I had done a number of engagement shoots, and I had done a couple of album cover shoots, and so it was only a matter of time that something would drop into my lap that would call for me to roll an engagement shoot and an album cover shoot into one. The Labrats are a fiancé-and-fiancee (soon to be husband-and-wife) experimental/blues rock/neofolk duo composed of vocalist/guitarist Cilee Kuizon and multi-instrumentalist/music programmer Jad Bantug, who are set to release their debut album (under the 22 Tango Records label) on—hold your breaths for this—their wedding day on April of 2015. I had already missed out on the opportunity to photograph Cilee once before (for the album cover shoot of her other act Undercover Grasshoppers—scheduling conflicts had precluded my involvement), so I was beyond elated to have been presented with this second chance of sorts, never mind the fact that this was going to be one of the most challenging shoots of my life. Challenging because, well, as I said, this was a couple shoot and a music assignment rolled into one, and so I needed to churn out something that not only was going to be meaningful to them as two people in love about to commit their lives to one another—it also had to represent them well as the remarkably talented musicians that they were, and not to mention it had to be appealing to their fans/audiences, too!
The idea of a John Lennon and Yoko Ono-inspired shoot occurred to me after their producer Cattski Espina mentioned that Jad was crazy about John Lennon—well, about The Beatles, really, something he’d gotten from his father, who had a monumental collection of The Beatles vinyls (and what could only be referred to as a shrine devoted to the “Fab Four” and their associated acts) at home—and that The Labrats’ sound was influenced for the most part by Lennon’s post-Beatles body of work. We’d been juggling different concepts in our heads, but this was what made the most sense. Of course, Jad and Cilee liked the idea: paying homage to one of rock ‘n’ rolls most powerful couples who had been a strong influence to their relationship and their artistic prowess and musical dynamic—why the hell not? But don’t think arriving on this concept relieved me of my nervousness—if anything, it made the pressure mount even more. This wasn’t just a random concept whipped up to hasten through the process and satisfy a client’s demands. In the pantheon of cultural references, the John and Yoko phenomenon is a behemoth. And as significant as this theme was to them, it was meaningful to me, too—growing up in a household regimented by music, the story of John and Yoko had been one of my mom’s favorite stories to tell, and so I knew I had to do justice to that memory. And that’s not even considering the fact that the John and Yoko theme was pretty popular among engaged-to-be-married couples the world over (just Google “John and Yoko-inspired engagement shoot” and you’ll see what I’m talking about)—and since our project was more than just an engagement shoot we knew we had to take it a notch up! The team and I calmed ourselves by joking around—like by saying maybe Jad should play Yoko and Cilee could be John, since it was Jad who stole Cilee from her original band, and not the other way around!
Choosing which of John and Yoko’s photos we wanted to recreate was a toughie, especially since most of their iconic and well-known ones were a little too risque. Thankfully the staff at 22 Tango were there to help us do some digging, and in the end we were able to come up with a selection that were familiar enough to tug at the heartstrings of any self-respecting Beatles/John and Yoko fans and, well, tasteful enough to not cause a stir. And although putting together the wardrobe was a no-brainer—Lennon and Ono’s tastes in clothing were fairly simplistic, and the same could be said about Jad and Cilee’s—we had a little bit of trouble in the accessories department. Luckily for me Jad was the type who like to really nail the details (he’s a music programmer, after all)—he was able to get a friend to make a replica of Lennon’s signature leather talisman necklace (the one he famously wore in the cover photograph for 1968’s Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins), and plus he was able to borrow some of his dad’s Lennon-style round glasses! We were on a roll and nothing could stop us from getting this whole thing done! Not even the cramped space that we ended up using for out first location! Well, it wasn’t really cramped to start with; it just became so because of the huge items we used as props—you can’t really reimagine John and Yoko’s honeymoon/Bed-Ins for Peace photos without, well, a bed, right? Fortunately we had some of Jad and Cilee’s friends over to help us maneuver through our own mess—and we even got to get them to appear in some of the photos to act as though they were “lab workers” transforming the “Labrats” into the new John and Yoko!
I got a kick out of doing the Bed-Ins scenes, the WAR IS OVER! IF YOU WANT IT placard scenes, as well as the ones in which I had Jad and Cilee wear outfits inspired by Lennon and Ono’s unconventional wedding ensembles. But chimping on my camera I felt that something was missing or just, you know, off. Did we go overboard with the props? Or maybe we went underboard? Could we have done better with the location aspect? Was I really able to nail the styling? Was Cilee uncomfortable with all these clothes I was asking her to wear (she was, after all, the jeans-and-T-shirt kind of girl)?
And then it was time to move to 1032 Recording Studios to recreate the pictures of John and Yoko at work in, well, the studio. It suddenly became obvious that this was the couple’s “happy place”—owned and operated by Jad himself, this studio was where they liked to spend most of their time together, just writing and composing and mixing away—and we all know nothing is more beautiful to photograph than people who are in their element. I’d photographed so many couples before, but it wasn’t until now that I was truly amazed to see two people inspiring and supporting each other artistically, and literally making beautiful music in the process.
And then, without warning, they led me to the control room, and this was where the day’s magic happened: they broke out into a song, and I turned into one big goosebump. “Until Love Dies,” that was what they were titling the song that they played for me right there—a floaty, exquisitely plaintive, almost elegiac ballad about clinging to a lover with all your might in an attempt to save them from the ominous, set against bluesy riffs and succint but potent guitar solos. I was blown away by the intricate layers of sound and the ingenious interplay of melodies (I kept thinking, 22 Tango has struck gold again!), but more than that I was just dumbfounded by the words of the song and how they eerily coincided with the situation at hand. Each time Cilee mouthed the mournful refrain “My love don’t die on me/ My love don’t die on me…” I couldn’t help but imagine that, wow, this could’ve been what Yoko Ono was singing in her head after witnessing at close range the demise of her husband. When the song was over it got me a reflective mood. There I was working ourselves up over the props, the clothes, the set design, thinking it all better come together because we just had to do this theme some justice… When all we really needed to seal the deal was for Jad to bust out the guitar and Cilee to open her mouth to sing! Jim Steinman was right: “When you really, really need it the most, that’s when rock in roll dreams come through.”
Jad Bantug and Cilee Kuizon, collectively known as The Labrats | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Cebu City, Cebu, on September 22, 2013 | Hair and makeup by Pam Buhangin | Lighting supervisor: Marlowe Guinto | Set decorators: Angelo Kangleon and Manna Alcaraz