Words by Jim Testa
It was 2004, and Frank Portman – affectionately known to generations of fans as Dr. Frank – had some serious problems. Lookout!, the label that had released the majority of his impressive discography, had gone out of business. Much of his back catalog only existed as reissues jumbled with bonus tracks, singles, and various odds ‘n’ sods, and very little of his music remained available for sale online. On top of all that, no band existed to play the songs live. Something clearly needed to be done. Might a “best of” (or, generously, “greatest hits”) collection be the solution?
That’s how MTX Forever, an eclectic 24-song, career-spanning collection of tunes by the Mr. T Experience (aka MTX) came to be. Largely chosen – perhaps “influenced” would be a more precise term – by fans voting on an online poll, the album will be available on March 13 on Sounds Rad Records, the label started by former Insubordination Records (and Insub Fest) guru Christopher Thacker.
From inception to completion, it’s been an arduous 15 year odyssey, during which time Portman tracked down every master tape of the original recordings he could find to burnish and remix them. During that period, and working with Thacker, Portman culled all those pesky bonus tracks into two compilations (Shards Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) and began the process of getting his back catalog properly back into print (as well as offering a tasty assortment of pins, t-shirts, and other merch, a Sounds Rad specialty). Portman also assembled a new band to play the songs live, often on bills with old Lookout! Records label mates like the Queers, Kepi Ghoulie, and Screeching Weasel.
Oh, and did I mention that somewhere during all this, Portman launched a successful career as a young adult novelist? King Dork, Andromeda Klein, and King Dork Approximately have found an eager audience of not only the old fans of his music, but brand new and much younger devotees of his fiction.
Clearly, there was much to talk about, so over the next two posts we talk about how someone distills 30 years of songwriting, 16 albums, and umpteen singles, EP’s, compilation tracks, and other effluvia into only 24 songs.
Off Shelf: You’ve kept fans abreast of the process on your blog, but let’s start with how you put MTX Forever together, because it’s quite a story. You started by asking fans to vote for their favorite songs, or at least the songs they’d want to see on a greatest hits package.
Frank Portman: I looked at the poll as taking the temperature of the public, just to see if there were any surprises when we were trying to pick songs that were important to people. In fact, if you tallied up all the times any particular song was voted on, it was pretty much what you’d expect. The top ones were the top ones. It was more interesting when people started getting into the vagaries of sequencing, and there is really where putting an album together becomes most difficult and interesting. There were a lot of criteria to take into account when you sequence an album, or in this case a double album. The discussions that happened when we did the polling helped to get me oriented, but it wasn’t a mechanical process. There’s an art to it. And I tried to do the best I could with what was available to me.
Some very good tracks were not in a good state of preservation, as far as the original tapes go, and in those cases, that decision was made. An example of that would be the 7-inch version of “The Last Time I Listened To You,” which I really would have loved to put on this record. But the mix disappeared of that single. So there were a lot of factors like that.
OS: Just so people didn’t understand, you just didn’t copy tracks from the CD’s, which is often how a greatest hits album is compiled, you put a lot of effort into this.
FP: We tried to do it as proper as possible. Which to a lot of people in my situation – the little guy, without a lot of resources – usually isn’t available. I just decided that I wanted to do it right. Once the decision was made, it opened up a whole lots of cans of worms. It’s a lot more challenging than people think, and certainly way more challenging than I expected it to be. I kind of naively thought that, going way back to when I first started thinking about doing a greatest hits compilation in 2004, I just assumed that all of the tapes would be somewhere in a state of organization, in some sort of archive with integrity. And presumably at one point that had been true, but what I found when I finally did get my hands on these tapes is complete disorganization, some egregious examples of failing to label things. There was a lot of guesswork and forensic investigation that had to go into figuring out exactly what we had.
And it wasn’t a situation where if something wasn’t labeled, you could just throw it on a machine and listen to it. Because first, I didn’t have any of those machines, they were old machines that aren’t used anymore. And secondly, even if you have the right machine to play a tape back, it’s a not a good idea to just do it. These tapes have to in the best shape possible and it has to be done by an engineer who knows what he’s doing. Because in some cases – although this didn’t happen to me, fortunately – you will put on a tape from the Eighties and that one time will be the last time you play it, if it even plays. So you have to be very careful, and it was an incredibly laborious, painstaking, heartbreaking process that I had ever imagine. And it consumed a couple of years of my life.
