Committed to consciousness and environmentalism, veganism and philosophy, as equally as they are to their music, Moon Hooch saxophonists Wenzl McGowen and Mike Wilbur and drummer James Muschler first came together busking on New York City subway platforms, where they were so popular that the NYPD banned their impromptu shows as a public-order hazard.
The explosive horn and percussion trio and their thunderous brand of cult techno jazz return to the UK for a 3-date tour. Kicking off in Manchester’s infamous Band on the Wall on November 14th, the trio will also play in Hull for the Jazz Festival’s 25th anniversary, and at Under The Bridge in London as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.
The band have since gone from strength to strength; selling out major venues in the US, touring globally, and this year released their fourth album, Live At The Cathedral, a 3-CD/DVD package recorded in 2015 at the world's largest Anglican church, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
Onstage, the band now plays through a "Reverse DJ" setup, in which the live sound from their horns runs through laptops to process recorded effects. In addition, they use Moog synthesisers, as well as an EWI (an electronic wind instrument that responds to breath in addition to touch) and other more traditional instruments like clarinets.
I had a chance to catch up with Mike Wilbur from the band to find out more about that infamous subway ban, how they are making efforts to be a carbon neutral band and what's next for Moon Hooch.
So I’ve gotta ask about the name, is there a reason behind it?
No, we weren’t even a band, in fact I hated the music we were playing! I didn’t like dance music, or anything of a popular nature at the time we started. I was more into contemporary classical music and free jazz improvisation. But then we started busking and people started liking it, we started making money, people were asking what our name was and I just said ‘moon juice’ the first thing that came to me but it was taken, so we flipped through a thesaurus and found hooch as a synonym for juice and that’s how the name came to be.
It’s that jazz vibe - you just came up with it. You mentioned improvisation, how much of what you do now is still improvised or do you tend to stick to a set when you perform?
We have a set that we play but there’s a lot of improv within it and we’d like to add more, I think by nature we’re all improvised musicians, at least I can definitely say that for myself. I’d rather be improvising; to me it feels like the most honest you can get as a musician because it’s you and your current ideas coming straight through the instrument. Obviously there’s a lexicon that you pull from when you’re improvising just from having practised for so many years and having things under your fingers but when you’re improvising, if you can step out of the way, it definitely feels like an open channel of creativity.
That’s really cool, it’s kind of more about the creativity than about a set thing that makes money. So for you it’s still all about that creativity?
Yeah it always will be, y’know at every moment I’m ready to go back down into that subway and fucking play down there again. I just wanna make honest music and sometimes it’s difficult being in this group because we feel pressured to appease our fans and that just feels dishonest. Right now we’re maintaining pretty good balance of being an accessible dancy kind of thing and also having the freedom to improvise.
"I’d rather be improvising; to me it feels like the most honest you can get as a musician because it’s you and your current ideas coming straight through the instrument... If you can step out of the way, it's like you're an open channel to creativity."
You met at Jazz school, so is it more than just the music with you guys? Do you spend every day together?
Yeah I mean we’re not even friends anymore we’re more like brothers. We’re like a combination between a marriage and a brothership. If that’s possible, without the sex, y’know? No sex, but a lot of the issues that come with marriage. I kinda look at our music as a little baby that we’re raising, and we gotta raise the baby right.
Is it true that the MTA banned you from performing?
Yes, it is true. They wrote all our names down and told us if we ever came back they’d arrest us. So you could consider that a ban. Did we go back? Yes. Did we get arrested? No. So it was kind of like a warning, they didn’t put our picture up on the wall and say BANNED.
That was because of the size of the crowds you were drawing right?
Yeah, I mean it was dangerous in retrospect. People almost fell on the tracks almost every time and it got crazy but we never intended it to get that crazy. Well I guess we kinda did, but... No I’m not gonna lie, we definitely wanted it to get crazy!
Evidently a lot of people came to see you guys perform down there, but you must’ve seen some crazy shit too, what’s the weirdest thing you guys ever saw while you were busking?
One time I was playing solo on the subway platform and this old lady came up to me and shoved her umbrella down my saxophone bell and was like ‘You're driving me fucking insane, you're driving me fucking crazy you playing the same thing over and over and over again it’s horrible’ then she left the umbrella in my horn and walked away.
So you're all self-proclaimed vegans and environmental activists and you’ve recently signed up to We Are Neutral, can you tell us what that involves sort of day to day and how that affects what you do?
I mean really we just paid them money and they are going to plant trees with that money which is kinda lame, but at least there’s that. I know you pay them a certain amount of money and they plant a bunch of new trees, that is supposed to balance out the amount of gas that we’re burning because trees are a carbon filter and it’s better than cutting them down...
I think it’s something not that many people in the music industry really think about. When you’re jetting of on tour on planes or in vans with all your equipment plus all the electricity that you’re using etc. your carbon footprint has got to be huge as as any band. So I think it’s really something that deserves more attention, and that other bands should be looking to follow.
Thank you, yeah for sure. I mean most bands just wanna get fucked up and they don’t give a shit you know? It’s hard for me to be around that, you know being vegan yourself that it's constantly being around people who are just not thinking about it. It’s a psychotic culture that we live in and I try to keep my cool. It’s like man, you’re literally eating a tortured corpse, that was farmed in the most filthy conditions imaginable... 9 billion animals slaughtered in America alone, in factory farms, that’s not even including “free range” you know? It’s insane.
We’ve never toured with another vegan band so it’s always an interesting thing because I don’t give a fuck, I’ll tell people, like 'I don’t want you eating that corpse in my green room, that was my friend'.
When I became vegan I started visiting sanctuaries and rescues and just chilling with these animals and they’re like legit beings, they connect, they feel, they’re emotional. It’s just amazing to me that full grown adults don’t put those two things together, there’s like a cognitive dissonance happening.
"I’d like to promote the fight against laziness and apathy. I think it’s a fight that we can all be a part of and if everybody tries to do better then
maybe we’ll have a fucking chance."
So is a new album on the cards for Moon Hooch?
We just blocked off some studio time in December, out in the woods in Massachusetts. We’re gonna go out there and work with this producer Tony Sagan, Karl Sagan’s grandson and make some space music.
Yeah I wanna get just a stack of high watt amps and drill my saxophone so I can play it and it doesn’t immediately feedback. Then I'm gonna turn the amps all the way up with tons of distortion and it’s like fucking super loud and just like blast like wall of sound for like an hour straight. That’s it, that's gonna be my new band.
Moon Hooch 2017 UK Tour Schedule:
Band on the Wall, Manchester – November 14th
Fruit, Hull – November 15th
Under the Bridge, London - November 16th