We quickly laid down all of the basic tracks for the two songs we were to record, leaving ample time for a few guitar overdubs, and vocals. The intensity started to build after Adrian and Todd had recorded their respective overdubs. The scope of the music was changing instantly in real time, as Michael massaged the various tracks into something we could not have imagined on the ride down.
While most of us took a break to eat, Jocelyn and Todd began a process of finality- recording the vocals that had already defined who we were. This was the true reveal in the potential attraction of our music, I went so far as to think the next four hours could change all of our lives. But instead of adding more layers of pressure, I made sandwiches in the drum hallway from a picnic basket I had prepared with Anne, the previous night. I knew money would be tight, and I had no desire to wander the streets of Brooklyn trying to find something to eat. I also knew Jocelyn and Rudy would be anticipating the moment they could have genuine NYC food. As I laid out the picnic blanket on a guitar case, Todd began his vocal takes. Sixty minutes later, he came out of the studio to meet Adrian and I for sandwiches that we had just finished; I had a fresh one for Todd.
“Are you completely done?” I asked, somewhat curious regarding the process.
“Oh yeah, Joss as well…..” explained Todd in his nonchalant fashion when trying to cover how excited he actually was.
“Yeah, we’re going to start mixing after everyone eats.”
Michael spent the first hour of the mix honing in on the room mics he had placed to capture ambient and reflected sound from the amps and the drums. After about thirty minutes, I started to get worried. I was thinking to myself- “man, it seems like you are a genius and all, but nine inch nail remixes are not what I had in mind for our debut single….”
We were more than willing to let Michael shape the sound of the songs within his own vision, but what we were hearing were industrial trappings and brutal distortions, as none of the direct tracks had become present in the mix. At one point, I almost started to address my fear about his direction, but decided against it, as I didn’t want any negative emotions to rise in the room. If the other members were worried, they would have to take it upon themselves to make their point. This was a moment where they were becoming responsible for their own music. As that thought crossed my mind, Michael began to dial in the direct tracks over the room mic bed he had so meticulously worked on. A palpable sense of relief, coupled with an intense moment of magic, came over the five of us. I had never been involved in a mixing session where the engineer mixed from the inside out. What Michael had done was expand the sonic possibilities of the room mics, so that he had an even greater frequency range to display the song’s palette. It was a genius move. Whitney was right.
We packed all of the gear, paid Richard, and individually plied Michael with “Thank You”s and “We Will be Back”s. There was only one thing on everyone’s mind, and that was to get on the road as quickly as possible and put the CDR into the stereo. After five ejects and reloads, we realized the disc wasn’t going to play- either the van’s stereo was shitting the bed or perhaps the finalization wasn’t complete. I was leaning toward the former. Instead, we listened to one of Rudy’s favorite discs, a live recording of Rainbow from 1978. That was followed by Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, a newly acquired gem in Todd’s musical pantheon. I inserted St. Etienne’s “Foxbase Alpha” into the stereo following the final track on Tusk: “Never Forget”. By the time we crossed the Connecticut River at Old Saybrook,
how random is random? played its most recent card; as “Nothing Can Stop Us Now” blasted through the speakers.
During the drive home, I couldn’t stop thinking about one line in Whitney’s email suggesting that we should record with Michael. She was so spot on about what the recording session would be like, I couldn’t help but turn that sentence around in my mind, between calls for pit stops and safe spots on the interstate to partake.
“get on a cool label! go on tour! etc etc! michael is expensive but amazing…”
We had gone to Michael. We had made an amazing recording. We had found the money. Was it that easy to get on a label? All in the Family had a meteoric rise following the release of their debut single, and I kept trying to stifle the thought that we could replicate their success. Joss wasn’t yet the performer that Whitney was, but she had the voice, and repetition and practice would hone her live skills. I decided to shop the single to labels instead of simply putting it up on the internet for free. Let us find out if we have a great single on our hands; something a label would want to put out, before we unleash it into the digital river.
I also realized we had to immediately start a serious stretch of live shows to garner some attention for the single, with or without a label. Jeremy had started a new band in the city named Boyfriend, and I was able to procure a show for the two bands in Brooklyn at one of the free performance spaces on Broadway. This part of the mission was so much easier than in the pre-internet days, where booking an out of town show usually meant an actual drive to that club, be it in Providence, Boston, or New Haven – and hand delivering your PR kit to the booking agent. That was the only way to stand out amongst all of the other competing acts, and then concise follow up phone calls for weeks after might get you a show. Might. But for our first show in NYC, and only the second Piercing show, I sent two emails to the club and secured the gig.
