Moon Hooch on stage at Gabe’s. Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. — photo by Zak Neumann
Moon Hooch brought its incredible energy to Iowa City last year, promoting its new album Red Sky and showing how two saxophones and a drum kit can transform jazz into a transcendent, danceable, joyous experience. The trio — James Muschler, Mike Wilbur, Wenzl McGowen — returns to Iowa City on Oct. 3 for a show at the Blue Moose. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. I was able to chat with Mike in the month between tours:
What’s changed for you as a musician/as a band since you were last in Iowa City? What differences, if any, can the audience expect to see?
This year’s tour will have a lot more improvisation. We’ll have more long form groove sections — that’s where we can experiment a little bit more. We have modular synthesizers, some flute and clarinet to put into the set.
Red Sky was written on tour — is this year’s tour experimenting with the past, toward the future, or both?
We don’t like lateral movement as a band. We like to move forward. We’re hoping to destroy expectations and go beyond anything we’ve done yet. We’re not easily satisfied.
What growth is required of you as a musician to meet that goal?
I keep learning how to overcome the difficulty of the moment. What I mean by that: The things that stop us from accomplishing what we want to do is the feeling in the moment — they’re not things that need to be done, but internal struggles that need to be overcome and worked through. That’s the only thing stopping us. The music is our lives — the only thing that can stop us is ourselves and not doing it for whatever internal reason. Specifically: If we want to do a live electronic set in the show, we’d need to rehearse that and produce it and manifest it, which takes actions. But sometimes feelings get in the way.
How do you prepare to stay in the moment that before and during the show?
For me, it’s a constant return to breath awareness and awareness in general, being aware of how I’m feeling and observing it rather than letting it control me. For me, it’s as simple as breathing in and watching [and] focusing on my breath and not other thoughts, and it brings me back to a happy seed place without any blockages.
Your emphasis on breath sounds a lot like meditation practices. How does playing music, woodwinds in particular, help with meditation and vice versa?
I’ve gotten into circular breathing in the last five years — it depends on focused attention on continued breath. You have to keep the stream of breath going the entire time or the music will stop. That’s one of the deepest meditations I have — playing circular saxophone, constant breath. It’s taught me a lot about myself. Where you’re in a place with just you and your breath, you have to confront a lot of things that you usually don’t because the world distracts us.
How much does the creativity come from this rather than intellectual work or the sounds that other musicians make and create?
The only way to be truly improvising is to be in that meditative space. People who play licks and who “improvise” based on pre-determined patterns they’ve practiced aren’t as close to the most honest, unfiltered improvised spaces. You have to be very clear and open to be malleable. The best improvisers are able to adapt their world to any variables that come their way … in real life and in music.
How do you connect that kind of internal improvisation to a song that’s been recorded, much less two other band mates, when you play live?
Trust. I just need to trust that the people I’m playing with are there with me. Even though it’s a “solo” (in big quotes), it’s always all of us together, and it’s okay to take the horn out of your mouth and let them take it for a while. Those are some of my favorite moments in the solos: when the groove speaks for a while.
How do the flute and clarinet compare to the saxophone?
It’s what I imagine learning a different language would be, if you were speaking about, or to, the cosmos. Music is a cosmic prayer. People get it at a deeper level with music — what it means, more than words. When I pick up the saxophone I have a deeper vocabulary because I’ve done it for 20 years. It lets me express the prayer more clearly. With the others, it’s a more quiet, more humble, less fluent approach to that prayer.
So the other instruments allow you to offer yourself the grace to be clumsy and reverent at the same time? To learn new ways of praying that are simple again?
What parts of your formal musical education do you find most helpful to the music you’re making now?
Pretty much none of it. The music education I’ve forgotten by this point. What remains is the knowledge of harmony and intervals — but I don’t think about it anymore, unless I’m practicing patterns or composing a piece. But when I’m improvising, it’s more like painting a picture. I see intervals as shapes and different geometric figures — if I see anything at all. Usually it isn’t thinking, but it’s feeling and open.
How necessary was your training, then?
I wouldn’t be half the player I am without it. Being there, being submerged in a pool of music theory and bebop and practice, and being around people your age who are great and passionate and excited and into different things — and then you pick up on those, and show off what you want — you learn from that, from doing and experience. But its like any other art: Picasso wasn’t sitting and thinking about the names of brush strokes. Or a martial artist — it isn’t knowing the name of a kick. It’s practiced and internalized, it becomes just like walking … But that’s on a good day. Often, it feels like stumbling … I’m constantly educating myself. The education never really stops. The stumbling happens with a new approach, when I’m thinking. Stumbling is a part of education and the learning, and swimming and flying are part of the music process.
What values are important to you as a musician? What kind of truth or work do you want to communicate?
My values are summarized in the previous questions: attention, awareness, sensitivity (emotionally and spiritually), openness. Honesty, not vanity. So many musicians want to be the coolest and most famous — eventually you’ll be old and saggy, and you’ll die. Do something meaningful — that’s what I try to do with my time. I hope we communicate that to the audience: We care about playing our instruments well.
To what extent does the audience participate in the creation of an improvisational song?
It really depends on the show. I can’t say that they do or don’t. The audience doesn’t totally change things … There’s a cosmic/divine level of playing, when I pray or meditate on a mantra, that kind of a thing. I use the word “god” lightly. So I can pray, or I can speak to people. It moves between those spaces. When I talk to the people, it isn’t like preaching the way that a Southern preacher evokes God. It’s more transcendental, or more grounded when I say, “this is how it is,” but using a cosmic language of music. It goes between those states. Getting more mature — I’m sure in 10 years I’ll be even more fluent, and it will be easier to go into those states. If the audience is talking, not listening, [or] throwing glow sticks because they’re tripping on acid — it’s harder. That makes it more difficult. But it’s also pretty funny. It depends on my mood.