Dr. Frank of MTX talks the Lookout Zoomout
by Interviews

Ahead of the third installment of the Lookout Zoomout 3 includes Penelope Houston, Ted Leo, Dr. Frank, more">Lookout! Records Zoomout series of livestreams on March 28th, Punknews' Steven Farkas spoke to Mr. T Experience frontman, novelist, solo artist and all round renaissance man Dr. Frank. They talked about about Dr. Frank finally saying yes to a livestream, unleashing his inner detective whilst working on the MTX his solo catalogue reissues, and his strange connection to the FC Dallas MLS soccer team. You can check it out below.

Hi Frank, thanks for making time for Punknews? How are you doing?

Yeah, I'm good, thanks, how are you? Good. Thanks for calling!

I know you've got quite a lot going on, with the third instalment of the Lookout! Zoomout series coming later this month (28th March), but before I ask about that, I wanted to talk to you about some of the Mr. T Experience reissues if you’re cool with that?

Yeah. Yeah, sure. Cool.

Great! So as you've got such an extensive catalogue, how did you approach what your starting point was? Was it driven by which of the masters you could find first, or did you have an idea in your head about how that was going to be mapped out?

Well, the overall ideal is to try to reiterate everything comprehensively and to do it in as high quality a way as possible to do the best possible way, which means presenting the stuff as its best self. The biggest problem with that is that it's all been done on wide variety of formats and that are some are better than other. Then on top of that there's just a lot of it that’s a struggle to find, or if you do find it, some of it is missing. So we just had to be realistic about what you can reasonably do, given the parameters that you have. So I spent a lot of time tracking this stuff down and then trying to identify within the archive what the different pieces were and what was missing and what could be done with it. Now we're just sort of very slowly trying to step by step work through it all starting with the things that are easiest to do first. If you take the most recent one, (…And the women who love them) the only surviving copy was found on DAT but when we listened to it, it had enough integrity to to make a record out of it..and it also sounded pretty good as it was. So we just thought that one since also since it never came out on vinyl before, there was a good place to start with the reissues. We then followed that up with the Forever compilation, which was a best of / retrospective sort of thing which was also an experiment to see what would happen if we just took these recordings as we found them and remastered them.

What has it been like going back to that stuff that you put on tape back in the day? Any surprises, good or bad?

Well, there were there were a lot of surprises because I hadn't listened to any of this stuff for a decade or more in some cases and certainly hadn’t listened to it carefully. It was surprising as you get reminded of things that you had forgotten about and one of the strangest part of the process in trying to reconstruct the physical archive is that you end up having to do a lot of detective work as a lot of these tapes were not labelled very well to say the least. You end up delving into the clues of scribbled notes in a folder with a tape that could relate to the tape, but it may not and so you make the inference that the one it was next to was the contents of the tape, but then it may not and send your investigation in a different direction. You also have to try to reconstruct it in your mind as well, thinking back to the actual recording sessions. I mean, it was really weird when I first started doing it, but I'm used to it now. It's been a very constant thing I've been thinking about and working on for the last couple of years since I sort of got the tapes in order. But it was very weird, some pleasant surprises, some cringe worthy moments for sure but that’s to be expected looking back at 30 plus years of doing these recordings.

The other thing to remember is that they weren’t always done in the best of circumstances and often we really didn't know what we were doing - I certainly didn't if through most of it. What it means thought, is that by going back through it, you maintain an almost schizophrenic state of mind because you're trying to present them with that original youthful exuberance, but also recognizing it’s a part of this history that's weird and not always so savory.

So, yeah, it's strange and not something completely pleasant all the time. It's like looking through old pictures. There's a lot of embarrassing stuff; like looking through your old yearbook and stuff like that, but if you're going to do it, I figure you might as well do it properly and so I've been very as careful as possible about how to go about doing it within what we actually have available.

It's interesting, though, I think sometimes as fans looking in at the recording process, especially someone like myself who never could have been involved in it at any level you just assume that the masters are the masters and they're all going to be catalogued and held in some temperature controlled vault that you can access at any time as the creator of it! But going back and reading some of the articles that you've written about this process, it seemed like some of these recordings turned up in some really odd places. I seem to remember a story about one being found in a boot?

Oh, yeah. Well that was the sole copy of (Dr. Frank’s 1999 solo record) Show Business Is My Life, as the master tapes of that have disappeared, I just don't know where they are.