OS: But there’s one story that’s too good to pass over. Tell me about the tape that was literally under a couch.
FP: That was my favorite story too. There were two albums in question. One was our first self-released album Everyone’s Entitled To Their Own Opinion from 1986, which was re-released by Lookout! in the early Nineties. And then there was also the Night Shift At The Thrill Factory, which was our second album and also re-released by Lookout!. Those two-track tapes, the original of the first album and the remix of the second that Lookout! put out, were missing, and I went around calling every studio we had ever been in. And we’re talking about 30 years ago, so no one still had these tapes, no one had any tapes from that far back. They got rid of all their tapes years ago. And if the tapes weren’t properly labeled, the studios wouldn’t have even known who to call to ask if they wanted their tapes back before they were thrown out.
But out of all the calls I made with no luck at all, I did get a call back from George Horn, who was sort of a legendary mastering engineer who had a room at Fantasy Studios for years and years. And shortly before Fantasy closed down was when this happened, and I got a message from him that these two tapes were at his room solely because they had been kicked under a couch, and that was why they hadn’t been thrown out with all the other tapes. He couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe it, but eventually I convinced him that I was who I said I was – I don’t think that many people would go around making phone calls claiming to be the leader of a band called the Mr. T Experience . The Everything’s Entitled reel still had a Post-It on it from our producer Kevin Army saying, “George, sorry I couldn’t make it, here’s the tape.” So he had just dropped it off there, 30 years prior, and it was just a fortunate coincidence that it get kicked under a couch and was still there.
OS: You said that most of the polling was predictable, but were there any songs that surprised you, either by their presence or their omission?
FP: No, not really. There were some unexpected ones that got quite a few votes, to my surprise. Because you know the usual suspects, the ones we play live and the ones people shout out for. But there were some. I was surprised how many people wanted “With My Looks And Your Brains.” That was probably the biggest surprise. There are pockets of fans from all the different eras, which was kind of a surprise as well. You expect that our most popular records are the ones from the mid-Nineties, and those are the ones that most people like. In fact, there were people who said, ‘well, your best record is Love Is Dead from 1996, why don’t you just put all those songs on it?’ But that wouldn’t really be a compilation, would it? We are planning to reissue that album. But it was quite a surprise to me that there are considerable numbers – not just one crackpot here or there – who emphasized the early stuff that’s generally not as well-known, as well as some of the later stuff. And I know from living through the process of releasing those records that there were areas we went into on those later records that were a hard sell to a lot of people at the time. So that was encouraging, although I think the explanation for that is pretty simple: Whatever came out when you were at the age when music was really important to you will be the songs that mean the most of you. So if you happened to be 17 years old in 1990, and you were paying attention to the Mr. T Experience, then the Making Things With Light album would have been your main way of getting into the band and your favorite.
One of the criteria I had in organizing this is that I wanted to have at least one song from each of the major releases, which was achievable. Having each of the records represented fully – the range of what they were all about – was not possible. You have to make room for the – relatively speaking – ‘hit’ songs, you’re not going to leave them off. So once you fill in those slots, then there are aesthetic and technical concerns about LP size that come into play, and you really box yourself into a corner pretty quickly. There are 300 and some songs and trying them to distill them down to two dozen was a huge challenge and I was tearing out my fair over it, and full of regret and remorse every time, second-guessing myself all the time, every time I cut another song.
