execution of it. It came out differently than I’d intended. I didn’t want Love Is Dead 2, which is basically what it was. It’s way overcompressed and that’s one of the tragedies of this tape situation. The multi-track masters have disappeared, so it can’t be remixed comprehensively. But that aside, the writing is great. I’ll depart from my ordinary self-deprecation to say that the writing is one home run after another as far as the text goes. That ambition of creating a lyrical presentation where you could just read them, that is the best I could do and probably the best I’ll be able to do.
2. Love Is Dead (1995)
When we had our record release show at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, I still hadn’t really come to terms with the fact that things were a little different. We would do a show at a place like that and there would be a dozen people there and we’d consider that to be not good but as good as it gets. Suddenly, we’re doing this show and there’s a line of people around the block to get in, which seems strange. Then I went in and there were people who went to the merch table to buy the CD, and I saw all these kids go against the wall and sit down to read the lyrics, and I thought, OK, that’s success right there. Having your music have a basis in text that gets it across, that’s the goal. It’s not one that a lot of people care about but it means a lot to me.
When that scene was taking off, there were suddenly more people at shows, as you said. That seems like a benefit, but whenever new fans flock to a scene, you get more bodies, but it seems like there’s a level of superficiality to it. I’m wondering if it at all felt like you were losing the authenticity in it.
I wouldn’t say that. But I always had a jaundiced eye on it. If it’s the situation I find myself in, I will do the best to make the most of it. But I never considered it to have an inherent meaning. It was not like, “A-ha! We’ve finally arrived!” I thought of it in very practical terms: There are enough people buying this product that I can argue for a bigger budget. Our budgets had been ludicrously tiny, and not only that, we’d arrive to the studio to the news that the small budget had been further cut. It was a demoralizing experience. But then the Green Day explosion happened, so we’d go to our label and say, “This isn’t worth it anymore unless we have a better recording situation.” I didn’t know if that would work, but it did work. So, Love Is Dead was the first one we got to record in a real studio. We’re not talking a Dark Side of Moon recording budget. We’re talking about $10,000, but that was ten times the amount of any budget we’d ever had before. It did result in something that has, to some degree, had enduring value. I looked at it as a means to an end, and the end was to get the songs across as best I could.
I always loved how the video for “Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba” showed you hanging up the phone as a response to “When I Come Around.” Was that good fun or was there a larger message to that?
There wasn’t a larger message to that other than trying to be cute. We had been working on that, and I saw the Green Day video and said, “We gotta go hang up that phone.” So we shot a little footage of that which was tacked on, just because it was fun. A lot of people didn’t notice it; it was at the end. I think that video was played twice on 120 Minutes which is the most prominently successful thing the band ever did, and I don’t think they showed the end. People on the internet have made gifs of it because it’s a takeoff of a very famous thing, but no, no meaning behind it.
1. ...And The Women Who Love Them (1994)
What makes this one so special to you?
Again, it’s the unexpectedly successful execution. By “execution,” I mean it gets the songs across. It was written and recorded under the least salubrious circumstances. We were, as a band, not really together. We’d been in a state of disintegration and our relationship with our label was not so great. My father was dying of cancer and I had taken leave from my job and was visiting him every day. In the meantime, I was thinking I was gonna go to graduate school. I was studying Greek and reading Plato in these cafés and scribbling these quite dark lyrics in the margins of my editions of Plato’s Meno. We had gotten a new drummer, but the bass player joined a different band. It was recorded as a swan song, getting one last lick in. I think the budget was $400 and then we got there and it was only $300, and I was like, “Why are we even doing this?” We recorded it anyway and it kind of sat there for a long time with nothing being done with it. Then Chris Appelgren of Lookout! Records and I started working on the art together and we couldn’t find the tape. Then, once I heard it, to my surprise I thought it sounded pretty good. That was the beginning of what I considered to be a very successful collaboration between me and Chris and his very distinctive artwork. It turned out to be a new beginning. I had decisions to make about what I was going to do with my life, and decided that instead of pursuing the academic career I always imagined I’d one day do, I decided to do rock and roll. While not perfect, it’s aesthetically successful in the writing and execution, and that’s why I’m so fond of it.
You were 30 at the time of this record. Did you ever feel like you were aged out of the Gilman scene, which was so young then?
Basically, yes, always. But on the other hand, I didn’t care that much about that. The Gilman scene wasn’t this thing I believed in really strongly or wanted to join or lead. It was a place to play. It was not that great of a place to play, honestly. You work with what you’ve got, and that was what I had. There were all these people much older than me floating around.
Yeah, Larry [Livermore] and Tim [Yohannan] were older than most of the bands, too.
Yeah, Tim was the same age as my dad, and the one time they met was… My father was a general contractor and he donated materials for the construction to bring the Gilman club up to code. They met and it was a weird experience and I was conscious the whole time of the fact that they were the same age. They died the same way, in fact. Very different characters. But I started like everybody else. My dream of doing rock and roll started when I was a teenager. It took many years of incompetently trying to run at it until it one day sort of got off the ground. And that’s everybody else’s story as well.