It began in balmy New York City subway stations. Two guys blaring through saxophones, accompanied by an often-shirtless drummer. Somehow this trio, who’d eventually call themselves Moon Hooch, successfully crafted a fusion of noodly stylized jazz and EDM that made busy passersby not only listen, but move.
“To the everyday person, it was mania,” saxophonist Mike Wilbur recalls. “Old ladies dancing next to homeless men and businessmen dancing with hipsters. All these crazy combinations of people as if we turned a switch within them. It was like magic.”
To their “elitist jazz musician” friends at the New School in Manhattan it was all a big joke; for a while it was for Wilbur, too. But there was no denying how this “silly dance music” made others feel, or how Wilbur and fellow sax man Wenzl McGowen and drummer James Muschler gelled when they played together. The subway performances soon led to shows on real Brooklyn stages, and eventually a record contract. They quit school, and, since their debut album dropped in 2013, landing at No. 9 on the Billboard Jazz Albums charts, they haven’t stopped. Moon Hooch rolls through the Beachland Ballroom Thursday.
In a way, it is a shtick, Wilbur admits. From the beat-up traffic cone McGowen tapes to his sax lowering the instrument’s tone, to the driving, repetitive melodies and dropping of the beat.
“[In the beginning] the music we were playing wasn’t intellectual, it was analogous to music that’s popular today. The original songs were composed to emulate club dance music. It was extremely intentional,” Wilbur explains.
Now the idea is to continue exploring musical complexity while still keeping it danceable. They want their music in clubs. They want you out with your girlfriends on a Saturday night getting drunk to their songs.
As heard with 2016’s Red Sky
, written and recorded at an eerily serene Joshua Tree National Park during winter, the band continues to add in more electronic techniques (“Rough Sex”) and vocals (“On the Sun”) to the mix.
“We’d record our improvisations every day, then go back and expound upon the ideas we were into,” Wilbur recalls. “It was the most organic songwriting process we’d ever done. A lot of the songs are very simple but we did a good job fleshing them out.”
Speaking by phone last week, the now 28-year-old is safely at his parents’ Massachusetts home preparing for the impending holiday — “Yes, celebrating the mass destruction of a culture,” he says. The group just got back from Europe, where Manchester crowds were the rowdiest they’d ever seen and Parisian fans more contained, barely swaying to the rhythms. But Wilbur says it’s not about the crowd’s reaction.
“It doesn’t matter to me anymore what people are doing. It’s not on my mind so much,” he says. “When I make art I’m not thinking at all, I do this to get out of the thinking state. The thinking state is the root of my anxiety and trouble in life. Any chance I have to leave that state, it’s definitely something I look forward to.”
In order to achieve all this, their bodies must be in peak physical shape. That means laying off drugs and alcohol, especially before shows, and cutting out meat and dairy from their diets (check out their vegan road blog Cooking in the Cave
). For drummer Muschler, who grew up in the Cleveland area going to Beachland shows prior to moving to New York City at 18, that means going shirtless, as playing the drums is a sweaty business. “He actually plays better naked,” Wilbur says.
And just like the subway busking, the shows are where Moon Hooch shines — NPR even deemed the band’s Tiny Desk Concert one of the best of the series. Live recordings, like Live at the Cathedral
, which was recorded in 2015 and dropped this summer, don’t do the band justice.
“I was very unhappy with how long that took,” Wilbur says. “We sound completely different. To say it's a new live record, it’s not at all new. The music business industry is terrible, full of clogged arteries. Part of me would rather it not be out. I can’t change that it’s out.”
And so they press on, playing nearly 200 shows a year. They’re on the road so much they don’t even have permanent housing. But through the tiredness and the long hours of traveling, it’s all washed away once the spotlight hits them on stage.
“We flip the switch, and it lets go,” Wilbur says. “It’s almost like a battle. Sometimes it feels like I’m a boxer, like nothing is going to stop us. It’s super intense. It’s a mindless state of just raw energy and there’s nothing like it. I think athletes are in these sorts of states. Anyone who has done something over and over again. It’s all automatic.”
Moon Hooch with Gnomedad
8:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd, 216-383-1124, Tickets: $18 ADV / $20 DOS, beachlandballroom.com