On the other hand, it’s a good problem to have, having a surfeit of material. You have to be ready for people to be disappointed because their favorite song isn’t on the compilation but it really was unavoidable. And there have been things I’ve put out in my career as an ‘artist’ where I did deliberately try to disappoint people. There comes a time when, if you are known for a certain thing, and people expect a certain thing from you, you just want to rebel. You don’t feel like you’re being really listened to anymore, so sometimes some of us get this idea where you’re just going to throw your audience for a loop. Fuck you guys. And it doesn’t always work out that well, although I think that impulse is what makes it possible to have a career spanning 30 years and 11 albums, 300 songs, et cetera. If you relentlessly, with a laser-like focus on a very narrow parameter, try has hard as you can to figure out what your audience expects and then match it precisely… well, I would have not have been able to do that for 30 years. I wasn’t trying to throw anyone for a loop with the selections for this compilation, but I know that there will be certain elements where people can’t go there. But I wanted to represent, as much as I could, the broad spectrum of, for better or worse, this band and what it meant.
OS: I’ve seen that problem at shows when someone yells out a song title and you have to apologize and say you can’t play it because you probably don’t remember it all.
FP: I am reluctant to try and execute a song if I haven’t practiced it because it probably has been years and years since I’ve done that song, and my songs have lots of words and they can be hard to remember. And it’s kind of embarrassing when the one strong suit of a song is the words, and you flub that.
OS: Your memories of these records are obviously different than ours as your fans, since when you listen to a specific album, you might remember some discord that was happening with the band at the time, or problems you had in the studio, or all kinds of extraneous things that mean something to you but we as fans don’t know about. I could imagine you having very negative feelings about songs or albums that I love. Was there anything like that?
FP: Yes, actually, there were quite a few times when I was very pleasantly surprised. I have been doing a lot of listening to my own stuff lately because of this project but I’m not the kind of guy who plays his own records around the house for fun. I actually think of that as a depressing thing to do. You make the record and then you let other people worry about it, and move on to the next thing. I wouldn’t say I had a negative attitude toward doing this, but let’s just say I was bracing myself to cringe in reviewing the stuff that I hadn’t heard in a long time. Part of the beginning of this process – and I wrote about this in my blog quite a bit – was when I started listening to this stuff around 2010 and wondering if this stuff was even worth re-releasing at all. And if I dare say so, a lot of it does hold up surprisingly well, and I say that with great skepticism. I mean, some of it doesn’t too.
Probably the biggest pleasant surprise was the fact that sonically, listening to this stuff from the actual original tapes proved to be an entirely different experience from the way these songs lived in my memory. Because even though I never listened to them for fun, sometimes I’d have to go back and listen to a song if I wanted to perform it again; and I did that like anyone else does, I’d go to Youtube and play whatever version I found online. And if you go from the actual full-spectrum audio of the analog tape and take it through all the levels of processing and manipulation and compression that has to happen before it ends up on Youtube, that’s a huge difference. And some of this stuff just sounds like a whole different recording because of that.
The caveat, I would say, is that the greater resolution and clarity works both ways, because sometimes there are unpleasant things you can hear that weren’t otherwise apparent. Justin Perkins is a really great engineer and he took a lot of time and put a lot of care into this, holding my hand through the anguish of trying to bring out these tracks as their best self. And a lot of times, we did these original records as best we could, I guess, but a lot of it had a slapdash attitude. We weren’t taking it too seriously and it was all quickly and cheaply recorded, because we didn’t have a lot of money to spend. So quite often, we’d say, ‘well, it is what it is,’ and just put it out¸ and one of the questions I wanted to answer when taking this foray into working with these old tapes was, what would happen if we tried to take the proper care with these masters and try to mix them as well as we could? And I was pleasantly surprised with how much could be done with what was already there. There were sounds I heard that I had forgotten were there. There are instruments like trumpets and strings, and some guitar sounds, that are far more detectable now than I had remembered them being. When we were mastering this, we went back and listened to some of the old formats that had been released and in some cases, it really was like night and day.
OS: What is the status of the Mr. T Experience as a band in 2020?
