"We try to forget about it," says Karen Peris with a rueful little laugh. ''Keep it quiet. It's all a blur."
She doesn't even care to divulge the group's old name.
"I forget," she says. "It escapes me."
And it escapes Don. "Those were days of learning, of supporting ourselves through school with odd jobs," he says. "It was serious enough that we all kept doing it, but the level of seriousness changed when we started doing our own material. And that's when things really began, and that was about two years ago. 1985, early '86."
And things really are happening for this stunningly good quartet, which also includes bassist Mike Bitts and drummer Steve Brown.
The former name, Masquerade, fit just right at the Holiday Inn lounge. The present one, the Innocence Mission, conveys both the sense of wondrous naivete in some of Karen's lyrics and the sense of purpose and direction the band possess.
During the last year, the group has been a regular presence in the Philadelphia environs, playing the Cabaret circuit (Chestnut, 23 East, Ambler) and South Street haunts such as J. C. Dobbs. Folks have been won over by Karen's strong, supple voice (Stevie Nicks-meets-Aimee Mann is the dumb but perhaps necessary comparison); by the quartet's economical, inventive instrumentation, and by the sheer originality and emotional power of the songs themselves.
Among the ranks of the won-overs are a number of high-profile area DJs - WMMR's Cyndi Drue and WYSP's Ed Sciaky - and Hooters bassist Andy King. Drue and King recorded pitches for the Innocence Mission on its four-song demo tape, sent to various record companies.
And one of those record companies, A&M, signed the band.
"They put a big smile on my face," effuses Patrick Clifford, the New York-based A&M executive who inked the Innocence Mission. "I got the demo tape just as I was getting on a plane to go to Stockholm. So I flew over to Stockholm and I put this tape on, and when I got off the plane I was so crazy about what I'd heard I was thinking, 'I have to find out more about them!' I ran to a pay phone and immediately called New York to talk to their attorney. Only problem: It was still like 4 o'clock in the morning there."
Clifford and two other A&M people soon Amtraked down to Philadelphia, where they saw the band in a dinky Center City club. They were smitten.
What was it exactly?
"The originality of the songwriting," says Clifford, demonstrating unbridled enthusiasm. "The quality of Karen's vocal quality, her ability to transcend her earthly stature once she gets onstage, and also the blending of the other members of the band into what I think is just one focused band.
"It's like where four people become one personality."
Karen, 24, Don, 23, Brown, 23, and Bitts, 22, attribute their musical focus to their Masquerade-ing days, and the affinity that comes from five years of working, traveling and playing together. "There's a real understanding between all of us," says Don. "We're very compatible."
To date, Innocence Mission's recorded output has been limited to one self- financed EP, Tending the Rose Garden (LLIST Records), released last year, and to numbers the band has recorded for demo tapes. One composition, ''Shadows," was recently recorded by Amy Grant.
Standouts in the group's repertoire are plentiful. "Black Sheep Wall" has a lyrical hook ("Why do you keep coming back?") that's downright inescapable. "Big Wide World" has a Beatle-ish edge to it (Revolver, Sgt. Pepper period) and a celebratory spirit that's driven home with an assertive marchlike backbeat.
"Come Around and See Me" is something rare in a rock song: a poignant, precisely drawn sketch of a lonely grandmother. "Hooray for Amelia" is also unique in the realm of standard cars-and-girls rock fare: It's the story of a plucky little child, brimming with life.
Karen cites as her early influences the Beatles and James Taylor; now, she favors Peter Gabriel, British songstress Kate Bush and the new LP by The Band's Robbie Robertson (Gabriel and Robertson's producer, Daniel Lenois, is high on the Innocence Mission's wish list of producers).
"There's a real contrast in my songs," notes Karen. "Some are in the first person, others from a different point of view. Some of the lyrics are real optimistic and some are a little bit more cynical. There's a tug of war going on between an optimistic child and an adult, and that kind of conflict runs through my work as a whole."
That contrast and conflict explain the group's predilection for one of the two cover songs on the current playlist: Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now." The group's sole other non-original, which they perform occasionally, is Neil Young's eerie folk tune "Birds."
According to the band and A&M's Clifford, there's no set timetable for going into a studio and recording an album. First, they need to find the right producer. Then they have to sift through a considerable song list, selecting 10 or 12 of Innocence Mission's best. And there's all the other stuff: videos, a tour, a promotion campaign that separates the band from a plethora of other rock-and-roll debutantes.
The Innocence Mission is eager to proceed, but not to rush headlong into anything.
"We were so young when we started, and coming from Lancaster it was hard
because we didn't know anyone," recalls Karen. "When we were playing other people's music, that was really depressing for us. . . . I know we wouldn't have gone on if we had just had to do that. There came a point where we had to get out of that and just do our own music.
"So now, we're very excited and anxious to get things rolling," she explains.
"But we're not going to rush," says Don. "We'll take the time to make the right decisions."