Moon Hooch talk rent prices, touring & jazz in Brooklyn
New York City subways are a hive for musical creativity. If the music is captivating enough people will gather around, applaud and kick in a few dollars for the artist’s efforts. If only the walls in the underground could talk. Brooklyn jazz fusion dance act Moon Hooch got their start busking in those subways but since have embarked on multiple tours and released three albums, with their most recent being Red Sky that came out in June. The trio of drummer James Muschler and saxophonists Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen have been known to bring the party to wherever they play and they’ll be doing just that at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg tonight (8/25), and at the Night Lights Music Festival in Sherman, NY tomorrow.
Ahead of the upcoming shows, we had a chat with McGowen about what it was like performing in the subways, trying to capture the band’s infectious live sound on their latest album, musical influences, the cost of living in Brooklyn and what Moon Hooch’s plans are for the rest of the year.
When Moon Hooch was starting out in subway stations all over New York City, what was the experience like for the band? Do you have any crazy stories from that time?
Wenzl McGowen: Absolutely. None of us expected anything to happen, we just wanted to play some music in the subways to make some money and have fun. We brought our instruments down there and we were playing. Initially we were playing a lot of jazz and not too many people responded to our music. Eventually we decided to try something more dancey and accessible like electronic music. We started to integrate the concept of loop based melodies and loop based beats in contrast between complexity and simplicity. We were using the model of the drop, the breakdown and the buildup which is very common in house music and techno music.
Suddenly the bass drum drops out where it’s more like an ambient section and then the intensity starts building and the kick drum comes back in. It seemed to engage people very strongly and soon people were actually leaving the train to get off and dance to our music. Some would even go into the subway just to dance and it became pretty wild. People were bringing drinks and they would dance on subway platforms which was pretty dangerous. The police then saw that and then they banned us from the subway or at least told us that they would arrest us next time we throw a dance party in the subway.
Then we started renting out warehouses and we started throwing raves and dance parties which was kind of stressful too because they were illegal. Eventually we took a more legal route and started touring full-time and we’re always on the road playing shows and sleeping on airplanes.
It’s crazy how the band started literally and figuratively in the underground just to make a few bucks and now you guys are making a living from it.
You mentioned how the band incorporated electronic beats and loops into Moon Hooch’s sound. It’s interesting to listen to a band that’s considered a jazz fusion act with the heavy presence of saxophones while at the same time giving the similar vibe that a full on rave would have. When you were growing up were you listening to a lot of techno and electronica? Daft Punk?
In college I did. I got very much into Daft Punk and they were definitely part of the reason I started producing electronic music. I draw a lot of inspiration from their composition techniques as well.
There are all these dimensions coming into play and the saxophones are a huge anchor for everything which is really cool. This past June, Moon Hooch released their third album Red Sky. How long did it take for the band to record the album and what was the band’s main goal while in the studio?
We wanted to bring the live energy into the record, it actually took us two tries. First, we rented out a studio in Brooklyn and we tried to engineer the record ourselves but we actually realized that we didn’t know the songs well enough to really bring the energy. Then we went on the road and toured with the songs to play them in front of people and we got more familiar with the material that way. Then we actually knocked the album out entirely in one day.
It’s always difficult for a band to capture their live sound on a record. It usually takes a while from album to album to really get it right. Red Sky definitely has that live energy flowing from track to track and that’s what I really like about it.
When Moon Hooch began in 2010, Brooklyn had a new wave of bands coming up and many others either starting out during that time or gaining recognition and breaking through. How much do you think has changed with Brooklyn musically since the start of the decade?
I feel like we were in a very secluded scene, there are so many scenes in Brooklyn. We kind of came from the free jazz and bebop scene and jazz is such an underground scene at this point. The better known jazz musicians in Brooklyn play to around 100 people. There are some bigger shows but what I’m trying to say is that most jazz musicians aren’t really in the mainstream scene at all. We just practiced a lot and kept to ourselves.
I don’t really know what was going on in Brooklyn at the time other than a bunch of white people were moving into the neighborhood while black and Hispanic people were kind of pushed aside and prices were rising. That’s one thing I definitely noticed changing in Brooklyn, nowadays tourists are coming to the neighborhood we used to live in and checking out the graffiti. I wasn’t really aware of how the music scene changed. We were just doing our own thing and we created our own scene in a way.
How hard is it as a musician to live in Brooklyn these days? Is it even more difficult than it was a couple years ago due to the high cost of living or do you just adapt to how your surroundings are?
I’m getting to the point where I’ve almost lived 10 years in New York and we are thinking about perhaps moving upstate or getting a house in Vermont because space is so expensive. You can get a tiny room for a studio and it would cost $500 while you can get a massive space for the same amount of money that’s a little bit further into the woods. For me rent is insane with witnessing how rent has exploded. I used to play $550 six years ago and now the rent there is around $1200.
There’s an extraordinary increase of rent in Brooklyn, especially in the Williamsburg and Bushwick area. I think it’s getting to a point where a lot of artists are saying “Well, ya know. It’s not worth our money. I can get more space somewhere else.” and that’s kind of where we are at.
I’ve been hearing about a bunch of artists in Brooklyn that are trying to get out and they’ll go on tour to try and gauge other cities, see how they do there and see what the atmosphere is like. With there being such a high cost of living it’s understandable why artists are thinking about leaving.
After tonight’s show at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg and tomorrow’s performances at the Night Lights Music Festival, what does Moon Hooch have planned for the rest of the year?
We got a lot planned. We are going to Russia, Serbia, the United Kingdom and Germany along with doing a huge national tour for a month and a half. We’re making our way to the West Coast and then back through Canada. We’re going to be playing a lot of shows and then in December we’re going to take some time off. I’m thinking of going to a meditation retreat or spending some time with some indigenous tribes and getting inspiration from a different source.