By John Whitaker
If you didn’t know what you were getting into you could be forgiven for being a little alarmed when Moon Hooch entered the stage at Band on the Wall in Manchester. A traffic cone leans against a synth bank, the drummer walks on in nothing but his underwear, everyone around you shouts in anticipation apparently in on a secret you don’t know, yet when they start playing it all starts to make sense. A monstrous wall of sound hits you: intense techno drumming, thumping house basslines and screaming tenor leads. The atmosphere is immediately electric, and the crowd are all moving together, entranced by the ridiculous amount of energy channelled into every single number.
Moon Hooch is formed of James Muschler on drums, Michael Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen on (mainly) saxophone. They don’t quite fit into any standard genre definitions but have managed to carve out their own niche playing what they call ‘Cave Music’. It’s an amalgamation of EDM, free-jazz experimentalism and funky lines that has been so designed to have a primal effect on its audience. There are stories of their early jams on the subway being shut down by police on occasion as they got too wild and seeing the mosh pit this was easy to believe.
The overriding impression of the gig was that of intense and all-encompassing energy and emotion
There was no respite between pieces and this relentless approach meant that there was always a flow of energy coming from the band, driving the crowd into a hungry tension. Yet this was by no means a case of puppeteers pulling strings, for the visibly profuse sweat on the faces of every band member made obvious that it was the passion and activity they were putting in that was having this effect. The transition for one song was an excerpt from the solo album “Mantra Saxophone”; a blisteringly fast collection of meditative arpeggios that aptly demonstrated the real skill and tendency towards experimentation that defines this band as well as bringing a sharp relief to the incessant frantic dance numbers.
This experimentation is part of what drives and emboldens them with a unique sound, a remarkable aid to their success, but it has mixed results: putting a traffic cone into a tenor sax to alter its pitch and timbre is interesting and innovative; running the microphones from acoustic instruments through a pre-planned set of electronic effects to enhance the sound is brilliant (the bass clarinet was sounding heavier than any dubstep bassline I’ve ever heard) and getting that electronic music effect out of normal instruments is impressive and sounds phenomenal, but occasionally the wacky ideas backfire. For a minute or two of the set Michael Wilbur was shouting improvised poetry into his microphone. Most of it was obscene, little of it was comprehensible. Markedly, it was the only point in the set where there was no longer anyone dancing; all movement had stopped and the audience was gazing up baffled and unsure of what to make of this new spectacle.
A traffic cone leans against a synth bank, the drummer walks on in nothing but his underwear, everyone around you shouts in anticipation apparently in on a secret you don’t know, yet when they start playing it all starts to make sense.
The bursts of true virtuosity may remind you that Moon Hooch are anything but a normal dance band, yet it’s their most danceable music that had the most widespread appeal. I fear anything beyond this, not just musically, but particularly the spirituality they are trying to convey in their music, doesn’t always come across. It gets obscured by and lost in catchy pop lines and funky beats, and it made me wish the brief glimpses that we were given with “Mantra Saxophone” were more common.
Despite these rare blips, it’s apparent that years of full time touring have paid off, and they know nothing if not how to put on a brilliant show. Finishing their set with #9, their most famous song and what everyone has been waiting for, the crowd went wild yet again and are sure to have gone home with little but positive thoughts. The overriding impression of the gig was that of intense and all-encompassing energy and emotion which I had never heard come across fully in their recorded albums. Their live performances are the more full and natural state of their music and must be seen to be believed.
In a rare extended interview, the members of Moon Hooch give their thoughts on everything from musical expression, the recording process and what music really means. Moon Hooch is formed of James Muschler, Michael Wilbur, and Wenzl McGowen.
A lot of the time it feels like we’re all battling this crazy metaphysical war that is beyond our bodies and pysche
You started busking in the subway to make money; why not some other way (weddings, or club nights)?
MW: It’s immediate; you don’t need to be booked; you can go out onto the subway and start making money right away; you put your bucket out and people put money in.
WM: Before this project, I was going around Manhattan trying to get other works; club nights and stuff, but there are so many other bands that unless you have a huge following or have gone viral there is no way in.
MW: Yeah, it’s something you really have to force yourself into.
So it was entirely a case of the music scene there being so hard to break in to?
It was incredibly competitive and aggressive; unless you are connected or have some viral shit no one is interested.
You’ve said before quite a lot of music played now is “purposeless, fast food music”, so if you were to have got into that club circuit, is that what you would have played?
I think we had that option; I was always disgusted by it, in fact, when we started I was disgusted by our own music, anything slightly commercial made me sick. These guys used to have to drag me down to the subway, I really did not want to play it, I was horrible to work with,
Wenzyl was far more open to writing pop music; he wrote all the songs and led the band for the first year. I would just turn up and play.
Did the subway not give you licence to play whatever you wanted, though? You didn’t need to have the commercial viability that you would have done.
