Last February, Greenville quintet Wasted Wine released an album called Wasted Wine Vs. The Hypnosis Center, and the best way to describe it is as follows: Imagine that someone built a creepy old-school fun house, then placed it in the bowels of a 19th-century ship crewed by traveling gypsy musicians in the middle of a massive storm.
The basic setup for the group is traditional rock instrumentation (guitar, bass, and drums) underneath more unusual choices like the celeste, which is like a piano or a large wooden music box, and bouzouki, which is a long-neck Greek instrument not unlike the mandolin. The music reels and careens through various styles and moods, taking in Eastern European folk, melodramatic cabaret, and straight-ahead indie rock, sometimes within the same song. Over this chaotic, kaleidoscopic maelstrom of sound, vocalists and multi-instrumentalists Robert Gowan and Adam Murphy wail, bellow, growl, and moan, diving in and out of different characters' heads and adding to the general feeling of unease the album creates. It's all alternately frenzied and beguiling, melodic and dissonant, and about as far from the average rock band as you can get.
The band formed around the nucleus of Gowan and Murphy in 2006. Gowan was a recent University of South Carolina graduate who'd concentrated on violin and classical guitar, but he had never written a song. Upon meeting the music-obsessed Murphy, that all changed, and the duo began playing Greenville's acoustic folk-coffeehouse scene, with mixed results.
"We put in a lot of time on the open mic, coffee shop folk circuit in Greenville, playing what we sometimes called chamber folk," Murphy says. "Chamber music plus folk music. It was just me and Robert, and we'd bring a dozen or more instruments to a show and switch off. We had a different set of instruments for every song we played. Classical guitar, harmonium, glockenspiel, all kinds of auxiliary percussion, bouzouki, pan flute ... Robert even played wine glasses."
But even as they developed their one-of-a-kind sound, Gowan and Murphy felt like they were somewhat out of place. "It did feel like we were a weird fit for the coffee shop scene," Murphy says, "at least compared to your usual singer-songwriter with an acoustic instrument. I think it was always pretty clear that we were on a little bit of a different wavelength."
When the pair met guitarist Buck Samuel Dollars and bassist Lou Buckingham, they had found their ideal collaborators. After adding drummer Jaron Ferrer, Gowan says he looked around and realized with surprise that Wasted Wine "had basically become a rock band."
After that came the larger-than-life live show, complete with vintage oddball costumes (Dollars' Captain Crunch-style British naval cap is a particular favorite), Gowan and Murphy hurling themselves all over the stage and playing a music store's worth of instruments, and even some cue-card carrying assistants to help the audience with the occasional chorus.
After years of multi-track recording on their own, Gowan and Murphy now create their songs with the band through a painstaking layering process. After the whole group cuts the basic tracks, Gowan and Murphy go to work in the studio, working in whatever riffs, melodies, or vocal lines the band didn't get to.
"Historically, the band learns songs more slowly than we write them," Gowan says. "So we end up having an enormous backlog of stuff. So a lot of times we'll pick the best of the unused material and we'll layer that over the existing songs."
Murphy and Gowan work as a creative team during the recording process, with Gowan serving as the linear-minded half, engineering the recording and constructing a narrative flow, and Murphy being more intuition-driven. "I guess one of the ways I think about recording is similar to the process of creating a collage," Murphy says. "When you're doing collage work, you combine one thing with something else and occasionally things click in a way that you might not have seen before."
In fact, their most recent release, The Hypnotized Audience, is a testament to that cut-and-paste, collage aesthetic. The album compiles clips and excerpts from Wasted Wine songs and other obscure audio into over 80 tracks. The band then took those 80-plus tracks and created an algorithm that randomly places 24 tracks onto a CD, along with four staple tracks that always remain intact. Then they created unique album covers for each copy, along with album art and hand-drawn CD faces. So there are literally no two copies of The Hypnotized Audience that are the same.
What might be the most fascinating thing about the band's four painstakingly crafted albums is how uninterested they are in revisiting them, despite all that hard work. "Once we finish something, I've never gone back and listened to it," Murphy says. "It's very much about the process. I'm already playing around with ideas for the next album. When this one's done and off our plates, that's immediately where my mind is going to go. I like being in the moment and putting things together."