Moon Hooch is built on the Art-Blakey-with-a-groove drumming of James Muschler, framed by Wenzl McGowen’s and Mike Wilbur’s tenor saxophones, which establish groove, melody, and color.
Woodwind Brasswind: So you’re on the road to Portland, Maine right now. I know the lay of the land out there pretty well.
Mike Wilbur: I’m on 128 North.
WWBW: Okay, so you’re only just now leaving Boston?
MW: I’m trying. We ate breakfast and now I’m sitting in traffic. Classic. Boston is the worst city to drive in, hands-down.
WWBW: It is a city built for convenience on four legs rather than four wheels.
MW: That’s the truth.
WWBW: So how goes the tour?
MW: It’s really good. Last night was sold out at The Sinclair. It was an amazing show.
WWBW: How many stops all together on this tour?
MW: It’s a short one. Just five stops.
WWBW: What kind of a schedule does Moon Hooch generally like to keep? Do you have a pretty consistent average dates per year?
MW: We play up to 200 shows a year. We have for the past seven years. Maybe more.
WWBW: How much of that is touring and how much of that is slugging it out in a few favorite New York City clubs?
MW: It’s mostly touring. None of us even live in New York at this point. We tour so much we’re all just kind of gypsies at this point.
WWBW: That happens to a lot of groups that encounter success that have a good steady touring reality, is that all of a sudden they can pick where they want to live.
MW: It’s pretty sweet. Definitely a nice perk.
WWBW: You guys are definitely onto something and you deserve your success. It’s in a certain bag, but it’s absolutely its own unique and untouchable thing.
MW: Thank you.
WWBW: What kind of venues have you been playing mostly? Is it theaters with the seats bolted to the floor all pointing in the same direction or do you mostly do a dance hall kind of a vibe?
MW: Mostly dance halls, like five hundred to a thousand-person dance halls in Europe and here. It really depends on the city. But yes, usually clubs.
WWBW: A lot of our readers and customers are college and high school musicians. A sound like yours isn’t what young musicians are taught at first. I imagine you guys had to go out and find it yourselves. Would that be right?
MW: Absolutely. I went through the public school system in Brockton, Mass. I was in band and wind ensemble, jazz band and marching band. I was a band guy. It wasn’t until college that I started to step outside of the box in my thinking and playing. Moving to New York City really accelerated my creative growth and being. I went to The New School and saw all these different ensembles with different combinations of groups of instruments. I realized that anything is possible because actually there are no rules whatsoever.
WWBW: The chops required for what you do is insane. It’s not like you guys ever get to tap through sixteen measures of rest while a singer does his thing.
WWBW: Extraordinary breath technique, but the conditioning also has to be more extreme than your average ensemble player. What’s your daily practice routine when you’re not touring? Is it really acrobatic and dramatic?
MW: I have a two-hour minimum for myself to keep my chops up. I usually start with some kind of pattern. Over the years it changes, but right now I’m working on symmetrical interval patterns. Basically, it’s just picking an interval and then stacking that interval and then doing chromatic movements with it and doing that throughout the whole range of the horn. So I’ll do altissimo and down with the metronome. I do that for an hour on each interval and then I do each interval and the total of that is one hour, and then I’ll play tunes and practice jazz, playing patterns over changes and moving shapes throughout chord changes, that kind of stuff.
Then if I feel like it I try to fit in overtone exercises, slip slurs, things like this, just for maintenance.
But right now I’ve been very into recording. I have a lot of personal recording projects that I’m doing back at home. My whole day is basically just music. At least two hours of that on saxophone every day.
WWBW: So where do the compositions come from? Do you work them up at rehearsal or does one player sometimes bring in a mostly finished thing?
MW: It depends. Most of our songs were written by either Wenzl or I on Ableton Live, which would be the production software.
WWBW: I’m very familiar with it.
MW: What we would do is write the tunes in MIDI and then just send it to everybody. James will write a drum part if we don’t already compose one ourselves. Then we move on from there. Then we’ll meet up, play it, and change it around however it needs to be. But we’ve played so much together now that we can basically just say here’s a tune, let’s learn it. Then we’ll meet up and be able to play it pretty much right away. That’s one of the advantages of playing with the same people for so long.
WWBW: What about gear for you? You mentioned your overtone work and your practice, multiphonics and a lot of reed articulation technique. Are you pretty rough on reeds? You chow through them pretty quickly? Do you go through reeds quickly relative to more conventional saxophones?
