In the days following the Earcandy review, I found a very interesting email in the inbox. A small independent film company in Brooklyn was asking to use a Piercing song in a short being directed by a young director in their stable. Marc Gentilowski, the producer of the film, sent me some initial contact information for Tabitha Williams. A link to her website, a Tumblr address; basic representation of her work that we could peruse, to see if we were a fit within her artistic vision. At the time, I wasn’t worried at all about deciding whether or not to let her use the song, in my mind it was a done deal unless the film was about some unspeakable intention. As someone who always trusted intuition, I felt that this was simply another step forward in the accelerated world of Piercing. After sending a copy of the email to Thomas (who was working in the legal department of a NYC book publisher) asking him to see if we would still be holding the song rights once we became involved with the film, I settled in to do my research on Tabitha.
Her website was extremely minimal, which I thought was a great sign. Text riding down the left column, a single color image of a young woman against a suburban chain link fence centered on the front page. The model looked familiar, but I dismissed that as an internal error. I clicked on the first video link, and up came a forty second micro-movie featuring the model from the front page. Now that she was a moving image, I could not curtail the thought that this was someone I actually knew. But how, exactly? Certainly Tabitha was a Brooklyn resident, and this must be a model from the city. Slick cuts of close ups of her model and some hotel architecture spliced together created an immediate story of a girl lost, amongst none of her own kind- forging a possible danger. And that’s when it struck me- the hotel steps that she was sitting on, they were from a lodging in downtown Mystic- The Seafarer, a once raggedy tourist trap restored to its 19thcentury splendor a decade earlier. But how could Tabitha have filmed in downtown Mystic? How could she have known where we were, filmed here, and then “stumbled” across the band. The short ended with the model stretching out on one of the hotel beds. I hit pause on the film and took a good look at the screen. I did know who the model was- she graced the header picture of the Dance Party Facebook page. She was the best friend of a friend of mine’s niece, and the pair- draped in glowsticks and sweat- inspired arms raised which formed a circle between them, was the image we used to define the party and its online presence. My heart began to speed up, as the paranoia shrouded the research. I thought to myself, “You are being set up… “
It was too perfect. I had a deep sensation that some of the local musicians had conjured this entire episode, in an effort to embarrass Piercing, mocking the middling modicum of our success. As I thought more about the possible plot, it seemed to be a generous dissertation- that a fake video company, a fake director, and a fake model who just happened to be a Mysticite, were all pulled seamlessly into place to give us our comeuppance. There was no possible way any of the locals could have pulled off such a clever stunt. Or could they? My mind was racing, and it was being put into overdrive. Months later, I would realize that these events would charge my thought process so that I could keep up with our ever evolving public relations agenda. A paranoid conspiracy theory surrounding our first contact with the film world would pale in comparison to what was awaiting Piercing. I watched the short a few more times, telling myself that this was all legit. It had to be. The rest of her website revealed no contact with Mystic, but was saturated with a modern, distinctly feminine take on sexuality. The more I looked into Tabitha’s work, the more dangerous it felt. Not that the images she concocted were threatening, but I had always believed that in music, you wait until the third album to use sex as a selling point, unless you were Blondie. As much as I was intrigued to take this possible massive leap, I was concerned that Piercing would try to articulate a perception that did not necessarily reflect where we actually were.
The next morning, I emailed Tabitha from the address listed on her Tumblr. I expressed how I was confused at seeming to know the model in some of her work; I wanted to displace my internal conspiracy as soon as possible. Her response absolutely stunned me.
“I grew up in Mystic, but went to a private high school in Sussex County. I’m roughly the same age as Jocelyn.”
“So, you don’t know any of us? You don’t know who we are?”
“No, I’ve never met any of you. I stumbled across “Massive” from the Earcandy review and I really love it. I knew immediately it would work in my short.”
“Have you ever been to the Palace?”
“Oh yeah. Not a ton, because I don’t collect vinyl, but yeah, I’ve been there.”
“I’ve worked there every Friday for the past sixteen years. Have we ever met?”
“No, I don’t think so. I was away at school for eight years, and then I got a job in Manhattan. Why do you ask?”
“The model in your short film, she’s sitting on the steps of the Seafarer Hotel, isn’t she?”
“Oh, you caught that. Very sharp.”
A Mystic kid had found us. What were the chances that the very first person interested in working with the band on that level would be from town? I, of course, took that as a sign that we were heading in the right direction, and that our motivation was resonating in the proper manner. I held in high regard that the actions the band took in our day to day would manifest itself in tangible outcomes; we were working incredibly hard and this was a reward. Once I knew that Tabitha was one of us, even remotely, my fear of her milieu taking over our image levelled out. We were working with professionals, and there was no reason to doubt their intentions or abilities. We literally were all in this together; Tabitha, Michael, Richard, Jimmy, Paul, Whitney- everyone depended on each other in some capacity. I needed to find a way to channel this realization to each of the band members.
