“Just a bunch of weirdos”: An interview with Moon Hooch’s Mike Wilbur

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Roberta

By Eva Love

Ever since they were discovered in the subways of New York, Moon Hooch has made a name for itself as a powerful, experimental jazz trio. They’ll be playing at Doug Fir Lounge on Saturday, May 13. Tickets are still available, and I highly recommend checking them out live. The band is comprised of saxophonists Wenzl McGowen and Mike Wilbur, the latter of whom I spoke with in this interview, and drummer James Muschler.

EL: So I was reading on Calabro Music Media that you and the band are vegans and are really dedicated to living and promoting a green lifestyle, especially while on tour, and I was wondering what that involves for Moon Hooch and how you feel your music embodies that attitude and how your lifestyle is reflected in your music.

Mike Wilbur: Well when we’re on the road… James [Muschler] is actually a great chef and we bring a pantry full of food with us and cooking gear and a conventional oven, a bunch of spices, and James cooks a meal almost every night. We go to the local co-op and pick up some local fruits and veggies and he throws together an amazing meal and puts it on his cooking blog “Cooking in the Cave.” We like to support local businesses like that. Big corporations take from places that aren’t even nearby and exploit people and so on and so forth. So we avoid the institutions that murder and torture animals for consumption. Also we try to minimize waste as much as we can while traveling by not using plastic water bottles, things like that. Sometimes those things are almost unavoidable but we do a pretty good job at touring with zero waste, or try to at least.

EL: I feel like that’s really important that you’re using your platform to promote that type of activism. In general, in terms of your perspective on the music industry as a whole, do you feel like other musicians are utilizing their platforms in a similar way just to promote their vision for activism? And do you feel like art and music are a useful mechanism to promote activism?

MW: Yeah, I mean, being a musician gives you a really good platform to be heard. I think if you have strong beliefs in something and that something happens to help your local community or a community then yeah, I feel like it’s your responsibility to speak up and do something. We try to do what we can. We can always try to do more, figure out ways to help. The world is in a crazy place right now. There’s so much to be done, and we’re doing very little, but at least it’s something.

EL: And then I guess on this theme of intention, on your album Joshua Tree, the audio recording “Improv Intro,” I feel like it really gets at a lot of what you’re saying. Why did you choose to include that on the album? Did you intentionally record that as the introduction to your song “Improv,” or was that just a spontaneous recording?

MW: That was just kind of a pep talk before because we were getting kind of tired and we hadn’t recorded anything that day and I was like let’s just… do this. Let’s just make something and hit hard. You know it was just kind of a motivational speech to get us going and that’s how that came up spontaneously.

EL: I always really like when there are audio recordings in conjunction with the musical recordings – I feel like it’s a really interesting mix of sound. So Moon Hooch began playing in the New York subways and in this similar vein of merging different types of audio recordings with instrumental tracks, your original release of “Number 9” on your first album Moon Hooch includes an audio recording of a woman’s voice announcing the arrival of a subway. Did you want your first album to pay homage to your time playing in subways in New York? And were there other references Moon Hooch made to the subway on that album or other ones?

MW: No, I mean, that was the first and only reference, but it was definitely us paying homage to the subway – that’s where we got started. Without the subway we wouldn’t be where we are today. That’s definitely how we got our start – we were a subway band. That’s an announcement that happens over the intercom in the New York City subway, so when we were playing the subway we hear that all the time, and we thought it’d be cool to just have that in there.

EL: What was it like playing in New York? You were probably interacting with other artists and musicians and what was that experience like?

MW: I had a house where many other artists and musicians lived and in the basement we would have shows every weekend and it was really cool and it was always experimental music and some kind of really interesting group. It was never the same rock band for example… it was always some very creative thing. I was lucky enough to be able to carry that on weekends and live there. That definitely influenced me a great deal. Playing in the subway is… there is also a community in the subway, but it’s a little bit more competitive because there are only so many spots, but we made friends with everybody here. Most of the people that play in the subway are pretty down to earth and cool.

EL: In regards to your environment as a source of inspiration, I remember reading that while you guys were playing in the subway you paid attention to your surroundings and tried to incorporate that into your sets. How do you feel space and the spaces that Moon Hooch has played in or recorded in have impacted your sound in the moment or just in general?

MW: Playing in the subway definitely helped us get a feel for what people are into. If you play a song and everybody starts dancing, that must mean that most people like that song. Especially in New York because the environment is always changing. It’s always new people coming in and out and if new people get off the train and dig the song then it must be a pretty good song, it must be a song that people are gonna dig. So that was definitely really good for us because we kind of saw immediately what works and what doesn’t. If you can make people dance in the subway platform then you can definitely make people dance in clubs when they came out to dance. It was a really good place to try stuff out and gauge what people are into.

EL: A lot of your songs are purely instrumental, but later on in Red Sky you incorporate your vocals. For a lot of your instrumental tracks, when you’re writing the songs, are you striving to tell stories and narratives or are they moreso just intended to be experimental? Like your song on your first album, “Song for Miguel,” might suggest that there is a story behind it. And of course maybe some songs are narrative while others are more experimental, but do you typically lean to one side or do you think about that at all?

MW: It really depends. Some songs have a strong narrative for me emotionally. For example we have a new song called “Growing Up” and while playing it I definitely envision myself growing up. It starts as me being a little kid riding his bike down the street. For all of us the narrative is different because it doesn’t have words, it’s just images in your brain. For me that one is a narrative of growing up literally. I envision myself going through all the stages of life up until this point and that’s the song for me which is pretty cool. So sometimes I guess would be the answer.

