Little did I know that Whitney’s contact at Earcandy was the associate editor of the entire operation. When she told me of the opportunity, I imagined that she had friends who wrote sporadically for the site, which I’m sure she did. But Paul White wielded a singular authority within the context of the indie music world. He was the epitome of the modern mogul; a reflection of the best of the previous era, when one insightful person could shape a culture. This wasn’t John Hammond coming across Bob Dylan, but in the modern world where the internet articulated the possible audience, his voice was extremely influential. I exchanged charged emails with Paul for a few weeks, as he began to grasp the tenor of the Piercing story, which only months before we had collectively agreed was bereft of any context.
Eight weeks later, we had to explain ourselves, and for the most part, it was left up to me to express this message. I had signed up for this role when I agreed to work with Jocelyn, but I hadn’t anticipated this accelerated schedule. How could have anyone? We had played our third show in late December, with one of the local bands that had set the template for us to emulate. Blow-Up had been a Brooklyn band, treading the same streets Adrian was now, and coming to the conclusion they could achieve the same goal from their childhood home of New London, relocated at the height of the musical resurgence in town. Bold Schwa were getting regional and national attention at that point, in the mid Aughts-, and the Up’s escaped the madness of NYC without sacrificing their access to it. They were beginning to subscribe to a Post Generation concept, which defined the Station House aesthetic- that in that moment, we just happened to be in a singular place- there was no way to play a gig in NYC and go to work the next day if you lived in Iowa. We had an advantage.
And people in local bands were starting to capitalize on this. Piercing would become part of that cyclical endeavor in ways that would define a singular expression of what was possible, within the framework. Not only did I own the van we used to transport the music, Anne and I also owned another van, the two of us participating in travelling roads to define our art- myself with the various bands, she with her fine art photography which she showed at traditional New England Art Shows held throughout each summer.
One van for music, one van for photography. But now that Anne was running the family business, and was sacrificing her artistic schedule for practical purposes. Piercing inherited the blue photo van; with its high scoop top, allowing for the interior TV/VCR combo to be above the heads of the passengers. This served her well on the road doing art shows, as she could change into “show clothes” after getting the booth ready, while being able to stand up. For Piercing, it allowed Rudy and Todd to stretch their legs on the three hour ride to NYC for a show. Another hindrance removed.
Paul had decided to name Piercing as one of Eargum’s “Bands to Catch”, which featured a new group every six weeks, as something their audience should look into. With the volume of music being released, these websites carried enormous clout, and to have our very first single be featured created two new fronts. The first was something I told the band after a typical winter practice at Centraal- the furnace blasting for Jocelyn and a fan blowing air on Rudy so he didn’t overheat- we had two microclimates battling it out within the room as we attended to the musical details of the band.
“The Earcandy review will change everything. There can be no more last minute cancellations, no weddings, parties, or funerals that take precedence over a show. The only funeral we can cancel a show for is your immediate family.”
My hyperbole was supposed to actually bring the point closer to a clear realization; as the intent was not so much to draw a line in the sand about what we should tolerate, but more to add new definition to opportunities we had passed on. In September, we were offered a Brooklyn loft show that we couldn’t play because Jocelyn and Adrian had a wedding and a memorial to attend to. And there was Jocelyn’s last minute studio cancellation. The second part was the lynch pin- there was absolutely no point in continuing the band, with the press we were sitting on, to not make this the focal point of everyone’s personal daily lives. It had to become Piercing- and then anything else. The kids needed to be able to acquiesce to this new reality, otherwise it was going to be difficult for me to continue. I had been with Anne for twenty two years, and here I was asking her to support me getting back on the road, again. I was positive it would be the last chance I would have.
The second part had an interior element that I wanted to talk about with the band. “Certain levels of success are quite exciting, and as each of you experience these moments, you need to let them leave their mark, sort of what Joni said in “Blue”- ‘songs are like tattoos.’ Let the progress seep in deeply, and if we can all do that together, we’ll be in much better shape. Letting each little victory exist as a manner of course will lead to expectations that may not be met. And the people you will be most suspicious of taking away that feeling of progress, will be each other. As we move toward each goal, the people you will be most afraid of taking it away will be the members of this band. Don’t give in to it.”
I was met with a silence I had yet to hear at Centraal, which was almost always filled with sound, or at least noise. Hopefully they understood the message. Expectations need to be reserved solely for the work itself; the next song, the next visual representation, the next flier, the next idea. Chasing success is a damning exercise; and I didn’t want any of us to witness the eventual dissolve into a social cold war which is so common when a band isn’t capable of articulating their potential.
