Mr T Experience(photo: Wilson Photoworks)

Thirty years ago, the Mr. T Experience released their first album, Everybody’s Entitled to Their Own Opinion, a rudimentary blast of bubblegum disguised as a punk album. From there the band would go on to become founding members of Berkeley's 924 Gilman Street Project scene, sign to Lookout! Records and tour the world several times over. They were one of the first Bay Area pop-punk bands and inspired legions of fans and followers.

As their sound evolved and changed, the record industry did as well. Suddenly the whole landscape of selling records had plateaued and taken a nosedive and their label would close shop. After 10 albums and numerous lineup changes, the band slipped into hibernation in 2005 as frontman/guitarist Frank Portman hung up his guitar to try his hand as a young adult novelist. His first book, King Dork, was published the following year. Now, after a decade of relative inactivity as MTX, Portman has gotten the band back together for the soundtrack of his third novel, King Dork Approximately (a sequel). After three decades of fronting “the most successful unsuccessful band” and navigating his way through two dying industries, the always witty and self-deprecating Portman sat down to discuss his new album and plan to sell a virtual album in a real world.

The Bay Bridged: This marks a big transition. You’ve already successfully gone from being a songwriter and musician to being an author, but this is the first time you’ve integrated the two.

Frank Portman: Not only the soundtrack of the book, these are the songs the character writes in the book. Every song is literally connected to the book, not just inspired by it. I’m hoping that fans of my novels and fans of the band can maybe find a new angle on the experience by jumping from one to the other. It’s an ambition I had even before I became a novelist, from when I first started taking songwriting more seriously, to have the lyric sheet stand on its own as a kind of narrative you can read separately from the music, telling a character’s story from beginning to end.

TBB: How different is it to write from the point of view of one specific character rather than from a personal narrative or from a smattering of different characters?

FP: Well, rock and roll’s always been teenage music. So if you have a rock and roll sensibility and you’re gonna write a novel, it’s not at all weird that it’s teen fiction. My songs were always like that, before I even thought of writing books. They‘ve always been informed by the spirit of the adolescent misery, mostly, with brief eruptions of exhilaration and joy. I think that’s how most people experience their teenage years. It’s an explosion of emotion and first-time experiences that set the pattern for the rest of your life. Thinking as [King Dork narrator and protagonist] Tom Henderson, who’s not really me, and spending so much time over the last few years writing two novels about him certainly shaped my idea of who he is and what kind of songs he would write. But even before I started writing the books, there was a kind of proto-Tom Henderson that was showing up in my songs. He didn’t have a name, but you could tell they were songs that were from that guy. “Thank You For Not Being One of Them,” the song “King Dork,” “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” — a lot of those 'woe is me,' sad, slightly pathetic romantic songs were from that character’s point of view. I’m not the 'I' in such songs, at least not straightforwardly so. People make the mistake and assume that since I wrote a song called “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” I’m the guy who’s mad because I can’t get a girlfriend, which, honestly, if I’ve had one problem in life it’s too many girlfriends. I don’t mean that I’m some kind of stud or anything, but I’ve had girlfriends ever since I was 12. What I’m doing with those songs is exploring the love song, the song of romantic misery, trying to exhaust all the possible angles I can find, beating the horse 'til it’s dead.

So when I started writing the first book, it was a conscious decision to try to discover what this type of song might look like as narrative fiction. And I decided that I was gonna find the song title that looked best on a book jacket and then simply massage that into a novel. I narrowed that down to “King Dork” or “Swallow Everything.” If “Swallow Everything” would have been the cover of my young adult novel, I don’t think it would have been published by Random House...but that would have been a different narrator and a different scenario. That song inhabits a different world than “King Dork.” It turned out to be quite a bit more challenging than simply massaging lyrics into a novel, but the experience of doing that was the foundation for the eventual creation of songs that were “written by” Tom Henderson.

TBB: Tom Henderson is of course very obsessed with '70s rock records, which of course you grew up with — so, this feels like MTX is really embracing not only that late '70s/early '80s guitar sound but also earnestly incorporating an after school special/ teen drama vibe of the same era. I’m sure that wasn’t just coincidental.

