All Good presents...
Moon Hooch & Marco Benevento
Sat, October 21, 2017
Doors: 10:00 pm / Show: 10:00 pm
“I‘m realizing more and more every day that you can make anything happen for yourself if you really want to,” says Moon Hooch horn player Mike Wilbur. “You can change your existence by just going out and doing it, by taking simple actions every day.”
If any band is a poster child for turning the power of positive thoughts and intention into reality, it’s the explosive horn-and-percussion trio Moon Hooch. In just a few short years, the group—Wilbur, fellow horn player Wenzl McGowen, and drummer James Muschler—has gone from playing on New York City subway platforms to touring with the likes of Beats Antique, They Might Be Giants, and Lotus, as well as selling out their own headline shows in major venues around the country. On ‘Red Sky,’ their third and most adventurous album to date, the band uses everything they’ve learned from their whirlwind journey to push their sound to new heights, bringing together the raw, transcendent energy of their live performances and the sleek sophistication of their studio work into a singular, intoxicating brew that blends elements of virtuosic jazz, groovy funk, and pulse-pounding electronic dance music.
“I think ‘Red Sky’ is more focused than any of our past albums,” reflects McGowen. “We practice meditation and yoga, and I think that we’re more evolved as people than we’ve ever been right now. That evolution expresses itself as focus, and through focus comes our energy.”
It was two years ago that the band released ‘This Is Cave Music,’ an exhilarating thrill ride that earned rave reviews from critics and fans alike. NPR hailed it as “unhinged” and “irresistible,” praising each musician’s “remarkable abilities” and naming their Tiny Desk Concert one of the best in the prestigious series’ history. The album followed their 2013 debut, which had Relix swooning for their “deep bass lines, catchy melodies and pounding rhythms,” while the Wall Street Journal celebrated their “electronic house music mixed with brawny saxophone riffs.” Though the band—whose members initially met as students at the New School—turned heads in the music industry as relative unknowns with a charismatic, unconventional sound (they play with unique tonguing techniques and utilize found objects like traffic cones attached to the bells of their horns to manipulate tone, for instance), they were already a familiar and beloved sight to straphangers in New York, who would react with such joy and fervor to their impromptu subway platform sets that the NYPD had to ban them from locations that couldn’t handle the crowds. NY Mag once referred to their sound as “Jay Gatsby on ecstasy,” while the NY Post fell for their “catchy melodic hooks and funky rhythms,” saying they had “the power to make you secretly wish that the short [subway] wait becomes an indefinite delay.”
While the band’s busking days are behind them now, the lessons they learned from all those platform parties helped guide their approach to recording ‘Red Sky.’
“What we discovered playing in the subway,” McGowen explains, “is that the more focus and the more energy you put into the music, and the more you listen to everything around you and integrate everything around you into your expression, the more the music becomes this captivating force for people.”
Recorded at The Bunker studio in Brooklyn, ‘Red Sky’ is nothing if not captivating. The album opens with the tribal urgency of the title track and proceeds, over the next 45 minutes, to utterly demolish any and every possible barrier that could stand between your ass and the dance floor. On ‘Shot,’ Wilbur sings a stream of consciousness vocal line over an airtight groove, while “Psychotubes” channels the apocalyptic fire and brimstone of death metal, and the staccato intro of “That’s What They Say” gives way to a gritty, late-night come-on of a saxophone line that’s far more suggestive than any whispered words ever could be.
Though the band is heavily inspired by electronic music, they made a conscious effort to use as little in the way of “studio tricks” as possible on ‘Red Sky,’ aiming instead to capture the sound of their live show, which has evolved significantly from their days underground.
“When we were playing in the subways, we were playing entirely acoustic,” explains Wilbur. “It was just two saxes and a drum set. Then Wenzl acquired a baritone sax and we all started getting into music production and incorporating electronic music into our live shows.”
At their performances, the band now plays through what they call a Reverse DJ setup, in which the live sound from their horns runs through Ableton software on their laptops to process recorded effects onto the output. In addition, to flesh out their sound on the road, the band began utilizing Moog synthesizers, an EWI (an electronic wind instrument that responds to breath in addition to touch), and other more traditional instruments like clarinets. Wilbur added vocals to his repertoire on some tracks (something the subway never allowed him to do), and Muschler, meanwhile, traveled halfway around the world to expand his percussion skills.
“I went to India, and the first morning I woke up, it was like 5am, and I followed this music along the banks of the Ganges,” he remembers. “I eventually ended up finding this amazing tabla player, and after his performance, I asked him for lessons. He agreed, and I went for daily lessons with him and another guy for the next two weeks. After that, I took a train to Calcutta, where I met with the guru that I’d studied with in New York, and I did morning lessons with him and practiced throughout the day. It was an incredible musical immersion experience.”
The band members all speak reverently of meditation and consciousness and the role it plays in their music (McGowen believes his introduction to it, spurred on in part by Wilbur and Muschler, saved his life), but equally close to their hearts are the environmental causes they champion. Moon Hooch tries to live up to their green ideals while traveling as much as possible, playing benefit shows, supporting local farmers and co-ops, participating in river cleanups, filming informative videos for their fans, and more. The band even runs a food blog, Cooking In The Cave, in which they highlight the healthy, sustainable, organic recipes they utilize with their mobile kitchen setup on tour.