We had scheduled a show with Boyfriend at the Warehouse in Mystic. After witnessing so many great shows there while I was in the studio with Borealis, I had a secret desire to play a gig in the old lumber yard building, not a DJ set- at least once. Everyone in town knew that the continued existence of the Warehouse was precarious at best- I had never been around an all-ages performance space that treated the performers like some 1960’s cattle call. Artists were never paid on time, and rarely the correct amount. Admission prices fluctuated as the need for revenue changed. You might pay $7 to see three local acts one month, and then $10 a few weeks later for two of the same acts. Everyone knew the business end of the operation was a shitshow, but the venue was spectacular. An open floor that was full with 70 people, and a U shaped balcony wrapping the whole room a story up, bringing in another 30 people, all the while creating an illusion from below that the room was infinite. I went all out with the local PR, stapling fliers to telephone poles in a way I hadn’t done in twenty years. The local paper had featured the show, and there was a palpable sense of excitement in town that Boyfriend and Piercing would deliver a classic night at the Warehouse. Earcandy had decided to run their review of our debut single with a short interview on the following Monday.
As we practiced for the show on the Thursday before, word started to leak out that we were in for a brutal blizzard, a February to remind us of 1978 in these parts. The show would be cancelled on the Friday before the Saturday storm, and there was a bit of disappointment and unease, hearing about it. Inside, a small part of me realized that Piercing would never play a show at the Warehouse. It was a thought I needed to corral and then let be, the romantic notion of being a living part of the next Mystic Music Collective was not part of the master plan.
The power went out at 7pm that Saturday night. The winds were already sculpting the snowdrifts, and there was no logical way to imagine the show could have gone on; everyone trapped inside the Warehouse with no power. Instead, we were all safely ensconced inside our respective dwellings; hoping to safely ride the storm out. But a power outage in the winter is quite the opposite from the power being down during the warm months of the hurricane season. The temperature at our house dipped to a frigid 54 degrees overnight, and then plummeted as residual heat dissipated into the post-storm winter silence. Anne and I made it through the day with some inspired outdoor fire pit maneuvering, but as the sun set, and we entered a house with no power and no heat, we were settling into pure survival mode. How long could we sit dormant in a 44 degree room covered in blankets, with candle wax dripping? And yet, there was another element to the situation that made this a moment of pure essence-. the Eargum review was due to be posted Monday. Hopefully, we would have electricity back by then, so I could see the review as it was entering the digital realm. The blizzard was certainly a sign. “How patient are you willing to be?”
The power was restored at midnight between Sunday and Monday. I decided to binge on Live Aid performances from 1985, hoping to exhaust myself into a sleep that would last until the review was posted. It’s still somewhat mindblowing to think that Lionel Richie escorted Dylan, Keith, and Ron Wood off-stage after their horrible performance. I also had a renewed appreciation for the electrical grid.
The review could not have been better. The new national spotlight that was shining on us for this brief moment in the culture created a seismic shift in the way the business of being in this band would exist. I found it easy enough to book Piercing locally, through the email channels that were not afforded to Thames. But there was no way to be prepared for our new reality. Every single day for two weeks the inbox was flooded with requests- from clubs looking to book us, to publications wanting to write about us, to filmmakers who wanted to use some of our music in their film. The cacophony was as intense as any modicum of success I had found as an artist. And yet, it was almost effortless to keep in contact with the various interests. I had already been committed to a daily routine of promoting the band, but now I was spending anywhere from two to eight hours each day, every day, to keep up with the sudden interest. The nature of indie music had become so fierce, so dense, that unless you were swimming, you were busy dying. We had to become the shark that never sleeps.
Later that night, I received a phone call from Jocelyn. “I’m worried about Todd. He’s living with a bunch of dealers, and he’s siphoning off the supply. And they are letting him” she told me.
This was one of my lines in the sand, something I told them I would walk away from the band over. But the Earcandy review had run on this day. How was I going to leave this potential behind? I had dealt with the issue multiple times over my career, and even had my share of blow outs with band members accusing me of dragging down momentum with my own decisions. But this was different. Jocelyn had an acute sense of time and place- and she knew that waiting until a good review from Earcandy to reveal this would keep me from upholding my position. She was quite conscious, from the years of recording together, how much this opportunity with Piecing meant to me. And she played it perfectly. I was rather impressed on recollection. I was secretly hoping that her acumen could work to our advantage.
