Watching Cole Murphy patiently connect all his electronic gear and then lift it onto Preservation Pub's stage late on a cold Saturday night, it would be fair for the uninitiated to brace themselves against the possibilities. Screen-gazing IDM, or a Girl Talk-lite mashup bandit? Beginner dubstep, maybe? As soon as Murphy picks up the mic to build his first vocal loop, an odd blend of college kids, hipsters, and outright weirdos crowds the stage. Three minutes into a nearly two-hour block of off-kilter solo sex jams, the man known onstage as Fine Peduncle has stripped down to his charcoal skivvies; by halfway through the set much of the audience has joined him in various states of undress, and Peduncle is splitting his time between triggering drum loops, confiscating new items of clothing, and improvising a song about shots of liquor.
Later in the week, Murphy admits that he maybe got carried away.
"That may be the wildest show I've done," he says. "I'm lucky I have such good friends, because I woke up the next day and I didn't remember anything—like, ‘Did I put my equipment up?' ‘Don't worry, we took care of it, it's cool.' ‘Why am I so wet?' ‘Oh, you puked all over everything.' ‘Why is there money in my underwear?'"
Murphy insists this level of onstage debauchery is a recent development, but Fine Peduncle has been oiling sex drives throughout the Southeast since late 2010, when Knoxville digital label Dracula Horse unveiled his 10-song debut GLEN ahead of an attention-grabbing spot on Pilot Light's New Year's Eve show at Ironwood Studios. Several tracks from GLEN remain in Fine Peduncle's live rotation, not least the libidinal "Don't You Fret," which Murphy confirms as the Preservation Pub opener based solely on the fact that he was in his underwear by the second song. But he spends much of the record working out the basics of his sound on the back of existing pop songs, from riffs on "My Girl" and the Mr. Rogers theme song to a sweetly filthy synthesis of Mariah Carey's "Fantasy" and Ludacris' "What's Your Fantasy."
By early 2011 Fine Peduncle's sound had solidified into a suggestive, hooky blend of hip-hop and left-field electronica, brought together by Murphy's Timberlake-on-bad-acid falsetto. What really brought the project to maturity, though, was the incorporation of his lifelong fascination with bugs, a conceit that heavily informs the trilogy of EPs he released throughout the year. (Initially released on Dracula Horse, March's Obtect Pupa was remastered and reissued alongside follow-ups Ecdysis and Aedeagus in November through Fine Peduncle's website.)
Though creepy-crawly textures and entomological jargon run as deep at the titles suggest, Murphy, who studied printmaking, says his obsession is more spiritual than academic. Still, getting metaphysical remains a secondary priority; amid the mysticism and glossary fodder are songs named "Panspermia" and "Copularium," and lines like this one, from Aedeagus' title track: "Come on and shed your skin/your exoskeleton/I'm looking for an opening to put my aedeagus in." Go ahead and Google it if you feel the need.
Even the name Fine Peduncle—from the biology term for the connective segment between the abdomen and thorax of an ant or wasp, as Murphy explains—carries more than a clinical significance.
"We also have peduncles in our brains, so in a way that ties into the psychological element of what I do," he says, alluding to the system of nerve tracts that help govern motor skills. "But [Fine Peduncle] also kinda sounds like a person's first and last name, so it became kind of a character after that, and even the sound of it has hip-hop connotations, like ‘pedunkadunk.' And I think that's really funny."
That Fine Peduncle is more an identity than a band name is key to the project. As catchy as the songs are, and as captivating as it is to watch one man piece them together from scratch onstage, it's the aggressive hedonism that made an impression throughout the region in 2011. (He points to Asheville, Murfreesboro, and Atlanta as growing Peduncle strongholds.)
Most importantly, having a fully formed character to inhabit has been a creative boon for the polite, unassuming Murphy, who still traces his love of music back to the pages of church hymnals.
"Fine's just kind of a party monster, without any inhibitions," Murphy says. "He can do things that—well, things that Cole probably could do, but won't do. It's a very important thing that I have that character, not only to jump into a less-inhibited being when I perform, but also in my normal life—if I were to be Fine Peduncle, say, at my job, I'd be instantly fired. I'd drop trou in front of a family or something. Fine doesn't think that any of that is really inappropriate, he doesn't believe in the concept of sin, where Cole still has some lingering concepts from a Christian upbringing, some ghosts that keep him calm, keep him to a certain moral standard. In my head, it's most safe to separate them."
Things have gotten progressively crazier at Fine Peduncle shows over the past year. Murphy cops to Fine's increasing lewdness, boasting slyly about an October set during which his undies-only attire pushed the limits of Knoxville's typically libertine Carousel club. ("Someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Dude, you gotta put your drawers back on.'") And though Murphy modestly attributes his broadening audience to his supportive friends—his plans for the immediate future involve playing fewer local shows, out of concern for his friends' social calendars—it probably has a little to do with high-profile slots at Asheville's MoogFest (where electronic pioneer Brian Eno was vocal in his enjoyment of Fine's aural bad-touch) and last summer's Bonnaroo, where an overlap with Eminem's set ended up a blessing.
"I was playing at the beer tent next to the main stage, and when Eminem's set ended, there was literally nothing else going on at Bonnaroo. So people, after his show, came in to get beers, and by the time I played my finales it was completely packed," Murphy recalls. "I ran out of songs, so I had to do an encore improv, and that's where [Aedeagus standout] ‘Exoskeletits' came from.... I was kind of making fun of Eminem, and made up the line ‘Hey girl, let me holler at them titty bags.' And it went over well so I held on to it."
Along with his 2011 festival presence, Fine Peduncle has tagged along to New York's Knitting Factory on a recent Royal Bangs tour and was hand-picked by British glitch-soul crooner Jamie Liddell (perhaps FP's closest professional analog) to open his Nashville show in May. Still, Murphy keeps an open mind to a variety of unexpected venues, straying more frequently than most Knoxville art-rockers from de facto homebase Pilot Light (where he'll be playing Jan. 28) to venues like the Cider House or Relix Variety Theatre, and even seeking out house shows around the region, in search of whatever party will have him.
"Some of the best shows I've had are where there's no stage, and I'm just set up on the floor with people gathered around," he says. "And people dancing, they'll hit things they shouldn't or accidentally unplug something, so the whole time I'm having to adjust for that, and I actually enjoy that. The chaos of it is cool. I want people to be up close with me, I want to be part of the party. If they're further away, you can't feel the vibe, and you get afraid. I don't want to force Fine's sexuality on anyone that isn't into it. It's hard to start humping my table on stage if I'm not sure it's what they want me to do."