2016 marks the 20 year anniversary of Mr. T Experience’s, Love is Dead CD. This CD is one of the finest examples of 1990’s pop punk and captured one of the best bands of the era at the top of their game. Throughout the past 20 years, Love is Dead has consistently found its way onto my mixed tapes, then my burned CD mixes, and now my ipod playlists. Although Mr. T Experience continues to release great CDs, Love is Dead captured their greatest incarnation and embodied the best of what the band offered which is, in a nutshell, catchy, extremely concise, well written, love songs. I had a chance to ask lead singer/guitarist/primary songwriter, Frank Portman (aka Dr. Frank), his thoughts about Love is Dead and some of his recollections about that time period for the band.
The Making of Love is Dead
Love is Dead was the first time that Dr. Frank (guitar/vocals), Jym (drums), and Joel (bass) recorded together. Frank recalls, “There was some good, ‘new band’ energy from the line-up change. Jym was a much more straightforward drummer, which is what this kind of band and that kind of record needed. Beyond that, though, it was a different experience in other ways: it was the first time we had the opportunity to record in a ‘real studio’; and it was the first time I came prepared with songs already written and the basic idea of the album already planned out. This made Love is Dead the least ‘random’ record we’d ever made. Ironically, perhaps, the fancier studio meant we had less total time despite the bigger budget. That and the relative inexperience of the band, along with a variety of other factors led to the minimalist arrangements, although minimalism was part of the plan from the beginning.”
MTX enlisted their long time engineer and producer, Kevin Army. Army had worked with the band for years but as Frank points out, the process for this record was different. “Love Is Dead is the first recording, I believe, where I made demos and presented all the songs to Kevin before showing up in the studio. He killed or deferred some of the songs but I had so many that I didn’t much mind. One song we disagreed about was “Thank You for Not Being One of Them” which he thought was too similar to all the others which he was right about, but I was still right to keep it on the record, I think. He nixed “We Are the Future People of Tomorrow” because we’d already done a parody rock song (“Alternative Is Here to Stay”) and had a “song about bands” on the record already (“Dumb Little Band”); he wanted me to de-emphasize novelty. That was probably the right call, but there’s nothing wrong with that song. The songs themselves were fully written well before the recording; and the arrangements were as basic as basic could be. Kevin had a vision for the sound though, one that he built from the ground up and took a lot of pains over.” The band spent approximately one week laying down the tracks in the studio with Army and then another week mixing the songs.
The Release of Love is Dead
Love is Dead was well received by the pop punk community and expanded MTX’s fan base. Frank says, “It was by far the most popular and biggest selling thing we ever did. It went over well, which was a novelty, and a welcome one, but also a surreal experience that I don’t think I ever quite got my mind around.” The band worked hard and toured the album throughout the United States. “Playing shows with an audience present was a nice novelty and I’ll never forget the experience.”
Glory Daze, a film starring a young Ben Affleck, French Stewart, Sam Rockwell, and Alyssa Milano was released around this time and MTX allowed three of their songs (‘I Just Wanna Do It with You’ from Love is Dead) to be used in the movie. Frank recalls, “The movie was made by Rich Wilkes. He grew up in Santa Cruz and he tried to put his favorite music from his teenaged years into the film. He just called me up and said he wanted to use my songs and I said okay.” The band also made two videos to promote Love is Dead. Frank remembers, “Making videos was ‘the thing you did’ in the 90s to try to make it in the big time music biz, so like everyone else MTX and our label tried to give it a shot. The Ba Ba Ba one was made by a longtime filmmaker friend of mine, Jennifer Kaufman and she put a lot of herself into it. Then we did the other one (I Fell for You). I think each got played on MTV precisely once.”
Songs from Love is Dead
Examining each of the 16 songs found on Love is Dead, Frank believes the highlights include the opening track (Sackcloth and Ashes), Deep Deep Down, I Fell for You, You’re the Only One, Semi-OK, and Ba Ba Ba Ba. Song writing, especially the lyrics and word play have always been swhat makes the Mr. T Experience outshine many other pop punk bands. I asked Frank about his songwriting approach and he explained, “1. Have a clear topic and “conceit” (usually that means a title) and try to make sure it’s not identical to something else someone else has done better; 2. Know what you’re going to say – make sure you do in fact have something to say; 3. Know what you want the lyrics to do, as lines, as verses, and in the overall narrative structure. That is, try to have strategic goals for the lyrics and what they are meant to accomplish; 4. Make sure that each element/line/chunk meets at least a couple of these goals at the same time, and discard lines that don’t “multi-task.” #1 is the most important. There’s no point whatever in rewriting someone else’s song if you don’t add something distinctive to it.”
Frank followed this formula while writing the songs found on Love is Dead. Each song is beautiful in its simplicity yet when the listener focuses on the lyrical craftsmanship, he or she finds word play perfection. Take, for example, ‘I’m Like Yeah, But She’s All No’:
The search for love and happiness
Turns out to be a game of chess
You can’t move or you flip the board
And you’re lying in pieces on the floor
Then later, in the same song:
Success in these relationships
Rests more or less on gamesmanship
And these are ships that I can’t board
Or keep in order or afford
A second example of Frank’s ability to play with words and keep the listener entertained yet somewhat off balance can be found in, ‘I Fell for You’:
Fall for me
Can’t you see it’s the least you can do?
I did it all for you.
What have you ever done for me?
Well, you snatched me from the jaws of death, that’s true,
And you rescued me with your last breath, that too,
But what have you done for me lately?
* All lyrics written by (Dr.) Frank Portman – c 1995 – Itching Powder Music, BMI
20 Years Later
Love is Dead captured the pop punk sound of the mid-90s but has aged well and has become a timeless classic much like Screeching Weasel’s My Brain Hurts and the Queers’ Love Songs for the Retarded. Frank believes that Love is Dead has held up well. “It justifies its existence by being not quite like anything else but itself. Looking at it now there’s a distinctive feel and ‘vibe’ to it and I can see why people found it compelling. Mostly, though, it’s all about the songs and an album only holds up to any standard to the degree to which the songs do. And there are some pretty good ones on there. The songs still resonate for me, which is nothing to sneeze at 20 years later.”
On the road, Frank sees firsthand just how important the Love is Dead album is for fans of the band. “Ba Ba Ba Ba always got a big reaction and that’s still the case even today. I would say that now the other songs from Love is Dead get an even bigger reaction than they originally did because people love them so much and we only do a few of them in a usual set.”
Fans of MTX rejoice! A new album (digital download) titled, King Dork Approximately the album is soon to be released. It will be accompanied with Frank’s book (King Dork Approximately) in paperback form. MTX will also hit the road to play some select shows. For more information, check out Dr. Frank’s page. Visit the site on Tuesday, September 20th when a new song will be featured from the upcoming album along with a video.
If you enjoy pop punk, you may also like this Punk Rock 101 – Spotlight on Screeching Weasel.