“I’m going to leave it up to you to handle Todd. I won’t make an issue of it if you get him to be under control, and for him to consider the much bigger picture. It’s up to you to keep him on the straight and narrow. Do you feel okay about taking on that responsibility?”
I think she knew any other answer may have determined an outcome in no one’s favor, except for what she did say to me:
“I can do it.”
The comments section at Earcandy was one of the areas where the modern cultural battles raged. I remember Jeremy showing me the comments section on one of the big blogs when All in the Family had released their debut LP. Some of the remarks were scathing, and it took me by surprise because their debut was one of the records I had most fully enjoyed in years, and that had very little to do with knowing Whitney or Phoebe.
“That’s the sign of success, now. When people are anonymously trashing your hard effort- it’s the new compliment.” Jeremy enlightened me, with the spittle that was so often caught between his lower lip and top row of his teeth fully evident.
I certainly believed him, as he had spent a year and a half in Brooklyn hanging with Whitney, Phoebe,and their extended circle of friends. So I decided to closely watch the comments on the Piercing article.
There wasn’t much activity there, which underscored how difficult this effort would be, regardless of our inherent advantages. But one comment of the few gave me quite a bit of validation, as the criticism had been addressed before the Eargum review was even published.
“I’ll give them a listen, but I won’t be surprised if I never hear about them anywhere else ever again. Y’all have a tendency to declare a new artist a “Band to Catch” who actually isn’t even at a level of the slightest buzz yet”.
We had the long form video for “Massive/Spirit” already in the can. We were prepared to capitalize on the initial interest in the band. And the commenter would become an ally of Piercing over the next year.
Our first show after the review was in town, at the local all ages hall that had been hosting shows since Thames booked a four band bill there in December of 1991. That night was the next iteration of the Mystic New Music Fest, which ran for five years showcasing the area bands at a variety of venues. This night was also something of a festival, as the rhythm section brothers of Class Ring wanted to build a small memorial in their yard for their recently deceased dog, who would actually walk the short distance into downtown from their house, navigating the crosswalks, and chill in various stores for hours on end.
Locals and visitors alike were so taken by the fact that this dog had become so sociable, it seemed like the right thing to do. I helped organize the night, and soon came to regret that decision. If I had expected any help from the bands playing the show to actually set up the PA, lights, and run the door, I was being nostalgic for 1991. Times change, and the group mind that we had all so willingly subscribed to in our twenties was not present in this next generation. By the time I had singlehandedly unloaded the contents of our van into the hall and onstage, Jocelyn, Jeremy, and Todd pulled up, and offered their assistance.
“yeah, we’re all good….. everything is already inside….”
I was talked into one of the locals being the “MC” for the evening. As I was always looking for ways to get people to participate, I wholeheartedly agreed. I asked “Where is the script? Or is he just going to wing it up there?” My trepidation was the undercurrent of resentment toward Piercing from a segment of the local musicans after the Earcandy review came out. You could sense within certain segments of our world that there was a righteous indignation that this kind of praise was being heaped on us. Many a Mystic musician felt they deserved such attention, and that it was being wasted on Piercing. In our rush to gather songs for the Piercing live set, Adrian had decided to revisit a Class Ring song that he had written- and we took his guitar part and wrote a completely new song around the riff, making sure to stay as far away from the original as possible. Adrian approached the Class Ring members about his imagined reworking of the song, and they replied that it was of no concern to them.
And yet, after the Eargum review, the Class Ring bass player wrote on our Facebook page: “hey Piercing- Class Ring wants their bass line back.” Rudy was livid hearing about the post, as he wasn’t active on Facebook. But I don’t think Rudy was prepared for the MC to use that same line, as he introduced us- the first band of the night.
“Hey Piercing, Class Ring wants their bass line back!”
His act was supposed to be similar to a comedy roast, which at the time were making a moderate comeback. I thought it was incredibly immature, and revealed a specific jealousy; which we were not perpetuating at all. I took one look at Rudy after the comment, and thought I was going to have to restrain him.
“Fuck it,” Rudy said, “let’s fucking open with it!”
We had decided beforehand to not even play “Age of Resent”, and bring any possible animosity into the equation. But now we were being called out on it.
We were set to open with “Massive”, but I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s battle it out here, it may come in handy over the next six months to assert that we were here to stay, and were not afraid of criticism.’
The five of us walked onstage, slowly, deliberately. There were a good hundred people at 7.30 on a cold March night to see us in a smoke filled hundred year old hall. Once we plugged in, and looked to each other for the start, Adrian waved his hand.
