Unexpected virtuosity rears its head

East Coast sax-driven trio Moon Hooch grinds cave music at Oddbody’s

By Paul Noah
Photo: [l-r] Wenzl McGowen, James Muschler and Mike Wilbur of Moon Hooch will perform at Oddbody’s Sept. 12; photo: Shervin Lainez

Listen to any Moon Hooch track and you’re instantly insulted by blatantly dissonant timbres and dance-beat-driven two-note chords – yet you’re unable to stop listening. You’re both hooked and awed by unlikely and unexpectedly massive eruptions sounded by only two sax players and a drummer.

I expect my above YouTube-sourced critique will be echoed this weekend by this East Coast trio, odd in both name and performance-styling performing at Riverside’s new band-driven night club, Oddbody’s.

There is nothing random about Moon Hooch. Though their tunes are in typical 4/4 time, you can bank on unexpected fearless-yet-controlled syncopations, often jumping time signatures.

Dissonance is their friend. They color their music with sounds every junior band student has, at least once, been reprimanded for snorting. Yet, Moon Hooch makes music out of saxophone snorts. Their dissonance isn’t only limited to timbre and tonality. With only two monophonic semi-classic reed instrument sources, Moon Hooch masterfully crafts implied harmonic dissonance, overtoning resulting from their often also dissonant two-note chords. Two notes simultaneously played at far separated bass and treble intervals suddenly sound hip/cool in comparison to the extreme dissonance those same two notes would yield if played as neighbors two steps away from each other within the same music clef. OK, enough music theory.

Theirs is music playfully crafted and performed. It’s intelligent and frequently witty, where anyone with a musical instrument background will likely laugh out loud at their clever virtuosity and use of unusual objects on and along with their primary instruments. Those with wind instrument experience in particular will appreciate the respiratory resilience of both young sax virtuosos Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen, both formally trained at New York’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. Well-trained audience members should be sure to watch and listen for Wilbur’s use of nonstop circular breathing technique as he takes melodic lead on tenor sax while McGowen, who will also take an occasional tenor sax lead, most often complements James Muschler’s articulate drumming rhythmics with syncopated, yet steady, bass blasting from his baritone sax or twisted contra bass clarinet. This trio, born from the subway platforms of New York City, is as tempo-comfortable with andante as they are allegro and similarly with near silence as they are crescendo. No music interval or musical overtone is beyond their performance grasp.

This weekend, I hope you will be compelled out of our status-quo element, as I have been, by the magnetic allure of Moon Hooch’s own new and nearly undefined dance/rave/dubstep/jazz-oriented music genre and into the doors of Riverside’s Oddbody’s. I’m so hooked; the Dayton City Paper is sponsoring the show. Bring your dancing shoes (you’ll need them).

Mike Wilbur:

How many hours a day do you practice your instrument?

Mike: My practice schedule is always changing, depending on what it is I’m working on, but an hour to two hours a day on saxophone remains constant. I have a four-hour daily routine, which includes singing, meditating, composing, yoga, instrumental practice, writing and reflection and reading.

I heard your voice for the first time as well on This is Cave Music. Is this an exception or will we hear more Mike Wilbur vocals in future Moon Hooch recordings?

Mike: I’ve been singing now for about two years and I hope to use it more and more as my ability to express myself with it grows. There will definitely be more of my voice coming up in the future of Hooch.

I also heard some polyphonic tracks supporting the three of you. How were these sounds generated? Will these sounds be found during live performance?

Mike: The polyphonic tracks on the record come from different sources. Some are live instrumental overdubs we recorded in the studio and the others are instruments created by software synths.

Which came first: The desire to perform dance-oriented music or the saxophone? Have you ever considered sanctioning or releasing a dance club remix of any Moon Hooch works?

Mike: The saxophone came before I even knew people danced to music. I’d love to release a dance club remix of some Hooch some day!


Wenzl McGowen:

Your YouTube history clearly shows your instrumentation and music source role evolved over time. You’re now essentially the bass player of the band. How did you evolve to playing bass lines on the baritone sax and eventually to the crazy deep contra bass clarinet?

