The Roaring Twenties brought about the popularity of jazz and swing, as well as the prominence of the curved metal instrument that is the saxophone. Fast-forward 100 years to the 2020s and we’re now experiencing the rise of saxophone cave music, an absurd genre brought about by New York subway sensation, Moon Hooch.
Starting out as buskers in 2010 and having released their debut album ‘Moon Hooch’ in 2013, the band has gone on to tour the world, playing as many as 250 shows a year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Being a sax player myself, I was eager to Zoom interview Michael Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen, the pioneers of this new saxophone genre.
Brian: First off, thank you guys so much for doing this. I’ve been a fan since high school and have had this lingering question since then: what’s the deal with the traffic cone on the sax? How did that come to be?
Wenzl: Well we started with two tenors. We didn’t have any bass or nothing, and I really wanted to buy a bass saxophone. This was like nine or ten years ago and that was completely out of our budget, so I started thinking about what is it that makes a bass saxophone lower. It’s that the air column is longer, it’s more air to be vibrated by the reed, and I was like, well in theory if I just extend the column of the saxophone it should get lower. As I was thinking this I was walking by a pile of abandoned cardboard sheets on 8th Ave in New York City and I proceeded to carry them into my girlfriend’s grandma’s apartment and cut them with a bread knife on the kitchen counter. Then I fit different pieces into my saxophone and figured out that I was making a lower sound. So I brought it to the guys, “Hey check this tube out, let’s write a song with this.” And so we spent eight hours in the practice room at school writing and then that song became part of the repertoire. While we were on tour in Iowa I had forgotten that cardboard tube at some venue, so as we were driving on the highway there were these traffic cones – like this is the same size let’s just grab one of those. So I got one and brought it to a parlor shop, he fit it into the saxophone, and the traffic cone was born.
B: The best part is that it was unplanned, which I think are probably the best things in life.
*We all laugh*
B: I’m curious as to who your sax role models are?
Michael: John Coltrane, I think both of us.
Wenzl: Yeah Charlie.
B: Going with that, who is a sax player that you think people have been sleeping on?
M & W: Kenny G.
*We all laugh*
B: Since we’re on this topic, what is a message that you would like to tell Kenny G in the off chance that he does check out this interview?
M: I love him and I can’t wait until we meet.
W: I love his hair. Kenny I love your hair.
B: I’ve read that you guys keep categorizing your music as cave music. Could you elaborate on that?
W: We used to live in caves but now we live in houses. You know, cave the more natural way.
B: So how is this cave life?
W: Well you know, humans used to live in caves. Humans come from caves and now they all live in houses. We started playing cave music while most electronic artists make house music. You see the logic here, it’s like super super deep logic.
B: I’ve read that you’re committed vegans. I’m curious if there’s a bigger message within all of it.
W: It does make you feel better, so you generally are healthier. If you feel better, you play better. Also, it’s the easiest way to solve all problems of the planet, the easiest way that you can like right away. Because you know, it’s really hard to negotiate with oil companies and blah blah and deal with politicians, but you can just say, “okay I’m going to stop contributing to the meat and dairy industry,” and you make a huge statement and have a huge impact because the meat and dairy industry are responsible for deforestations and carbon emissions. It’s absurd if you think about how much food we are growing in order to feed the animals that we then eat, meanwhile there’s people starving in Africa, India, and all over the globe.
B: Music isn’t necessarily something structured but moreso something that sounds pleasant. I’m wondering if you’ve gone deeper into the rabbit hole of what music is and what it really means in the grand scheme of things within your interpretation of it?
W: Yes, on the deepest level music is just vibrations – it’s molecules in the air bouncing up and down in a regular pattern. Then this vibrates our eardrums, which sends signals to our brain which we then perceive and conceptualize as music, and I think that when you learn how to play music in an academic setting, there’s so much focus on the intellectual aspects of music. What are the harmonic structures? What are the mechanics behind songwriting? And there’s so much mental stuff about sound. For me personally, to get more in touch with the emotional quality of music was to realize that I’m just creating sound and I don’t need to have ideas, opinions, or thoughts about the sound because those are actually just mental constructs I have created about these vibrations. It was a journey going back into just the vibrations and experiencing them directly as vibrations, not as anything that’s conceived or labeled.
B: I have noticed, especially within doing something like free jazz or some sort of thing that isn’t necessarily structured, you interpret the sound differently. At least with free jazz, before I would listen to it and be like “what is this?,” but then started doing it, and with hearing other people, it seems more so as I guess an expression of sound.
