Moon Hooch at The Mousetrap Indianapolis, IN – Interview
Moon Hooch is absolutely amazing. I’ve been listening to them casually for a couple of years, and I was exceptionally excited for the opportunity to see them perform during their Rebirth tour. After seeing them play and spending some time with them at The Mousetrap in Indianapolis, they quickly became one of my favorite bands. These guys are seriously great. Moon Hooch is James Muschler – Drums, Wenzl McGowen – Saxophones and keyboard, and Mike Wilbur – Saxophones and Keyboard. Moon Hooch’s music is an experience, not just a sound. The sound is a tremendous mix of high energy, rhythmic ostinato-like melodies on saxophones, dance music elements provided by Moog synth, and perfectly placed technical drum rhythms. They even use found sounds on occasion, using road cones to extend the bells of their saxophones. Moon Hooch mixes several genres into their music including electronic dance music, jazz, classical, funk, pop, and rock. Their music is almost addictive. If you’re not moving while listening to Moon Hooch, you’re doing it wrong. Their stage presence is something to behold. James almost always has a smile on his face while drumming, and Mike and Wenzl are intense but generous performers. They play at and for each other just as much as the audience. They absorb the energy in the room and give it back to the audience times a million. Moon Hooch is one of 2 bands from the evening that doesn’t rely on a chordal instrument to lead the music. They don’t need it. Their intricate melodies and harmonies carry the music perfectly.
The interview started with just James and Mike, as Wenzl drives separately in an RV and had been pulled over in Ohio. There is a story about this, and Wenzl told us about it when he arrived. This was my very first official interview with a band, and I wanted my questions to be musician-to-musician, So I began by asking them about their artistic influences, not just musically, but visually as well.
JAMES: Well, with art I think my favorite artist is Rothko. I feel like I can just endlessly look in his paintings and just get lost. I also like natural scenery, natural beauty.
MIKE: Everything in my life. I don’t know. I feel like I am just an accumulation of everything I’ve experienced and seen and heard and there are, I think my parents, ya know my closest friends, I think they’re probably the greatest influences on me, and then I would say musicians such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler, people like that really influenced me sonically. And for art I would say Rothko, Franz Klein, and abstract expressionist painters.
Then I asked every musician’s favorite question; Are you classically trained?
MIKE: I did a lot of classical music. I majored in classical saxophone performance for a year.
JAMES: I started doing small orchestral percussion before the drumset so that got me into playing drums later. James and I also discussed some musician’s fear of tuning timpani. James blames tonedeafness.
With Moon Hooch being an unconventional trio with no chordal instruments to carry the music, I was interested in how they connect with the audience, especially audiences that are used to music with lyrics. The band was completely on the same page about this.
JAMES: I feel like it’s important to be comfortable in yourself and to be willing to submit yourself to the music for the sake of the music. I feel like if you’re able to do that the audience will feel it.
MIKE: Totally, I would say the same thing.
I can tell that these guys spend a lot of time together and work so well together because of their similar great attitudes. They are also the same in their pre-show rituals/prep.
MIKE: It changes for me. I’m usually just playing some type of instrument, whether it’s saxophone, trumpet, flute, or singing. I like to exercise too. Try to do some kind of exercising, get my heart rate up, get my blood flowing. I try to enjoy myself. I think if I enjoy myself I play a better show.
I noticed that the band likes to play secondary instruments before their shows. Mike plays the trumpet, James plays soprano sax, and Wenzl plays accordion. I think it’s wonderful that they have fun playing and improvising together on secondary instruments just for the heck of it. Most musicians do this at some point, but it was really awesome to see it from this band in the flesh.
Moon Hooch doesn’t shy away from the occasional pop cover, and they recently released a video for their version of Ariana Grande’s “God Is A Woman.” I love it. It’s better than the original. Nothing against Ariana of course, but there’s something about hearing a song executed well in a different instrumentation and genre that I really admire, and I strive for it myself as a musician. I asked them how the cover came to fruition. Even through illness, they pulled it off so well. MIKE: Wenzl was practicing pop songs to improve his lyrical phrasing and was like “Hey I’m practicing this song you guys wanna learn it?” And we were like yeah let’s try it out. And we did it, and it was cool, and we recorded it in the studio. James had strep throat.
JAMES: Awful. That morning I woke up and I just had no desire to move. A feeling like unable to move, like someone needed to physically take me off of the couch. I just felt like total shit and I took some dayquil and that helped. And I went to the studio and that night I was like “You guys don’t want what I have,” so I went and booked myself into a hotel room. And the next morning I woke up and saw white sores in my mouth and the whole time it just hurt to swallow and my lymph nodes were all swollen. I knew what it was, so I called my dad –my dad’s a doctor and was like, “Could you prescribe me some penicillin?” So after I got my antibiotics we went back to the Ariana Grande thing. We recorded it in the middle of rehearsals.
DANA: What is your composition process?
MIKE: It varies from song to song, but we all write respectively and collectively and its an amorphic process.
DANA: Sounds like maybe you jam on it a bit and then…
MIKE: Yeah then it just kind of happens or one of us will write one and bring it in.
JAMES: For me it either starts with the harmony or it starts with the melody, either there will be a melody or a fragment of a phrase that I like and then I’ll play around with it and if I don’t like it I’ll just scrap it, but if it develops into some kind of section that’s cool I’ll just keep going with it.
