10 Questions with Mike Wilbur of Moon Hooch

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By Ryan Meehan

Moon Hooch captured the imaginations of thousands with its infamous stints busking on subway platforms and elsewhere in New York City:  Two sax players and a drummer whipping up furious, impromptu raves.  This happened with such regularity at the Bedford Avenue station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that the band was banned from playing there by the NYPD.  The trio’s subsequent tours with They Might be Giants, Louts, and Galactic as well as on their own have only broadened the band’s appeal.  Hornblow Recordings and Palmetto Records released Moon Hooch’s second album “This is Cave Music” back in September of 2014.  The title refers to the term Moon Hooch coined to describe their unique sound:  Like house music, but more primitive and jagged and raw.  Horn players Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen do this by utilizing tonguing methods or adding objects – cardboard or PVC tubes, traffic cones, whatever’s handy – to the bells of their horns to alter their sound.  Not to be outdone, drummer James Muschler gets swelling, shimmering sounds from his cymbals, and covers the head of his snare with a stack of splash cymbals to emulate the sound of a Roland TR-808 drum machine’s clap.  Wilbur was raised in Massachusetts, and Muschler in Ohio; McGowen grew up in different European countries.  The three met while they were students at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, and they found in each other a common work ethic and holistic philosophy.  While their self-titled first album, which cracked the top 10 of Billboard’s Jazz Albums chart approximated the band’s acoustic approach to dance music, “This is Cave Music” takes their cave music hybrid further into electronic and pop music realms with synthesizers, post-production work, and even singing added to the mix. The source material was, like the first album, mostly recorded at the Bunker Studio in Brooklyn by Jacob Bergson, with McGowen on contrabass clarinet and baritone saxophone, Wilbur on tenor saxophone and vocals, and Muschler anchoring things on percussion.  Everyone was involved in the digital additions.  “We spent a lot of time on tour producing the set, running all of the live sound through Ableton software, and manipulating the studio sound on our computer while in the car,” Wilbur explains.  “we could just pass the computer around and work on it for hours.”  The album opens up with the old school “No. 6” where Wilbur wails on digitally modified tenor saxophone as McGowen anchors the low end with contrabass clarinet, providing those shifting acid house bass sounds.   Things turn to straight up new wave on “Mountain Song” with Wilbur’s dreamy vocals alongside icy synthesizers and machine like drumbeats with contrabass clarinet filling the backdrop.  Celebrating the band’s love of bands such as Depeche Mode, “Rainy Day” is a classic synth-pop love song where Wilbur actually recorded his vocals in the van after a gig in North Carolina while on tour with Mike Doughty.  The circular sounding “St. Louis” is the final of three synth-pop road tunes written by the horn players.  (The tour stop that gave the song its name was also memorable because Muschler cut his hand wide open while making dinner backstage.  The drummer played that show in St. Louis and many that followed with one hand.)  This is the band at its most anthemic with Wilbur on vocals and sax, McGowen on contrabass clarinet and a now-healed Muschler on drums.  “5-Sax Piece” uses multiple sax overdubs from Wilbur to create a polytonal, synthesizer-like backdrop, while elsewhere, McGowen’s Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI) synthesizer can be heard at various times, most notably on the track that bears its name.  Listening to this music, it’s easy to become emotionally invested.  It may not always prompt you to strip off your clothes, but the emotional impact on both the musicians and their fans is visceral and undeniable.  We are tuned up and ready to have saxophonist Mike Wilbur of Moon Hooch as our guest today in 10 questions.  

RM:  Where did the initial idea to merge these different styles of music come from?

MW: The beginnings of the band happened by chance. We were all coming from different musical backgrounds and also needed some money. So we began busking together, bringing music onto the streets and into the caves of the New York Subway system. In the depths of those dirty caves Moon Hooch was born.

RM:  Where did the band’s name come from; and why do you feel that it’s the perfect moniker for this project?

MW: I don’t feel that it’s the perfect moniker. BiSaxual would be better. The name Moon Hooch came to me through a stream of consciousness explosion and we never turned back.

RM:  How does the material which appears on “This is Cave Music” differ from the songs on your last record?

MW: On “This is Cave Music” we have incorporated electronics, vocals, the contrabass clarinet and EWI.

RM:  Which track off of the new album is your favorite and why?  Did you know it was going to be one of your favorites right away when you wrote it, or did it take some time of the band playing it for you to fall in love with its magic?

MW: Mountain song is probably my favorite because we never play it. Every time I hear it it’s almost like listening to another band which is refreshing. When I wrote it with Wenzl we were really into it.

RM:  How did you end up working with Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing?  What is the most important thing that you’ve learned about music from having the opportunity to work with him?

MW: Mike Doughty saw us in the subway, he asked us to go on a national tour with him. We said yes. “Oh my god, yeah, f**k it” was a pretty important thing we learned from him.

RM:  Back in April of last year Hole vocalist Courtney Love was asked about Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with her late husband Kurt Cobain’s band Nirvana, and she stated that “Saxophones don’t belong in rock n’ roll”…When you hear something like that about your instrument or about any other instrument that is not usually associated with that particular genre “not belonging” in a certain style of music, do you simply view that as one person’s opinion; or does it bother you that such closed-minded thinking has found itself attacking the instrument you grew up loving?

MW: It doesn’t affect me at all. Maybe saxophones don’t belong in “rock n’ roll”, whatever that is. I steer clear of identifying myself with mainstream “culture” and other people’s opinions. None of it means anything.

RM:  Do you write most of your music on the road?  Do you think that the answer to that question might be different if you hadn’t essentially formed the concept of this band on a subway?  in other words, how much does the theme of continuous motion tend to influence the sounds of Moon Hooch?

MW: In the past few years we have written most of our music on the road. Green rooms, bathrooms, the van and hotel rooms have been our recording studios recently. Because it is harder to play as a full band (on the road) a lot of the new music is made on the computer by different individuals which inevitably creates a different product.

RM:  If you had to explain life on the road with this band in one paragraph, how would that passage read?

MW: Eyes open. Roll out of bed. Stretch, Water, Food, Coffee. Load the van. Drive for hours. Long roads, journal entries, production, singing, reading, drawing, laughing. Spurts of insanity. Pee stops, push-ups, diesel gas. Load out into venue, sound check, practice, work out, eat dinner? Play a show, merch table, load out, motel, load into motel, sleep. Repeat ad infinitum.

RM:  For you, what’s the most rewarding part of being a musician?  In other words, at the end of the day what is the one thing that makes all of the travelling and hard work so worthwhile?

MW: The most rewarding thing is to see people leaving our concerts energized, joyful, emotionally and creatively inspired. That’s why we are here.

RM:  What’s up next for Moon Hooch in the remainder of 2015 and beyond?  Anything big in the works that we should know about?

MW: It’s a secret.. 🙂

Official Website:  http://www.moonhooch.com/

Moon Hooch on Facebook:  http://facebook.com/moonhoochmusic

Moon Hooch on Twitter:  http://twitter.com/moonhooch

Once again thanks for visiting First Order Historians and enjoying more of the internet’s finest in user generated content.

Meehan

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