DCP interviews Moon Hooch saxophonist / vocalist Mike Wilbur

Moon Hooch’s Wenzl McGowen, James Muschler (drums), and Mike Wilbur. Photo: Jeff Spirer

By Paul Noah

At inception, on the subway platforms of New York City in 2010, Moon Hooch was accurately, and simply, described as two sax players and a drummer. Though still a trio, seven years later their description is more complex. What’s kept this unique power trio together is their collaboratively immersed lifestyle, the climax of which occurs on stage, along each stop of their nomadic road tour existence.

To three friends Mike Wilbur, Wenzl McGowen, and James Muschler, and those who follow them, Moon Hooch is a religion; their devoted, deliberate holistic approach to health and wellness – via an organically and sustainably sourced vegan diet, meditation, their own interpretations of spirituality, and eyes-wide-open approach toward world cultures and lifestyles – is their daily practice; and the stage is their church. Dayton again plays victim to Moon Hooch’s aural evangelism Friday night, Dec. 1 at their Oddbody’s European / US tour stopover.

Per Mike Wilbur, “playing with Moon Hooch on the stage is beyond fun. Or anything even physical for me. When I go up there, I go into a state basically. I’m not thinking. I’m not myself anymore. I don’t identify with Michael Wilbur or Moon Hooch anymore. I just sound that energy and expression. And whenever my ego gets in the way or whenever I have a thought or, you know, rationalize anything I am doing, it takes me out of that sound world that I’m transported to.” And if the stage is their church, their audience is their congregation, many of whom are especially attracted because of their lifestyle.

Moon Hooch is, essentially, an experiment gone right. Before the trio chose the Moon Hooch moniker and life path, they were starving artists discovering their individual strides, interacting with other musicians, and making money from the crowd-supported hat on the ground in front of them.

“Wenzl and James were playing house music on the side. We were all playing on the street every day,” explains Wilbur. “Different types of music, trying different things out and then one day my friend Max and I rolled up on them playing in the street and they invited us to play with them. And we did two drummers, two saxes, [playing] house music in like a tonal key with like nice harmonies. And people started dancing, giving us money and we decided to keep doing it. Max wasn’t very into it; he thought it was kind of dumb, and a joke. And so did I. We were into hard-edged kind of, um, experimental improvisation. But as I started making money doing it and I started seeing value in it I was like yeah, whatever. I’ll just take crazy solos in this band.”

“Life is hilarious, its absurd. I definitely enjoy bringing that through in sound, too.” – Mike Wilbur

Where the Moon Hooch creative direction was originally, mostly, driven by Wenzl McGowen’s compositions, the band soon homogenized. Early on, Wenzl, also, served as motivator. Mike remembers, “his and my taste back then were very, very different. It really took a lot. He had to drag me out to go to the subways. They used to have to pound on my door, I would just like yell, “FUCK OFF!” I didn’t even really like Wenzl. It was definitely a struggle for them to get me to play. But as the money got better and the music got better, it became less of a kind of gimmick. I started putting more of myself into the music instead of writing the music and then it became a real collaboration.”

In fact, their subway platform performances drew such large crowds, NYC police eventually banished them permanently. Not surprisingly, when asked if he would do it again, Mike sensitively replied, “maybe one day we’ll go back down. But I almost feel weird because the subway is a place where people that really need it, money, really don’t have another place to get it, go to make money. That’s what we were doing. We weren’t just doing it for fun.”

There’s nothing accidental about their musical virtuosity. All formally and classically trained, their command of their instruments allows their comedic personalities to shine through in their compositions, their performance, and especially in their videos. A trained ear can, in fact, easily hear playfulness in both their recorded music and especially on stage.

Mike Wilbur clarified, “We’re just weirdos. We’re just like that. We find physical reality pretty hilarious most of the time. So like [for the song] ‘Jiggle’ for example we were just walking through Joshua Tree National Park brainstorming ideas for this video. I had a camera with me. And, uh, I was like let’s chase James naked around the desert. And that’s what we did. He loves being naked. He played a show naked the other night. Life is hilarious, it’s absurd. I definitely enjoy bringing that through in sound too. Because so many people try to make sound to make humanly sense. But it’s just all kind of absurd at the end of the day. At least that’s how I see it.”

Absurd is an understatement. A visit to their youtube.com/user/moonhooch channel clearly reveals their embrace for comedic absurdity. In fact, this short list of must-see online visuals suddenly provides clarity to the nature of their music and personalities: “Cattle Dance Party,” the trippy “Booty House,” and their most recent and the face-smacking “Rough Sex” off their latest album Red Sky. Also, worth the YouTube trip (but may require some digging) are “Milk and Waffles,” “Alarm Clock,” and the less absurd, more conventional special track “Contra.”

Hearing the Moon Hooch evolution before trekking to their Oddbody’s show this Friday is easy at MoonHooch.com where all four of their album works are available via Spotify interface. In fact, their latest albums Joshua Tree and Red Sky reveal new modal nuances and effects that will also be revealed on stage Friday night.

Per Mike, “I definitely think, our tunes are more model. Especially Joshua Tree, we wrote those on the spot. And it just so happens that they kind of stayed in one mode through out the whole song and on most of the album. In fact, both Joshua Tree and Red Sky were, essentially, live recordings in studio. The biggest difference in the recording process was in Joshua Tree, we engineered ourselves and we all played in one room. We recorded Red Sky in two days. And Joshua Tree in seven.”

Most interesting, and most interruptive to the band’s on-stage performance trance, is their necessity to self-manage their sound from the stage where technology via the workhorse performance app Ableton Live is their friend, “our live show is mostly 99.9% us. The other .1% is recorded. So basically, how we do it is that each microphone onstage runs into our processing rack, which is routed to our computer. We then manipulate each microphone individually through pre-recorded automations, which are just audio effects opening and closing at certain times. And we play the whole set to a click track. So you know a certain bar, at a certain part of the set, a reverb could open up on the sound mic if we want or whatever it might be. So, what we’re playing is live but its being effected live by our computer at our discretion. There are few parts where tracks will come in where we’ll pre-record some chords on the saxophone or a have a synthesizer come in just to fill the space. We used to be kind of against that. We wanted it all to be coming live on stage but then I started thinking about it differently. We programmed it, we created it. And it is still live in the moment. Its not the bulk of it is fake or synthesized. It’s like spice. Like spice in a soup, that’s how we use it.”

Moon Hooch will be at Oddbody’s Friday, December 1. Doors open at 8 p.m., tickets are $15. This event is 18 and over.

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Reach publisher Paul Noah at publisher@daytoncitypaper.com.

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