Tabitha and I exchanged emails for the next few days, discussing ideas for the shoot. She had become possessed with a “Cult of Piercing” being the central theme.
“I want to dress the cult in all white, have them slowly materialize out of a wooded area and become the audience for the band.”
I loved the idea, somewhat of an inversion of our first video. I was imagining possible locations, when a distressing thought entered my mind- how much is this going to cost?
“How much do you normally charge for a video shoot and edit?”
“My starting rate is $2000.”
I almost blurted out “nice to meet you!” followed by dramatically hanging up the phone. There was no way we could justify spending that amount of money on a video. We could return to Michael at Stormy Harbour for two complete singles for that kind of money.
“Well, I guess you are a professional!” I replied, adding a hint of a compliment while carving a way out of working with her, without jeopardizing her interest in the group- she was a fan of the band first and foremost. We were trying to see if a professional integration could work as well.
“Is that out of your price range?” she quietly replied
“Not necessarily, but it would take quite a bit of time to raise that kind of money. The kids are broke, I’m spending every available dollar of my own trying to keep us solvent, $2000 is just beyond our capability right now. And in 3 months, when we have the money, it will be too late.”
“I’ll tell you what, I really like you guys, I think you are onto something. Let’s block out a weekend as soon as possible, and I’ll come into town and we’ll piece it together. I can do that, plus the editing, for $500.”
I dropped the receiver and caught it with my left hand before it hit the floor.
Piercing was the second of four bands on the bill that Thursday night at Cabinets. The opener was a trio backed by a clean drum machine, with female vocals and a guitar / bass duo rounding out the lineup. Their pop stylings were easy to digest, but I couldn’t help noticing that the flat, two dimensional drum machine took away any possible depth. And then it dawned on me- these three were my age or older, and they would rather sacrifice dimension for a perfect beat that was always on time to every gig and practice. They had downsized. They were tired of telling the drummer to “sit down, shut up, and play the drums….”
I was secretly happy that such a band opened, as the room was anticipating a sonic explosion that we would hopefully create. The lights and sound were always spot on at Cabinets, and that element certainly helped drive our show. We played a tight set, that was punctuated by Rudy’s rock edge and a very fine night vocally from both Jocelyn and Todd. They were beginning to realize the way each could occupy the space where the other was not. And Adrian and I were really becoming the tight rhythm section found in every good band, only we were now upending the traditional drum & bass foundation for our drum & guitar bedrock. We had a decent crowd that responded to each song accordingly, but the aftereffect which meant the most to me was how much more we still had to do. And yet, we were elevating in incremental steps, a positive outcome of an 18 hour day which included 300 highway miles.
After we finished our set and were taking gear off the stage, I tried to start up a conversation with the next band. They were from Ireland and were doing a small tour of the states, and this was their first gig following an appearance at SXSW.
“Hey, did you guys have a good time in Austin?”
Their bass player stuttered a bit, and then came out with a “Yeah, it was alright.”
But this wasn’t some foreign cool, he seemed genuinely uncomfortable talking about his experience- at least with a total stranger (although we shared a stage). I replied “well, have a good show here” and wandered off to load the van. I couldn’t help thinking about our very brief conversation. Had he already had his fill of talking about it? Perhaps. But it reminded me more of getting invited to parties during the early success of Thames, where we would encounter a much older crowd than we were used to. And at times we could articulate ourselves astonishingly clear, other times more muddled. It was the distance between ages. There were no other 40 year old musicians in these clubs, and the people over forty that an emerging band came across more than likely want to exploit them for some kind of cheap profit. I had come of age in this world, grown up listening to and playing music in clubs; I became an adult with the backdrop of neon and cheap beer. This was the moment when I realized I could not be the face of the band in any capacity. Not that I looked as if I didn’t belong, but relationships to help build our audience were going to have to be the responsibility of Jocelyn, Todd, and Adrian. They were of this generation in a way I was only culturally a part. When I joked about seeing the moon landing to younger musicians, it was always met with a confused indifference. But it was now obvious that I would have to become anonymous at gigs, and in the public setting. I could establish and maintain all of our business relationships with no setbacks, continue getting our pay at the end of a night, and continue driving the van. But the kids now had to be the actual presence of Piercing.
