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The Boston Phoenix Young Guns

MxPx's teenage poetry

By Mark Woodlief

AUGUST 3, 1998:  It's a good day to be young on the Warped Tour. Just ask 21-year-old MxPx guitarist Tom Wisniewski. Today he'll do a phone interview or two, play a show in front of thousands of fans and peers in Pittsburgh, maybe spend some down time with famous skateboarder Steve Caballero -- who recently scrawled "MxPx Rocks" on the bottom of one of his decks -- or legendary BMX rider Rick Thorne.

"We've been hanging out with Rick Thorne," says Wisniewski. "He'll ride by and show us a trick. We're sitting there going, 'How'd you do that on a bike?' He just says, 'Do this and do that,' and then I'm doing it." Easy.

Hell, it's a pretty good decade to be young, come to think of it. The babies of the boomers have been staking their claims to modern rock radio and summer tours like Warped with brisk, exuberant pop punk long on melodic, thrashy energy. As seasoned veterans, MxPx's members have already been at the game for more than a quarter of their lives. This year, the trio released their fourth album, Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo, their first for a major label (A&M).

Five and a half years ago, prolific songwriter/bassist Mike Herrera, drummer Yuri Ruley, and the band's original guitarist (Wisniewski came on board later) were all just 15 years old when they auditioned for Seattle indie label Tooth & Nail in Herrera's parents' garage in Bremerton, Washington. Across Elliott Bay in Seattle, somebody must've heard a bell tolling. That would've been grunge's death knell, delivered by three kids with a jones for sunny Southern Californian buoyancy. A year later, Green Day's Dookie had hammered the last nail into grunge's coffin, and MxPx (original name: the Magnified Plaid) were already working on their second record, Teenage Politics.

"There's a story behind our album titles," explains Wisniewski. "With Teenage Politics, we had a song with that title, and we were still teenagers, so it worked out. It's the politics of growing up -- things that happen to you and why and stuff like that. Life in General [the 1996 follow-up] was kind of about that stuff, but we weren't teenagers anymore. It was just life in general."

Being young and in a rock band offers its share of liabilities, Wisniewski has learned. "We still get hassled. I mean, you still think of Silverchair as kids, right? When you're introduced as something [i.e., teenagers], the first impression really matters. But we're far along in the scheme of things. We've grown up a little bit."

The concerns of touring life -- 200 shows last year -- weigh heavier on the new Buffalo, but MxPx's ace is still the trio's winning, earnest expression of teenage (and personal) politics. "Seems like I've been gone oh so long," Herrera sings to a girl on "I'm OK, You're OK." "Nothing seems to have changed/Yet the familiar things seem all so strange."

Themes of vulnerability, growing up, love, and the myriad frustrations and confusions of youth are all still neatly delivered in Herrera's tightly constructed, shimmering tunes. Sure, the band have grown up. They've sold more than 200,000 copies of Life in General, they shared a stage with the Sex Pistols in 1996, and this year they toured Europe this year with fellow Warped Tour outfit Bad Religion (whose Greg Hetson played lead guitar on Buffalo's "The Downfall of Western Civilization"). But they're not cynical. MxPx still wear youth -- with a surprisingly mature and lucid perspective -- on their sleeves.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, it feels all too right. For anyone who's been there (and we all have), growing up is hard enough to do without documenting it, analyzing it, and turning it into crisp, catchy, tuneful three-minute pop songs. "Looking back on all those years," a slightly wearied Herrera sings on "For Always," "All the smiles all the tears/I never want those memories to fade/What we have done what we can do/We search our whole lives for the truth/For always."

That's about as old as Herrera ever sounds on Buffalo, and he still realizes how much there is to look forward to as he repeats the title phrase again and again. In tandem with such lyrics, Buffalo's hopped-up ferocity and tuneful three-chord melodicism don't just further the increasingly complex concept of teenage politics -- they also make for some pretty sharp teenage poetry.

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