Highway to Heck
Punk rock is a lot of things. Loud, always. Fast, mostly. Angry, sometimes. Uplifting? Well, yeah. Actually, if it's done well, it can be downright inspirational -- firing up the engines of self-empowerment that typically lie dormant, or creating a political sounding board (whether to the left, right or center), or just plain being good background music with which to get your ya-yas out. Think the Clash or the Dead Kennedys or even Green Day and Guttermouth.
In MxPx's case, the message goes beyond self-empowerment to plain old positivism. The songs aren't merely upbeat in style and delivery but uniformly so in lyrical content. The band is Christian; the members don't deny this. But MxPx also refuses to make an issue of its beliefs or even to use its music for proselytizing, preferring instead to keep its faith private. Though songs like "Buildings Tumble" and "One Step Closer to Life" are undeniably positive -- the former espousing the virtues of taking the high road, while the latter marries a huge pop-rock chorus to the notion that you can always view the glass as half full -- they are also undeniably secular in any but the broadest of possible interpretations.
"It's really hard to make things [come across as] that positive and not have them sound cheesy," says bassist/vocalist Mike Herrera. "So I really concentrate on making things interesting to listen to and painting a good word picture." The song "Unsaid" does exactly this, using a number of common examples to demonstrate the virtues of restraint, while recognizing that just because something's true or good doesn't necessarily mean it should be exposed to the world. "That's kind of an interesting song," says Herrera, "because it's one of those where you start writing and things just come out, and you don't know what you're really trying to say until it's done."
There are numerous examples of musical missionaries today. Whatever the cause -- women's rights, gay rights, animal rights, hate crimes, you name it -- somebody's out there performing music to spread the gospel. "I think it's something we just personally like to write about," says Herrera. "And that's what comes out, because I try to be honest when I write music. It's my way of communicating with people, and communicating with myself in a way. It's a learning experience. I learn from writing, and I learn from playing and being in this band. We're here for people. And that definitely keeps us going. I wouldn't say we're on a mission for positivity. But that's what comes out."
The members of MxPx, which also includes guitarist Tom Wisniewski and drummer Yuri Ruley, have been pursuing their particular version of punk since banding together as high school students in Bremerton, Washington, in 1992. The group's rise has been relatively quick. Six years ago, when each musician in the group was only 17 years old, the band released its debut. Two years later, MxPx penned its first hit, "Chick Magnet." In 1998, the band struck gold with its CD Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo.
"All of our developing years were in the high school days," says Herrera. "We had the chance to develop our musical style and just learn our instruments while we were still in school, and it wasn't as big a commitment. When we finally set out on tour, we had two albums out, and ever since we've been touring pretty nonstop. When we have stopped, it's been to make a record or for Christmas or one of those kind of things. So it has been fairly easy, but at the same time we've been working hard at it."
Now, MxPx is poised on the brink of crossover status with the recent release of The Ever Passing Moment (and the group's current slot on the summer Vans Warped Tour, which stops off this week in Phoenix). Though still plying the same upbeat, positive punk, the band boasts a more 3-D sound and lyrics with greater depth. The sonic change is courtesy of Jerry Finn (Blink 182, Rancid and Green Day), who tweaks the knobs for a bigger, more finely produced sound, and courtesy of the band members, who spent some time on arrangements and pacing. No longer is the formula purely three chords and a cloud of dust. The lyrics, meanwhile, have become broad enough that the band may finally resonate with someone who has moved out of his dorm room.
"We did spend a bit more time developing the songs and working them out," says Herrera. "Every little piece was important. If I didn't like the lyrics to a bridge, I'd write new lyrics." And the recording itself, according to Herrera, was all about getting the band's energy on tape, a common enough but seemingly elusive pursuit. "It's really hard to get a really, really good-sounding record with no flaws, and yet that still has energy, because sometimes you end up doing it over and over." Having improved as musicians, thereby cutting down on the number of takes required, has also helped a great deal, in Herrera's opinion.
Such perfectionism may run counter to the punk stereotype of bashing it out. But unlike some "punk" bands, which seemingly couldn't care less about commercial success, MxPx doesn't endorse bashing it out as a viable approach. Some of the typical punk disdain toward quality recording and success is likely stylistic posturing, political idealism or just plain youthful naiveté.
Herrera doesn't buy any of it. "If you get down to it, people want material success. I think for us the key is how we get it. If we still have our integrity intact and remain true to ourselves and what we enjoy doing, and we gain commercial success, that is a success. It's a triumph for us. Because we didn't have to have booty dancers in our videos and use samples in our songs. That's just not who we are as a band. And if we can be successful doing what we do, then that's great. What's wrong with that? Absolutely nothing."
MxPx is scheduled to perform on Sunday, June 25, as part of the Vans Warped Tour at the Manzanita Speedway, with Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Green Day, the Donnas and many others. The all-day concert begins at noon.
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