Yeah at the time I was playing improvised music, free jazz; odd time signals and weird atonal music shit like that. You know whenever I played a gig five people would show up, and all of them were musicians that I went to school with. It was never music that people were interested in listening to. And playing the songs that Wenzyl wrote people loved them; I could bring my weird intense energy to it, and it was still accessible; weirdly accessible.
It’s an amalgamation of EDM, free-jazz experimentalism and funky lines that has been so designed to have a primal effect on its audience.
WM: Yeah it’s like if you plant a bunch of seeds; if you leave them and water them they grow into a beautiful forest. What happened with this band was completed unplanned and unpredictable. We were initially drawing a very heavy metal crowd, probably because of Mike’s influence. Like, he wanted to express that intense energy, and I wanted to do pop music. And when it came together became this intense, accessible, dance centred insanity.
So you have the pop, the free-jazz, and the heavy metal, all shoved into one sound. But the part that brings it all together is the energy; you see the way that a crowd responds to you.
Yeah, music is insane. Nobody really gets how deep music is, and the effect it can have on us. It’s purely beyond the intellect. I think the less you think about it the more effect it can have. The more we want to play, the more that energy comes out. We’re like a faucet; there’s just this stream coming out of us.
When you talk of that kind of energy, that something beyond music, how do you think it comes across on a studio album compared to one of your live shows?
We get a lot of responses of long-term fans that suggest something beyond the music is getting across. Making the audience feel what we are feeling is important.
Audience participation is key then. You’ve talked about how when you started, you two were battling each other to be the front man, but once you had grown as musicians together you started fighting together. Is that something that the audience is part of?
MW: Definitely. A lot of the time it feels like we’re all battling this crazy metaphysical war that is beyond our bodies and psyche. Sometimes I’ll see demons and shit, and we’ll crush them together, without them even knowing it.
WM: Yeah, it feels like that. For me also, I like to acknowledge all the suffering that happens in a particular place when I’m playing. There’s so much war and domination, and then we are all pretending nothing has happened. If you look around you, suffering is everywhere.
I was struck by the number of homeless, just walking from the station to here.
Exactly! There’s such apathy, people are like “oh everything’s fine, great fashion and blah blah”, meanwhile what’s really going on in the world is western society has taken over the planet and created this insane enslavement system, and pretended it hasn’t happened.
You know, there’s never been an apology for enslaving black people; it’s all been swept under the rug. If you look at it, and feel the emotions, you can get a lot of energy out. I like to think about that when I am playing, connecting to Native Americans as I am a little Native American too.
Fighting against that demon or other; do you see your music as your way of fighting back against this idea or everything that has been suppressed?
MW: I think self-expression is that. You know, when people suppress their primal instincts, it drives them to do horrible things to each other. Just by expressing oneself, you are becoming liberated from that, and liberating those downward tendencies which could cause you, or anyone in the audience, to do something horrible.
So if there’s a lot behind your music which isn’t just the music, of your live music or studio albums – which of the two gets across that underlying self-expression across?
MW: Live performance, definitely.
WM: Unfortunately, yeah. Well, not unfortunately, but it’s impossible to capture that kind of thing in a studio environment.
MW: Some tracks have come close, but you know, that is something that we’re after. I look at recordings like paintings you know, and we play live shows a lot more than were in the studio. I think it’s going to take a lot of practice; we’re not the kind of band that has a lot of money yet, so we take what we can get in the studio, which is usually a short amount of time. We’re stressed out because it cost us a large amount of money, and we’ve got to cram a lot into that short time.
I think once we’re really able to chill in a studio for a long period of time, and really be creative in that kind of environment, we’ll be able to create something that is analogous to our live shows.
The first, third and fourth, are definitely moving towards a live energy, the kind of thing that we perform in our shows.
The Beatles are a prominent example of this; they had all their popular music, took a break from playing for people in live shows, and had four albums which were all really trying to get at the listener, trying to reach another sort of level. Do you think that you’re moving towards a studio album that can tap into that kind of level of music, the same way the Beatles did? Do you think that is something you are striving for?
WM: Absolutely yeah. Definitely. We would love to take a break from touring and spend a month or three in the studio, but that is very expensive and we don’t make any money doing it.
MW: Yeah, like, I have a shit ton of student loans, so I’m in this trap where I have to make money; I have to be on the road. With Spotify, things like that, you don’t make money in the record industry anymore unless you’re huge. So, we have to tour, because that’s our career. But yeah man, hopefully, we can do something like that soon.
It would be nice to get some kind of record deal, where they just give us a bunch of money, and we can spend all our time in the studio. I feel like its coming.
In a documentary about the recording of “Red Sky” you seemed to be spending all your time in the flat re-recording, over-dubbing, making sure that everything is pitch perfect…
MW: Yeah we didn’t even use that for the album.
