Berkeley punk-rock band The Mr. T Experience turns 32 this year, a ripe, old age for a band so closely associated with the 1990’s pop-punk scene, Lookout Records, and all of the youthful fun that came with that.
Known for its quirky, satirical, and relationship-focused lyrics, The Mr. T Experience is like the rock ’n’ roll equivalent of a John Hughes movie. Why? Because the band’s sole original member, Dr. Frank, has been working on a young adult series since 2006 called Kid Dork that relays the trials and tribulations of being in high school. And The Mr. T Experience’s most recent album, 2016’s King Dork, is essentially a journal of high school emotions set to power-pop tunage.
Ahead of The Mr. T Experience show at Bottom of the Hill on Thursday, April 6, we chatted with Dr. Frank about the state of the record industry, writing King Dork, and what the future holds for the band.
The Mr. T Experience plays with Teenage Bottlerocket and The Nobodys, at 9:30 p.m., Thursday, April 6, at Bottom of the Hill. More info here.
SF Weekly: The Mr. T Experience turns 32 this year. How has the band evolved since 1985?
Dr. Frank: Like a lot of bands in the small-time, we started out having no idea what we were doing, particularly me. I had to learn by doing it and making all sorts of mistakes as far as the songwriting goes. About halfway through, I figured out how to do it quite a bit better. It was a long, rocky road with lots of pitfalls and stumbles. There was a great sense at the time we were starting out that we were one of many, many thousands of other people doing rock ’n’ roll music, [and that you’re] playing around like you’re a little kid with toys. The kind of songs that I was able to write were a bit different from the ones that other people wrote, so I just decided to develop that as much as I could, and that’s the main thing that justified our existence in the end.
SFW: Over the years, band members have come and gone, and you’re the only original member left. How stable is the lineup now?
DF: It’s pretty stable. You never know what’s going to happen, but I really like playing with these guys. They seem very keen, very committed to the project such as it is. I think that the instability that we had in the past had to do with being a group of guys where no one was really sure what they wanted to do. There’s a lot of disgruntlement potential that comes along with that. Nothing can ever quite be as great as you think, or accurately reflect how you see yourself. We’re fortunate now that these three other guys are here because they want be. That’s not always something that I’ve been able to say about my band. I think a lot of enterprises in the world suffer from that.
SFW: Last year’s album, King Dork, is directly connected to your young adult novels. Is it essentially a soundtrack for them?
DF: In a way it’s a soundtrack. The conceit is that in the two King Dork books, the main character writes songs and refers to them, fumbling his way to learning how to write songs. He has aspirations to be a rock ’n’ roller. The idea with the album is that it’s my band performing these songs. They’re supposed to evoke the kind of songs this character, this narrator, would write. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I started writing. But the logistics of it, what you have to do, to do two things and coordinate them, was always a little bit too much for me to pull together until now. It was a long time coming. I think of it as two sides of the same thing. If people are interested in the character and the book, they can look at it through another angle with the music.
SFW: There’s been talk that a King Dork movie has been optioned…
DF: There is. The first book came out in 2006, and it’s been optioned ever since. It’s been through many different configurations over that time, and it’s currently being developed by a great guy called Miguel Arteta. The current plan is that it’s going to be developed as a series. Previously, it was conceived as a feature film. I think a series is probably a better way to present the material. Whether it will actually happen is a big question, and I’ve given up trying to second guess Hollywood because it’s a crazy institution. From my limited view inside the workings — [that is] solely based on my books being optioned — I can say that it’s just amazing that any movies get made at all.
SFW: Do fans of the band like the books, and vice versa?
DF: That definitely does happen. In the first case, it’s more of a natural thing. I think that pitching these two things I’m doing as part of the same ball of art has been largely successful to the first group. It confused people at first quite a bit, and it continues to confuse people when they’re introduced to the concept for the first time. From the other side, it doesn’t work in quite the same way. Sometimes teenagers will try to investigate the authors they click with and find out more about them. That’s how they stumble on my stuff. Sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t. I have met and I’ve come into contact with a number of kids who have discovered my band through the book, and also have discovered music that the character likes — he’s a fan of glam rock. So I’ve talked to young kids who have discovered the Sweet and Slade through King Dork, which I get a big kick out of.
SFW: You’re playing a solo show without the rest of the band for Joel Reader’s birthday, along with Pansy Division and The Avengers. Do you enjoy performing by yourself?
DF: Yeah, I do. It’s a lot less of a hassle than getting four guys to show up together all at the same place at the same time with all the equipment. The first time I did it, in 1999 at Bottom of the Hill, I was terrified. Almost literally shaking. It’s scary to not be flanked by an army of others and without the big amplifiers and everything. The most intimidating [thing] is that you have to get used to everyone just talking through your whole set. It’s very distracting and it’s just how it is. They might be talking when you’re playing through your loud amplifier, but you can’t tell because you can’t hear. That’s the most difficult thing because I find myself listening to their conversations and then I lose track of what I’m singing. Over time, I seem to look at it as more of a challenge to try to make my songs preempt their conversations and make my act interrupt them.
SFW: What can we expect from The Mr. T Experience’s upcoming show?
DF: We’re very much on slow boil for the last 10 years since the record industry collapsed and Lookout Records stopped being a record company. We’ve started back up with a measured pace and more in earnest since this whole record came together. We’ve been doing really great shows, and we’re gonna do another one of them. It’s a whole different band, so there’s a sense that you’re covering your own songs or reinterpreting them. There’s something kind of cool about that. Like with anything else, a rock ’n’ roll show is liable to fall apart at any moment, so you just have to hope for the best and see what happens when you send it rolling down the hill.
SFW: And after that show, what’s next?
DF: We’re doing as many shows as seems prudent. We’re trying to do it smart this time, which you have to do because it’s a rough world out there. It’s never been rougher as far as trying to sustain a rock band. I have another album’s worth of songs that I’ve been honing over the last decade in preparation for some future time when we can make another album. That future time could be in the next year or so. We’re working on organizing what I hope will be interesting reissue packages of some of the old records, which is all available digitally, but the physical product has been out-of-print for some time. I have very ambitious plans which may well not be financially and logistically feasible for these thing.