Moon Hooch Interview \\”While we were dead the three of us left our bodies and went into an astral world”

The Brooklyn ravers talk to Thomas Rees about their status as jazz pariahs, influences from John Coltrane to Squarepusher and the focus and discipline that goes into their wildly energetic live shows

I’ve never seen a topless man crowd surfing at a jazz gig before, but this is my first time seeing Moon Hooch live. The Brooklyn trio are used to it. In the last seven years they’ve amassed a cult following for their anarchic blend of jazz, techno, dubstep and house, playing to wild crowds the world over and winning plaudits from influencers including Iggy Pop and NPR producer Bob Boilen, who named their 2014 Tiny Desk Concert one of his favourites of all time. It’s since racked up over two million views on Youtube.

From the moment the trio take the stage at London’s Omeara, the atmosphere is more laser-lit rave than gig. The bar staff look stunned, but two numbers in they’re jumping up and down along with everyone else as drummer James Muschler pounds out club beats, Wenzl McGowen switches between throbbing contrabass clarinet and guttural baritone sax, and Mike Wilbur wrestles high-register screams from his tenor and punches the air with his free hand. When the floor-shaking bangers finally subside, Wilbur is drenched in sweat, matted black hair falling over his face. The crowd are done.

It’s one of the most ferociously energetic performances I’ve ever witnessed, and all the more astonishing given the trio’s vibe before the gig. They’ve been touring for weeks in support of Joshua Tree EP (their latest release) and a new CD/DVD, Live at the Cathedral, recorded at St. John the Divine in New York in October 2015. When we meet in an attic room above the venue, Wilbur and Muschler look whacked – sprawled on a couple of sofas, eyes closed, heads back, getting up occasionally to tuck into their vegan rider.

“Do we have beets?”

“We’ve got hummus. Some raw vegetables.”

“Caramelised onion hummus. Niiiiiice.”

McGowen, resplendent in a check jacket and mirrored pink aviators, does most of the talking and quickly establishes himself as both the joker and the philosopher of the group.

For around twenty minutes our conversation pings back and forth between deeply serious and disorientatingly oddball. Answers typically start off as one and end up as the other so a straightforward account of the band’s formation evolves into a three minute hallucinatory monologue about their death in a running street battle and subsequent resurrection:

“It was crazy. While we were dead the three of us left our bodies and went into an astral world and played a saxophone made out of light. That’s where our sound came from. There’s a lot of inspiration out there. I highly recommend it.”

Sorry, where were we? Right. Your sound.

It’s hard to neatly describe what Moon Hooch play. Techno-jazz seems to be an accepted shorthand, as does Cave Music: like house but more visceral and more free. But there are other things in the mix too. Tracks such as Mountain Lion, from Joshua Tree EP, sound like skronking reggae crossed with Ethio-jazz, and Wilbur adds gruff, heavy metal vocals to some of their tunes. If they were forced to put their music in a box, what would they call it?

“I like Energy Music,” says Wilbur.

McGowen: “Energy Music, Sound Energy.”

“Ooh. Sound Energy. Yeah, call it that. It’s nice and vague.”

The astral sphere aside, major sources of inspiration include electronic music producers Plug, Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, Current Value, Venetian Snares, AK1200, Bassnectar and Siriusmo, all of whom crop up when we touch on the trio’s new studio album, due for release early in 2018.

“We’re starting to experiment with modular synths and more electronic sounds now,” says Wilbur, “merging those with intense odd tempo beats that you can still move to. That and adding some more vocals: intense growly rapping and screaming.”

When it comes to the trio’s jazz influences, the big one – perhaps unsurprisingly given their focus on energy – is John Coltrane.

“I feel like he’s our father,” says McGowen. “He inspired all of us so intensely. I remember being 12 or 13-years-old and being totally obsessed with his music, learning his solos. When the three of us met that was one love we had in common.”

Read Seven interesting facts about John Coltrane 

Moon Hooch started when the band were all students on the prestigious jazz course at The New School in New York City. Looking to earn a buck, they began busking on street corners and on the New York Subway until their sets became so popular and so wild they were banned for being a threat to public order.

