How Did a Brooklyn Band Wind Up Playing the Largest Cathedral in the World?


“This is a very unusual show for us. I am pretty nervous,” says Mike Wilbur, the saxophonist and singer from Brooklyn-based trio Moon Hooch, who are set to play the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine this week. The performance is part of an art exhibition at the cathedral titled “The Value of Food: Sustaining a Green Planet,” which runs through next April. This grand building on Amsterdam Avenue is reputed to be the largest cathedral in the world. “It is such a beautiful space and the acoustics are going to be so big,” Wilbur adds. “I wish I could be in the audience for this show.”

Moon Hooch also includes drummer James Muschler and Wenzl McGowen, who plays tenor and baritone saxophone, contrabass clarinet, and the EWI, a multi-modal electric wind instrument. The trio were invited to play at the cathedral because they are sustainable-food activists and live a vegan lifestyle — or at least try to.

“It was when I saw the documentary Forks Over Knives a few years ago that it clicked,” says Wilbur. “It was so compelling and obvious that vegetarian or even vegan was the way to go. My reasons were purely selfish. I wanted to do it for my own well-being. I was a strict vegan for about a year, but then I went to India and everything was cooked in ghee,” he says, referring to the clarified butter.

It was after Wilbur went upstate to a farm animal sanctuary with an animal-rights activist pal that his convictions were renewed. “I played the flute for them and connected on a spiritual level,” he says of the cows, sheep, pigs, and other animals rescued from the food industry. “It’s so obvious they are not here for me. This whole Christian thing that animals are for our use is so wrong. I was enlightened about the dairy industry there, and how basically cows are raped. We kill their children, and they’re over-milked,” he says. He’s clearly concerned. “Fifty percent of carbon emissions are from factory farms. It takes something like 200 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat. It’s huge.”

Moon Hooch don’t profess to be saints and aren’t pointing fingers, but they are trying to help shape a world they want to live in — while shaping their own lives, too. So far, taking matters into their own hands has proven successful. The three musicians, who are all 26, met while studying at the New School for Jazz in Greenwich Village. “We were a band on my twentieth birthday,” recalls Wilbur. “Because I remember we met this guy, Antenna Man, who was pretty tripped out — he played alto sax on the street. He told us he was transmitting info. He was outside this bar and he played ‘Happy Birthday’ for me. It was unforgettable.”

Similarly, Moon Hooch made an impression when they took to the streets, busking outside subway stations. One passerby, Soul Coughing’s Mike Doughty, didn’t just toss a coin; he invited the band to open on his tour. “Mike is totally responsible for where we are now. He really opened up our career,” says Wilbur. “It’s amazing the influence an artist can have to start careers for other artists. We actually didn’t know who he was: He heard us play, then we get an email asking if we want to come on tour. It changed our lives and we gained a national following.”

Moon Hooch also gained the attention of the TED, and the band has led two sessions at the social forum. “One was on collaboration,” says Wilbur. “It was about how to overcome egos and learn how to work together. Our own relationship is volatile. We’re all alpha; we all like to make decisions. But we’ve each confronted our personalities to make it work.”

The band has completed its third album, Red Sky, which is due for release early next year. Courtesy of Moog and Ableton, fans can expect a different, more experimental soundscape, says Wilbur. “It was a deliberate move. We were dissatisfied with doing the same thing over and over again. We began exploring different sounds and watched our fans comments on Facebook…. Well, actually some didn’t like it, but we went on. We have so much new music. It’s aggravating that things happen so slowly in the music business.”

For now, they have their cathedral performance and its sound challenges to deal with. Within those hallowed walls, Sting has sung and Nelson Mandela has spoken, so it’s important the band leave their mark and add to the history of the edifice.

“It’s such a big room, so cavernous; we can expect a lot of reverb. But it has speakers with built-in delays, and we have one of the top sound guys in the country, Scott Bozack” — he’s worked with They Might Be Giants and Brendan Benson — “flying in. We’ve got it handled. There will be lasers, a light show,” Wilbur enthuses. “The pope never saw this one coming!”

Moon Hooch play the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on October 23. For ticket information, click here.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 22, 2015

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