WXXI’s arts & cultural contributor Jeff Spevak, who is covering the jazz fest for us, talked recently with Moon Hooch horn player Mike Wilbur.
Evolution is essential to music. Humans developed opposable thumbs specifically so that they can better grasp the saxophone. Followed by the development of a broader world view as well, so that the music covers more ground, musically and intellectually.
“When we first started the band, I wasn’t really interested in anything else besides the music, says Mike Wilbur. “I wasn’t much of a critical thinker. You could say I was more of just a critical doer. I was very extreme in my opinions, because I didn’t have anything to found them on.”
Look at him now. A former meat-eating jazz saxophonist who was 20 years old before he left the East Coast for the first time, Wilbur is now a worldly vegan, a critical thinker whose band Moon Hooch is one of those high-energy outfits that will push the jazz envelope right to the edge, and maybe over it for some folks, at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. The trio plays two nights: Two shows Sunday in the Big Tent, two more Monday at Montage.
The three met as jazz students at The New School in Manhattan, whose vast honor roll of celebrity artists includes musicians such as smooth crooner Harry Belafonte, pop stars Ani DiFranco and Sufjan Stevens, jazz pianists Robert Glasper and Brad Mehldau, heavy metal guitarist Alex Skolnick, reggae-rapper Matisyahu and the avant-garde classical icon John Cage. Yet the school didn’t leave a positive impression with Wilbur. “Overpriced, very neo-liberal,” he says. But the steep price tag, and the iconoclastic air that Cage also breathed, was the genesis of Moon Hooch. “Driven by our financial deficits,” Wilbur says, “we were forced to bring our music to the streets to try and make some money out of the general public’s compassion.”
Impromptu outdoor concerts, no formal lineup. When it was Wenzl McGowen on sax and James Muschler on drums, the busking jazzmen were basically playing techno house music. But the meandering public wasn’t buying it. Until, “I happened to be in the park where they were playing,” Wilbur says. And he had his saxophone. “I guess I was the missing piece. We made $200 apiece.”
Two-hundred dollars! That’s a lot of ramen for three college guys. Rather than quit while they were ahead, they moved from the park, the subway platform and the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to paying gigs and television appearances.
But isn’t two saxophones in a trio a bit much?
“Saxophone is kind of thought of as a solo instrument,” Wilbur admits. “It’s kind of a competitive instrument, even. We had a lot of issues being both sax players. Wanting the spotlight, wanting the solos. It kind of taught us to be team players.
“Egos in a band really cause a lot of issues. We all have egos, and you don’t even realize what your ego looks like until you’re stuck in a van for, you know, 70 days with the same two guys.”
So they settled the ego issue. Yet with an audience now that wasn’t just hanging around for five minutes while waiting for the next train, it seemed Moon Hooch might need to expand beyond two saxophones. Just to break up the monotony.
“At first I was kind of against it, in my mind it made us kind of unique,” Wilbur says. “People came up to us and said, ‘You should add a bass.’ And we’d say, ‘We’ve thought of that, we go to a friggin’ music school.’”
Moon Hooch caved to the inevitable. Rather than add new members, they each picked up new pieces. The contrabass clarinet, whose sound reaches down to the lowest range of the human ear. A Moog analog synthesizer. An Indian tabla. McGowen sometimes mutes his tenor sax with a traffic cone. Laptop software processes the sound, taking the horns even further afield.
It’s still a beat, a groove to move. But it’s also challenging and scuffed up and improvisational, in ways you wouldn’t hear in a dance club. Moon Hooch takes the music forward and backward at the same time.
They call it “cave music.”
“We used to live in caves, now we live in houses,” Wilbur says. “The music is a little more primitive, a little more raw, than house music.” By “we” he means cave-dwelling ancient humans, although Wilbur concedes that he’s hardly moved beyond that himself. “I basically live in a cave right now. I live in a garage.”
That’s fine, so long as he gets his vegetable oil changed every 2,000 miles. Wilbur credits the coalescing of what he calls his “scattered world view,” in part, to the girlfriend of one of his bandmates. McGowen was dating an environmentalist who worked in a vegan restaurant.
“Vegan, I didn’t even know what that word meant, up until I met her,” Wilbur says. “Or what was behind it, or why people would be vegan. I remember vividly arguing with her on the subway: “YOU NEED TO EAT MEAT. YOU NEED MEAT FOR PROTIEN!”
She won the argument. “You get ripped and feel better for being vegan,” Wilbur says. “I felt way stronger, I felt better, and I felt better ethically. I went, ‘Wow, I’m actually doing something with some backbone in my life.’”
It’s not foolproof. “You can be a fat vegan,” Wilbur says, conceding to his own weakness: “Beer is vegan,” he says defensively. All three guys are thoroughly committed to the lifestyle. The band hits the road with an extensive cooking pantry, including a superb toaster oven. “James makes incredible vegan meals for us on the road,” Wilbur says. Muschler even bakes their own bread.
“We’re pretty much the healthiest band we’ve ever met,” Wilbur says. “We go on the road with people and see them doing all kinds of crazy things, and we’re working out and practicing. We’re not so much interested in the party life anymore. We’re kinda looking for inspiration rather than intoxication and burgers.”
There is a connection here, between the lifestyle and the music. “If we’re good to each other, the music is gonna be better, the vibe is going to be better,” Wilbur says.
“I think we’re all kinda working toward a more love-based, compassion-based consciousness. Facilitated by having to work together interpersonally.”
It started with the vegan leap, and learning to tame their saxophone egos, but Wilbur continued to evolve. He researched the problems factory farming posed for the environment, and how the endangered rainforests manufacture our clean air. Concerns that began working their way into the music. Moon Hooch is largely instrumental, but on a few songs Wilbur breaks out the raps. Their song “Oil Sipper,” he says, “is the vulture of industrial capitalism and how it’s destroying our planet. In a kind of a fun, rhymey, almost joking way.
“The mass culture, the mass media, the mass industry, is a culture vulture. It eats off of, actually, culture. Feeds off of it, requires it to live, then distorts it and mutates it into something horrible and destructive.”
And what’s this one named for the actor “Russell Crowe?”
“He’s epic, it’s an epic song,” Wilbur says. “I was thinking like, Gladiator.”
And the fight is for our lives.
“The foundations that we are standing on right now, in this country and the world, the foundations of imperialism, authoritarianism, are artifacts,” Wilbur says. “We as human beings, I believe, are evolving past that now in our consciousness and can really start acting on love and compassion. It’s not some crazy hippie ideal. We all have that capacity. We don’t need these arbitrary politicians to dictate our lives, or how we live anymore. We can do it ourselves, through our own actions and through the way we perceive the world. And think and do it for ourselves.”
So Moon Hooch is the band for these troubled times? Yes, but as the arts reflects a world that is inarguably out of balance, Moon Hooch is not alone.
“Every band that’s out there,” Wilbur says, “is the band for these troubled times.”
Jeff Spevak is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com. He will be reporting for WXXI throughout the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.
To see Moon Hooch:
8:30 and 10 p.m. Sunday, Rochester Regional Health Big Tent, $30 or a Club Pass.
6 and 10 p.m. Monday, Montage Music Hall, $30 or a Club Pass.