FP: In 2004, we did our last album on Lookout! and the label was in a state of disintegration, but also the band was in a state of disintegration. More importantly, the music industry was in a state of disintegration. No one really knew what to do, least of all me, or how to be a rock band at a time when no one was buying records anymore. So I turned to writing young adult fiction and spent the next 10 years mainly doing that. I started playing rock ‘n’ roll music again because I wanted to try and help promote the book King Dork Approximately by recording a soundtrack for it, and so the book stimulated the re-aggregation of the band in the new form. I didn’t expect that we’d be playing a lot of shows, that was just another happy accident that came out of it. And then inadvertently I stumbled into the situation with Chris Thacker and Sounds Radical where we figured out a way to release records again. That was never part of the plan, and I’m still astounded at my good fortune in being in this situation. I love records, I love being able to make them and put them out. King Dork Approximately started out as one song as a digital download only, and then it expanded into an album, and then the idea that you could make it into a vinyl record and make it a genuine release after 10 years of not being able to figure out how to do that was amazing. It stimulated a lot of what we’re working on now. Without that one song, none of these excavations of the audio artifacts would have come about. So there’s a lesson there. The moral of the story is that you just never know what’s going to come up. What I learned from it is that if you have a dumb idea, go ahead and do it because maybe it will lead to other dumb things happening that are salubrious in some way.
OS: Something we’ve discussed before it was the initial success of your first book was in part because the fans of your music rushed out to buy it, but as the book found a following, kids would read the novels and then realize you were also a musician and find the old records. So instead of just being a legacy act, you have a new generation of fans. That raises the obvious question, besides all this archaeology you’ve been doing, is there a new Mr. T Experience album coming?
FP: Yes. I hope to. I’ve had it planned out in my head and my notebooks for some time, but there are some challenges involved in how to record it and how to fund it. But I do have the intention of doing a new MTX album in the fairly near term once we figure out the logistics. In the meantime, there are plans to release some new songs anyway. I like to try it out in a small way before jumping off a bridge in a big way. So we have a few small recordings, singles-plus, that are on the agenda to do in this next year. So we’ll see how that goes.
But in this strange new world we’re in, with the way music works now and with a guy like me, we’re really in uncharted waters. We’re kind of making tchotchkes for people rather than releases in the traditional sense. The music is kind of important but the objects are the things that you sell, which is kind of ironic, considering the promise of the digital age. And that’s a lot of fun, actually. I’m like that myself, I like the luscious deluxe editions that you can caress and almost lick when you get them home. And things like pins and cool shirts. But the sad fact of that matter is that while people will go out and buy all that stuff, what actually costs the most money is recording the music, which everyone expects to get for free. So you have to subsidize the expensive thing with the less expensive thing and hope that it all comes out in the wash.
That said, there’s also a certain amount of freedom in the fact that it doesn’t matter all that much. You don’t have that desperation of, ‘we have to get the record out in the next month because our career will go kablooey!’ Because the career – everyone’s career – went kablooey long ago. We live in this a beautiful world where you can take as much time and care about making music as you want, the way you tend your garden until you get it just the way you want it to look and feel, and have it mean what you want it to mean. Because you’re not at the mercy of anybody else. We were never a band that made a whole lot of money or sold a whole lot of units, relatively speaking, but there was also this idea hanging in the air that we were really screwing up and should have been doing better. Once you are in a situation – and I think everyone’s in the same situation these day, to a greater or lesser degree – that none of that stuff matters anymore, that the thing you’re doing is for its own sake and not to make you a millionaire. Or beating yourself up because it didn’t make you a millionaire, which I think is the position of 99.9% of everyone who’s ever played rock music for a living. I’m really fortunate that there’s still a core audience out there of people who are interested in the stuff from the past and the stuff we may do in the future. And you can’t count on that, so I don’t depend on that at all. But the nice thing is that you can do whatever you want and it really doesn’t matter if no one likes it, because the difference between people really liking it and liking it not at all is very, very small. So you can concentrate on making it as good as you can, which is a good way to make art.
OS: What is happening on the book front? When we can expect the next novel?
FP: I am working on a couple of books. But it takes a long time, and all I can say is, they’ll be ready when they’re ready. I have been preoccupied recently with the rock ‘n’ roll. The way my creativity works, I get these sudden lightning-like flashes of inspiration and impetus to work, and I can focus it on crazed drunken orgies of writing songs or writing fiction, but I can’t do both at the same time. Right now I’ve been focused on the music. I’ll need a couple of more of those flashes before any of the manuscripts get finished.