Early last year, an unknown, local heavy-metal quintet called Autograph was offered the chance of a lifetime. Van Halen, the heavy-metal supergroup, wanted the band to be its opening act. A dream come true? Not really. There were problems.
First of all, Autograph had just been formed a few months before the offer, by Steve Plunkett (lead vocals/guitar) and Keni Richards (drums). With Randy Rand (bass), Steve Lynch (lead guitar) and Steven Isham (keyboards), they had made a demonstration tape, but that's all. They had no record deal. Though they were veteran musicians, they had not performed together and had barely even rehearsed together. Nor did they have adequate musical equipment--nor even enough money for a trip to the opening show of the Van Halen tour in Jacksonville, Fla.
"We had no idea what we were going to do," said Plunkett, 28, who's also Autograph's chief writer. He chuckled as he recalled that predicament.
Now that the band is a success--its debut album, "Sign In Please," has sold more than 600,000--Plunkett can laugh at those early traumas. "It seems funny now, but it wasn't funny then," he said. "We were desperate. It was an incredible opportunity. We didn't want to blow it."
It all started one day when drummer Richards was out jogging with Van Halen leader David Lee Roth. Richards gave him a demo tape, and Roth and other Van Halen members liked it well enough to offer Autograph the opening spot on the tour.
"They never asked to hear us play," Plunkett said. "They made the decision based on the tape and who was in the band. They didn't know we had no experience."
After struggling to raise a small fortune for expenses--$9,000--they went to Jacksonville. Van Halen finally found out that Autograph was a fledgling outfit. "They told us not to take it personally if we only lasted two or three days on the tour," Plunkett said.
Opening night was tense. "We were so scared," Plunkett recalled. "I remember it like yesterday. I knew we had about 30 seconds to win the audience over or they'd bury us--we knew they didn't want to see us . They obviously had no idea who we were. We were a bit ragged, but we won them over."
After that opening night, Autograph lasted longer than expected--47 more dates. "We did get killed a couple of times," Plunkett admitted.
The worst nights were in Lakeland, Fla., and in Nashville, Tenn. Wielding bottles, disgruntled fans used the band for target practice.
"In Lakeland, the audience was mad because the show started late and because they didn't expect an opening act," Plunkett said. "Nashville was bad, too. We didn't want to go out and face that audience, but we did. I didn't get hit, but our bass player got hit with a Jack Daniels bottle. At least, it was empty."
Through performing, Autograph was able to polish both its material and its performing skills. Representatives from many record companies came to see the band on tour. RCA Records was the winner, signing the band in New York in March of last year.
The popular single from the "Sign In Please" album is "Turn Up the Radio," a thunderous rocker. The album features other sledgehammer songs capable of bowling over metal fans. With its wealth of talent, Autograph could become one of the major metal bands in the next few years.
Because of the Van Halen tour, Autograph's audience is primarily in the East and Midwest. It has played only two local dates and they're unfamiliar to most fans here.
"We did things differently," Plunkett explained. "Most bands play local clubs and build a local following before they get a record deal, but we went on a major tour and got signed without making a name locally."
The album came out last October. A month later, the video for "Turn Up the Radio" was released. At first, album sales were slow--80,000 copies in the first three months. But eventually the video influenced sales, as did a January-March tour this year, and 500,000 more copies were sold.
Thanks to a shrewd advertising tie-in, the Paper Mate pen company supplied funding for the video, along with some other financial support.
"Because of our name and the album title, 'Sign In Please,' our manager (Susie Frank) thought we might get a pen-and-pencil company as a sponsor," Plunkett explained. "Paper Mate agreed to give us money if we advertised their pen. We were able to make a much more expensive video than the average new band."
Does the band have any reservations about being linked to a product?
"Not really," he replied. "We needed the money. You do anything you can to get money when you're starting out; it's so expensive to get a band off the ground. With the name Autograph, it's logical for us to be advertising a pen. It would only be weird and out of place if we were advertising something like a vacuum cleaner or a roach spray."