“Yeah, the NYPD was not that happy about us throwing raves on subway platforms,” says McGowen, with a laugh. “We just played really loud and people took off their shirts and waved them around and started dancing and drinking beer while trains were passing on both sides. Looking back I’m surprised nobody got injured.”

They found the hostility they encountered from the jazz community harder to deal with. “Even some of our friends pretty much cast us out,” says Muschler.  

“Humans tend to create scenes and that scene protects itself through judgement,” offers McGowen. “In jazz, that exists very strongly. When we started stepping out, people who were all about straight ahead jazz were laughing at us, not taking us seriously, talking shit. Then we started talking shit about them. Then we started fist fighting and eventually took it to the streets with a gun fight. Big shoot out.”

“Three people died,” says Wilbur through a mouthful of bread and avocado.

“Yeah. The whole jazz scene is done now. It’s dead. I think we did the industry a favour. There were so many saxophone players and guitarists in New York.”

Moon Hooch are a party band, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t serious about their music. They have to be. Mimicking electronic sounds on acoustic instruments and producing looping basslines and continuous blurs of notes, unbroken by breaths, is a major challenge.

You only need hear Wilbur reel off a list of the extended saxophone techniques he uses (“multiphonics, harmonics, false fingerings, half notes, altissimo, circular breathing…”) to appreciate just how demanding Moon Hooch repertoire is.

McGowen has his own bag of tricks, including a traffic cone rigged to fit airtight into the end of his tenor, transforming it into a Frankensteinish hybrid capable of playing rattly, distorted bass notes. Unsurprisingly, both players are big fans of Canadian virtuoso Colin Stetson, who’s made his name making weird and wonderful sounds on the sax.

“It’s not always technical things though,” says Muschler. “A lot of the music that we’re trying to emulate is all about exercising restraint: sticking with one thing and not diverging too much from it.”

Laying down an ultra-solid groove?

“Exactly.”

“For me the biggest challenge is timing,” adds McGowen. “Electronic music is produced by sequencers or computers which have far better time than any human being. And that sound of close-to-perfect time is really the essence of electronic dance music. If you want to emulate it you have to get that precision, which is a huge challenge, especially coming from a jazz background. As a horn player in jazz you can easily get away with floating over the beat, not being precisely metric.

“We’re still working on it. Recently I started recording myself and listening to where the notes are falling, on or behind the beat, and I noticed that if I’m drifting off in my thoughts that creates actual latency of my playing. So I’m like, ‘OK I have to shut down all these thoughts and be only aware of the click’.”

There’s also the physical challenge of doing it all live: maintaining the energy for a whole show, night after night. At Omeara, Moon Hooch play for 90 minutes non-stop, dovetailing tunes like the DJs they seek to emulate, and powering through hooks from Red Sky, This Is Cave Music and their self-titled debut album. It’s a serious feat of endurance and not something the band take lightly.

Moon Hooch take a holistic approach. They’re vegan and they’re also deep into meditation, which they feel has had a huge impact on their music making.

When you work on yourself through breathing or meditation you learn to control your thoughts,” says McGowen. “I used to practise and think only practising would make me better until I realised that to become a better musician I also have to stop judging myself and judging others, because that deducts from the energy you have to put into the music.”

Wilbur opens his eyes and nods in agreement. “For me, being and playing music are merging together. The things that help me be a better person are the same things that catalyse my musical growth, such as clearing thoughts and focussing on airstream, breath and energy.”

At the time I’m sceptical. Watching him sink back into the sofa, he doesn’t look like he has much energy to spare, but witnessing the trio’s transformation later that night I think they might be onto something.

Tweet @jazz_standard @moonhooch

JS | Thomas Rees

Live at the Cathedral (CD & DVD) is out now on Hornblow Recordings. Moon Hooch play Beautiful Days Festival on 18 August and Under The Bridge in Fulham on 16 November, as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival.

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