Train Keeps A-Rollin'
Based on his reputation, you'd think you're at the wrong place. The old wood-frame house in the heart of the Tempe 'hood has the feminine air of a homemaker, not that of a rock 'n' roll hellion. But sure enough, sitting in the living room on a large white leather couch is Patrick Sedillo.
Sedillo, better known as Patti Pierson, front man for local combo the Piersons, chuckles at the mention of his surprisingly posh digs. He's recently upgraded from bachelor pad squalor into the residence he now shares with his fiancée. In fact, he's set to be married in a week; the house is already littered with boxes and bags containing items earmarked for the upcoming nuptials.
Behind the celebratory trappings, a pair of photos rests on a bookshelf. The first is a four-square black-and-white picture of the Piersons -- Sedillo, drummer Tony Chadwick, guitarist Jimmy Campisano and bassist Scott Moore. Above that, pinned next to a prayer candle, is a color shot of Moore, alone. It seems fitting that he should occupy a position above everything else; concerns over his health have been paramount in the minds of his family, friends and a local music community still reeling in shock since hearing news of his near-fatal accident five weeks ago.
Although he's ostensibly being interviewed about Last Train Down, the Piersons' new album, and the group's first in more than three years, Sedillo's thoughts constantly return to his fallen mate.
"It's been the most bittersweet time, because I'm getting married, putting out an album I'm proud of and the band was getting to a really good place. We were playing to more people every time, no animosity between us and . . . and then this happens."
You can see Sedillo struggle as he tries to explain the turmoil of the past few weeks and the uncertainty that lies just ahead. The November 22 release of Last Train Down was supposed to be the band's vindication. Proof that it was no longer the drunken ne'er-do-wells of local legend. That it could finance, produce and release an album on its own -- without the aid or hindrance of outside forces.
But beyond that was the desire to wash away the bitter taste of a disappointing sophomore record, and, in Sedillo's words, "take some dignity back that we felt we'd just given away after years of playing so many nights over and over again."
"It's a lot of fun to be in a band. But after the show, the music's gone; it evaporates. We thought we should channel that energy into one great album and go out with a bang instead of a whimper," he says. "Not officially break up, but kind of be like X, do a couple of shows a year, rock out and get on with our lives.
"I was getting married and settling down, Scott was playing with the Beat Angels and having a lot of fun with that. Tony was getting certified as a stock broker. Jimmy's been talking about starting his own band. We were all slowly and amicably going to go our separate ways."
The band had set an October 8 meeting to make some final preparations for the album. "We were all looking forward to deciding what songs were gonna be on the record, decide what's gonna be on the cover, choosing photos, doing the thank yous -- the fun stuff," he says.
The day before the scheduled sit-down, Sedillo was jolted out of his sleep by a pair of Tempe police officers desperately trying to reach Moore's family in Virginia. The tightlipped patrolmen only informed Sedillo that Moore had been involved in a serious accident. Arriving at the hospital, a frantic Sedillo was told to assume the worst. "We didn't know if he was going to make it through the night," he says, still breathless at the memory of those early hours.
Moore had been crossing Mill Avenue late the previous night when he was struck by a pickup truck. Details on the accident have been sketchy, and the official police report won't be filed for several weeks. As to the 29-year-old's current condition, he's been moved out of the county hospital's intensive care unit. While his status is still serious enough so that only family members have been allowed to see him, Moore is taking the first steps on what looks to be a long road to recovery.
"He's survived the hardest part, and that's a good thing," says Sedillo, staring off into the distance. "I played with him for nine years and I haven't seen him for a month. Every once in a while it just hits you, like a panic attack. Like when I saw them announce it on [KTVK's NewShow] after it happened. Sometimes . . . I feel really empty. It's funny, people used to think because we both used the last name Pierson that we were brothers."
Five years ago, the Piersons did seem like a family of brothers, only the kind who were always at each other's throats. A 1995 New Times interview of the group just before the release of its debut disc, Humbucker, revealed a band that quickly degenerated into a barrage of drunken insults, button-pushing and bottle-throwing given the right mixture of attitudes and alcohol.