EL: When comparing your songs that have vocals to the ones that don’t, do you feel like there are limits sometimes both in terms of storytelling or the process of creating or just balancing so many different types of sound?

MW: Oh yeah. We have that problem a lot because we’re all so interested in so many different sounds and styles of music and it is often difficult to juggle them all and combine them. I like to rap and play metal and make experimental noise music – how does that fit into Moon Hooch? That’s a difficult thing. We’re a band. The hard thing about being in a band is that people want to know what they can expect and people have expectations. You release the album, the album is successful, that’s the sound. Say we took away the saxophones for a whole album – people would be like, “What the hell is this?” It’s only Moon Hooch because it’s just the three of us. But we’re so well-known now as a saxophone band that it feels like we’re stuck to that even though we’re really interested in a lot of other stuff, too. So we’re trying to incorporate as much as we can. It’s not always easy to just allow yourself to go for something crazy when you have financial pressures and you have thousands of fans that are expecting one thing. So it’s about really giving a fuck.

EL: This is quite a specific question, but I’ve noticed that you have three songs that reference tubes. “Tubes” is one of my favorites but then you have “Psychotubes” and “Megatubes” and after listening to them in sequence they all begin with a really deep, heavy saxophone and I was wondering if there is any reason tubes keeps recurring, or if that’s a reference to a type of sound that is in all of those songs?

MW: It’s because we’re putting the tubes in the saxophone. So for “Megatubes” we’re putting a six-foot long tube into the baritone saxophone which drops it like an octave or more, and that’s a megatube. It’s pretty dope. “Tubes” is just the original tubes song where Wenzl found a tube on the street and put it into his horn and it dropped it down to a lower pitch and we were like, wow that’s cool and we just played with that. On “Psychotubes” [Wenzl] puts the traffic cone in his baritone sax which is kind of, like, a crazy song. So it’s literally just because there is a tube.

EL: In that regard, Moon Hooch does use a lot of found objects and I was wondering how you all got started incorporating found objects into your music and if that’s also maybe a reflection of your lifestyle as well in any way, or a reference to playing in urban environments?

MW: Yeah, definitely. The tubes are for sure. We’ve collected trash objects and different garbage cans – we’ve played with all kinds of things on the street. It’s definitely about a conscious aesthetic decision. We want to be a sound-object-trash-playing band. We’re just weirdos and don’t really have any limits to our existence and are just kind of doing it all and playing with what we want. We’re very open, we like to experiment, we’re just a bunch of weirdos.

EL: On your third album, Red Sky, that’s the first time we see your own vocals in some of your music. Was that something you as a band had thought about incorporating before and were maybe limited because for a while you were playing in subways before you were discovered? What was that process like of figuring out how to balance vocals with the instrumental music that you’d been making prior to that?

MW: I only started singing about five years ago and I kind of got obsessed with it and started producing a lot of electronic music that I sang on. I have a lot of solo music. The guys were into it and they said “We want to hear you sing in the band.” I don’t have a super hype singing voice… when I play sax it’s hyped. It wasn’t the kind of voice that could replace the sax and we didn’t want that anyway. Wenzl’s not playing a very common instrument to sing with. Saxophones with no bass guitar or piano… or guitar or any kind of tonal instrument. It’s a pretty weird set up. It definitely took some getting used to and we’re still getting used to it. I feel like whenever I sing in the band it kind of brings down the energy, not in a bad way, necessarily it’s just more chill than the horns. So we definitely use it as kind of a spice for the band. Not as a main element, but almost as a break for the ears.

EL: I’ve picked up on that. The songs with vocals definitely have a very different feel. I don’t know how I would categorize them but I think it definitely does create a nice contrast. It creates a good balance within the album. Your album Joshua Tree – you were really influenced by being in that area. I was wondering with Red Sky if there was anything you were thinking about while you were recording that album. There are a few songs that have a surreal, science-fiction quality to me like “On the Sun,” “Red Sky” and “Alien Invasion,” and I was just wondering if there were specific themes or ideas or images that you had in mind while you were creating that album.

MW: That’s pretty spot on. We were traveling while we made that album. We were driving through a lot of barren, alien looking landscapes, so that definitely inspired the music. Yeah, that’s kind of weird. I think it’s probably more of a subconscious thing and it’s just coming through in our songs. So I don’t know. We weren’t like, “Hey, let’s make alien music,” it just happened that way.

EL: And then another question I have about your songs titles – you have a lot of numerical titles like “Number 9,” “Number 10,” “Number 6.” I was wondering if that’s because those are maybe done in sequence and are building off one another or if there’s a reason for those titles and if it’s indicative of the process of making those songs.

MW: The early songs with the numbers were simply the first song that we wrote, the second song that we wrote, so on and so forth. Number 3 was disbanded. We lost Number 3 along the way. There’s a recording of it on Youtube somewhere but it’s not called Number 3 and it’s from, like, 2010 when we were playing in the subway. We had those because we used hand signals in the subway to signal which song we were going to go to next so we didn’t have to stop.

EL: Just as a final question just to wrap up the interview, do you think that Moon Hooch will be busking again anytime soon or is that a thing of the past?

MW: You know, I’d never say never but I’d prefer not to. We did it for so long so intensely.


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