Strange things happen on Wretched Knob. People mutate, turn invisible, and encounter the kind of elaborate deaths you'd think Chuck Palahniuk was responsible for. It's a small town of outcasts and tolerated evildoers stuck in time, teetering on the edge of a cliff on a thumb-shaped protrusion in the middle of nowhere, held to the earth by the gravity of Barry Uhl's imagination alone.
A Seattle-based writer and multi-instrumentalist who's played regularly with Damien Jurado and Shelby Earl and arranged for the Seattle Rock Orchestra, Uhl (pronounced "yule") self-released his debut solo album, An Account of the Happenings at Wretched Knob, this month. The 32-minute collection of songs, pressed to vinyl, delves into the lives of the fictional town's inhabitants, and an attached book of poetry and ink sketches, also by Uhl, digs even further into their world. As a package, it's a short and sweet coffee-table-sized book with thick black-and-white pages filled with fascinating illustrations of curious-looking but realistically drawn people in various states of mental detachment and physical disfigurement. There are letters to family members written in rhyme, tales of spell-casting maidens and medical experiments that follow the town from its foundation to the perpetual state of misfortune it finds itself in.
"Everybody knew they needed to get somewhere, and they somehow—through whatever it is in the universe that pulls people to certain places and makes them desire certain things—wound up finding that [place]," explains Uhl of his characters. "That's kind of how it always goes, though, it always declines. [People] start out with this utopian idea, like 'Let's start our own thing, and get away from all our problems,' and slowly, those problems you're trying to escape start seeping in—it affects everyone around you, and things gets darker... and it just gets out of control. Also, the people who are going there aren't exactly healthy—mentally or physically—so it kind of all works off of itself. It's a weird little colony of misfits."
The universe pulled Uhl to a number of different places before he landed in Seattle to stay. He spent his junior-high years in Aberdeen, Washington, after moving from Redding, California, in the late '80s. Working around musically cautious parents, Uhl got his first taste of rock music there, recording and re-listening to a friend's late-night, secular-rock-featuring show on a Christian radio station (until the station caught on and fired him).
When he was a teenager, Uhl's family moved to Seattle, where he befriended, among other musicians, freshly minted Pedro the Lion frontman David Bazan. Later, he would make several more stops before returning (Jackson Hole, Wyoming, then Moscow, Idaho, where he earned a musical composition and theory degree from the University of Idaho), but he had found his home in Seattle: "I always wanted to be here," he recalls. "This is where I discovered music, and that it was possible to do it, and not just think about it or just sit in your bedroom and play it."
As much as concept albums may glaze over the ears of some, Wretched Knob is such a complete vision—so thoroughly inventive in its various respects—that it succeeds beyond expectation. Much like the music he released last year under the name Cloud War, the music on Wretched Knob draws inspiration from disparate sources like '60s psych rock, ragtime, Tom Waits, and post-dance MGMT. The aesthetic is old-timey and vaguely steampunk, which Uhl acknowledges, but he says it wasn't an inspiration—the music might sound natural coming from an orchestrion in a Wretched Knob public house (if one exists). Recorded at contributing musician Jeremy Wingfield's house, the sound quality is phenomenal. The booming drums and fuzzed guitar marry beautifully with banjo, harpsichord, and flute (played by Uhl's wife) over subtle studio effects. The songs have strong melody and are entirely enjoyable separate from the album's plot, though the squiggly yarn he spins with his lyrics adds flavor like a clear-voiced Shel Silverstein.
Of the twisted micro-plots that paint a picture of the town, Uhl says it's only the tip of the iceberg: "I wanted to leave it kind of open, so if somebody wanted to get into it, and try to actually figure out what's going on in these little stories, there can be backstory," he says. "I have a lot of backstory written out. I don't know what to do with it, but I do have it. I just wrote it all down because I wanted to know."
It took five years to make it from brain to wax/page. Busy playing with other musicians, he pushed the idea to the back of his mind until last year, when his desire to figure out what happened to his characters (which turned out to mostly involve death) turned into a consuming creative block of sorts. He needed closure as much as they did. "Eventually, it got to the point where I couldn't make anything else until I had finished this," he says. "It's kind of a weird thing, that mental block you put on yourself when you know something's not completely finished.
"The music, the writing, the drawing, they all three needed to happen, 'cause they were all part of this thing," he continues. "It was never 'Oh, I'll write a few songs'—it was all meant to happen at once. It was supposed to be this way from the very beginning."
Barry Uhl's record-release show will be held at the Tractor Tavern on April 23.