In the midst of this adolescent rock 'n' roll play, Sedillo and Moore were the prime actors, with everyone else getting caught in the crosshairs. Longtime, low-key drummer Tony Chadwick managed to stay out of the fray, but newly hired guitarist Michael "Johnny" Walker, who joined after the recording of Humbucker, quickly tired of the constant backbiting, quitting after nine months.
"We were staging a battle of wills. That was the nature of the band at the time. Scott had some humdingers in his day. He'd love to piss people off. Of course, instead of being embarrassed by it, I would just laugh. To see him go up to people and just tear them to pieces and say, 'You look old. You look fat. You're getting wrinkles.' He was like a naughty little boy," says Sedillo, pausing for a long time. "I miss that more than anything."
The combination of booze and barbs was a natural for the band. From its beginnings in 1991, the Piersons were besotted in their emulation of the ramshackle Replacements, as much in their fondness for imbibing as for hiding heart-on-their-sleeve sentiments in three-minute punk-pop blasts. For Sedillo, hearing the Mats scream through "IOU" was one of the two most galvanizing moments of his musical life. The other was seeing Doug Hopkins.
"When I moved to Tempe in '91, I walked down Mill Avenue and went to Long Wong's for the first time. I looked inside and saw the Gin Blossoms onstage and Doug up there with his boots and beer bottles strewn all over the place. It was the CD release party for Up and Crumbling. I was too afraid to go in. But I went in the next week and saw Dead Hot Workshop, and that was it."
Recalling an early Tempe scene bursting at the seams with energy and creativity, Sedillo cites the environment as a crucial alternative to the popular face of the era's rock 'n' roll. "It wasn't what was going on at the time in music with Def Leppard, Queensrÿche, Guns N' Roses and Whitesnake. Seeing that made me think I could make the songs I was writing work. So we weaseled our way into the scene."
After being bounced out of the Gin Blossoms, Hopkins co-produced the Piersons' second offering, a ragged seven-song cassette called Last Chance Gas. The tape secured the band a spot at the annual New Music Seminar in Manhattan. Winning the showcase slot ultimately proved a Pyrrhic victory. The New York appearance was a disaster; the episode was just the first of several where high expectations went unfulfilled. A series of such disappointments led to the eventual departure of founding member and original lead guitarist Doug Nichols.
Continuing as a trio, the group's local buzz continued throughout the mid-'90s. The Piersons' shows were raucous affairs that often found the band and audience fighting with and against each other amid a hail of liquor and feedback. Signature anthems like "Wasted," "Pink Dress" and "Not Now Alice" trafficked in a hybrid of sounds and styles that perfectly matched the band's Moore-coined motto "Too pussy for punks. Too punk for pussies."
While the quality of Sedillo's songwriting matured, the band's hardscrabble behavior didn't. Few labels were willing to take a chance on such a group of diligent reprobates. Fortunately, it was just that reputation that attracted maverick record-store magnate Brad Singer, who signed the Piersons as one of the original acts to his fledgling Tempe-based imprint, Epiphany Records.
However, the 1995 release of Humbucker -- a 14-song collection of the group's best early material -- turned out to be less a triumph than a reality check.
"After Humbucker is when things started showing cracks," admits Sedillo. "That's when we realized we weren't the kind of band that was going to court success. We were unable or unwilling to play that whole game because we could see what it had done to our friends. Doug [Hopkins] had gotten terribly burned by the music industry. The same thing had happened to Dead Hot Workshop. We were never the kind of guys to go kiss ass and open up for people we didn't respect. We were never cut out to do things like play the halftime of a football game, y'know?"
It was in this somewhat dispirited atmosphere that the band made a follow-up, Appleberry Wine. Released in 1997, the disc is not without its fair share of intriguing moments: the lounge jazz cool of "Tease," the polite acoustica of "California Eyes," the bluesy "Lightning Speed." Despite the clutch of increasingly diverse songs accompanying the expected beer burners, the band regards the record as creative and personal defeat. To find the real problem with the album, you'd have to start at the bottom, or lack thereof.