Once we had decided to work with Tabitha on a new video, we had to book a recording session with Michael. Fortunately for Piercing, late March wasn’t an in demand month, and we were able to schedule a ten hour block on Sunday the 24th, four days after meeting Tabitha. Todd had an early morning class on Friday, and I thought it would be good to get him out of New Haven that night, with a full two nights and a Saturday to recharge before we headed back to Brooklyn that Sunday. I arrived at his apartment at 7pm. We talked casually about the upcoming recordings, how the press was responding to our early work, and the method of writing the next batch of songs. Not once did he betray a hidden agenda- it seemed as if Jocelyn’s handling of Todd’s crossing of the border had taken effect with minimal damage. These kids were so aware of what was being said about them, talked about them, written about them, it was more often than not hard to get them to expose the depth of their own individual struggle. This was not an easy task we had set out for ourselves, and everyone had an acute awareness of the implications- the other four people in Piercing depended on you as much as you depended on yourself. Adrian’s first song “Decisive” would be one of the new singles, and Todd’s “High Tide” would be the second. We began looking at the recordings in a manner similar to The Smiths- that each song was precious, and had its own identity and worth. These were not A sides and B sides. Todd agreed, and his confidence convinced me that the worst was behind us. A detail had been dealt with.
Richard and Michael had relocated from their cramped headquarters on Broadway to a three story walk up on Mesarole Ave. They had converted the top two floors into apartments that they each occupied, and the street level was turned into a world class recording studio. As I walked in lugging a very heavy cymbal stand bag, I had the sense of being all the way back.
Thames had gone through a similar gestation as This Infectious Reality. Thames were an ‘80’s version of the popular, local high school band. We had sold homemade cassettes in the hallways to help fund the early operation and to spread the word. But there were no Centraal Studios in the pre-Digital age. Recordings at that time were done on rather expensive four track machines using cassette tape as a source medium, or a fully-fledged 12 or 24 track analog studio. There was no middle ground. Thames were fortunate enough to get our parents to chip in a few thousand dollars as an offset to the bands earnings to record with Russell Johnson. Piercing were spending $850 ($500 of which the Folk Mass had fronted us) to record in basically a Brooklyn relocation of Russ’ Connecticut studio from the ’80’s. The detailed wood, staggered to create more surface space, the slanted control room window, the perfect execution of wiring inside the walls. Effects were plugged in and out from central panels located on the east and west walls. Perfect. Simple. Efficient. Richard and Michael never ceased to amaze me with their organization and genius.
We recorded all of the basic tracks for each song in two hours. It was as I anticipated from the effect of our first experience with Stormy Harbour. That was the driving reason behind returning; in that we were establishing a relationship with the studio while minimizing risk. The process played itself out for “Decisive/High Tide” as it had for “Massive/Spirit”, and we were completely prepared. As the recording gave way to mixing, I noticed that Rudy was enraptured by a game on his cell phone. While Michael was tuning effects to the correct frequency, dialing in the sounds that would define us, Rudy was staring blankly into a miniscule screen with nary a smile or a frown; his face didn’t even reflect contentment- simply a solitary glare. I began to wonder if he actually understood the magnitude of the afternoon that we were experiencing. I imagined that Rudy possessed an inherent trust that I did not, which afforded him the distance between focusing on the evolving mixes or chasing digital trophies. That was not to be the case.
We set out from Brooklyn at midnight, and proceeded to cede the CD player to Rudy for our drive out of the borough, over the Williamsburg Bridge, to the FDR, to the Willis Ave bridge and then onto the Bruckner with a quick sidestep onto the Hutchinson Parkway where I would merge with I-95 North at the Bronx city limits. A quick sprint to the tollbooth just before the Connecticut border was the next zone to traverse. Once in our home state, the drive was divided into six stages- the first leg was from the border to New Haven, where Todd was attending his senior year at school. The trek from the highway was always fraught with tension, as we were usually driving through town at 2am, with very little traffic accompanying us. It’s hard to drive a conversion van around any city after 2am without arousing suspicion. Once we dropped Todd off and made our way back to I-95, we would have to get off in New London to drop off Adrian a friend’s house. This required another streetscape trip back to I-95, where we would cross the bridge at the Thames River and immediately take the first exit to drop Jocelyn off where she was staying with her mother. One more trip through the back streets of Groton City put Rudy and I back on the north corridor, where two exits down we would descend the valley side in Mystic to my own home at the base of the river. Rudy would then have to drive himself another 20 miles to his rural home near the Rhode Island border. These recording sessions and gigs in NYC, which were absolutely essential to our career, were a test we would have to master. There was no way around it.
We were to return to New Haven for a show two days after recording, and I was asked to do a radio interview on one of the regional college radio stations on the Monday between. Following the cold winter in which we survived the blizzard, seeing the trees in first budding on the wooded back roads felt like a victory. We were in the midst of a three day, 500 mile trip, but I always found it relaxing to be driving the van. Perhaps it’s because driving is the one thing my father actually taught me, telling me as a young driver to “just go get lost, and try to find your way back. That’s how you’ll learn to navigate.” In some senses, that was his entire world view, but he never really got back from being lost in his own life.