I was like you when I first I started this, for so many years, I naively, even after the label stopped existing, that as an artist when it comes time to look into this stuff I'll find out who to contact and then just say “I would like these tapes, can you please deliver them to me?”. Of course that wasn't the case at all, they were just all over the place. When it finally dawned on me how challenging it was going to be I sprung into action, starting with an inventory of what I thought was out there. Then I was calling all the studios that I could think of we'd ever been in just to see if there could have been anything left there. But, you know, 20 years later that was pretty unlikely and a lot of times they got rid of their tapes long ago.

The weirdest ones were found under the couch at George Horn's room at (Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, CA) fantasy. I think I got in there just in time as they had been there for decades and I was just lucky that no one ever looked too closely under that couch otherwise they probably would have been discarded.

Well it’s good to be lucky sometimes! Presumably after going through all of this detective work and pulling it together and finally getting it out, you must be really happy with the way they've come out? With many on second pressings now it just shows how positively the fans have responded. You must be really pleased with the reaction

Yeah, definitely, I'm glad that people appreciate it so much. But also I honestly just feel like everyone we do it a race against time and it feels good to get it done and so far the results have been really, really good. In some ways it’s not surprising as we've got really good people working on all this stuff. And even when they weren't always managed in the best possible circumstances at the time; a lot of it was quite rushed and slapdash and we just always did what we could. It’s not like there was a whole lot of money then, nor is there now in punk rock. It's not a get rich quick scheme for most of us.

So far …And the women who love them is one of the best sounding reissues, we were able to do it on 45 rpm, which many people will say the ideal format for rock and roll music and it just worked because the songs are so short. I know there will be some that will be a lot more challenging. But I've been surprised and pleased so far and every single Sounds Rad! Release has just hit it out of the park.

In one of your recent medium articles, you've written about some kind of big Sounds Rad! announcements that are coming soon. Is that anything you can you can elaborate on?

Yeah, well, there's going to be announcements of what we're doing, we have a slate of things planned for 2021 You know, the covid thing slowed down and sort of precluded us doing certain things last year, but we've got a pretty interesting schedule of things coming up with maybe a few surprises and some weird stuff that hopefully people will be interested in. But I don't want to say more until the boss says it’s ok!

Picking up on a point you made earlier about punk rock not being a get rich quick scheme, I know you've written extensively rise of streaming and people’s unwillingness to pay for music. Are you heartened by the fact that physical formats are making a comeback and that people are making investment in these formats will help us find the balance between artists properly being paid for the work that they create versus, you know, someone who can just have 100000 songs on their on their phone for a monthly fee.

Look, I think it is better, but I also think it is not the same. It's more of a specialty or boutique market which in itself is great because it allows us to do these types of projects and with that support it will obviously enable future ones as well.

But from my point of view, what I want to do with this is to have one definitive iteration existing out in the world. And what I have realized after thinking about this a long time and wrestling with the issues with taking on this type of project is that even if it is a marginal subcultural or ‘cult’ sort of the thing the physical material is so different from the digital data which just sits there on a storage device somewhere. Physical formats are not so easily forgotten, and I find that when I look at my record collection, it is that visual trigger that makes me want to play it. I used to say that the problem with a digital music is you can't trip over it. And I just have this idea that if you put enough out in the physical world, there's a chance that someone will trip over it sometime or it'll be discovered by an archaeologist or something like that.

I think about a time when all the hard drives don't work anymore, there's still going to be someone going to dust off the vinyl with a little brush and call the professor archaeologist over and say “Look at these curious markings, Professor, I wonder what it could be?” That's not a guiding principle, but I like that idea rather than the alternative, which is to think about the money you’re not making. So in some ways, you've just got to relinquish the idea of making money and once you do that, you do it the best you can with what's feasible and I feel lucky that there's enough interest in it to do it rather than just letting it, you know, blow away. Which is why I just want to keep it spinning for just a little while longer.

Absolutely! It is your legacy at the end of the day that you want to make sure that what is out there is the best it can be, so that approach makes perfect sense. OK, so this is completely off topic, but just in response to your point about an archaeologist digging it up in future, my partner and I were involved in a group that put on public engagement scientific talks in a pub while we lived in Oxford and one of the topics was looking at what we as humans leave behind. Vinyl is definitely the most likely to be preserved, especially if it happens to be buried in a particular type of river bed, so from a legacy perspective you're definitely doing the right thing!

