Rambunctious, energy-fueled nu-jazz dance band Moon Hooch is in their element on a live stage. This Brooklyn-based trio found each other at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Manhattan. In their early days they performed their stimulating, rhythmic tunes on street corners and subway platforms. Incredibly, these busking scenes began to draw huge crowds of intrigued folks eager to boogie along and the band quickly became well-known.
In conjunction with the recent release of their free EP The Joshua Tree, they will showcase their considerable presence and talents at the Brooklyn Bowl this Saturday. The Joshua Tree was released as a free, downloadable album in December and shows the band is moving, if possible, in an even more kinetic direction. I was lucky enough to ask horn-player Wenzl McGowen a few questions about the band and what a live concert experience is like for them.
I went to the New School, so I’ve known about you since you first started out as a band. It’s really interesting to see how much you’ve grown. I wanted to ask about your development from around 2010-2011 to now. How do you feel about how much you’ve changed from busking in the subway to playing a Tiny Desk concert?
It’s really unbelievable, incredible. We played a show two days ago in Burlington, Vermont at the Higher Ground and it was sold out. There were 750 people there. We were kind of like, Holy crap. This is insane. We didn’t really expect at all to be supporting ourselves playing shows. We never had any intention to form a band. It all took us by surprise and is still taking us by surprise.
It really feels incredible to see the reaction of the audience after the show. People are often so touched that, you know, we just kind of look at each other, speechless. It really feels like there is a communication happening on a deeper level beyond intellect and beyond words. It’s beautiful that our music is allowing people to connect to each other on a deeper level and express themselves.
I was actually planning to ask you about that. Is there any intention to make that kind of connection? Your music is very social. I’m wondering if over time that intention has changed or the kind of connection you’re trying to make has changed.
I don’t put so much intention of what kind of connection I want to establish. I feel like if I totally remove myself and just become one with the music and be fully present – if I listen to what Mike [Wilber, providing additional brass] and James [Muschler, on drums] are doing, just do my part – then, naturally, I get into a state of love. And that love sometimes expresses itself in different ways. Sometimes it’s more like a passionate kind of love and sometimes it’s more like a gentle feeling of gratitude. Even the parts of the music that are really intense and angry sounding, that to me is also part of that love. A more passionate, aggressive kind of love.
A cathartic feeling? Letting out your anger?
Yeah. I usually don’t channel that much anger. That’s not my kind of thing. Mike does that a lot, though. He really uses anger as fuel to put himself in a certain flow and express that part of himself. We have different angles, but we meet onstage in the present moment. Also, that we have such different personalities contributes to this really wide musical expression.
I think it’s a healing experience. Like the way that people go to ceremonies to heal. Sometimes I feel that is what our fans are feeling. We’ve had people write to us and say “I had an out-of-body experience at your show” or “after the show I couldn’t stop crying.” People are having deep experiences that could typically be associated with rituals or ceremonies. It’s insane.
We don’t have that much to with it, other than being totally present on stage and giving all of our awareness to each other. That’s how our music becomes powerful. If you really step out of the way and join forces with that presentness, then the music will become powerful.
I also wanted to ask about the way that you create atmosphere. Your music seems to very organically create an emotional connection, particular excitement. Especially when you used to play outside. It was like you were playing and then everything around you became bigger and bigger until it became this wild dance party. How do your shows evolve like that?
How do we create this atmosphere in the streets?
I meant more your thoughts about how it would evolve into this whole scene.
Well, like I said it always kind of happens. All we are really doing is trying to do our best musically and on a personal level. I think the times we’ve played the best on the streets, when we had the biggest crowds, when people were most engaged was, again, when we were present with each other and fully committed to the music. Like, if you stop worrying about what other people will think or if they’ll like it – if you stop caring about other people altogether – then your awareness is freed up from all these psychological concerns. At that point you have more energy to put into the present moment. So, looking back at it there were times we played where it wasn’t good and people didn’t like it – or liked it, just not so much. And then, times where people got off the trains and danced and it would create this insane energy. Those times happened when we just accepted was going on.
In the beginning it was hard for me to let go because we were dependent on the money. On the streets we had to make money. But I gradually got used to it and was able to surrender and not worry about what anyone thought. We started playing for each other, for the sake of playing. That’s what’s happening now on stage. I just try to be as present – I feel like I’m just saying the same thing about everything, but it’s true! I think the key to life is to just stay present.
Then, do you feel that the way it’s liberating for your audience, it’s just as liberating for you? A shared experience?
Oh yeah! I mean, I don’t drink that much. But after shows… I feel drunk after shows. Just like woahh, I can barely speak right now. The energy is so intense it feels like the music is a drug.
Do you guys still like busking at all? Or are you more comfortable with venues?
At this point our music has evolved so far beyond our busking set up. We haven’t done it in years.
That’s what I thought. Do you now have a favorite place to play? Does the atmosphere change at different venues?
I love Burlington. Higher Ground is a good venue. There are some great venues across the country and some venues that really sound like shit. I like the Blue Bird Theater, although it’s a little gloomy. It can be hard to make it sound right.
I like outdoor venues and festivals because you don’t have to deal with the acoustics in the room. It makes for a fun stage. We definitely get to know all of these venues pretty intimately, but at an outdoor festival you just plug in and it sounds good. You don’t have to queue out any resonance patterns.
One last thing – I wanted to know your thoughts on the rise of similar bands. You know, bands that have taken your style or your ideas. They seem to be becoming more prominent these days.
You mean Too Many Zoos and Lucky Chops?
Um, you know we don’t want to take ownership of anything. Like, you don’t own anything. Your life is a gift and everything you’ve learned is a gift from past generations, from every organism and being that has ever lived. What you create is also a gift. So, we just contributed to this wave of saxophone dance music and inspired other people to do the same thing. Some of them became more successful than us, which is, you know, fine and awesome. We’re actually good friends with them!
Moon Hooch close out their current tour with a hometown show at Brooklyn Bowl this weekend! Get tickets here.