Every summer nowadays, the rock & roll circus hits the road. First it was the alternative rock festival Lollapalooza and Lilith, the travelling mini-Woodstock for female acts. Then it seemed everyone had their own tour: metalheads and thrashers and those fans still dedicated to Ozzy Osbourne, each festival competing for wildness, sizzle and the authenticity of low production values.

Meet the Vans "Warped" tour. Playing parks and parking lots across America, this punker's paradise features as many as 40 bands on up to six stages running simultaneously from noon till dusk. It's the real deal: nitty-gritty punk, rock, ska and variations of the above, packaged for a teenager dressed in black near you.

This year, the big draws are Green Day, Weezer, Mighty Mighty Bosstones and NOFX, but a quaint commitment to democracy dictates that every band plays a 30-minute set. Noone gets special treatment. To make sure the crowds go home sated, there's motocross motorcycle jumping, skateboarding and extreme biking exhibitions and, this year, a human canon ball.

Amid the fashionable pathos and marketing of anarchy, there is a band that doesn't rely on the ingenuity of it tattoos to make it unique. MxPx stands out as a Christian punk trio that braves the mainstream venues like "Warped" and thrives.

Having released their sixth full-length album, "The Ever Passing Moment," MxPx appears to be very close to a major commercial breakthrough (It's their third year on Warped, but first playing the mainstage). In 1998 they quietly sold half a million copies of "Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo," while delivering their loud, "punk rawk show" for growing audiences.

The new album shows they haven't stood pat. Already, reviewers have praised the band's musical evolution, and the first single, a slacker anthem titled "Responsibility," is popping up modern-rock radio.

"We've just come into our own sound," said singer and bassist Mike Herrera when I caught up with them on the second day of Warp's L.A. stand. "It felt like we were doing something that's all our own. I try to take my influences from the original, the real thing rather than an imitation of an imitation. Lots of younger bands are influenced by this band who's influenced by this band, and it's layers away from the source."

When asked for a list of his inspirations, there's no punk or hard music on his list (not to mention gospel greats). "The Beatles, Elvis Costello, The Who, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers." He smiles, "It's all about songs. I don't listen to a song for its style; I listen for how good it is. I listen to everything, country to punk rock to old rock & roll."

Faith has always been part of MxPx, but they've also always stayed out of the CCM ghetto. In 1995, the band's first album appeared on Christian indie-label Tooth & Nail Records. T&N released the band's early efforts (and a live album, "At the Show," in 1999) and still works with A&M Records, distributing "Ever Passing Moment" to the Christian market. By maintaining its independent status and working with artists like Ghoti Hook and the Huntingtons who have attracted fans in the mainstream world, T&N plays a unique role, delivering records by Christian artists that have real street cred and that make a larger cultural impact by reaching a wider listenership.

Herrera says he's unsure how much of their audience would define itself as Christian. "Maybe half, maybe less, I really don't know." He believes that they know where he's coming from, and don't want to be preached to. In one song on "Moment," Christian hope is expressed in a simple affirmation: "I'd say tomorrow is just one step closer to life/ And understanding and to know it's gonna be alright." The song ends with an invitation to "take the shells out of our eyes/And then to wonder, enjoy life and maybe even relax."

Herrera trusts that fans will figure it out. "I want people to think for themselves," he explains. "I don't want to be the person that tells you what you should or should not believe, or should or should not do. I don't know everyone I'm talking to. If you're going to tell somebody what to do, you'd better be their Mom or best friend. I'm just expressing my personal ideas. I throw them out, and hopefully people respond. If it helps someone out, then great."

The fans buy their records and come to shows, Herrera says, because of "how rad we are live, how rad the songs are--'Oh, man, I can totally relate to what you're saying!' Our music is broadly based on social issues that you deal with when you grow up in middle America.

"My family wasn't rich, wasn't really poor, we didn't starve. So you go through weird popularity struggles, stuff that probably doesn't matter but at the same time effects you, and makes you who you are as a person. That's what our songs deal with, relationships, and that's what everybody deals with. No matter what you believe, you go through that."

"Foolish" addresses who criticize the band for being an oxymoron, saying you can't really be punk and be Christian. Herrera says the backlash is "not from the bands, but some people in radio, or critics and people that write stories. They just don't get it. They're like, 'this just can't be real.' They're used to glamorizing the cosmetic of what rock & roll is supposed to be about, so it doesn't make sense to them. For us in the bands, it's not cosmetics. It's about rocking on stage, and having good songs, and being respectful to everybody. Since we are (respectful), what are we going to do, just be a jerk for no good reason?"

The new album includes "Next Big Thing," a song denouncing the trend mentality, but Herrera isn't worried that their success will make them The Next Big Thing. "Hopefully it won't change anything about who we are, and what we're about," he says, already a six-year veteran of this challenging industry. "The only thing I would do differently on the next record, is try to put on better songs."

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