“Touring is cool”, says Moon Hooch’s Mike Wilbur, “though the flying sucks. I feel like I’m going to die young because of it.”
Wilbur is winding down after a gig somewhere in England as the band grinds its way across one of a few European road treks planned for 2016. In between those jaunts the trio, which is rounded out by drummer James Muschler and baritone saxophonist Wenzl McGowen, Moon Hooch will also travel across the United States, moving from coast to coast in the fall. It’s a back-breaking pace to be sure, one intended to bring the latest Hooch offering, Red Sky, to as many people as possible.
The trio was formed six years ago while the members were attending The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. Taking to the streets and subways, Moon Hooch’s marriage of aggressive sounds with beats that were meant to be danced isn’t its only asset but it’s probably the greatest one the band has. With three release under its belt and a visibility that extends beyond the confines of hip college radio shows or mere underground reverence, 2016 may very well be the group’s breakthrough year.
Red Sky reaffirms the Hooch’s focused but eclectic mission. “Sunken Ship” has as much in common with jazz as it does techno music with its throbbing sax and synth lines and lonely, melancholy lyrics that give way to something that feels like mild uplift. “Psychotubes” and “Thought” blend attitude and imagination with rarefied panache.
The record was actually conceived on the road through much of 2015. With a schedule that offered little downtime for writing, Wilbur, McGowen, and Muschler took to writing songs in the car. During the long drives between gigs the band worked away on ideas using MIDI instruments. With reasonably complete ideas in order, the trio would hunker down outside the venue each night and practice the music they’d just come up with. Slowly, the material that took shape in parking lots and green rooms became a part of the live set. By the time the trio entered the studio to record Red Sky they had the material well under command.
After the band’s 2013 debut album there was a rising tide of support for the trio, one that continued well after the following year’s This Is Cave Music. Despite some positive reception for that sophomore release, the band wasn’t particularly pleased with it. “We all kind of despise that record”, Wilbur says, “and don’t ever want to hear it again.” Reliant on synthesizers and post-production touches, it in many ways lacks the immediacy of the debut, a collection that was tracked in a single day. “We spent 10 days on Cave Music which, for us, is a lot. We create very quickly and we really like the music to stay closest to its original form.”
This time, after a false start in a rundown Brooklyn studio, the band tracked and mixed everything across a total of four days. The results of those original sessions, Wilbur notes, “Were very rigid. It really didn’t sound like us. There was lots of energy lost.” The band decided to return to the methods used on the debut. Those later sessions, one might say, yielded something closer to the Cave, though there are still small doses of electronics to be heard via “Sunken Ship” and “Rough Sex”. In the end, it sounds, Wilbur points out, “punkier” and closer to the energy he and his bandmates exhibit on the stage or during one of their almost-daily busking gigs. The main difference between Red Sky and the first outing? “We’re all better musicians and more evolved human beings. I think that really came through.”
And about those busking gigs: During a recent trek to the UK, the trio took to the streets of London, Liverpool, and other stops to sound their wares to an unsuspecting public. “It really helps you not give a fuck”, says Wilbur. “There are people that are absolutely going to hate it, there are people that are absolutely gonna love it. At the end of the day you just have to love it. You have to believe in what you’re doing. I think busking teaches you how to do that. If you don’t have those qualities, then nobody’s going to pay attention and you’re not going to make any money. But if you do people are going to listen because that energy of believing in yourself is very powerful. People recognize that almost immediately.”
The process also allows the band to stretch in ways it might not on the stage or in the rehearsal room. “There’s a lot of improvising that happens on the street”, Wilbur says, “James will start something or I’ll start something. It can go any direction. Whereas, in the show, it’s the same set every time. It’s like a thorough-composed piece of music. It also strengthens our chops because we’re playing hours and hours on end outside, in a non-acoustic space. It’s dead, very raw. You have to push really hard, especially with drums. The cymbals are super loud and James is beating them very hard. That gives it this crazy, edgy distorted saxophone sound that you can’t get unless you’re fighting for your life.”
Although Moon Hooch’s profile continues to rise at home, European audiences are embracing the band with particular fervor. “I think people in Europe are hungry for some really intense, acoustic dance music because what we do doesn’t really exist over here”, Wilbur offers. “I think that audience is more receptive.”
The trio remains more than a band to dance to. Though the members agree that there is no single philosophy that applies to all aspects of each member’s life, there are commonalities, including the practice of meditation and a respect for environmental issues. For tenor sax man Wilbur these are areas that allow him to cope with an anger that becomes evident as he discusses the issues he’s concerned about.
“I think a lot of people live pretty ignorant, mindless lives”, he says, “that exploit the planet and its natural resources. This is a robotic existence that forces animals into factory farms and tortures them, then people feed on those tortured corpses. I can’t help but see it that way. That pisses me off and it definitely comes through in the music. But we all meditate and focus on the present moment because it’s easy to get carried away in that anger and hatred. Music really is just a deep meditation. It’s a language beyond Earth. It’s vibration itself. It’s a cosmic language and we try to tap into that when we’re playing.”
It is, he acknowledges, also a language of salvation. “Music has opened the whole world for me”, he says. “I’m from Brockton, Massachusetts, a post-industrial wasteland ridden with gangs and heroin addiction. I feel like most people there don’t get an opportunity like I have to travel the world and see different cultures. They’re subjected to a cycle of self-destruction and self-hatred. I’m so thankful that my parents got me music lessons and that I met these guys. Music has basically been my personal savior. I worship it.”
- Multiple songs SoundCloud
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