Do you ever think about what NYC street musicians are like when they go home, or do you just imagine that they sleep in the subways?
Forget the hugely skewed Joshua Bell experiment of 2007. If you’ve traveled the country much, you may have noticed that here in NYC, we’re lucky enough to have some genuine dynamos performing on the street, and when they play, commuters listen. Or at least, I know I do.
From the Chinese hammer dulcimer players to the roving Mariachi bands, all of the good ones are worth taking your headphones off for. This month, we talked to two of the most impressive mainstays of the Union Square underground: Bucket-drummer Mike Alaska and the gritty horn trio Moon Hooch.
Mike Alaska (born Mike Savely) has played to packed houses at Madison Square Garden, Rockafeller Center and The Fillmore. But we know him best for his drumming at the Union Square L. He’s an inventive percussionist – sometimes ostentatious, always mesmerizingly well-practiced, and never afraid to ham it up for his audience.
How did you get started as a street musician?
I started in Montreal playing on the street with Richard Baxter. He’s an older cat who has is own street drum corp out there. He really taught me a lot of stick tricks, and a lot about how to pitch the crowd. Unfortunately my time in Canada eventually ran out, and I came back here to NY.
What was that transition?
Well, I had been playing outside in Canada, so when I came here at first I tried playing outside in Times Square. The cops there really wanted you to have permits, so you could get shut down pretty quick. Eventually, some friends here got me hip to the idea of playing in the subway. Where I play now, the audience is already stopped, so I don’t really have to work to too hard to get their attention. [Laughs] That’s pretty great.
I feel like I’ve seen you by the L train dozens of times. How often are you down there?
Well right now, I’m actually opening a recording studio and I’ve got some other projects I’m involved in, so it’s a little bit less. But before I had these new projects, I was down there 3 or 4 times a week, 8 to 10 hours a day.
Wow, that’s a lot. Do you have to take a lot of breaks to keep going that long?
Well, it’s real hot down there, especially in the summer time. You’re sweating, but it’s all just go go go. But when you’re playing, time goes real fast. An hour feels like 10 minutes. So nah, it’s just drinking a lot of water, eating healthy, remembering to stretch out a lot.
Has it made you a much better player?
Oh, for sure. Practice makes perfect. Even as far as showmanship goes, in presenting yourself, you learn a lot because you always have an audience. Some people just bang around a couple hours a day, and wonder why they can’t do all these things. But yeah, I’ve been down there a lot.
Some of those “things” are pretty eye-catching tricks. I’ve seen you juggle 3 sticks while keeping a beat, or play a drumroll by bouncing the stick along your knuckles.
The most memorable trick might be the one where you use the drumstick like a boomerang. I’ve seen you throw it at a supporting beam, almost ten yards away, and have it bounce back into your hand. How did you learn that one?
When I was in Montreal, I was playing in this big open area with my back to a wall. I started by throwing the stick up as far in the air as I could. I just wanted to see what would happen. Then I’d try to get it to drop in time with the beat. When I got to New York I didn’t have that anymore in the subway. I kind of just thought: “I wonder if this will work, if I just throw it at the beam or at the wall?”
Out of every hundred times you do the boomerang trick, how many do you think you miss?
I don’t know. [Laughs] If I throw it 50 times, I might miss 3. But if I’m going to miss a stick, I know it in advance and I’m going to have another one in my hand before it drops to the ground. People really like that.
I know, that’s the best part! So does playing in the subway really help make ends meet? When you’re getting tips, is there a big spread from day to day, or is it pretty consistent?
Yeah, it’ll keep you buying drumsticks, getting some food, paying rent now and then. Everything that’s going on in the world will effect how much you pull in a day. The weather, the economy, what’s going on in the news. But a lot of people will give tips. One thing I’ve noticed is that even homeless bums will fork out a nickel or a dime here and there [Laughs].
What’s the story with permits?
You can audition to play for MUNY [Music Under NY] and they’ll put you in some preferred spots. But if you’re not amplified, and you don’t put a price tag on anything, you can play anywhere. The cops might come by now and then and ask you to leave if they think its too much noise. When that happens you just call it quits for the day.
James, Wenzl, and Mike of Moon Hooch use drum-kit and two saxes to play raw, original instrumentals that are hot, heavy, and funky as hell.
Former students at the New School, these three are inspired by house music and drum n’ bass just as much as the jazz and classical theory they studied.
We caught up with drummer James by phone as the band returned from a national tour where they opened for Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty.
How often do you play in the subway, and how did you get started?
We play about 3 times a week. Usually Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at Union Square. We started in July of last year, so what is that, 17 months ago?
Initially me and Wenzl just decided we needed to make some extra money. We were playing jazz at first, and we weren’t really getting very much in the way of tips.
Wenzl produces a lot of electronic music on the computer, and one day we were out busking and, and he decided we should try to emulate the sound of some of that stuff he’d been writing on the computer.
So he asked me to play some house beats and some drum n’ bass beats, and he’d kind of alternate between the bassline and the melody. Immediately people really liked it and, well, so did we [Laughs]
I know that you guys write a lot of original tunes out on the platform with your other saxist, Mike. Are there any covers that you do now, or is it all this original stuff?
Up to this point it’s been all original compositions.
Wow, that’s great. I honestly dig a lot of them. I think a lot of people will be surprised by them if they actually go to your Bandcamp page and have a listen. Have there been any obstacles to playing in the subway?
Well, we’ve been kicked out a fair number of times by the police, so I guess that counts. Noise complaints mostly. To my understanding, what we do isn’t illegal, but if a conductor thinks we’re loud enough so that people can’t hear the announcements, they can ask you to leave. So we just comply with that. It’s not worth it.
Oh yeah, and we’ve had a few people try to steal our money. Luckily, it’s never been very aggressive, so we’ve been able to get out of the situation just by using our minds. Strange people have tried to follow us home, that kind of stuff.
I caught wind that you played at Occupy Wall Street recently.
Yeah, we wanted to show our support and entertain people if we could. The first time, we played with the musicians that were already there. The second time we got to set up in our own spot. A few people joined in, and it turned into a real party. [Laughs]
How does occupying the subway treat you from a financial standpoint? Does it pay off, or is it more like subsidized practice?
If we can get out on the street 3 to 4 times a week, we end up making enough money to pay rent and groceries, so it’s been alright I think.
You’ve been getting more club gigs recently. What’ playing in an actual venue like after being in the subway for so long?
Well, on Monday, January 6th we’re going to start our residency at the Knitting Factory. There’s nothing like playing through a nice sound system, you know?
And we just came back from tour opening for Mike Doughty. Mike’s audience is mostly people in their 30s and 40s, and his music is more folky and relaxed so it wasn’t really a dancing audience. But we got a lot of positive feedback, and I think they all liked it in their own way. In the subway of course, you get people of all ages, and all demographics.
[Laughs] Yeah, and they move! Now that you’ve been doing this for a while, can you start to tell in advance who’s going to tip and who’s just going to listen?
[Laughs] I don’t know if we really think about that when we’re playing. I think we’re all in our own little world. Or at least I am. I can’t speak for anybody else.