“We bottled our concert experience and captured it on this album in a way we never have before,” says Wenzl McGowen, one third of the groundbreaking sax-and-percussion trio Moon Hooch. “This is the first album where our fans will be able to listen and say, ‘This is exactly what it’s like to see them live.’”
Recorded in a series of stunning, one-take performances, ‘Life on Other Planets’ may be the purest distillation of Moon Hooch’s sound ever put to tape. There’s no studio magic here, just three virtuosic musicians who seem to share a telepathic connection, one that transcends language and genre and tradition. The songs on ‘Life on Other Planets’ mix elements of jazz, funk, R&B, and EDM, swirling them all into an instrumental maelstrom the band refers to as “cave music” (think house music, but more jagged and primitive). The performances don’t just beg for a physical reaction, they command one, exploding out of the speakers with melodic pyrotechnics and infectious percussion that resonate on a deep, primordial level. Though the basic structures for many of these tunes were settled in advance, most of what you’ll hear on the album was completely improvised on the spot, much like one of the band’s legendary live shows.
“The outlines for a lot of these songs came to us on tour during soundchecks,” explains McGowen, who met his bandmates while studying jazz at the New School. “We’d have an idea for something new, try it out, tweak it, and then try it again the next night at soundcheck. Some of these songs have been evolving that way for five or six years.”
Moon Hooch—McGowen, fellow horn player Mike Wilbur, and drummer James Muschler—got their start nearly a decade ago busking on the streets of New York City, where they quickly earned a reputation for raucous performances that overflowed with wild and joyful abandon. When their impromptu subway platform sets began turning entire stations into commuter dance parties, the NYPD had to ban them from locations that couldn’t handle the crowds. Within just a few short years, the trio was selling out headline shows around the world and sharing bills with Galactic, They Might Be Giants, and Lotus, among others, and performing on television alongside the likes of Tame Impala and James Blake. As the scale of their performances grew, so did the band’s sound: they began fleshing out their live setup with synthesizers, electronic wind instruments, and a “Reverse DJ” setup, which processed the live sound from their horns through Ableton software in order to expand the possible range of sound and textures. NPR praised the group’s latest album, 2016’s ‘Red Sky,’ as “mesmerizing” and “muscular” (All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen called Moon Hooch’s Tiny Desk Concert “as impressive a mix of musicianship and merrymaking as I’ve witnessed behind my desk”), while The Guardian hailed the record’s “infectious techno-fuelled dance grooves,” and Consequence of Sound declared that the collection “cement[s] their status as one of the most nimble and fun acts around.”
While ‘Life on Other Planets’ is as pure Moon Hooch as it gets, it was, ironically enough, not the album the group set out to record. When they initially headed into the studio in Winooski, VT, the band planned on creating a heavily produced and composed collection more along the lines of ‘Red Sky.’ Instead, they found themselves drawn to tackle something more raw and immediate, recording everything live over the course of a week using the exact same gear they play through onstage every night.
“When we got to the studio, we just felt inspired to record these live pieces we’d been performing for so long,” says Wilbur. “We never really consciously wrote these songs, and we never really consciously planned to release them, but we loved playing them and we realized they were something the fans were really excited about.”
Fan reaction has always been an important metric for Moon Hooch. Their music is so physical (both for the performers and the audience) that it’s easy to tell when something is connecting.
“Either the crowd is dancing and engaged with what we’re doing, or they’re getting drinks and starting to talk,” says McGowen. “We make adjustments to the music based on the response we’re getting each night until we know we’ve got it just right.”
By the time they hit the studio in Vermont, the band had such a deep relationship with the songs (and with each other) that one take was all they needed. Even when spread out across the studio in isolation booths where they couldn’t physically see one another, the trio still linked up as if sharing a single musical brain.
“When you play so much with other people, you develop this really powerful connection,” says McGowen. “You start to make choices simultaneously without understanding it. You lock in on improvised rhythms without knowing how it happened. That’s the magic of music.”
That magic is immediately apparent on ‘Life on Other Planets.’ Throbbing disco drums meet earworm sax riffs on fiery opener “Nonphysical,” which showcases McGowen and Wilbur’s razor sharp articulation and jaw dropping lungpower. Like much of the album to come, the song is hypnotic and immersive, building to grand heights only to dissolve into the ether and reassemble again from nothing in a fit of improvised brilliance. The blistering “This Is Water” practically tears itself apart at the seams with intensity, while the trippy “They’re Already Here” swirls like a mesmerizing fog, and the headpsinning “Too Much Hooch” tumbles forward in a churning avalanche of notes. Some songs, like the shapeshifting “Bronst” and dizzying “#4 Solo,” evolved out of interludes and solos from older tracks that took on new life in the band’s live shows, while others, like the funky “Old Frenchman” and relentless “Candlelight,” began life in a more traditionally compositional fashion before surrendering to the spirit of improvisation. Even the eerily dreamy “Need Your Love,” the sole track with vocals on the album, features lyrics made up on the fly.
“When we’re playing, we’re trying not to think about anything,” says McGowen. “We’re trying to just be fully present and react to whatever happens in the moment. Whether it’s an instrumental part or a lyric or even the album title, we don’t overthink it. We just know when it feels right.”
“It may not be the most rational approach,” admits Wilbur, “but I guess we’ve always been something of a post-rational band.”
With ‘Life on Other Planets,’ Moon Hooch wear that mantle proudly. After all, why settle for rational when you can make something truly magical?