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From the subway to the slopes

Caramie Schnell
cschnell@vaildaily.com
Moon Hooch has toured with They Might Be Giants, Lotus and Galactic as well as on their own. They play in Vail for the first time Saturday.
Special to the Daily |

If you go ...

What: Moon Hooch. Girl Talk performs after.

Where: Solaris, Vail.

When: Today. The halfpipe awards take place on the Solaris Stage at 6:30 p.m. The bands will perform after the awards.

Cost: Free.

More information: Visit burton.com/USO.

Brooklyn trio Moon Hooch has performed in some unlikely spots, including a cow pasture in rural Virginia and in the middle of a freeway bridge in South Carolina. Perhaps they’ll take their first Vail performance as an opportunity to film a song slopeside.

The members of Moon Hooch got their start busking on subway platforms in New York City to help pay the rent nearly five years ago. But this wasn’t some dejected, subpar group begging for a buck. The formally trained musicians — two saxophone players, Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen, and drummer James Muschler — would whip up furious, impromptu raves at the Bedford Avenue station in Williamsburg with their acoustic approach to dance music.

“Every weekend we’d go throw massive dance parties,” McGowen said. “People would get off the train just to party. People would hear us and come down into the subway. Eventually it became dangerous, so the police banned us.”

‘AN ACCIDENT’

The three men, all in their early 20s at the time, met while students at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. They didn’t plan to form a band, however.

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“It was an accident,” McGowen said. “We were living in the same building in Brooklyn.”

And, well, rent in New York is even more than in Vail. Once the group started playing together, they couldn’t stop.

They’ve dubbed their sound “cave music.”

“Our music could be considered a mix between free jazz and electronic house music, which has heavily influenced us,” McGowen said. “It’s a wild, primal version of house music. And since we’re living in houses currently, and used to live in caves, we call our music cave music.”

The music is exuberant and spontaneous, much like the energy of those first shows.

You can hear it live tonight at Solaris in Vail when the group opens for Girl Talk as part of a string of free concerts taking place as part of the Burton U.S. Open. While the weekend’s other performers are more recognizable: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes (who kicked things off Friday), Girl Talk (who performs after Moon Hooch tonight), and DJ Cre8, DJ Maseo, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Grandtheft (who all perform at the closing party at Dobson Ice Arena late night tonight), this is a band worth showing up early to see.

‘THEY RECOGNIZE IT BECAUSE THEY’RE A PART OF IT’

After playing in the subways in New York for a year or so, Moon Hooch amassed a decent following, McGowen said, so they decided to try above-ground shows. They rented out warehouses and threw massive illegal raves.

“That became too stressful at some point, so we started applying to clubs,” McGowen said. “Then Mike Doughty (the founder of ’90s band Soul Coughing) saw us and gave us 25 national shows and that was a huge step.”

Last year, the band performed more than 200 gigs, including shows at Terminal 5 in New York City, the High Sierra Music Festival and The Fillmore in San Francisco.

The reaction from fans has been what McGowen calls “explosive.”

“When we play a good show, it’s because we tune ourselves out,” he said. “It’s just energy forces that are much greater than us, that come through our sound. That’s why we have such an explosive reaction at our live shows. We all of a sudden connect the audience with something they know exists within their hearts and they are deep down familiar with. They recognize it because they’re a part of it.”

Acoustically the music emulates the build ups and drops of electronic music. The band members have modified their instruments using everything from PVC tubes to cardboard to accomplish this.

“In one song, I put a traffic cone onto the bell of my saxophone to create more synthesizer-like sounds,” McGowen said.

Drummer James Muschler gets swelling, shimmering sounds from his cymbals and covers the head of his snare with a stack of splash cymbals to emulate the sound of a Roland TR-808 drum machine’s clap.

COW TUNES

If you’re not familiar with the band, it’s worth checking out some of the music videos on YouTube. The video “Cattle Dance Party,” has more than 300,000 views. It was filmed in 2013 in a field at Polyface Farms, a sustainable farming operation in rural Virginia that “provides legit, sustainable alternatives to the factory farming system,” McGowen said.

In the video, the band plays their song “Tubes” while cattle scatter in the background before lining up to watch. At the time, McGowen was reading a lot about the food system and sustainability, something that all of the band members are passionate about. He realized they were driving right by the farm and called and asked if they could “swing by.” After learning about the farmer’s techniques, McGowen had one question.

“I said, ‘Hey, do you mind if we play for your cattle?’ Him and his family were rolling in the grass laughing,” McGowen said. “The universe played us the cards and we played the cards back and before we knew it we had a video with over 300,000 hits.”

“Milk and Waffles” is the finale on the band’s latest album, “This is Cave Music,” and one of its most popular songs. The YouTube video, which was filmed live, shows the band playing in the middle of a freeway bridge in South Carolina.

Perhaps there’s a halfpipe performance in Moon Hooch’s future.


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