"One night the record came on while we were sitting in Long Wong's and we realized there was no bass on it, it was mixed so low," says Sedillo, plucking at an imaginary instrument. "Jim Swafford [who produced both Epiphany albums] and I weren't getting along in the studio during the making of Appleberry. We were recording at Phase Four studios, a really sterile environment, expensive as hell. And there was a lot of personal stuff -- Scott was going through a divorce at the time. At a certain point I just walked out of the mixing sessions, just gave up on it."
Always a combustible unit, the Piersons were making a slow lurch toward what seemed an increasingly inevitable end. One marker along that path came after an extended winter tour of the U.S. and Canada. The nightmarish jaunt made it perfectly clear that the unyielding and often demoralizing grind of the road -- especially the kind that young indie bands are forced to undertake -- was not for them.
"When we got back, we decided, 'We can't go on the road like that again.' It was just too much. No money, freezing cold. Epiphany would send fliers out and you'd see that same stack on the bar or in somebody's office when you got there because no one could be bothered to put them up. And once Appleberry Wine had done all it was gonna do saleswise, we were back to playing Monday nights at Long Wong's," sighs Sedillo.
The final straw in the Piersons' demise came with the unexpected death of their benefactor and label head, Singer, who succumbed from complications of lupus in May 1998.
Already embittered by recent experiences and charging headlong into their own self-destruction, the Piersons took Singer's passing as a sign. "The thing with Brad really hit us hard. It forced us to think about our own mortality. It was like, 'Um, I'm not gonna be next. What we should do is just stop.'"
Wary of being claimed by the same fatalistic rock excess that had already received many denizens of the Tempe scene as sacrifice, Sedillo elected to put the band on indefinite hiatus. The decision was made in part to salvage the music, but more important, to salvage the band members themselves.
The Piersons played a quietly announced final show during a memorial concert for Singer and disappeared for the rest of the year.
The time off proved to be a rejuvenating experience, with Sedillo, Moore and Chadwick renewing their friendship outside of the context of the group. "We had worked together so long that we had forgotten that we enjoyed each other's company as friends," says Sedillo.
The respite from performing also saw a sort of personal growth for the band members. Sedillo and Moore in particular seemed to shy away from the antics and stances that had marked them as two of the most notoriously difficult talents in local music.
"I think we grew up during that period. And we realized that we all missed it a little bit. We hadn't played in six months and we were kind of bored. I felt like, 'It's fall, the students are back, everyone's playing, we should play, too.'"
Late that year, Sedillo ran into guitarist Jimmy Campisano, veteran of Valley combos Since I Was Six and Slugger. In the early '90s, Campisano had played with Moore in a female-fronted band called Short Term Memory Loss. "He said, 'You guys gotta get the Piersons back together,'" remembers Sedillo. "So I told Jimmy I'd only do it if he came and did it with us."
With Campisano on board, the band restarted in earnest last year. Playing far more sparingly than before, the group's energy was instead focused on leaving behind a proper valediction.
"Not to compare us to the Beatles, but they didn't let it go at Let It Be -- they made one last great album. We thought, 'Let's not leave it at Appleberry Wine. Let's make one really good record, one that we're in change of.'"
Recorded in fits and starts over 18 months, the bulk of the material on Last Train Down was written during the band's breakup and in the wake of Sedillo and Moore's personal breakups with longtime girlfriends and wives. Not surprisingly, the album's lyrics teem with a disillusionment of club and love life. As Sedillo puts it, the kind of songs written "after the show's done, you put your guitar in your case and go home to an empty apartment and think, 'Man, this sucks.'"
From the "Dear John" letter chronicle "Refrigerator," the organ-colored dirge "Wreckage" -- a tribute to late and wonderful Tempe weirdo Elvis Del Monte -- to the hopeful longing of "I Think I'm Gonna Fall," the album is the summation of a decade's worth of dive bars, broken rock dreams, cheating girlfriends and the peculiar emptiness last call leaves behind.