WM: What’s funny about that is we recorded the whole album twice. The first time as in that ghetto studio, and because we did all the overdubs and tried to make it perfect, it really lacked that genuine energy that our first record had, so we scratched the whole thing. We then went to a proper studio and banged the whole thing out in two days.
MW: The documentary should really show that, because no-one knows!
You have said you can’t listen to your past music because you have played it so often it’s evolved; you play it differently now…
I feel differently about that now. When I listen to our first record now, I can appreciate it. It’s almost like a different band, and I can see where it is coming from. Whereas our second record, I just don’t think is very good. The first, third and fourth, are definitely moving towards a live energy, the kind of thing that we perform in our shows.
WM: Yeah, Joshua tree is one of my favourites.
So if you were to describe your process for creating and honing your music, it would be through live performance. You play them again and again on tour, involving the crowd, not sitting in the studio tweaking and perfecting.
Yeah. We let songs evolve before we put them out, so we’d been playing the red sky album a year before we recorded it.
The music is the music, but it’s looking for something beyond that, with the music facilitating that. When you approach a song does reaching that other realm come spontaneously, or is it calculated?
JM: That feeling, that inspiration, for me, is somehow deeper than just the sound. It’s all subjective and how you perceive the sound, but anyway for me that feeling comes from a combination of things. First of all: its comfort, with the technical aspect of playing your instrument, and having some kind of personal connection with the sound that is happening. And also that combined with the focus, the energy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a focus on the sound, I may not necessarily be thinking about the sound. It could be almost a meditative state.
WM: Yeah, I think it is beyond the intellect. When you shut off the intellect that is what happens.
So you think the intellect is what is preventing that higher understanding?
I think the intellect distracts us from our being. When you stop thinking, you can realise that you still are. You will realise that you are far more than you thought you were. You will realise that thinking was actually a tiny part of your being. It’s a cluster of neurons smaller than a quarter; that’s the size of your rational, computational mind.
So it’s almost just a surface level?
Yeah, it’s only that much of your brain that’s thinking. It’s only that rational, computational understanding. The rest of it is already processed, and is mysterious to even neuroscientists, we don’t know what consciousness is; we have no fucking idea. But you can tap into that mystery by discarding logic, discarding thinking and just being.
Music does that because it is a language without words, and a language without intrinsic meaning. So you are still expressing yourself but it doesn’t mean anything. So it’s something beyond, yeah, beyond that computation of rationality and logic.
But how easy it is to do that when you playing music? When playing there is the man and then the machine he plays on. You say you need to stop thinking to truly express yourself when playing music, but don’t you need to think about how to express yourself on your instrument?
No, you don’t have to think about it! Once you’ve done it for thousands of hours, you don’t need to think about it. I’m not thinking about playing a saxophone when I’m playing. I’m not thinking about it at all. I think the same is true for all musicians who have played for enough time.
And that then frees you up; because it all becomes subconscious and you don’t need to think about playing anymore. When you are learning say the C major scale, you play it and you fuck up and you play it again and again and 1000 hours pass and you don’t need to think about it anymore. Now you are free to think about something else, like how you felt when your grandfather died for example. Now you’re expressing how you’re consciously feeling about that through the C major scale.
It doesn’t even need to be an entire scale or chord or song, you can fit so much thought into a single note.
Do you think it is easier or harder to do that without vocals? When someone is singing or speaking it is obvious what they are talking about. Do you ever find it difficult to express what you are thinking about using only what you can play on your sax?
Yeah. I think that I do it just by feeling it. I’m not concerned about formulating it in a rational framework to make it understandable. But for example it gives me a feeling to think about say, a metaphysical thought; all the suffering that is happening on this planet, so many different beings, so much complexity and so much struggle, why can’t we work together? That gives me a feeling in my heart; ‘we can do this!’ I don’t have to say this in words, but if I really feel it when I’m playing I think it will create shivers in the audience, which maybe in a level beyond the intellect transmits that information.
JM: Yeah, I think that it is possible to create beauty in any number of ways. You don’t necessarily need to throw out intellect to create beauty in music. It can be a combination of so many things in the mind and the soul. It’s not something that you consciously think about when you’re playing though.
WM: You’re right, maybe integrate is a better word then. Rather than throw it out.
It might be a crude question, but if you were to have an audience take one thing home from a gig, what would it be?
MW: Freedom. The feeling of being free; free to express themselves. A feeling of having expressed themselves just by being there.
JM: Something like that yeah; feeling something at least.
MW: Yeah, feeling is better than no reaction at all.
WM: A lot of people live pretty mundane lives, and I think concerts are definitely a place where they can break out of that for a night. And for us too.
MW: Yeah. We’ve been sitting in the car all day, and there’s all this pent up energy. And a show is a huge release. Afterwards, you realise…
JM: Oh yeah, this is why we did all that.
Photographs: Ted_Conference and eDu Santamaria Castro via Flickr creative commons