Getting Real With Mike Wilbur of Moon Hooch | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Getting Real With Mike Wilbur of Moon Hooch

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From left: James Muschler, Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen of Moon Hooch - COURTESY OF LUKE AWTRY
  • Courtesy Of Luke Awtry
  • From left: James Muschler, Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen of Moon Hooch

Moon Hooch play "cave music." The saxophones-and-drum trio coined the term after developing a unique sound busking in the cavernous subway tunnels of New York City. With the architecture of jazz and the energy of electronic house music, the band's style is relentlessly danceable and unapologetically experimental. The group is known especially for its ecstatic live performances.

Always growing and expanding, the primarily instrumental outfit dabbled a bit with vocals on its full-length studio album, Red Sky, courtesy of co-saxophonist Mike Wilbur. His solo music — an eclectic catalog that ranges from free jazz to clubbed-up electro-pop — is quite vocal-heavy. But the band's recent release, the three-track Light It Up, is a return to instrumental form.

Moon Hooch's members, James Muschler, Wenzl McGowen and Wilbur, no longer live in New York. They're scattered across the continental U.S. in Cleveland, Ohio; Reading, Calif.; and New Bedford, Mass. Fun fact: Their current manager, Dan Rome, is based in Williston and plays with local psych-fusion ensembles Gnomedad and the Dead Shakers.

Aside from rocking out — as Moon Hooch will do on Saturday, April 20, at Higher Ground in South Burlington — the group is deeply invested in issues relating to veganism, nutrition and sustainable agriculture.

Seven Days caught up with Wilbur by phone.

SEVEN DAYS: I feel like vocal-heavy albums are often touted as having strong narratives. Do Moon Hooch's primarily instrumental albums have narratives?

MIKE WILBUR: I think for all of us and our music, the narrative has been more of an inner kind of narrative — an energetic narrative, or the narrative of our growth as people and as musicians. The narrative is more in the sound, [in] both our technique and our tones, the melodies, the way we write songs, the way we play together as a group. That's more of the Moon Hooch narrative — our collective path through life and how that comes across in the music.

There are a few vocal tracks on [Red Sky]. Those speak to a certain time in my life. I wrote all of the lyrics to those. So those are a little bit more obvious. But I would say the instrumental music has kind of its own living narrative.

To be honest, it feels like we haven't even released our album yet. All of those other albums are preliminary to what's coming. They were practice.

SD: Why did you decide to bring your voice into the project? What was that experience like for you?

MW: Uh, very weird. Basically, when I was about 22, a few years after the band had started, I was dating a singer. I was taking lessons with her and, at the same time, had started producing on Ableton. So I was just messing around, writing tunes and songs, and I really fell in love with doing that. Wenzl and James were into what I was doing, so they said, "Hey, why don't you write some songs [with vocals] for Moon Hooch?" And I did, and that was that.

I think, in a lot of ways, it caused some weird tensions in the band, because it's a three-piece band and there's not really a lead person. I think by the very nature of using spoken language, [it] kind of puts you up front. So, that caused some tensions within the band.

In retrospect, I don't think it's our best work, the vocal stuff. I think Moon Hooch, at its roots, is a saxophone dance band. It's something we tried out. I'm not saying we wouldn't do it again. But I think we're steering more toward instrumental music.

SD: It seems that the band's comfort zone is about 125 to 130 beats per minute. What is it about that tempo that you're drawn to? And do you have anything against the bump-and-grind region of 80 to 100 BPM?

MW: No, not at all. Check out my personal music, because I'm really into that 80 to 100, 110. I love 110. I don't know. We played in the subway a lot, and we just kind of saw what people reacted to and evolved toward that.

SD: I just watched the video for "Acid Mountain." I have to say, I found it pretty disturbing — and I can usually handle a lot.

MW: Yeah, it's totally disturbing.

SD: I know you didn't direct it, but what's your interpretation of what's happening there?

MW: I'm glad I get to finally talk about this. All three videos [from Light It Up] were paid for by our last manager and label. They just found these random videographers to do them. We basically had no part in them whatsoever, which I hope is kind of obvious.

SD: You know, I actually did think that. I knew something was off.

MW: This guy [Alex Italics] — I don't mean to be a dick; I don't even know this guy — but he directed the video, and it was just mannequins. Still shots of mannequins with digital light going on them. I don't even think that's real light. I was like, "This is stupid. There should be [a guy who] comes in with an AK-47 and an American flag around him and destroys the mannequins and fucks them and turns into a pile of goo." I wanted it to be really fucked up. I have a messed-up brain.

I wanted it to show how disgusting and toxic masculinity and American white men are. Some kind of radical message. I wanted it to be way more in your face.

SD: Yeah, I think it was too ambiguous. I couldn't tell if it was supposed to be a comment on creepy dude behavior or not.

MW: I wanted it to show the fucked-up relationship men have toward women — and everything. Toward life itself. And how they have this tendency to use it and destroy it. And I feel like a lot of people didn't get that. I didn't direct the video — and that is the last time that will ever happen. I'm glad it wasn't worse, honestly.

SD: I think the main problem was that nothing was challenging the protagonist, or whatever we want to call him. He just got to do whatever he wanted, and it seemed like he was satisfied at the end. That was sort of off-putting.

MW: We spent 2,000 bucks on it, so we had to release it. Our [former] manager was pushing to release it. It was a weird thing, man. I'm glad we're out of that whole fucking scene.

SD: Switching gears, do you have an all-time favorite saxophone solo in a rock or pop song?

MW: Actually, yes. First thing that comes to mind is this Billy Joel song, ["Christie Lee."] It's a terrible song, but the sax solo — I remember being a kid and thinking, That's fucking raging.

SD: Moon Hooch are quite outspoken about nutrition and food justice. What's the best thing people can do to not play into the monolithic food industrial complex?

MW: I think we just need to start educating each other. We need to actually learn how to build urban gardens and feed ourselves. I think that's the ultimate, anarchist, take-the-power-back kind of thing.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Rough Sax | Getting real with Mike Wilbur of Moon Hooch | BY jordan adams"

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