Subterranean house music
Brooklyn trio brings horn-heavy dance music from the subways to the stage
The term “underground,” in the context of music and the people who make it, is generally used figuratively, but in the case of Moon Hooch it also applies in the literal sense. That’s because the trio formed to play, and found their break, on the platforms of the New York City subway system.
The members use two saxophones and a drum kit to create a free jazz/electronic dance hybrid they call cave music. Percussionist James Muschler and horn players Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen met while studying at NYC’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and at one point found themselves living in the same building and decided to start a side band together for the expressed purpose of playing streets and subways for extra cash. Soon, chemistry and crowd reaction conspired to ensure the band became more than a lark.
“We loved playing a lot more with Moon Hooch [than our other projects], and we were immediately able to support ourselves by playing on the streets,” saxophonist McGowen explained during a recent phone interview, “so we naturally started putting more energy into it.”
The first time they set up at the L train station at Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, Moon Hooch was fortunate to catch a huge crowd of refugees from a rained-out Modest Mouse show. Their guerrilla-style appearances (some of which can be found on YouTube) continued to draw such crowds that the NYPD banned them from that station, though they continue to play at others.
At another subway show, they caught the ear of Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty: “He came up and straight-up asked us if we wanted to come on a national tour with him,” McGowen said. “We really owe him for kick-starting our career.”
Moon Hooch’s ascent from the subterranean depths also triggered the next step in their musical evolution, McGowen said.
“It gave us a perspective on what we would be doing, and we started integrating electronics to make better use of the larger sound systems at the venues we started playing,” he said, referring to the birth of a system of playing along with pre-recorded sounds he likened to “reverse DJing.” “A DJ plays recorded music and adds live effects, and we’re playing live music as the computer provides live effects. We have a pretty unique system with the computer and it gives us the best of the two worlds—the precision of the DJ and the flexibility to play our music however we want.”
“We have a click track in our ear monitors, and are constantly getting clicks to our ears so we synchronize with the computer,” Wenzl added, noting the sound, and the machine’s integral role in the band, makes him sometimes imagine Moon Hooch’s “fourth member” as “an old wise man playing a clave or beating on a wood block.” “We have to respect the timing the computer is on, but within that timing we have complete freedom.”
Wenzl said the band’s integration of organic instrumentation and technology is in line with the members’ personal views on sustainability, a cause they’ve used their greater visibility to champion.
“We’re creating a collaborative system with software where our expression and our soul is dealing with interacting with a larger electronic system, and not in a way that oppresses our humanity, but it’s symbiotic,” he said. “There’s a type of inter-dependence; it all needs to work together.”
Whatever the venue, Wenzl said the band members still value, and apply, the lessons they learned before Moon Hooch surfaced.
“It definitely taught us a lot about engaging people, because people are walking by to ride the train, not listen to music,” he said. “We found out what works and what didn’t.”
Wenzl willingly shared the secret that eludes so many musicians: “Contrast captures people’s attention,” he said, using the analogy of reading a book, and noticing the sound of a refrigerator running after it stops. “We’ll play something complex and loud and then drop down to something simpler and softer, and that change is what draws people in.”