Wenzl: Before Moon Hooch, I used to be the lead saxophone player and soloist in all kinds of bands. I used to float over the barlines without ever fully understanding the meaning of rhythmic precision. It was important for my musical development to shift gears and without knowing why, I developed a passion for low instruments. Once I had accumulated a bari sax and a contrabass clarinet, I realized the adjustment I needed to make was a profound one. The pleasure I used to derive from playing complex solos made me frustrated with the simplicity and precision expected from a good bass player. I started meditating and used the ability to focus to convince myself, during performances, the sound waves we are collectively producing is everything that I am. This allowed me to transcend my ego and connect on a deeper level to James and Mike, the audience and the universe.

Your self-titled first album was essentially unplugged acoustically. I noticed synthetic and postproduction sounds on your second album, This is Cave Music. Even bass lines are difficult to identify as having come from a reed instrument. Is postproduction the new direction for Moon Hooch and how much of it will be emulated on stage this weekend?

Wenzl: We have spent a lot of time contemplating how to integrate electronic elements into our performance without compromising the originality of our sound. We use Ableton Live, a digital audio workstation, to map out all the songs and program tempo automations. We then send a click track into wireless in-ear monitors and adjust our performance to the tempo signals the computer sends us. This allows us to automate effects with extreme precision. For example, we could have a reverb turn on on a single snare drum hit in the middle of the show, as long as we don’t lose track of the click track. The system we have developed has transformed post-production into pre-production. We have actually used a lot of the effects of our live show for our album and not the other way around. The system we have created is a good example for how human creativity can archive synergy with mechanic precision.


James Muschler:

This is Cave Music is about to be released next week! Congratulations. How much of your show is going to feature tunes from this second album?

James: We are playing most of the material from our new album in our live show, though we have recently been adding some new material not on the album.

Who would you say Moon Hooch’s music emulates or honors and to what extent?

James: Our music is a blend of everything that inspires us, channeled through the idiom of cave music. Some of our biggest musical inspirations are John Coltrane, Siriasmo, Aphex Twin, Mortin Feldman, Gyorgy Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhsusen, Ustad Bismallah Khan and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

I discovered online you’ve twice included a fourth guest band member, with vocalist Alena Spanger in a couple of slick music videos. Would you consider adding other guest or permanent vocalists or instrumentalists down the road?

James: Having three members in this band makes a lot of things easier than it would be with four, five or six members. That’d be just a lot to organize, but we are always interested in doing collaborations with other musicians.

Aside from your role as primary rhythm driver of the band, it appears you’re also the vegan chef.  To what extent do your life philosophies such as veganism and sustainability permeate into the lives of the other band members?

The three of us influence each other all the time in many ways. And aside from bringing people together through music, our goal is to promote whatever it is we feel will benefit humanity, and to help usher in a better way of living for future generations and our own. It’s no question a vegetarian diet is the healthier choice, not to mention way more sustainable for the entire human species (and all of life on Earth, for that matter), and with my cooking, I hope to excite people about the joy of eating healthy vegetarian food, and to expose all the fantastic things that can be done with seasonal, locally-grown produce and how to transform this quality produce into tasty meals, in hopes I will inspire others to explore a vegetarian lifestyle, and to perhaps try making some of my recipes. The cooking I do definitely permeates the stomachs of all Moon Hooch members, tour manager included!

This Dayton City Paper event takes place Friday, Sept. 12 at Oddbody’s, 5418 Burkhardt Rd. in Riverside. Tickets are $10 advance, $15 day of show. Show begins 9 p.m. Glostik Willy, Blue Moon Soup, Scott Lee and the Whiskey River Boys are also on the bill.

Tickets online at Oddbodys.com

Learn more about Moon Hooch at MoonHooch.com

Reach DCP publisher Paul Noah at Publisher@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Paul Noah
Reach publisher Paul Noah at publisher@daytoncitypaper.com.

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