Thursday, June 24, 2010

Frank Portman

If someone were to speak to Frank Portman about his career as a novelist, that person might get the impression that it was all a happy accident. To Portman, who had neither written a piece of fiction nor considered it a plausible career option, completing a full piece of fiction, let alone publishing and receiving industry praise for it, seemed impossible. Of course, to the surprise to Portman (and almost no one else), this is what happened when Random House published King Dork, his first novel, in 2006.

See, Portman never wanted to write novels; he has always written songs.

He’s been writing songs since at least the early-eighties, but began his most successful musical project—pop punk band the Mr. T Experience—as a student at the University of California - Berkeley in 1985. “When we first started, it was just fooling around,” Portman admits. “It was this guy Byron [Stamatatos] and I—we would get together every couple of weeks after I graduated high school and went to college—and Jon Von Zelowitz, who I met at the UC-Berkeley radio station. And then my brother, who was going to high school at the time, knew a guy who had a drum set. We were just doing it to kill some time.”

It’s with the Mr. T Experience (also known as MTX) that Portman recorded his first of many records, which he also considers a happy accident. “Jon Von, who was in a band back in Boston where he went to college, had this idea that, when you’re in a band, you record demo tapes in a cheap studio to give to your friends,” he explains. “That’s how we met Kevin Army, who recorded most of the stuff that we did. He worked at this very cheap eight-track studio in Oakland. After we made this recording, Jon decided that we’d release it as a record, which just seemed crazy to me and everyone else involved with it.

“We never thought of it as anything real until we had been doing it for four or five years,” Portman continues, though the band did release several records and even ventured on a tour or two by that time. “Generally,” he says, “we would record a record and do as much touring as we could. By the end of the tour, we would fall apart in every manner of speaking and lick our wounds for a while until it was time to start the whole thing over again. At the end of one of those big disintegrations, it was at the end of our first European tour in 1992; when we reassembled ourselves after that, Jon Von was not one of those components. So then we were a three-piece for a while.

“You know, it’s not a very interesting story,” Portman laughs in a deflated sort of way. “It just went on and on like that.”

But it’s around this time that, despite being cursed with continuous lineup changes, MTX’s brand of fierce, four-chord punk-rock began to mature. In 1994, the band recorded and released …And the Women Who Love Them, a seven-song EP that served as a sort of turning point for Portman. “That one should not have come out well,” he says. “It was one of the most depressing recording experiences in my history of recording. It had no budget, and no one was having a good time. But then I heard how it came out and it was kind of how it was supposed to sound.

“There may have been points where we would say that we were going to bail on the band,” he continues, “but that record made me think that my band was worth continuing to pursue. It was the first recording we made that sort of worked, but ended up being by accident”

Another happy accident.

Part-Ramones, part-the sort of sixties bubblegum pop that inspired the Ramones, MTX’s songs seem simple, but only superficially; beneath what sometimes sounded like a landscaping crew revving their mowers and machines to a fidgety rhythm resided a literate wit that most musicians—punk-rock or otherwise—could never convey. Portman sings with a sly slur often of love and alienation (and, more often, both). His lyrics, well known for their sarcasm, became more subtle (and cynical) with each album.

Songs like “I Fell For You” from the 1995 album Love is Dead, for example, weren’t the sappy love songs that they appeared to be even after multiple listens. On this particular track, Portman tells a story of unrequited love that’s as unconventional as it is comical; “What have you ever done for me?” he sings from the perspective of a smitten protagonist who uses imperfect and pathetic logic to convince his love that he’s worth falling for (since he has fallen for her, despite how very “little” she’s done for him): “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?”

In essence, MTX played pop punk that satirically poked fun at pop punk—its sentimentality and predictability and adherence to sometimes strict and pointless punk-rock rules—which caused them to stand apart from their contemporaries. But Portman doesn’t remember his band that way, “I’m glad that, for whatever reason, this stuff found an audience,” he says, “but the reality of the experience is that it sure doesn’t feel like there’s a whole lot of interest, and it never did.

A small but committed audience cared deeply about MTX’s music, though, including Steven Malk, who was just some punk kid from San Diego that grew up to become a prominent literary agent. “For quite some time, he’d come up to me shows when we’d play in his area and give me his card,” Portman remembers. “He told me that I should try to write something and, if I did, he could probably sell it. It wasn’t something I took very seriously until that last big tour we did for the Yesterday Rules album in 2004. At that time, coincidentally, there was a lot of interest in the publishing world with the idea of nerd narrators. The time was right for trying to do something like this.”

When Portman finally expressed interest, Malk invited several editors to see MTX play a show in Brooklyn, though only one was interested enough to show up. Still, Portman decided to meet with this editor the next day while he was still in town. “Mainly I was going for the free lunch,” he admits. “In this conversation, she was talking to me like there was a book. I waited until I finished eating to say, ‘I don’t know what Steve told you, but I don’t really have a book.’ That’s when she encouraged me to give it a shot. She said, ‘Well, you’ve written a lot of songs. Why not use that as a starting point?’

