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To paraphrase the common axiom: In show business, it's not who you know, it's who knows you. Phoenix-based hip-hop crew Weird Is the New Cool counts Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash, radio DJs Johnjay and Rich, and MTV favorite Gym Class Heroes among its admirers, achieving recognition for its laid-back, summery sound without even releasing an album. But the band's history isn't nearly as breezy as its sound.
The group formed in 2007, when singer Kyle Collins enlisted the help of his Dobson High School friend and guitarist Nate VerWoert to back him. Eventually, the twosome grew to a six-piece group, and in 2010, after a couple of years crafting their sound, WINC released music videos for the über-catchy "Beer Pong" and "Arizona." The latter — which features myriad cameos, including a lip-synching Steve Nash — gained nearly 90,000 YouTube views.
The momentum was derailed that winter, when a rollover car accident involving their van, "The WINC-Mobile," killed their friend and driver Dan Branigan and seriously injured guitarist Cash Murphy. The group's future was uncertain, and the fatal accident put the group's album release plans on hold.
"It definitely set us back with everything we did as a band," Murphy, 29, says. The band took time to regroup, and when Murphy returned to the stage at Tempe Marketplace for a Valentine's Day show in 2011, he had to be lifted onto the stage in his wheelchair.
More than a year later, he's still on crutches. He has no memory of the crash, and the loss of his close friend Branigan, who acted as a roadie and mascot at some shows, still weighs on him.
The members say the tragedy brought them closer together and forced them to reconsider their album.
"We've become a lot closer as a band," says the 22-year-old Collins. "And the album's finally getting released. We probably would have done it wrong if we had released it back then."
In the early days of WINC, the band was known for being a party band, with enough material for half-hour sets that included music perfect for pool parties or energizing crowds as openers. Following the accident, the band expanded its repertoire of 15 songs to contain lyrics deeper than drinking game instructions.
"I can't wait for this album to come out because people are going to see the side of us where we have this deep stuff," Collins says. "You can pop our CD in on your way to a club or after a breakup or when your dog just died — literally, everything."
Indeed, WINC's sound is impossible to define. Murphy accurately describes it as "a mix of indie-hip-hop-reggae-funk-jazz-ska-punk-rock-pop-soul-metal-and-groove." Collins raps and sings, and the band draws musical inspiration from bands ranging from Weezer to N.E.R.D. Their diverse sound inspired drummer Tim Yokley to contact Gym Class Heroes before the band recorded its debut album, Girls.Love.Fun.Music!, since Gym Class Heroes are a rap-rock hybrid themselves. Gym Class Heroes drummer Matt McGinley liked what he heard and referred WINC to Gym Class producer Doug White.
"We've all been huge fans of Gym Class Heroes," Yokley, 27, says. "They have that perpetual underdog thing going on, and we kind of feel the same way. When you're playing with all these different bands, and you're that different genre, you always get classified as a certain thing."
WINC, which also includes bassist Kenny Porter and keyboardist Omni Rutledge, flew to New York City last fall to record with White, and the guys are set to release their debut on Friday, March 30. White, who has recorded more than 4,000 bands since 1995, including Every Time I Die, says the creative process was smooth.
"This CD is a well-done work of art with very honest, well-thought-out lyrics and a story," White, 42, says. "Honest music can be hard to find, so it is always refreshing when it comes along."
As the title indicates, Collins says, he was inspired by relationships and life experiences while writing the album. But though fans of their early stuff won't be disappointed by the fun and upbeat material in the tracks, listeners can also expect heavier stuff. Their just-released music video for the mellow "Skateboarder," which Collins says is a metaphor for a starving artist, is just a taste of the more mature material you can find on the album.
WINC still is focused on having fun with their music. Their live shows feature the band's mascot, Winc-ee, and someone dressed up as "beer pong guy" making appearances. The band gives off a silly vibe, but the guys' business savvy is always in full effect.
Just look at "Arizona," the song featuring Authority Zero's Jason Devore that became an unofficial anthem for Valley music lovers, with lyrics that shout out Arizona State University, University of Arizona, Mill Avenue, Captain Squeegee, Scottsdale douchebags, Marquee Theatre, and a ton of local DJs. The chorus starts out, "Ain't shit to do in Arizona" and ends with, "My one and only match is Arizona," a sentiment Collins insists most of his peers can relate to.
"In Arizona, it's hot as shit, there's nothing to do here, it's so boring, there's no scene," Collins says. "But you have to rep, though, just because you're from here; you love Arizona no matter what."