The first Piercing interview happened in Jeremy’s apartment before the gig with our local daily newspaper, which happened to employ a GSCAZ native who had relocated to Brooklyn. Lionel Hoinsky was part of the wave of Palace kids in the mid-1990’s, and we had been friends since his arrival at the shop. He even left a brand new copy of Belle & Sebastian’s “Tigermilk” LP at the store which he had procured during a semester abroad- “I have to head back to San Bernardino, play this for people at the store while I’m gone, it’s more important than it being unplayed on a bookshelf in my room out there.”
That was classic Lionel, always thinking of others, always spreading the good word. He became an excellent reporter/journalist, and I was secretly thrilled he would be the first person to write about the band. The interview was brief, and I tried to let the kids tell the story of the band. There were a few stutters, and I filled in the missing information seamlessly, but as the interview went on, we all realized there wasn’t much yet about Piercing to discuss. There was a palpable sense of how much work we all were going to have to commit to building our identity. When we mentioned that tonight’s show was our second gig, Lionel immediately noticed, and that helped set a template:
“You’re playing your second show, and it’s in Brooklyn?”
Shopping the single, to possibly skip the steps of actually building a fanbase, was to be a fruitless exercise. The record business had not really changed much from Thames trying to turn a national review into a deal. Simply because there was a plethora of indie labels sprouting up across New York, didn’t mean the volume of bands in the ratio of label signings to actual acts was any different. It became increasingly clear that “signing to a label” would be no different than it had ever been. Perhaps, even more difficult. After hearing absolutely nothing in regards to the “Massive b/w Spirits” single we recorded with Michael, the group decided to release the songs online, just like everyone else. Perhaps I had misread the intensity of possibility. But I was also prepared to brace myself for the probable long distance. The band was too exceptional, and there would be no rational reason for me to still be in a rock band after all this time unless it was to capitalize on the possibility of great music.
We would need a classic cover image to stand out amongst the other bands searching for the same success we were striving for. Jocelyn and I began another conversation via email to decide what image suited our next move.
“I want to continue on the same tack we’ve established with Anne and June. How about we do a new shoot featuring June?” was my pitch to Jocelyn.
“Interesting. I like it. We should stay within a minimalist black and white aesthetic for this single. I envision a seedy motel room….”
There were few seedy motel rooms in the greater Mystic area. But I thought the Lamplighter Motel on the Connecticut and Rhode Island border might fulfill her ideas that defined desperation. I emailed the motel one unseasonably warm night in December about shooting our cover art outside of one of their rooms. To my surprise, they got back to me within minutes.
“We would love to have you shoot your record cover at the motel! The best night of the week for us is Wednesday, can that work within your schedule?”
I replied that of course it would, and thanked them for the opportunity. After sketching out some ideas for the cover, I kept coming back to our theme of the finger weave crossing June’s face from the first. Perhaps that could be a recurring image that defined the band; her fingers, her hand. But it was really more about using her hands to hide something, that an idea or train of thought must be protected. I could see June walking into the motel room, hiding her face in a full fanned hand of stiff fingers, as if someone were trying to capture proof of her presence there. To me, it exemplified the idea that we were hiding in plain sight, and also- hopefully, that a torrent of attention would continue. June was a total professional the night of the shoot, in the pallid cold of early January. Wearing a black mini and heels while walking the same five feet over and over again, Anne tried to frame the hand hiding June’s face into an image that would define the moment. The plastic soffit liners above became a figurative grid, the darkness of the door became a witness, and June’s stabbed step defined the element of our progress; in a simplistic manner. After proofing the shoot later that week, the three of us felt we had created something that contributed mightily to the concept, toward the “totality of image” Piercing were seeking. I was confident that Jocelyn would find our next cover within the depth of these images.
Once the cover was finished and the five of us agreed on the content, I decided to send the tracks to Whitney before we went live with them. I was reticent to ask her for help in the search for a label, feeling that she had already done enough opening the back door of the club to let us in. And yet, having resigned ourselves to the fact that instant success was not necessarily in the cards for Piercing, Whitney at least deserved to hear the Michael recordings before anyone else did. I sent her the tracks with a simple thank you for giving us the heads up about Stormy Harbour, and hoped she would listen to them, and enjoy them- personally. Generations of Mystic musicians were always writing songs about each other, and that topic lent itself to an inner dialogue which was meant to be the essence of our inherent theory- that criticism held a responsibility toward shaping art. If Whitney should relay that we made the right decision, it would be much easier to move forward. Shockingly, she sent me an email asking if she could forward the tracks to her friend at Earcandy. It was easy to respond.
