The year was 1992. Bill Clinton was elected as president, the Bosnian War began, Jay Leno became the new host of The Tonight Show after Johnny Carson retired, and a group of three high school kids played their first show in a Bremerton, WA backyard. That was 20 years ago, and today those teenagers are the seasoned punk veterans known as MxPx. I had the chance to speak with the band’s leading man Mike Herrera in the wake of their latest album release Plans Within Plans, as the band gets ready to launch its 20th anniversary tour and Herrera prepares for a string of solo acoustic dates on the VANS Warped Tour.
You guys used your home studio to record Plans Within Plans. How was the experience different than recording in a more conventional studio?
Well actually, this is a dedicated studio. So all it is is a studio where we are. It’s just a private studio. I do have friends come in and I have bands come in and record but I don’t advertise or anything. It’s all word of mouth. We actually have bands from California fly in. We’ve got a band coming in this Saturday, flying in from California for the week...so that aspect of it was fine, because we’ve been recording some singles here. Tumbledown [Herrera’s alt-country side project], Plans Within Plans, most of the stuff that we’ve put out I’ve done here. I think the main difference was we didn’t have an outside producer. So it was just me. That was probably the craziest part about it, day in and day out. Usually when I’m working on an MxPx album I’m more focused on my own parts, rather than everyone’s part.
How did being in that position affect the songwriting process as a band?
I didn’t even think of it that way. I just thought “How crazy can we get? What fun stuff can we do?” The record’s definitely balls-to-the-wall fast songs, really straightforward production for the most part. A few fun things in there, but I just wanted it to sound like I hear us, rather than [what] we sound like on a lot of these records. So I feel like this new record Plans Within Plans is what I wanted to sound like.
Would you count out recording outside that environment now that you’ve got such a handle on it?
No, I never discount anything. We go over to my buddy Stephen [Egerton]’s studio sometimes. We go to other studios and do songs here and there but, you know, when it comes down to paying the bills and stuff, obviously we use my studio. We don’t have to pay for it.
Do you prefer self-producing over working with someone else?
Yeah. For the most part I’ve been self-producing almost everything out of convenience, but I’m definitely not opposed to having someone produce some stuff here and there. It just depends on the project. But with MxPx, I feel like I know exactly what I want it to sound like, so there’s no use in having an outside producer. We’ve already soaked up all the different things we’ve learned over the years on each record we’ve done with different producers, taken what we liked best about those producers and applied that to these recordings.
When MxPx first started, the themes of your songs were very much in sync with your experiences as high-school kids and young adults. How have you maintained a youthful audience as you’ve grown as people and musicians?
The easiest way to describe that is that we started young and we sang about teenager type stuff. As we grew older, we started singing about, you know, young love, young whatever, just figuring out the world. Now that I’m 35 and I’m still writing songs for the band, I’m writing other songs as well, but, the big thing is our audience has grown up with us every step of the way. So now everybody else is still in our demographic, for the most part, you know? Of course we’ve got some younger fans but overall everybody’s just been growing with us at the same time.
When we come out with this new album, for instance, Plans Within Plans, the opening song “Aces Up,” it could apply to anybody. It doesn’t have to be young or old or high school, married, 40 or whatever. But I think as I get a little older I write stuff that’s a little more universal...I hate to say this, but I am writing more serious lyrics, and I have been for quite a while. It’s just been a transition – it’s been quite a long, slow transition, but I think if you listen to our albums they get a little more serious as they go. And there’s exceptions to that, of course, but...I think that’s because now that I’m an adult, I’m actually realizing “Wow, I really am an adult!” Most people realize that maybe when they’re 29 or something, about to turn 30, but it took me a while, and I feel like my songwriting is reflecting that more. But it’s a good thing ,‘cause like I said, young people can get into adult music when it’s this kind of adult music. Like punk rock, it’s fun, it’s melodic, simple. I wouldn’t say that MxPx is adult music, but it’s definitely gotten more serious. People don’t really see it that way, which is hard...it’s a hard story to tell.
Do you think that’s more about the genre?