MW: Oh, reeds. You know, I hate reeds [laughs]. I’m so picky. I’m the worst. I always have been. Usually there’s only one reed in a box that I really like.
WWBW: Does it last when you find it, though?
MW: Yes, it does. It’ll usually last about five shows, maybe four. But sometimes I go way longer than I should and then I end up like, why am I so flat? Or why is it so buzzy? Why am I… oh, yeah, I haven’t changed the reed in a week and a half, two weeks.
But it’s weird. Sometimes the reed just like really settles in. It’s like I try to ride it out as long as I can, you know what I mean?
WWBW: You have this tremendous ambivalence and frankness. Has anyone dared approach you as a reed endorser?
MW: Yes. I mean I’m right now endorsed by D’Addario.
WWBW: And you find that their boxes have a better consistency? I mean it’s just kind of a devil of the trade. You're dealing with a lot of French-grown reed cane that’s subject to the weather that day and how it got chopped and a million other things.
MW: Totally. There hasn’t been any reed company that I’ve found that every reed is good in the box. Some people, like Wenzl for example, he will play any reed. It doesn’t even matter. He’s totally “whatever” about reeds. I can’t be like that. I don’t know if it’s because of the overtone practices or what it is, but every single harmonic in the sound to me really matters. So I need it to sound the way I want it to in my head or it’s going to drive me crazy.
So yeah, D’Addario reeds are great. I’m just so picky [laughs]. But they’re the only reeds I really like to play.
WWBW: Which of their series do you play?
MW: The Jazz Select Medium. Three medium.
WWBW: So you must be pretty picky on the mouthpiece question, too?
MW: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I’m playing an Aaron Drake eight star. I just love it. It’s way more open. I’m back to rubber. I never thought I’d go back to hard rubber, but here I am.
WWBW: How did you come to find that one?
MW: This great local tenor player, Dino Govoni. He teaches at Berklee. I play in a big band with him sometimes when I’m back in Massachusetts. He had this mouthpiece with him at the gig one night. He offered to have me try it. I was like, I just fell in love. Like all right, I’m sold.
WWBW: Where do you live these days?
MW: Right now I’m staying in my friend’s garage in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
WWBW: Most excellent.
MW: He bought a house and he has a garage. It was full of black mold and it was falling apart. The roof needed to be replaced. I told him if you hook me up with cheap rent I’ll help you rebuild this place. So now I have a little studio, a little home studio and a nice spot. It’s pretty ideal, really.
WWBW: That sounds pretty sweet. If you do find yourself at home for a while there’s a lot of great music happening in Boston all the time.
MW: Oh, yeah.
WWBW: My family’s in Portsmouth. My wife and I stayed at the Sheraton Christmas night and the 26th. On the 26th I sat in at Wally’s. There was a bunch of Berklee kids. I’m coming up on sixty. Not a pro, but I keep myself in reasonable shape on the trumpet. So we had a ball –
WWBW: They had mercy. They called “All Blues” and “Watermelon Man” which is easy enough.
MW: There you go. Classic.
WWBW: Then they started on some Ornette Coleman tunes and such. I did the veteran bailout and everyone was happy.
MW: Glad that Wally’s jam is still happening. I haven’t been there in forever.
WWBW: So your earliest musical exposures were in the Brockton school system. Did they have a pretty good one?
MW: Actually, they did have a very good music program. I’m not really sure what state it’s in now. From the earliest I can remember, fourth grade all the teachers got together and put on a concert. Mr. Morlani, who was my sax teacher for the first few years of my musical life, he was just so cool. He’s like this old Italian guy. He would play the horn out of the side of his mouth and just had a whole cool vibe and I was like, that’s the instrument I want to play. And he was very helpful. He was a great teacher and super supportive. Always helped me along.
WWBW: Was he involved in your selecting New School?
MW: I stopped taking lessons with him when I was in seventh grade. I took a few with him in high school, but then he told me that he had nothing more to teach me, that I should call another teacher.
WWBW: Cool. That shows a lot of insight and awareness on his part. So you must have been pretty serious by the end of high school in order to select your tertiary studies as a music school specialist. Hey, Mike, you’ve been very helpful and thank you very much.
MW: Thank you, brother. Really appreciate it. It’s awesome. I’ve been looking at your guys catalogs my whole life.
WWBW: It’s a great company and we’ll do a good layout with the photos and nice print version and a more complete web version. Thanks again.