Tour of duty

By all estimations, the Warped Tour should have died a miserable death years ago. Now in its sixth year, the traveling summer festival of youth-friendly punk rock and street sports seemed destined for failure once it slipped out of the underground and into the hands of Vans corporate sponsorship.

But something went terribly right on the the way to the skate park: The Vans Warped Tour's music stayed incredibly strong and vibrant over the years by offering America's youth some musically diverse lineups loaded with fan favorites and just the right amount of flavors-of-the-month. This year's lineup is one of the best yet, thanks to a "more punk, less metal" menu that includes Green Day, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, NOFX, MxPx, Long Beach Dub All Stars, Jurassic 5, Lunachicks, Millencolin, Snapcase, The Donnas, The Suicide Machines, TSOL, Flogging Molly and Good Riddance, plus the only local act, The Hindu Cowboys.

Of the punk acts on the bill, no entry is more head-scratching than MxPx, who, by all rights, should have been a Warped headliner, sharing the status of Green Day and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, instead of being relegated as a just another contender.

But fear not, MxPx is coming back strong after surviving the major-label letdown that sidetracked the band's progress.

Back in the beginning, the Bremerton, Wash., pop-punkers gradually built a fan base after releasing three CDs on indie imprint Tooth and Nail Records. The last of the trio, "Life in General" (1996), featured the snappy single "Chick Magnet" that generated considerable radio play, which earned them a deal with A&M Records.

A case of bad timing sidetracked the band's 1996 major-label debut, "Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo," before it really had a chance to bloom. Soon after the disc's release, the merger of A&M's parent label, PolyGram Records, with Universal Music took hold, essentially folding A&M into Interscope Records. Many of the personnel who were involved with MxPx lost their jobs and surviving employees had bigger issues to tend to than promoting the disc.

"They only worked the record for a couple of months and then it was done," singer/bassist Mike Herrera says. But Herrera and his bandmates, guitarist Tom Wisniewski and drummer Yuri Ruley, didn't give up on Slowly Going; they continued touring, pushing the record past the 500,000 sales mark.

So it's little wonder that Herrera has high hopes for the band's new CD, "The Ever Passing Moment," now that the reconfigured label's promotional machinery is solidly in place. Even more auspicious is the fact that since Slowly Going was released, bands with similar styles (think Blink-182) have enjoyed huge success and punk remains a staple of alternative radio.

"But we definitely do have higher expectations than we did for the last record because we feel like it is our time. ... People do want to hear more of that punk-rock sound."

Certainly MxPx has paid enough dues to deserve a moment in the sun -- and by last year's measure, there could be seemingly endless moments in the midday sun for both the band and fans Sunday, July 30, at the Central Florida Fairgrounds.

Herrera and Riley formed the group before starting their sophomore year in high school. Over the next two years, the group built a regional following around the West Coast, playing whenever they weren't in class. This attracted the interest of Tooth and Nail, which signed MxPx and released the group's 1995 introduction, Pokinatcha, just prior to the start of the musicians' senior year.

For a time, Tooth and Nail's involvement created some confusion for fans because at that time it was largely perceived as a Christian label. But as a group, MxPx never planned on taking the divine path. "Basically we're Christians, personally," Herrera says. "We never really set out to be in a Christian band or to be in that market really. ... It doesn't matter what you believe. You can still listen to us and you can still like us."

A second CD, Teenage Politics (1995), was recorded during spring break of their senior year, and it was around this time that Wisniewski joined the band. The threesome recorded the 1996 follow-up, Life in General, knowing they had to step up as a band. MxPx delivered: "Life in General" showcased Herrera's knack for writing catchy, fast-paced tunes. The icing on the cake was the aforementioned popular single "Chick Magnet," and the resulting trials and tribulations at A&M.

With "The Ever Passing Moment," Herrera is confident that the group's musical growth has continued uninterrupted. "I think the whole record is strong. ... It's got energy" -- make that highly potential energy.

While sounding a bit less frenetic on "The Ever Passing Moment" than in their earlier efforts, MxPx has retained much of their youthful vigor on the disc, especially in the songs "Is the Answer in the Question" and "Here With Me" that show off a poppier side. Herrera has continued to sharpen his skills as a songwriter, so nearly all the songs on the new disc boast catchy-as-hell guitar riffs. "Next Big Thing," "Responsibility" and "Prove It to the World" are particularly vital on this uniformly muscular set.

Throughout the band's evolution, Herrera has grown into one of the better vocalists on the punk scene. And the band's output as a whole has grown tighter and more cohesive. Sure, the MxPx sound remains squarely in the Green Day tradition, but the material is strong enough to overcome any been-there/done-that assessments.

Herrera knows that if "The Ever Passing Moment" becomes a huge hit, it could change the way MxPx is viewed by their typically insubordinate audience. It's a price he figures the band might have to pay in order to move forward.

"It's touchy because as soon as you do something that's not quote-unquote punk rock ... people are going to scream ‘sellout.' A lot of the punk-rock people are saying `Warped Tour vets Blink-182` are sellouts and stuff like that. I'm sure they said Green Day were sellouts `They did.` But, I mean, the whole point of putting out records is for people to buy them. ... I think as long as we stay true to who we are and what we've been doing, `even` if we sell tons of records, we've done the right thing."


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