Moon Hooch on the Perils of Busking in New York City

Moon Hooch will play at the Bluebird Theater on Friday, October 6.
Moon Hooch will play at the Bluebird Theater on Friday, October 6. Kenneth Kearney
Moon Hooch, a three-piece band that fuses electronic music and jazz with two saxophones and a drum set, got its start busking on subway platforms in New York City around 2010. Over the past few years, the act has toured the country's bars and clubs. We talked with drummer James Muschler over the phone about how the band has incorporated electronic elements into its sound's acoustic foundation, how the musicians' performance has changed from street to stage, and what busking in New York was like.

Westword: How would you describe your sound? You have electronic elements, but would you classify yourselves as electronic?

James Muschler: I wouldn’t. We have an acoustic infrastructure, but we’re playing electronic music. We’ve been calling it "cave music," but I don’t even know if that’s a good description. It’s kind of random: A friend called me really early on in Moon Hooch, about a month after band formed, and said, “I thought of this new style of music; it’s like house music but more wild, jagged and natural to live in.” And that was the end of the voice mail, and then I showed it to [saxophonist Wenzl] McGowen, and he was like, “Oh, yeah. That describes the music perfectly.” So we went by "cave music" for a while.

How has the addition of electronic elements enhanced your acoustic foundation?

I think it has totally opened up the sonic spectrum. What we’re capable of doing with electronics is astronomical. With acoustic instruments, obviously, you could say it is also astronomical. The things you can do in a live-performance situation where you have massive speakers and all that, you can really do a lot if you know how to manipulate the sound.

Did you notice a big difference in your performance when you started adding those electronic elements?

Not a big difference. If you were to compare the sound of the band now to when we first started, there’s a huge difference. It was pretty gradual how we started incorporating it. It started with a click track; actually that was a pretty big different thing that happened. We started playing with a metronome. First we did a show where only I listened to the metronome, and that was a complete disaster. Then we all listened to the metronome, and it was better but still uncomfortable. We didn’t really know if we were going to go through with it, if it was going to get better. That’s what we do now. It got a lot more comfortable over the years.

It allows us to suspend the time. With the metronome, we’re kind of paneling the ears, so we know where the beat is. In an acoustic setting, you’re playing without a metronome. Let’s say all the musicians are really going for something and then all of a sudden the beat is gone. But with the metronome, we can all stretch out and know where the time is, and if we all land on one, that’s really cool. That’s something I feel that characterizes electronic music, these really long buildups. You might know where the time is, but you might not, also.

How would you describe the evolution of your sound?

In the beginning, Wibur and I were total jazz heads, and McGowen was pushing us in a more electronic-music direction. So the music was really crazy and full of energy. It has got this rolling, explorative sound — that’s the first album. The second album is a little more refined, and it’s a reflection of [trying to get] a more clean sound that’s overall aesthetically pleasing. What happened with the second album is that it ended up being too clean, and all the rawness was stripped away from it. It was too polished-sounding. The third album was a mix of both; we tried to reincorporate the raw energy. In the fourth album, we didn’t use Click. So it’s kind of like our first album and all raw again. So we’re back to square one in terms of our albums. We’re learning still.

Was busking something you fell into?

It’s definitely a hustle. When you go down there, you don’t know if you’re going to have to wait four or five hours for someone that’s already there to finish busking. It’s illegal, so it’s first come, first served. There’s no organized system to it, at least on the platforms. It was sometimes an all-day and all-night thing. We would get down there at 2 p.m. to be there early for rush hour. It’s the best busking spot, so the chances of someone else being there are very high. Usually there was someone else there, and they’d play at the beginning of rush hour and then we’d catch the end of rush hour and play from 7 p.m. until midnight. That means we would’ve been down there from 2 p.m. to midnight, breathing the most terrible air. We’d come home from the subway and blow our noses, and all this black, gnarly stuff would come out.

Where would you go? Different areas?

We experimented with a few different stations and settled mostly on the L train. We lived off of the L train, and there were a couple stops on it where it was pretty easy to make good money on weekends and during rush hours. We played at Bedford Avenue for a few months. On the weekends, people were raving, and the cops were worried about people getting on the tracks, so the cops asked us not to come back and took down our names. Then we went to Fourteenth Street Union Square, and we stayed there for years. We got kicked out a bunch, but no one told us to never come back, so we kept going. That’s pretty much where we busked until we started being on the road all the time.

Moon Hooch, 7 p.m. Friday, October 6, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, 303-377-1666; 9 p.m. Saturday, October 7, Fox Theatre, 1135 Thirteenth Street, Boulder, 303-447-0095.
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Riley Cowing has been writing with Westword since July 2016. She is originally from Kansas City and graduated from the journalism school at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She enjoys connecting with local artists, drinking all types of espresso and loves any excuse to watch The Devil Wears Prada.
Contact: Riley Cowing