“Of course you can, thanks for thinking so highly of the recordings!” I replied.
I knew immediately upon hearing this news that we were going to need a video to support the single. It was a fascinating trend to witness, as the early days of MTV had such a profound effect on me as a young listener. In those days, you could only dream of having a video being seen on a national stage. Today, if you didn’t have one, you were either making an extreme statement, or had no desire to be mentioned on the influential blogs. We had already explored the “what price fame?” and seedy motel angles; I began to imagine a video that brought these previous elements toward an even wider palette. I began to write a script that was tethered by the various threads involved, deciding that we would go back to the Lamplighter- and the spirit of the song would be June herself, trapped in a seedy motel room by her own desire for fame. And Piercing would be unwittingly trapped in her void of course, as the entertainment. I had never attempted to write in this manner, but once I had settled my mind on the imagery, it came together rather quickly. I sent another request to the Lamplighter, asking if we could use a vacant room during the weekend of the annual Arts Fest in New London, which we were asked to participate in as the opening act on the music side of the festival. It was the only weekend where Adrian was to be in town for more than two days, which provided a window of opportunity. But it was going to be a tight schedule, with a group practice Friday night from 7.30 to 11pm, and then having to arrive at the motel the next morning by 9am to shoot the exteriors for the video before noon.
Saturday night was the festival appearance, and then we needed to be back at the Lamplighter by noon on Sunday to shoot six hours of interiors. If that wasn’t enough Piercing activity for one weekend, Adrian also had to take a three hour train ride back to Brooklyn Sunday night, arriving at his apartment by 10pm, as he had to be at work at 9am on Monday morning. Todd had to drive back to New Haven for his Monday morning class. Rudy at the Foundry. This was the kind of commitment I was secretly seeking since our very first meeting- an absolutely massive effort to maintain the day to day and create at a high level. If we could pull all of this off, and everyone made it to their job on Monday, I would be convinced of our staying power, and at becoming something more than potential.
I met with a local videographer named Revel Gamble, whom everyone he knew affectionately called him Rev. He had done some good work that we found interesting, but it was really our lack of budget that brought us together. Rev was willing to do the video for $200, editing and every other detail. At first, I couldn’t believe the symbiosis, but he assured me that he wasn’t in it for the money; he was trying to build the broadest resume possible as he made his way toward film school in Los Angeles; his own big dream. I showed him the finished script, and took him through the basic staging for each shot.
“I tried to make each shot as simple as possible, so you won’t have to search through layers of film to find what you need. It’s fairly straightforward, but it is eight minutes long.”
Instead of making one video for one of the songs, I thought perhaps, to stand out amongst the hordes of other videos that would be released in just that week, we would make an eight minute short film encompassing both songs of the single. The concept was simple, each of the Piercing members would show up individually to the Lamplighter and check in- carrying no instruments, each with a small overnight bag. We would all be wearing regular gig clothes as we checked in. I showed Rev how he could set up the camera in one spot and get each of us arriving by van, and then capture each of us from behind the front desk as we checked in. These would be the shots for Saturday morning. For the second session on Sunday, he would set up another single shot to film each of us individually entering the room, tossing our bags on the bed, setting each motel key on the nightstand, and entering the bathroom. The final shots of the first song would be of June appearing in the room’s lone mirror, poised inside the empty bathroom. She walks out into the room, and each member of Piercing follows her in single file- a room full of instruments awaits us. In my imagined continuance of the film, the second song begins, and it is revealed that all of the artwork in the room has been replaced by huge framed pictures of June herself, trapped in her own desire for fame. We were now her personal house band, playing “Spirit” to her as she writhed on a queen size bed, covered in decades of photos of herself shot by Anne.
As we arrived at the Lamplighter there was a perfect thin layer of snow covering the grounds. This exemplified the wintry element of the songs, and would add dimension to our intended black and white footage. Adrian was the first to drive the van up and set the stage. Rev improvised an inspired shot from the front of the van toward Adrian, while keeping the simplicity of the other repeating shots intact.
“Yeah, when you reach to turn off the van, look at me, but don’t look at me, look like I’m not there….”
It was an insightful move, his direction added confidence at this very early stage. Jocelyn followed, then Rudy, then myself, and finally Todd. We each exited the driver’s side of the van, and opened the back door, to get our personal belongings; each shot a repetition of the previous. We then enacted the same process at the front desk for each member. As we wrapped up the morning’s shoot, we all went back into the front desk area to thank our hosts.