The interview was at 5pm, and I was the only member of Piercing who could make it. It was a disappointment for me, because I had come to the realization that I must be an invisible member of the band, the silent one. And this was a missed opportunity for Joss, Todd, and Adrian to get used to the encroaching environment and to be able to speak clearly about themselves and the group in a low key setting. Then I realized that I hadn’t exactly been actively interviewed in quite some time. There was plenty of work to go around.
After months of trying, we finally were able to secure a booking with the biggest live promoter in the state, Myopic Insights. I had targeted them early on as the best people to work with outside of New London, and they completely lived up to my expectations. MI was essential a company of two- William Burr, and his intern Michael Silva. We had first been added to a bill they were booking in late January, but the headliner declined their offer of Piercing opening that particular show. At first, I had assumed that once William had booked the band, it was a done deal. But we were to find out that the regional touring headliners more than likely wanted last say in who opened their shows. It was surprising to see the power shift, where the touring bands held at least that much sway over the business machinations. I was hoping that wouldn’t become a serious issue for us, because William and Michael seemed to be totally behind what we were doing. Finally, it was our debut night with them; at a small café in New Haven that was an institution in the city. We were opening for a national headliner from the west coast, who had been touring in support of their debut album, which was released that January. In between Piercing and Scare Tactic were our friends from New London- Blow Up. This was the perfect recipe for us to engage in the totality of the moment, working with national players with support socially and professionally from peers who were on the same path as us. The best booking agent in the state, in the best live music town in Connecticut. The only drawback was it was on a Tuesday night, but that should be of little consequence to our commitment. Hopefully, we will find ourselves in Richmond, Virginia on some Tuesday night.
In my experience over the years, I always felt New Haven was the best town to play in. You could almost cook to the timer that was the arrival of a New Haven audience: show at 10pm? Room littered with eight people at 9.45? No worries, they will all be here in 15 minutes. That wasn’t to be the case on this night. We took the stage in front of 12 people; fortunately a few Mystic kids going to school near the city made it out, otherwise it would be a room full of musicians and bar workers- a trepidation of the highest order while at the club. The five of us were crammed onto the tight stage, and I had to hold my left arm at a funky angle to not drag it across the back wall while playing on the hi hat. Blow Up were complete professionals as always- noticing the near empty room, they stood three deep right in front of the stage to offer us encouragement, loudly clapping at the conclusion of each song. After finishing up a thirty minute set, we packed the gear away in the van, and I drove it down a block from the club into a small parking lot off the street. This would give all of us a modicum of privacy for the remainder of the night. I went back in, and engaged in light conversation with Chris Curtis as he set up his guitar effects for the Blow Up set.
“I’m surprised there are so few people here, usually New Haven gigs are always a late arriving mob. But they arrive! Have you guys been playing down here much?” it had been seven years since my last Bold Schwa show in the Elm city.
“We play here about once every six months, and yeah, this is a new quiet for us. Could be… Tuesday? Could be break is over and the college kids have work to catch up on…. Could be this show should have been booked in New London.” He chuckled after a pause, and then continued his train of thought.
“You know, we’ve been doing this a long time, and I just don’t care about how many people show up anymore. I just want to get up there and do what I do.”
It was refreshing to hear his back to basics attitude. We had found ourselves in the same position with Thames after the CMJ press yielded no record deal. Let’s just play. Sort of an athlete’s mindset, within a musical context. I had to remember what Chris was preaching, as our initial success was somewhat intoxicating.
And yet, there were certain parameters that had to be held to a most stringent manner of discipline.
Blow Up had watched every note of our set, and they were friends and contemporaries. But after four songs of their show, I noticed that I was the only member of Piercing in the room. I briskly stood up and walked out the back door when they began their next song with sturm und drang. I passed Adrian, who was on the phone with his girlfriend back in Brooklyn. As he had to board a train in New Haven to Grand Central by 11pm, he was more than likely discussing his return to their tiny apartment. I continued across the street, into the small lot where I had parked the van, where inside Jocelyn, Rudy, and Todd were participating in one of the rituals a rock band. But this was no time for selfish isolation.
“GUYS! What are you doing? The Blow Up watched our whole show, and they are four songs in and you are still in the van? Come on, you don’t want to be that band……”
I tried to voice a sign of resignation toward the end of my statement, as I was trying not to give in to the impulse of screaming at them. It was a generally understood dynamic that the kids did not want to be in a band with Dad, and I could understand that. I had no ambitions to even have children. But I couldn’t help but scold them. Every interaction and moment defined who you were as people, and therefore, who the collective was as a creative unit. If you were not willing to support those who supported you, the greatest songs ever written might mitigate such behaviour. Might.