I love that and would like to think it is true as that's kind of my romantic fantasy about it. So I'm glad you said that! Here’s to the future!

So jumping to the Lookout! Zoomout series, the third iteration is coming on March 28th. How have you adapted to the virtual gig environment?

Yeah, I mean it was another pleasant surprise. I was very skeptical about it, I knew a lot of people who have done livestreams and stuff, but every time I've been asked to do it, I’ve always said no. I mean, it's very out of my element and I just shied away from it and thought, we will either we come out of this and I can start doing stuff live again or we’ll die and then it won't be relevant. But I was talked into it by Grant Lawrence, he's the he's the mastermind of this thing and I just found I couldn't say no to him. The thing that holds it all together is his enthusiasm and that enthusiasm is based on a genuine feeling of nostalgia, and the thing I didn’t appreciate is that it’s not just the fans, it’s also the participants. I mean, some of these people I hadn’t seen in like 20 years and then suddenly there they were on a screen and you kind of don't realize how much how much energy you get from the community. That’s definitely not something that I ever thought I would say, but I did get a little bit of a kick out of it. I mean it’s hard to get your stuff across over a laptop, but you meet the challenges put in from of you and we have had a good time. I've done all of the streams as Grant wanted a consistent thread. He’s the consummate professional and knows how to program these things and so I'm kind of like the house band and I but I think it's been good and everybody seems to really enjoy it. I guess I'm coming around on this streaming thing because this has worked out all right. It may sound corny and everything, but it is nice to make people happy and you don't get a whole lot of opportunities to do that in this in this world of ours.

When you say you can’t so no to Grant (Lawrence), why is that and how did you guys first kind of cross paths?

I saw the smugglers, probably one of the first times they came down here in 1990 0r 91 and I must have known about them from radio station at UC Berkeley that I was involved with at the time. They are one of the greatest rock and roll there is and ever since then kind of had this affection for the band and Grant's just a hell of a guy. And then as time went on we did some co-releases and we did all sorts of shows and tours with them, including probably the weirdest tour we ever did, all live through the hinterland of Canada which is something that American bands do not often do.

How did that come about?

Well we had been on a European tour with Green Day that had been cut short. It was supposed to be, eight weeks and after a couple of weeks it was cancelled and we were stranded in in Berlin. Once we got back home we were we were looking for something to do and this tour with The Smugglers across Canada playing these tiny, like working men’s clubs (likely Royal Canadian Legion halls) was what was available. These places always had a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, which was weird. I always enjoyed seeing the different portraits of the Queen.

Bringing it back to the upcoming gig, I thought it's always a good time when Grant Lawrence is involved so probably worth a gamble, and that gamble proved to be a good one.

I remember you guys playing together a few times across Canada and before I ended up on this side of the pond I grew up in in Winnipeg and was fortunate enough to have a very small part in putting on a show with you guys at a place called Wellington's in Winnipeg.

I remember Wellingtons, it was next door to the saddest strip club that I've ever seen!

Well that's saying that saying something as it’s a pretty low bar, and for the record it was an absolutely amazing show! Finally I did just want to ask you one last thing. In one of your most recent post on Medium, you talked about the new shirt sponsor for the FC Dallas MLS soccer team ( technology firm called MTX) which is just brilliant. One of the things that I picked up was when you talked out wanting them to be successful you made a comment about hoping they win the Ashes every year which I just thought was hilarious. Are you actually a cricket fan? (The Ashes is a cricket competition played every 2 years between England and Australia for one of the smallest trophies in international sport).

Well I've been an Anglophile my whole life, mostly through Monty Python's Flying Circus, but also through punk rock and various things like that. So it's funny because I knew when I wrote that line that it was a line that many of the people who read it would have no clue what it was, but on the other hand, it didn't it didn't strike me as all that weird because. I live in a weird place in my head, but that's funny. Thanks for noticing that.

No worries! Well it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you Frank, really looking forward to the final instalment of the Lookout! Zoomout series on March 28th, and thanks again for taking time out for us.

Yeah, no problem. It was fun!

The Lookout Zoomout is accessible via the sidedooraccess platform.