“You know, with the casino nearby, we get lotsa show people staying here. We were more than proud to help you folks get this video done.”
Louise then turned, and with her left arm outstretched, with her first finger pointed sharply at the back wall, directing our attention to the black and white glossies autographed, and then framed, of entertainers who had stayed at the Lamplighter. Crystal Gayle, Hank Williams Jr, a race car driver whose name I didn’t recognize… But Louise was making the point that she was thrilled to have us there, as if we were on the level of Crystal Gayle and the son of Hank Williams. A part of me found it quite polite and endearing, the more I thought about it, the more I realized we looked like a real band to people who didn’t know us. We were a real band. Our presentation and preparedness was professional and simultaneously ambitious, and even the people running the motel at the state line could sense it.
We opened the Rock Show at the annual Arts Fest to a curious crowd waiting to see if all of the initial interest was genuine. This was the biggest stage we had yet to appear on, simply in pure size. Rudy had no issues with this, and proceeded to exaggerate all of his traditional rock moves, heavy handed- but tried and true, across the voluminous space. Adrian conveyed his trademark presence effortlessly, but confined himself to a degree I found unusual. Todd played it totally safe, as was his wont, standing mostly erect and accentuating only the most concise moments, where he would not necessarily be in a moment of exposure. Jocelyn put on a puzzling performance. Dressed in a tight wool mini and schoolgirl sweater, she seemed poised to prowl , to find audience members to entrance- but instead, she retreated into vocalist only mode, pitching perfect sounds from her repertoire but holding back on the essence of being our focal point. This was a norm in the studio, where she could exist behind the glass, but that wouldn’t translate onstage. Even considering those elements, there was a definitive definition about where we actually were. This was only the fourth show Piercing had played.
We were entertaining, as the songs themselves proved to work in a large hall, but there was obvious room to grow. And yet, we were filming our debut video within the moments between shows, and our responsibilities. Piercing as a whole was beginning to understand what it would take- invoking an essence- to return in full on the advantages that we possessed.
The dawn on Sunday brought in even colder weather, fortunately for us- we would be filming indoors the entire day. The Lamplighter people were incredibly professional, offering us a second room as a staging area and a place where we could execute the changing of outfits, as well as a warm haven when certain folks were not in the camera eye. To create the changed world in which June as the Spirit existed, we had to strip the room of almost all of its furnishings, replacing the art on the walls with framed Anne photos, and many nights work from Anne to photocopy hundreds of June images that would adorn the bed at the center of the video. Everything went into the second room, which helped hide our presence from the rest of the guests. As is usually the case on a video shoot, something had to be missing. I had brought the wrong cords to plug the CD player into our small PA, so we could play along in time to the recording that would be matched up to the video in post-production. It wasn’t such a bad moment for us to grab a breather, but I had to sprint back the 10 miles to Mystic and retrieve the proper connections. The windshield was caked in winter’s salt sand mixture, and the low sun pelted me with a searing brightness as I squinted to see the highway. We had to wrap by 6pm- the motel needed the room that night and the Piercing travelers needed every extra minute they could save on their respective commutes. The dry, cold landscape whirring by at 70 miles an hour defined the distance we would have to cross to make all of this effort come to fruition. I leaned on the gas pedal and got the van up to 75.
June was brilliant, taking my awkward staging of each shot and gloriously adding effortless grace to the character. And Rev was getting everything down in one shot sequences, just as we had talked about. Each Piercing member was also articulating their image at a high level, and the fashions we wore were a purposeful reflection of the previous decades in music- I was wearing the Apple Boutique Nehru jacket as a sixties figure, Adrian wore a loose paisley shirt with maroon pants, beaded jewelry dangling as our seventies image, Todd in a tight khaki Bill Blass suit representing the efficiency of the eighties, and Rudy in a traditional black suit with white shirt and black tie- our nod to the nineties when rock had reached nirvana and would exist in the world of business from then on. Jocelyn was draped in an elegant twenties gown from Anne’s collection of model fashions, representing the eternal underpinning of each of these decades. We would be prepared to immediately release new material into the world if the Earcandy review was as positive as it seemed it was going to be. After capturing the interior shots for the “Massive” half of the video, we stopped to let Anne photograph us in that environment for our next PR photos. The four instrumentalists stood at each corner of the bed, while Jocelyn sat within the mass of June photocopies.
“Joss, lean back on your right hand
just like that…..”