“When the time came, which was after we got home from the tour and things had sort of fallen apart, and I wasn’t doing so well financially,” he explains, “I thought I’d give it a try. I just looked at all the song titles and chose the one that seemed like it would look good on a book cover. ‘King Dork’ was one of the good ones.

“There’s a collection,” he continues, “a category of my songs that are essentially narrated by that same guy or a similar type of person, so I thought about what that kind of narration would sound like not in song form and started playing around with it. I did a little stream-of-consciousness, interior monologue for about thirty pages or so, thinking of it like a ‘novel demo.’ I sent that to the agent and didn’t hear back from him, so I thought that was the verdict on it. A couple weeks later, though, he did contact me and told me he sold it to Random House.”

King Dork reads a lot like the transcript of a teenager’s thought-process, which is attempted often in books, but rarely recaptured with any degree of authenticity. It’s in the protagonist Tom Henderson’s self-depreciation, in the way almost everyone else depreciates him (calling him Chi-Mo, which has sort of a long story attached to it, or Hender-Fag, which is a bit more self-explanatory), and in the way he obsesses over his interests, more specifically music. It’s this obsession with music—the way he considers the Sweet way more important that Led Zeppelin, or thinking about the meaning of Roxy Music lyrics in French class—that makes Henderson a nuanced and realistic teenage narrator.

Maybe most convincing is the fact that, as this teenage protagonist tries to solve the mystery surrounding his father’s tragic death using clues from a copy of Catcher in the Rye that once belonged to him (while simultaneously trying to figure out who that one chick was at that one party—the one wearing The Who shirt that he made out with), Henderson is endlessly distracted by creating fake bands with his friend Sam. These bands include Baby Batter, Ray Bradbury’s Love-Camel, and, at the end of the novel, We Have Eaten All the Cake, whose first record would be titled Slut Heaven. It’s this constant return to music (both real and imaginary) that makes Portman’s character feel like a real teenager, obsessed with the trivial while struggling with several conflicts at once.

“It ended up working out pretty well,” Portman admits, “and was easily the most successful thing I’ve ever done. It was cool see what it was like to have something that generally makes a splash after several years of putting things out that don’t seem to go anywhere.”

Portman set out to write his second novel so that it would be nothing like his first. Andromeda Klein contains the same level of snarkiness apparent in King Dork and most MTX songs, but fromthe voice of an adolescent girl named Andromeda Klein who is half-deaf, obsessed with the occult, and trying to make sense of her best friend’s death (and the dreams she keeps having about her). She uses her interest in the spiritual to solve this conflict while she interacts with her crazy friends and family, pursues various love interests (including St. Steve, who seems to have stopped texting her, and Byron, an “Emogeekian” who becomes a sort of apprentice), and matches wits with the voice in her head, a Holy Guardian Angel who names herself Huggy.

Again, Portman’s voice as a writer and the detail to which he creates his characters helps drive this novel. What makes Andromeda Klein the more sophisticated sequel is the question of whether or not Klein is reliable as a character. Throughout the novel, Klein is using magic and tarot cards and dreams to help resolve the various conflicts that she faces. Because the reader experiences everything through Klein’s eyes, the line between what’s really magic and what Klein is convinced is magic is fuzzy; Klein’s “synchs,” or seemingly mystical connections between events and objects, may be the universe aligning, or may be mere coincidence. Portman doesn’t provide an answer.

Though the magical subject matter may seem like a foreign, confusing world, Portman makes it accessible and interesting. Still, “Andromeda Klein alienated a few people,” Portman says. “There are people who love this one thing I do and they expect more of the same. Either they’ll go along with it and learn to like or be really pissed off with me for the rest of their lives. It’s happened with music and happened with books.”

But evolution is important to Portman. “It’s presenting your audience with a challenge,” he explains. “If you didn’t do that, then you’d just end up with something that just isn’t art. If you have an audience in mind and you try hard as hard as you can to meet every one of their expectations, then what you have isn’t going to be a living thing.”

Really, it’s this mindset that makes Portman an interesting artist. In fact, he credits a lot of his success as a writer to being in a small band that played in bowling alleys and basements. “If I had no reason to improve and work on making the songwriting better,” he states, “everything that I’ve done would have been very different. You make sacrifices when you decide to be in a little band, but there’s something cool and beneficial as a writer to have so much freedom and room to experiment.”

Portman brings the “dumb, little band” mentality to his fiction—the pursuit of improvement, the risk of self-fulfillment, the challenge of change—which is why his success is the opposite of accidental.

Portman recorded these tracks on a rainy summer day despite suffering from a cold. He recorded the first song flawlessly, but wasn't happy with the way voice sounded on the second song (due to his cold), so he rerecorded it on an even rainer summer day a week later.

"Checkers Speech" appears on the Mr. T Experience's 1994 EP titled ...And the Women Who Love Them. "Goody Goody Gumdrops" is a 1910 Fruitgum Company cover; the song originally appeared on the 1968 record of the same name.

Visit the Portman's blog or visit his website for more information about his books and music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume One for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2010. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.