For the members of Moon Hooch, commitments to consciousness and environmentalism and veganism and philosophy and peace aren’t separate from their commitment to music, but actually integral parts of it. It’s all tied into that same core approach that led to their discovery on the subway platform: try, even if it’s just a little bit every day, even if it’s just with the power of your mind, to make the world less like it is and more like you wish it could be.
“I’d say all of our songs express the essence of that kind of energy,” concludes McGowen, “because before you can even think any thoughts, there exists the energy that drives those thoughts, and that energy is intention. I feel like we’re putting the intention of positive change constantly into our music. While we’re playing, I often see the future emerging: skyscrapers getting covered in plants, frowns turning into smiles, fistfights into hugs. I can see the energy of love and collaboration and trust replace the energy of fear, hatred and violence.”
It’s an ambitious vision, to be sure, but considering the band’s track record at turning their thoughts and dreams into action and reality, perhaps it’s only a matter of time.
Marco Benevento is used to doing a lot of things for himself: Since he launched his solo career six years ago, Benevento has co-founded the label that releases his music, The Royal Potato Family, and built the studio, Fred Short, where he works every day that he’s not on the road. And in the past, of course, he’s written, arranged and played his largely instrumental anthems, leading a band from behind his customized piano and a tiny armada of drum machines and sequencers, keyboards and pedals.
But until Benevento set out to complete his fifth album under his own name, he’d never sung his own songs, a strange omission for music that’s so often been lyrical. That changes—decisively, assuredly, triumphantly—on Swift, the boldest and most bracing album of Benevento’s career.
“I never really liked the sound of my singing voice. I have a low voice. I can’t really sing too high. It’s nasally,” Benevento confesses. “But I had to get over it. And now, singing is awesome.”
Sure, 2012’s TigerFace opened with two vocal gems, the greasy “Limbs of a Pine” and the gorgeous “This is How It Goes.” But Rubblebucket’s Annakalmia Traver had handled those melodies, and Benevento assumed for months that she’d handle these, too. At one point, though, he decided that he liked the way his voice was sitting in the songs he was building; that it felt not only interesting, but surprisingly intuitive. His wife, Katie, would join him in the studio and sit with him at the piano, helping him to shape strings of nonsense syllables into words he liked. And in November 2013, he invited Ween’s Aaron Freeman, a nearby neighbor and longtime friend, to visit the studio and offer criticism of what he was singing and how he was singing it. Freeman had specific quibbles and improvements, but he largely approved of the work Benevento had done, providing the boost that powered Swift toward completion.
“It was nice to be tested and prepared by a singer I really like. It was validating,” Benevento explains. “I’m surprised it took me this long to sing, but growing older, getting into music by The Band and James Booker and the Grateful Dead, the singing door has opened. It’s a new instrument.”
Benevento’s urge to commandeer the microphone and fill the record with his thoughts isn’t a mere power grab from a bandleader. To the contrary, bassist Dave Dreiwitz (Ween) and drummer Andy Borger (Tom Waits, Ani DiFranco, Norah Jones) flex more than ever before on Swift. Dreiwitz dances atop the start of “If I Get to See You At All,” his rich fuzz-tone affording the melody the feeling of a sinister carousel. And on “The Saint,” he and Borger emerge as powerhouse, the viscous bass line rumbling over drums that slow and spring, stutter and stomp. A minute into the track, Benevento has to wait for just the perfect moment in which to slide his silvery piano. Swift is an unselfish album, then, guided more by a sense of giving songs maximum impact than proving the incontrovertible worth of the players who made it.
That directness is due in large part to Richard Swift, the esteemed indie rock producer who invited the trio to his Oregon studio to record the album that, in turn, Benevento named for him. Benevento’s sister-in-law lived nearby, so he’d gotten to know Swift through years of touring. He’d also fallen in love with his work thanks to Swift-helmed albums such as Foxygen’s We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic and his own song “Lady Luck.” Benvento says that several mixtapes Swift compiled and put online—humid spheres of vinyl static and rubbery bass, woozy soul and swerving rock—saved his life on several long, late-night tour drives. He trusted Swift’s ears, and he wanted to put this record in his hands—to go to Oregon, record for three days, let the producer produce, and do as little tinkering to the results as possible.
“I was sick of going back to my studio and turning a session into something else. I wanted my process to be different. I wanted someone else to say, ‘Leave it like that,’” Benevento says. “I was surprised how easy it was going to be. I made two or three edits, and it was done.”
That comfort and energy radiate throughout Swift, an album that’s every bit as delightful and kinetic as its title suggests. Opener “At the Show” is a handclap invocation, the big-bottomed drums and Benvento’s fleet keyboard line motioning toward the dance floor. “Eye to Eye” moves with an indomitable, street-smart swagger, while closer “Free Us All” prompts eyes-closed, mouths-open bliss. Even “No One is to Blame,” the album’s ostensible down-tempo drift, can’t suppress the excitement of the new setting, the new singer or the new approach. Its climax offers arching catharsis, Benevento’s multi-tracked harmonies curving like a rainbow.
“To finally make a record that feels and sounds like a record; something that is musically consistent and almost thematic, whereas my other releases have been so stylistically diverse,” says Benevento, “is, for me, an accomplishment.”
He did it himself, you could say—and then some. The Royal Potato Family releases Swift on LP, CD and Digital on Tuesday, Sept. 16.
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Washington, DC, 20001