Take Bon Jovi, for instance. They’ve kinda gone the other way. They started out harder, even though they were always pretty bubblegum-y, but pretty rockin’, you know? “You Give Love a Bad Name” was badass. They dressed all crazy. Now they’re older, they’re doing these power ballads, and just really kind of chicken-fried type songs. Maybe that’s a bad example, but there’re a lot of bands like that, they go in different directions. Some of them start more pop and get harder, some of ‘em start hard and get pop-ier…I think that’s just natural. People can’t necessarily do the exact same thing over and over and over. It just feels fake.
You’ve said that MxPx has stayed true to itself as a band. How does one do that over 20 years?
I know that I’ve had some missteps along the way, songwriting-wise or even just career decision-wise, but I feel I’ve always learned from that, and sort of corrected it. And I feel like, for better or worse, we’re where we’re at now, and I’m happy with the decisions that we’re making, at least the last five years or so. But like anything, it’s easy to say once you’ve gone through it “Ah, I should have done this.” But you don’t know at the time, and we’re always so torn in different ways with touring all the time, making records.
I’m writing all the songs so I’ve never really taken a break this whole time. I’ve never really taken it all in throughout these last 15 years or so. But finally, I think now that we’re getting up there in age as a band, as people, we’re all taking time to enjoy what we go through. It’s not just about our end goals but it’s also about getting there. It’s about doing that show that night. It’s about writing the song. So I think, despite all of the stupid things I’ve gone along with, with record labels and managers, suggestions from fans that maybe were just really, really wrong for one reason of another, I’m finally learning to just go with my gut. And I’ve been doing that for a while now, the last couple years, and I feel so much better about it.
What do you think MxPx is now and what do you want it to be in the future?
Ya know, I don’t know what I want it to be. I want it to be something that people actually will remember, you know? But I’m just proud and honored to have been part of the punk rock scene for 20 years. So ya know, going forward, we’re going to be playing some shows. We’ve got these 20 year anniversary dates, and that’s all it’s focused on. I really don’t want to think about next year all. Like I’m not even booking anything at this point. I’m sure I will, but we’re really trying to live in the moment, cause we only have 20 years one time. So for me this is important to just spend this summer on MxPx.
In your upcoming tour dates, you’ve got several shows with bands like Up First, Mest, Rufio, and more. What does it mean to you to have these bands with you while you celebrate your first 20 years?
It’s awesome. I mean, we handpicked every band on this bill and every one of those bands is playing with us in Anaheim, June 29th, and Hollywood on the 30th. They’re bands we played with, bands we’ve toured with, bands we’ve known for a long time. So Rufio, we’ve toured with them in South America, we took them down with us one year. Those guys are awesome. Mest, we’ve done some US touring with over the years. Known Tony [Lovato, Mest front man] for a long time. Set Your Goals, we’ve seen those guys on Warped Tour, we’ve played with them on Warped Tour, we’ve hung out with them at shows, they come to our shows randomly on tour and vice-versa. We’ve showed up at one of their shows. So it’s cool to have bands that we have a personal connection to on the bill with us. We are going to have some other special guests, other bands that aren’t billed bands. And I don’t know, I’m not going to say yet. We are probably going to announce a week ahead of time or something. Just in case something happens with one of them and they can’t do it or something like that.
I see that you have acoustic dates on the Warped Tour. What appealed to you about the solo/acoustic format?
I’m writing songs all the time on an acoustic guitar. And so for me, I can really get something new and something different out of a song that I didn’t before.
Does it feel different to you to perform acoustically than it does in a more traditional full band set up?
Yeah, it is different. It’s way different. It’s kind of harder in a way. Well for one, everyone is watching you. If you screw up everybody knows. Everything is just more raw, more straight to the point. It really is a cool thing. I love acoustic music. I love watching my favorite bands do acoustic stuff. And I think the fans feel the same way. That’s why they added this acoustic stage on the Warped Tour. They never had that before. They did acoustic performances that were a part of Myspace, and it was horrible. There was a tiny PA, there was no budget...you couldn’t even hear it because it was drowned out by these pre-teen metal bands. Yeah, really annoying! So I’m glad Warped tour is finally putting that together, and they’re giving people what they want, which is more acoustic stuff. The younger kids sometimes see it as not very punk or whatever, like “Play drums! Electric guitar!” But really, once you’re past 25, you really want to get into the music you’re into. You want to see it out when you can. That’s acoustic, that’s a privilege as far as I’m concerned. I might see somebody right in front of me on an acoustic guitar. That’s a privilege to see, you know? To see a really good show.
