“I think we are that animal,” says Matt Muirhead, trumpet player and producer for the New York three-piece band Too Many Zooz. Muirhead is talking about the group’s use of imagery on record covers and T-shirts – even the band name itself – depicting wild and unconventional animals.
“Myself and Leo (Pelligrino, the group’s baritone sax player) both went to the Manhattan School of Music. A lot of what we did was just frowned upon; the music we liked and played, and who we were as people. At a certain point, once we were playing in the subway, it kinda gave us the confidence to say, ‘Fuck that.’ I think once we were in the subway, it gave us the confidence that we realized we didn’t need the school.”
Rounded out by percussionist David Parks, the band’s “Brass House” style is unlike most music coming from the musical conservatory. When Muirhead talks about the subway, he’s talking about that starting point of a trajectory that would, among other accomplishments, lead to the group collaborating with Beyonce on a couple tracks of her recent “Lemonade” album.
Too Many Zooz formed in 2013 and began busking in subway stations throughout Manhattan.
“One of the great things about playing the subway is getting to have this focus group of people who are really diverse. It’s great doing down there and trying new music and getting an honest reaction, seeing what people like and hate,” Muirhead explains.
It was a couple of videos of the group busking in the subway going viral that contributed to their growth, U.S. and European tours, and continuing to branch out in directions that would see them collaborating with performers from different genres.
The group’s setup of trumpet, saxophone and percussion remains pretty unique, Muirhead explains, and the musicians find their own influences.
“We all like other music, too, but we’re all just big hip-hop heads. A lot of times people are a little surprised by that.”
But when it comes to what influences their songwriting and chemistry as a group, Muirhead is more succinct: “I think I can speak for all three of us saying we all take inspiration from everything that we ingest. Art is just the expression of emotion. Whatever you experience in life, you just take that emotion and convey it on a record and try and have people understand it and relate. So I think a lot of the stuff we write is inspired possibly more by things that aren’t music than things that are.”
As to how this formula ultimately led to the players recording with Beyonce, it all circles back to their time busking in the subway and the videos of these sessions that found their way online.
“She saw one of our videos, and she and (her daughter) Blue would dance to our songs. So she talked to her creative team about getting a sound like that and they said, ‘instead of trying to recreate this, let’s just reach out and get these guys.’ That’s an unforgettable experience.”
As far as taking that formula that has been refined in front of NYC commuters and applying it to live shows, Muirhead says they try not to change too much in terms of the energy.
“There are just things you need to do differently when playing a concert versus playing just nine minutes and then getting a new crowd. It’s not that the music is different, just the format. We try to only make the changes that are necessary.”
Too Many Zooz is in the midst of a nationwide tour that will peak with a set at Suwannee Hulaween over Halloween weekend before heading off for a month of European shows. Suwannee Hulaween, in Live Oak, Florida, runs Friday, Oct. 26, to Sunday, Oct. 28.
— Shaun Astor