The poppy "Jenny Don't Go Away" (in part, a winking follow-up to the Beat Angels' "Hungover With Jenny") subtly lifts its melody from the Beach Boys "That's Not Me" and offers a scruffier version of Brian Wilson's adolescent melancholia.
"It's really about how desperate and lonely the bar life is. A lot of these songs are all about looking for something that, thankfully, I found," says Sedillo, pointing to a picture of his fiancée.
While the lion's share of the songs are new compositions, the title track -- a Townshendian power chorder -- is an old chestnut (which originally appeared on Zia's Adios compilation in 1995), and the disc closes with another blast from the past, a punked-up rendition of Carole King's "So Far Away."
Campisano, making his first recorded appearance with the band, offers a much-needed second guitar texture, bolstering the heavier numbers ("Vitamin C," "Raincoat") with the appropriate fire and infusing the quieter numbers with a counterpoint to Sedillo's distinctive tones.
Rhythmically, Chadwick's drumming charges along with unkempt charm, while Moore's melodic figures and bubbly turnarounds bear the mark of a distinctive four-string stylist.
One of the more intriguing omissions from Last Train's final sequence is a number titled "Rock Star."
A jaunty paean from Sedillo to Moore written during the band's estrangement, it penetrates the thin veneer of local music celebrity: "I miss my brother, sometimes/We really don't get along/It's plain to see that we're not so strong/ . . . So glad, so sad there goes a rock star/You didn't need no cash 'cause all the drinks are free."
"It was all about Scott," says Sedillo. "I think he was kind of bummed we didn't put it in the final running. But the arrangement wasn't right."
In what would've been another ironic twist, one of the early titles bandied about for the album was Congratulations, I'm Scotty -- a not so subtle play on the title of the Gin Blossoms' sophomore record.
"I told Scotty about that and he liked that a lot. In the end, it's probably best we didn't use that one. It's probably a little too tongue-in-cheek," he adds, smiling. "Now, I can't think of a more appropriate title than Last Train Down. With this record we started to feel like survivors. The idea that the Piersons could work as a limited thing. That it didn't have to be all-consuming, but that we could still play rock 'n' roll."
But deciding whether to release the record or hold off in light of Moore's situation took a far more agonizing route.
"The first thing I thought of that morning on the way to the hospital was, 'Okay, we're gonna fix this.' Whatever needs to be done, we'll do. Unfortunately, it was out of our hands. Two weeks later, after all this misery, Jimmy and Tony and I meet. I have no idea what we're gonna do. We had to give an answer to the [promoters] about the CD release party. And I felt there was no way we could do it. I didn't want to bring another bass player in 'cause it's an insult to Scott and it just wouldn't feel right. It's to Tony and Jimmy's credit that they saw this compromise, to do it as a three-piece with Jimmy on bass -- sort of picking up the flag for Scott."
Before the accident, Moore was uncharacteristically vocal about his eagerness to get the record out. So with the blessing of his family, the group decided to continue without him -- if only for the CD release and a possible warm-up gig.
As to the future, Sedillo is clear on one point. "We have an 'if and when' rule. If and when Scott can play bass, he will. Until then, we won't be playing as the Piersons. There really can't be a Piersons without him."
In the meantime, plans are already in the works for a benefit gig or festival to help defray Moore's medical costs. As to how the sardonic bassist would regard all the fuss being made about him, Sedillo is certain it would be met with something more than a withering disdain.
"Oh, he'd hate it! He'd hate anyone making a big deal about him. Especially something like this," he laughs, pointing at the album's artwork, which bears a dedication and a photo of a boyishly innocent Moore staring up from the CD tray.
"When he's well enough to see that, man, he's going to be pissed. He'll probably call us a bunch of names. I'll be real glad when he's able to do that," says Sedillo. "We all will."
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