FP: Absolutely. For one thing, it’s a great combination. And it’s a great sound. But beyond that Tom’s interest in the '70s grew gradually out of an attempt to solve a practical problem. Pop culture references in a novel can never be current. Even if you try really hard, your book comes out two or three years after you write it, and, if you’re lucky, people will be reading it for many years after that. So if you are going to use music references — and “King Dork” is built upon references — you’d better choose something classic, timeless. A nerdy kid who venerates AC/DC, is wary of Led Zeppelin, disdainful of The Doors, and devoted to bubblegum — those tastes tell you a lot about the character. It means the same thing now as it did when I was a kid, and it will mean the same thing in 20 years. That decision influenced when the novel is set as well (the end of 1999) because there was a 70's music revival happening at that time.

As for the record, I had a lot more control over it and a clearer concept of what it needed to be, both in the writing and recording. I knew the voice I was going for and I knew where I wanted the songs to go and what they needed to sound like.

Frank Portman - Mr T Experience

TBB: How did the idea to include the soundtrack with the book as a download come about?

FP: When I started this I was on my own, I mean I had my band, but didn’t have a label or really any clue on how to get things off the ground. I came up with a plan that was the absolute simplest with the least possibility for fuck-ups along the way. I made my publisher promise to put a page in the book with a URL and a download code, thinking, I’ll figure out the details later. That was it. Then I had my girlfriend make a website, hoping for at least the Obamacare standard — as long as it looks like a website on release day and it kind of works, that’ll be good enough. We recorded the record as best we could, but the expectations were modest.

Then Chris Thacker, who used to do Insubordination Records, got on board and we started working together to try and figure out a way to make selling this as fun and interesting as possible. His project is called Sounds Radical. It’s not exactly a label — traditional record labels in his view are obsolete, and I kind of agree with him, but he will be selling the “book as record” through his site. I just expected it was gonna be kind of this self-released thing maybe just a step above Bandcamp, but it’s turned into something that is at least potentially more than that. We’ve got all these great ideas and it’s almost like Chris was itching for something to try his ideas on so there’s a real experimental energy about it. I didn’t have to go the crowdfunding route, standing up there and saying “I’m gonna shoot this dog if you don’t give me whatever” so I am pretty grateful for that.

"Rock and roll’s always been teenage music. So if you have a rock and roll sensibility and you’re gonna write a novel, it’s not at all weird that it’s teen fiction." - Frank Portman

TBB: It wouldn’t be MTX without some lineup changes. Your last record, Yesterday Rules, saw you having the good fortune of welcoming Sacramento residents, Ted Angel and Bobby Jordan into your ranks. Twelve years later you have enlisted another Sacramento music mainstay, Jaz Brown, on drums.

FP: That’s right! We are ¾ Sacramento now! Jaz was friends with Ted and Bobby and they had played music together, and he was in the Groovie Ghoulies at one point. I had wanted to make a recording of the theme song for “King Dork Approximately” to be released with the hardcover edition of the book, and our previous drummer wasn’t really available, so in the spirit of 'Let’s just get this done and worry about it later,' Bobby and Ted suggested their pal Jaz, and as cliche as it is to say, that first rehearsal it just...clicked. It was meant to be just a one-time recording thing, but halfway through the first song we all had the simultaneous thought, 'OK, this is a band actually.' So when we started moving forward with the idea of doing the album, it was only natural that Jaz would be a part of it. I really enjoy the way he plays and his attitude towards things. He’s a great drummer and made a lot of good contributions conceptually to the songs, which is not something I have really experienced with many drummers. He is also a songwriter himself which brings in a different kind of engagement with the drum parts. And Bobby and Ted have been amazing, of course. They’ve been waiting patiently for the past 10 years to really give this band another go. Most people would have given up on me. I would have given up on me. I did, in fact. A few years ago if you has asked me about the band, I’d have given you nothing but doom and gloom, but now I have guys who are excited and really following my dumb vision. It’s exciting.

Over the course of the time Ted and Bobby were waiting for me to get my act together and come back around to doing MTX, they’ve both just progressed so much — not only as musicians but as people. Ted has become this phenomenal guitar player and engineer and Bobby is all heart and focus and an amazing singer. It is very unusual to have this level of cohesiveness and camaraderie. It was the most fun I have ever had recording. This is by far the closest I have ever come to hitting the mark for the record I wanted to make and I think a lot of it has to do with having these guys with me and Ted engineering.

poster by Matt K.

poster by Matt K.

King Dork Approximately gets the paperback treatment, complete with downloadable album, on October 4. The Mr. T Experience play DNA Lounge October 7.

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