“Fuck it, let’s not give in to this bullshit, let’s just play our set.”
As Morrissey so succinctly stated – We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.
We had a full band practice the next day, as we had all agreed to practice every weekend that Adrian was in town, regardless of prior commitments. There was an expected lethargy, following a long night, but I could sense a change in each of their individual emotional connections to the band. There was now tangible proof that we had all made the correct decision in forming Piercing. This was the crucial moment I had been squinting to recognize ever since our first practice. And opening the band email the following morning served to cement that inspiration- a PR company in NYC wanted to talk about possibly working with Piercing to support the next single. As difficult as it was to push the first single to labels without any press, the press was actually opening doors I had not even remotely considered at this stage. Keith Taylor had been working in the indie world for years, beginning as so many do on his college’s radio station, where he would spend the last years of the century. After a few non-starts on a date and time we could mutually talk, a phone call was set up for the evening of Wednesday the 13th, at 7pm.
I was pacing along the long rug in front of my dj set up in the studio, drinking a warm beer, waiting for the phone to ring. I had a sudden pang of nervousness- “maybe I shouldn’t be having a beer right now?”
But if this was going to be rock and roll, and not some cool kids club, I think one beer before I talked to Keith wouldn’t disengage his interest in Piercing. And it didn’t. But my approach to the meeting would begin to haunt me months later. I felt we were literally on the verge of getting to the next level- why else would he even be calling? Why should I leave anything to chance? I decided to explain as much of the complete picture as possible, discussing my time and experience in each band I played with before Piercing, and this seemed to pique his interest- that this was obviously no ordinary group of kids trying to find their way. He asked me what our goals were, and I stated that we “wanted to sign with Year Zero” the boutique label that continued to thrive in these difficult times. YZ0 had released seminal records for decades, and had even survived a dearth of interest in their bands during the musical depression of the Aughts, but rebounded recently in a manner few labels can attest to. But that was the GOAL, not what was necessarily the next step.
“What we really need is to sign with “sound Vision” (which was one of the many small independent labels I had unsuccessfully shopped the “Massive/Spirit” single to during the previous autumn). “Yes, they are the hot label for a band making music like you guys do. Tell you what, keep me posted about your NYC gigs, and we’ll keep in touch.” We would exchange emails occasionally over the next seven months, but I would never meet Keith in person.
The show offers were the most interesting element of the new shift. Clubs in Manhattan and Brooklyn were now asking us to play, the inverse of constant emails begging for a chance to perform, or heaven forbid, a return to hand delivering the PR. We ended up booking seven shows over the next eight weeks, a considerable haul when we had played a grand total of five shows since our inception eleven months earlier. The second night of that stretch was in Bushwick, at one of the local coffee house / performance spaces that were gaining so much traction all over Brooklyn at the time. I didn’t have time to genuflect about our role within gentrification, as I needed to focus everything on maintaining our public perception. Jeremy had set up the show with a local opener, Piercing, and Boyfriend. Fortunately for us, while there were some snow piles on the street corners, it was unseasonably warm; which helped bring out a decent crowd. At one point, I had to head back to the van to get a replacement guitar for Jeremy, who broke some strings tuning prior to the Boyfriend set. Sticking with my age old routine, I insisted that we pack our gear into the van after our gig at the earliest possible chance. On my way through the quiet, sloping streets of Bushwick, I couldn’t help but think, “What if these people see me as the enemy?” Not that I was fearful- far from it. And yet this notion that their neighborhood- beautifully manicured miniature city lawns, with decorative flair built up over decades, were being altered by my presence. As if they were being forced to accept me. Living in a tourist town, I was constantly welcoming people- but that night I felt like an intruder.
We took our scheduled practice night off, to rest and be ready for the next show in NYC, this time our Manhattan debut, on the LES where I had lived through so many weekends with Greenmanville.
Bold Schwa also gathered much of their steam playing the LES, especially tonight’s venue, Cabinets. In the early 2000’s, photo blogs of the newly vibrant NYC indie music scene fueled its resurgence. There were difficulties finding a way in those early internet days to host massive photo files, but a handful of ambitious artists who understood the implications of the new media began to be scene shapers of their own accord. When Bold Schwa first was featured in one of those photo blogs, it became much easier to book shows in NYC. Without those tastemakers, things would have evolved in a much different manner for their entire career. Tonight would also mark another first for the band- Tabitha Williams was a young videographer/photographer working on a short film who wanted to use a portion of “Massive” on the soundtrack, and she came to meet us at Cabinets.