You recently said that so much has happened to you over the last two years that you could write a whole album about it, maybe two. How do you whittle down so much material? Are you selective about what you write about, or do you just go with what works for the song?
Honestly, I think it has to do with the lack of time I have for summer. [laughs] So I write, and then when I have enough, I have enough for whatever. So I think I would write a lot more if I didn’t have to manage and do all the extra stuff that bands have to do these days, quite frankly. Between my studio, MxPx, Tumbledown, my solo acoustic stuff...that’s all performing and working in the studio, doing that stuff, so songwriting is something that I have to consciously do. Which is kind of a bummer, cause once I start songwriting a cool thing happens. I start coming up with more and more ideas and I’ll write more and more songs. But if I don’t make myself start writing a song, then my mind doesn’t get jogged. It’s probably a lot like you and writing. When you’re not writing a lot, you start feeling like you don’t really have anything to say. You just have to start writing; you know your mind starts clicking that way.
When writing a song, how do you choose which of you projects to work on it with?
I choose ahead of time usually, but if I just come up with a riff I pretty much know right away if it’s remotely like straightforward and sort of...I guess non-twangy. If it’s more melodic, if it’s straight pop, then I would probably make it an MxPx song. From there, it’s just “Is this a fast song or is this a medium-tempo song?”
Is there anything you wanted to add about your upcoming tour?
I’m sure people read from all over the country, so we’re doing New York City, on July 6th, which is our actual anniversary.
How do you measure your actual anniversary? What date are you using?
We are using our very first show, which was a week after we started practicing. We did our first show in my backyard for our friends. And it was horrible! But that was our first show.
How many songs did you have at the time?
We probably had almost ten, or something like that.
A week after you started practicing?!
Well I had written songs for like a year straight. I had a bunch of songs that I had already knew. So it was like “Hey, let’s learn this song really quick.” I had written a bunch of literally two-chord songs when I was trying to learn how to play guitar. And they were just horrible. I’m glad I lost the cassette tape I demoed them on.
One of the worst things that has happened to me, going back to that question about stuff that has happened over the last year...I’ve had my songbook and two full journals stolen out of my backpack. Not out of my backpack – we actually had items stolen from our van. Two times it was my backpack, and one time my laptop was in it. But the reason I mention it is because I’ve had journals which I write songs in. I’ve had a full songbook that got stolen. So now I’m super-paranoid about where I write my songs because I’ve actually lost a few songs that I can’t really remember. I’m not like Jay-Z. I can’t just recite every lyric I’ve written.
Wow that’s tough man. I can imagine the heartbreak from that.
Yeah. You know I definitely have been in a slump for a little bit. But I am back on top. I’m actually looking forward to doing some more solo type stuff. You know, acoustic and something more stripped-down. Just ‘cause I’m traveling without Tom and Yuri. I just want to do something different.
How would you say that ASCAP has impacted your career since your start as a musician and performer?
Oh man! ASCAP has been awesome. Because obviously as a songwriter, I don’t know how to get paid [Laughs] It’s just one of those things that you take for granted because it's something that I have no idea about. Like, I know about royalties, I know what splits are and stuff like that, but I don’t really know how stuff is collected. It just shows up on your door. And without that, I would definitely not be able to do music for sure. Being compensated for songs and having ASCAP collect it is awesome. And that’s the other thing. Getting paid for songs and getting royalties...ASCAP almost makes me want to do my job better. A lot of times you do this as a musician, you do all this stuff everyday, and you don’t actually see a paycheck. So it comes in a weird way, you know? Royalty checks and live performance checks are different but...it’s something that I definitely feel like we don’t think about on a daily basis, and every now and then [when you get an ASCAP check] it’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s right! I wrote some songs. Cool!”
Mike Herrera plays the Acoustic Basement Stage of the VANS Warped Tour, June 21st through the 24th, 2012. Find tour dates right here.
Find out more about MxPx at www.mxpx.com.