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.
WWBW: I just left New Hampshire. I was there for Christmas so I know how cold it is right now.
WM: It’s freezing.
WWBW: I think we got on the plane it was 10° at 7:00 in the morning on the 27th. So yeah, hang in there.
I just talked to Mike. We had a nice chat. He tells me you guys keep real busy, like two hundred dates a year. Mostly in the U.S. or split evenly between international?
WM: I don’t know how even it is, but I know I flew across the Atlantic ocean about sixteen times this year.
WWBW: Just this year?
WWBW: Do you tend to visit the same cities to build up a following for live shows or is the Internet exposure such that –
WM: We try to be maybe twice a year in each city.
WWBW: Mike tells me a good bit of what you do is dance clubs.
WM: All kinds of places really, from small clubs to large festivals.
WWBW: Do you have a playing strategy about a big festival gig with maybe tens of thousands of people and a smaller, more intimate theater? Or do you try to bring the same vibe no matter what’s happening?
WM: It depends more on how we feel. I think it’s important that the three of us are on the same level. Before the show, we try to get together, spend some time together, maybe sing a note together and sort of feel each other’s voices.
WWBW: That’s very interesting to me, Wenzl.
WM: I think it helps because I think perceiving time is relative, and sometimes when a person is in one mood and another person’s in another mood, we’ll see that one person is playing ahead of the beat and the other behind the beat just because you’re in different head spaces. I think it’s important to get on the same page before we go on stage. It doesn’t even matter what kind of club it is. We’ve played great shows in really small clubs and played really bad shows in really big festivals, but also vice-versa. So it’s more about where we are emotionally.
WWBW: One subject I talked to Mike about was chops, because the thing you guys do, you drive on a mouthpiece instrument. How long are your sets?
WM: They’re about an hour and a half.
WWBW: That’s got to require some pretty insane conditioning. In most ensemble horn environments, you get to tap through measures of rest while a soloist or a vocalist dominates.
WM: We don’t have that. It’s constant blowing for an hour and a half.
WWBW: It’s more hardcore than a parade gig or any other thing that I can imagine. When you’re not touring do you have a rigid schedule of maintaining conditioning?
WM: We haven’t really had the chance to take time off in seven years.
WWBW: So the tours are enough to stay in shape.
WM: Touring has been our life. But now we’re going to take off some time. So we’ll see how life goes.
WWBW: Now talk about gear a little bit. Which MIDI controller do you use?
WM: I use an Akai EWI.
WWBW: And where do the patches come from, the tones?
WM: It’s an analog synthesizer built in. I haven’t really programmed a lot. I’m using the presets.
WWBW: Mostly using it in a bass context?
WWBW: You mostly live in the bass clef. I know you play nice tenor as well, but the bass register seems to be where you dwell. Would that be fair to say?
WM: Yes. I just bought a lot of bass instruments, so it’s gradually taken on the role of playing more bass.
WWBW: What is your preferred acoustic mouthpiece?
WWBW: When you were coming up in music, of course this idea that you’re pursuing with Moon Hooch isn’t what a promising young saxophonist is typically taught. Would that be fair to say?
WWBW: Did you already have a pretty good idea of what you were after with this in high school, and by the time you arrived at New School?
WM: No. I just realized I wanted to get out of the jazz scene because I just didn’t like this whole setup, like musicians playing music for musicians. It didn’t make any sense to me. I want to play music for everybody. So I started to get into simpler music and electronic music and then gradually that mixed with things Mike was into and evolved into what Moon Hooch is now.
WWBW: Okay. I think that’s not a bad place to maybe fulcrum over to your philosophy of playing.
WWBW: I had a pretty good look through your website. You have a dramatic commitment to having no carbon footprint. I was reminded of, and you might want to check this guy out, he’s an artist. He’s a friend of mine and he had a similar epiphany. He began using muslin canvas and only downed trees for his frames. He developed this soy-based gesso and food-grade turpines for the colors.
WM: Oh, cool.
WWBW: His whole production – his name is Marshall Carbee. You would dig his trip. It fits with your idea.
Could you speak to – we’ll talk about veganism and everything else a little later, but speak to the environmental approach that Moon Hooch has to touring.
WM: We just try what we can. It’s very difficult to live sustainably in an unsustainable society. We are aware that we are still using the infrastructure of this society, which is built of fossil fuels and unsustainable extraction. Literally any product you use, or most products you use are created with fossil fuel energy and are not biodegradable. And so we try to at least be carbon neutral, which means we pay carbon offsets. So, like, for the gas we burn someone plants trees for us so that the tree, the amount of carbon dioxide the trees sequester equals the amount of carbon dioxide we emit.
WWBW: That concept is at the heart of cap and trade legislation.
WWBW: Additionally, you three lead a vegan lifestyle. That must be impossible on the road if you go by normal methodology, so you must run that whole thing –
WM: It’s really not that impossible. It’s actually kind of easy. You just have to argue with waiters and explain to them what to do. Because a lot of restaurants are like, “Oh, no, we don’t do vegan food.” And then you ask, “Do you have potatoes? Do you have onions? Do you have some mushrooms? Do you have some spinach?” They’re like, “yeah.” “Could you just fry that up for me?” And then they’re like, okay. And then…
WWBW: There you have it.
WM: Even if they don’t have a vegan meal listed they most likely have the ingredients to make vegan meals.
WWBW: Do you keep an eye out for interesting vegan restaurants when you’re on the road?
WM: Yes. It’s always nice to find interesting vegan restaurants and co-ops. We like food co-ops, which are owned by the workers and create local food outlets.
WWBW: Do you ever get out to California, Los Angeles?
WM: Oh, yes, of course.
WWBW: You want to go to a Vietnamese vegan restaurant called On Loc next time you’re out this way.
WM: Okay. I’ll check it out, On Loc.
WWBW: Are you particular about – Mike kind of described his fussiness with reeds and said that you have the opposite problem or no problem with them.
WM: Yeah, I don’t really care about reeds too much. I feel like I’m very good at adjusting my embouchure to different reeds. So I can make most reeds work.
WWBW: I think you gave me plenty to work with, between yours and Mike’s interview. I wish you the best tonight. I know what Maine is like when it gets cold.
WM: Thank you for talking to me. Take care.