M: At least in terms of creating music, for me it’s about allowing the intuition to create the music and not the mind at all. Rather, just allowing the music to happen and it feels like communication with, call it God or what you will, you know the universe. That’s really what it’s all about, at the core of it is completely leaving the ego behind and the identification with the self and our social image. To me that’s bliss and that’s why I play music.
B: That was beautiful man. It seems like there is something bigger within it all.
W: Yeah you can’t really explain it, but I mean once you’re doing it you feel some sensation and you can try to explain it, have a little fun with it, but ultimately it is just way beyond thoughts or ideas. I was drinking coffee yesterday with a Christian preacher, hanging out with him and I was just trying to listen to his philosophy through Christianity as his mental framework to connect to the divine and it was a very respectful conversation. I’m not prescribing to one particular framework. Yeah, like I think the divine is absolutely beyond my thoughts or ideas and I can try to conceptualize it, but like I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a Christian God, [or] it’s a Muslim God, or any God. It’s just something beyond the human intensity, beyond the human concepts and constructs.
B: It’s the human experience as I like to call it. As humans I don’t think we are able to necessarily comprehend the whole matter because we’re limited as beings, but it’s interesting to see how we interpret it.
W: The problem arises if someone shows up and goes, “no it’s that way.” Then you get religious wars.
B: And then here we are.
*There is a momentary pause to digest what has just been said*
B: A big thing that I’ve noticed with bands succeeding, is it really does come down to the individuals at least being able to work together and not clashing heads too much. Was there ever a point where you thought, oh this is the end of Moon Hooch?
M: Yeah a lot of the time.
*Michael and Wenzl start laughing*
W: It’s about learning to communicate more, also setting boundaries with each other. Be like, you know that’s my personal space, you gotta respect that. Like any relationship, you need to set boundaries, respect the other person’s needs, and forgive. Very easy to say, much harder to put into action. The recipe of a good relationship is like a few sentences, but then like relationships are much more about the ability to feel those things and put them into your being, into your deeper sense, not just your thoughts.
B: What was the biggest obstacle that you saw being in Moon Hooch that you thought, “Yo I can’t do this,” or made you question it?
M: Not being able to see past the feeling when something felt as if it was going wrong. Personally, not being able to see past my own emotional reaction to a situation and getting lost in it, and then allowing that emotion to hijack my words and actions. What would happen is my perception would change of my bandmates, so that’s been a process that I’m still working on getting better at. Just like recognizing that, “okay, this is a feeling, this is a perspective, but it’s not ‘the perspective’, it’s not the absolute anything. It’s just what I’m experiencing right now and I’m emotional.” Realizing that something has been triggered, I’ve become emotional, and I’m probably perceiving things to the extreme. Yeah anytime it’s come to like, “oh the band is over,” it’s just because I’m upset. Tame your inner demons first, you gotta give him outlets in a way that doesn’t destroy your life.
*We all chuckle*
B: You’ve pushed the boundaries of what people would consider normal on the saxophone, so innovation-wise and music-wise, are there any future plans for Moon Hooch?
M: Wenzl is going to come over to the East Coast and we’re gonna be working on an electro-Hooch album and it’s going to be saxophones and electronics. We’re going to be using a lot of analog synthesizers and we’re going to really dive deep into the sound world, further than we ever have.
B: I’m excited.
M: We have been producers; I was even a producer before Moon Hooch. So that being said, it was always in the back of our minds at some point to take it next level in terms of integrating our production skills and our love of synths. I think we are really gonna step this up to a whole new level and give our fans something that will be quite different than anything we’ve done before. But at the same time, it will be something.
B: It will be something indeed. It’s just within the evolution of music, the fact that you’re doing this now in like the ‘20s, it kinda makes sense.
W: Yeah the ‘20s, it’s usually when new shit happens.
B: It’s crazy to me that it makes this much sense, like it’s almost as if this was meant to be, but obviously that’s more playing into…something else. But yes rest assured I’ll be bumping it. Once again, thank you so much for taking the time to talk and I’m hyped for the album.
Come for the moon, stay for the hooch. The saxophone cave music innovators are here and they’re ready to leave their musical mark. Check them out!
Still can’t get enough Hoochy goodness? Check out their NPR Tiny Desk concert.
Brian Mendez is .WAV’s interview coordinator, he wrote the article. Image Credit to Moon Hooch.