I asked the band their favorite and least favorite thing about being on tour, and here’s where I learned why Wenzl was running late. It was completely ridiculous, and completely not Wenzl’s fault. I’d love to add commentary here, but I’m going to just stick to the music…
JAMES: My favorite thing about being on tour is being able to play music for people and better people’s lives through music, and my least favorite part about touring is physical exhaustion.
MIKE: My favorite part of tour is playing music every day and having it be my main focus and being with a band all the time because we grow as a band more when we’re playing than when we’re not playing. My least favorite thing about tour is all the police in this country that ruin everyone’s lives and days.
JAMES: Yeah our buddy just got pulled over for no reason – Wenzl. That’s why he’s not here right now.
MIKE: Yeah a cop pulled him over and said “Can I search your vehicle?” for no reason, and he was like, “No I have somewhere I to be,” and the cop was like “Alright well, get out of the car,” and put him in the his cruiser and searched the van anyway with the dog and everything. Luckily they had nothing but yeah, it’s bad.
JAMES; I saw the cop too, he didn’t look very nice.
JAMES A hundred miles east. It was in Ohio I think.
Next I asked if the band has any advice for musicians who would like to get their work out there, especially if their music is unconventional in sound or instrumentation.
JAMES: Social media is so key and we have not been doing such a good job in our past as a band and have recently picked it up a lot, but I feel like if you’re a musician or any artist and you have an idea and a vision that you’re really passionate about, if you just know how to present it and get people to follow you and see what you’re doing. (My apologies to James here, the end of his answer was hard to hear because of background sound.)
MIKE: My advice would be just to persist in whatever you believe in. Just persist and put it out there and like James said, put it online and stop worrying what other people are thinking about it and just release it and show everyone.
JAMES: Yeah, fuck all the haters!
I told the guys that the “Fuck the Haters” attitude is something I try to work on every day. It’s good advice for anyone doing anything creative. It’s important to just keep going, even if other people expect the person being creative to give up and quit.
JAMES: Isn’t it so funny that people have such strong opinions about music? Its just sound.
Then Wenzl arrives, smoking a pipe, wearing a paisley velour jacket, and aviator sunglasses with transparent yellow lenses. It was a bit surreal, to be honest.
ME (to Wenzl):We’re talking about fuck the haters, because I asked the guys if they had advice for anyone trying to get out there and do something unconventional.
MIKE: I’m so glad you didn’t get in trouble with the cops
JAMES AND DANA: Yeah, me too!
WENZL: They touched my shit.
MIKE: They touched it? With their
JAMES: What did they touch?
WENZL: Well I have a compost toilet in the RV. And they like, they were looking at the compost toilet because they saw it and they were like (makes a nasty smell face.)
JAMES: Thats so funny! Yo, they fuckin’ deserved that.
MIKE: What nosy bastards. It’s illegal!
WENZL: I know. They illegally searched. But anyway, I don’t want to disrupt… fuck the haters?
We summarized what James and Mike had said, and I explained that as a musician who plays a somewhat rare instrument (6 string electric violin), I’ve been misunderstood and even told that my instrument doesn’t even exist. We discussed my instrument a bit, then we got back to the questions and answers.
WENZL: Whenever you do something, most people are gonna love it, some people are gonna hate it and especially when you put yourself out there sometimes you have to get used to it and sort of adjust yourself (the audio is unclear here, thanks to Carl Carlton’s “She’s a bad Mama Jama” blaring through the speakers.) You have to do what feels what’s right to you. There’s definitely been a lot of that, even our close friends, really judging us breaking out of the jazz scene and the kind of music we started making sounds simpler to complex jazz music.
ME: I wouldn’t say simpler, it’s just different.
WENZL: At this point it’s not simpler. In fact the rhythm we are trying to go for is the emulation of electronic music which is perfect science.
ME: It’s inhuman, it’s not organic.
WENZL: With a simpler structure you really notice imperfections so I feel like on a rhythmic level its been a huge challenge and a huge opportunity. (Unclear audio.) So on the surface it’s only seemingly simpler music.
ME: (To Wenzl) I already asked the other guys but I want to ask you, do you have any pre-show rituals?
WENZL: Usually just some Qigong before the show. Shake out the body, and breathe and do some slow movements and focus on breath and movement and get in a meditative headspace. Or I chug a beer!
Shortly after this interview, I spotted Wenzl speeding around the parking lot on rollerblades. Physical activity, veganism, and protecting the environment are very important to Moon Hooch. They have a blog called Cooking In the Cave where they share vegan recipes they cook while on the road, and they have a friend who tours with them who helps them prepare and/or procure vegan meals. They also participate in carbon neutrality. The amount of carbon emissions from their tour is calculated and trees are planted to offset the damage to the environment.
Back in 2013, Moon Hooch toured with my favorite band, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask about it, so here’s a bonus question that happened to perfectly fit into the discussion:
ME: This question is for my own self-indulgence: What was it like touring with They Might Be Giants?
WENZL: It was great! Love those people! John and John (Flansburgh and Linnell) are really really very different but very fun, accessible openhearted, kind fellows. John Flansburgh gave us some very nice advice on actually this kind of discussion of “Fuck the Haters,” just encouraging us and just keep going with what we’re doing and not think about what others do. He made the argument when people listen to you it doesn’t mean you that need to make music that you think they will like and so just always follow our own artistic values.
I’m so happy I got to experience Moon Hooch live. After the show both the band and audience were absolutely spent, but grinning ear to ear. It was an excellent night!