Wasted Wine’s sound has changed over the years and remains hard to classify. Much of their work shows the influence of frontman Robert Gowan’s classical background (especially his fondness for Bela Bartok and Kurt Weill) and co-founder Adam Murphy’s lifelong fascination with 1970s continental progressive rock obscurities (Ange, Alusa Fallax, Malicorne, Celeste), as well as a resolutely homemade, DIY approach to recording.
Elements of doom metal, mid-century country music, psychedelia, hip-hop, and film music have made regular appearances. Songs often feature Eastern European and Middle Eastern style melodies and harmonies, unpredictable arrangements, and cryptic lyrics delivered in theatrical style. Listeners have used terms like “gypsy” and “cabaret” to describe the sound, while some writers have invoked artists such as The Decemberists, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, or even Gogol Bordello.
Ghettoblaster caught up with Gowan while the band were preparing to release Wasted Wine vs. The Hypnosis Center via Bear Kids Recordings on February 17, 2015 to discuss the record. This is what he told us about it.
When did you begin writing the material for the album?
Seems like this should have an easy answer, but about four years ago. Adam moved to NYC and given that we had been primarily a duo, it took me a while to figure out what to do. I tried some solo work and many of the songs come from that. Once I decided to continue with Wasted Wine, I had a book of songs and a band. Not everything from the old archive would work with the full band instrumentation, so I started writing with them in mind and they helped flesh out my ideas.
Eventually Adam and I figured out some interesting way to continue to collaborate, sending each other recordings or lyrics to work with. Some songs were Adam’s creations, and others were conceived in the most collaborative way possible when he would come visit. Heaven actually dates back to 2006 when we first started. So, it’s been a long journey but ultimately if it weren’t for the band and playing live it would have probably never happened.
What was the most difficult song to take from the initial writing stage through recording and mixing? Why was it so troublesome?
Technically speaking I feel like we always try to push ourselves. So when we record, especially just Adam and I, we try to pull off stuff in the recording that leaves us saying “Wow, I’ll never be able to play this live.” “MFR,” “Bourgeoisie,” and “Shoreline Senorita” are good examples of that.
That said, I’d say “The Strangest of Eyes”gave us the most trouble. I think we recorded it about four times before we felt good about it. We really wanted to capture the essence of the live sound of the band and still make a professional sounding recording, but we were trying to do everything ourselves. We kept upgrading our equipment to make everything ideal and comfortable, yet still isolated enough to do some real mixing. Comfortable being most important, because I’m sure every band can relate to those “magic practices”, where everything is better than anyone could ever imagine. We wanted to preserve that.
Which of the songs on the record is most different from your original concept for the song?
Definitely “Heaven.” It’s one of the first songs we ever wrote together and we’ve performed it four years as a duo. It was on our first album that way. After the band got moving we needed some upbeat, fun, material to play live and everyone already knows that song. However, the more we played it the more we began to change it. It went from being a folksy, hip-hop inspired Tom Waits style song to an almost Reggae, Vocal Trapeze.
Did you have any guest musicians play or sing on the record?
Nope, Adam and I enjoy playing through our vast instrument collection too much to give up any sonic real estate. All the band members provided backing vocals and the core.
Who produced the record? What input did that person have that changed the face of the record?
I did all the production and mastering along with Adam’s input and eye of scrutiny. The biggest determining factor towards the construction of the recording was probably Justin Green of Bear Kids Recordings. Mostly because as we were compiling our songs to try and figure out what to do with them, he approached us willing to press the album on cassette tape. Conceptualizing the album in that format was really fun. It’s kind of like vinyl in that you have a side A and B except there really isn’t a great way to skip around. This lead us to our concept and ultimately helped to firm up what was otherwise a large collection of material.
Is there an overarching concept behind your new album that ties the record together?
Oh yeah! The album title itself Wasted Wine vs. The Hypnosis Center is a big clue. Essentially the idea is that the tape is some sort of aversion therapy meant to cure the listener of their appreciation for weird and eclectic music. In my mind, although it’s not obvious, the main character is a girl who is listening to the treatment. She goes under finding herself in an increasingly fantastic and incomprehensible world. The end of the first side ends with breaking glass and a bell toll signifying the realization that she has gotten too deep and needs to get out. The second side is her fighting to come back to reality ending with “Heaven,” really a lament for things to be as they were.
It’s all kind of a way for us to speak out against what we feel has been our struggle in the music industry, fighting to stay true to our vision while fighting the status quo. I feel like lots of good art rage against the easy, derivative norms that exist and this is our way of making those claims while (hopefully) managing to stay more oblique about it.
Have you begun playing these songs live and which songs have elicited the strongest reaction from your fans?
Out of all the songs, I’d have to say “Fall Upon Me” always seems to both mesmerize and excite people the most. From the long middle-eastern violin taqsim at the beginning, through the relatable verse lyrics, and into the sabbath-esque chorus, people always seem to either be yelling or standing wide-eyed with wonder when we finish. It always feels really good.
(Preorder the limited edition cassette via Bear Kids Recordings HERE.)