Hippie rock. Jam band. Deadhead music. Percussionist Steve Kowalchuk doesn't think any of these descriptions apply to his band, Refried Confusion.
"None of the labels fit," he says. "Sure, there are influences in there, but we mix a lot of things together. I'd call us a live band, because that's what we do best. We never play the same set twice; it's all about improvisation and exploration."
He must be on to something. Refried Confusion has been playing to large, dance-happy audiences for almost six years now. Kowalchuk joined drummer Joe DeBottis, guitarist and singer Russ Gaspard, bass player Ryan Walsh and keyboardist Aaron Fergueson in February 1993 to form an improvisational ensemble. Almost immediately their vibrant mix of funk, jazz and Allmanesque Southern rock began to attract a large crowd of neohippies and college kids turned on by their extended jams and Haight-Ashbury vibe.
Refried played briefly as a four-piece after Fergueson left the band but soon added current guitarist Carter Everett and keyboardist Jay Camphire in May 1996. They alternated free-form bar gigs with monthly parties at the "Refried Ranch," a house in Apopka where some of the band members lived and practiced. The events combined live music, drum circles and a raging bonfire where the devoted would gather and party for a few days of communal fun.
"Refried Ranch was our way of taking it out of the clubs and putting it under the stars," says Kowalchuk. "People would come out and dance and party and just have a good, weird time. We'd get our hardcore followers, families and different people out there, and we'd play until 4 or 5 in the morning." Unfortunately the Ranch recently closed, but Kowalchuk says he's organizing a "Refried Happening" for Feb. 20 in Gainesville.
In 1996 the band released "Bean," their first album with the present lineup. Running the gamut from Santana-inspired Latin rock to down-and-dirty funk, "Bean" hints at the band's versatility. But, Kowalchuk notes, because the band has grown so much, the album is already slightly outdated compared to what they're doing now.
As of late, Refried Confusion has been touring the East Coast and spending more time in the recording studio. The band will soon pack up the van again for a two-month tour beginning in April that will take them to the Carolinas, Maryland, New York City, Massachusetts and Vermont. "It's our way of force-feeding America Refried Confusion," jokes Kowalchuk. "Our philosophy has always been to go to our fans, rather than wait for them to come to us."
The studio time has resulted in two completed full-length recordings. A new live album is scheduled for an April Fool's release, but the other recording is a studio album -- tentatively titled "One Fine Day" -- that's been delayed until the band can add the finishing touches. Kowalchuk says they have enough material for another live album but no definite plans for its release.
After more than two years of intense touring, Refried Confusion is attracting more diverse crowds than ever before and has recently launched a website. But Kowalchuk says the band intends to relocate to Asheville, N.C., in year or so to be more centrally located. He explains that even though they love Central Florida, they could use a change -- and the scene here could use some more adventurousness.
"I wish people would be a little more open to new stuff," he notes. "Some people are reluctant to go see a band if they've been called just a ska band or a goth band. These names stigmatize you. I wouldn't want to go see us if we billed ourselves as ‘that hippie band from Orlando.' Would you?"