It’s just another week in the life of Galactic drummer Stanton Moore and bassist Rob Mercurio—working on three hours’ sleep because they’ve just flown back from Telluride where they played its Jazz Festival with one of their other bands, the M&M’s (which includes John Medeski and Papa Mali).
Galactic has a six-hour rehearsal scheduled for their annual four-night stand at the Brooklyn Bowl—an August event that rounded up a roomful of old and new collaborators, and launched a national tour. Meanwhile preparations are underway for the local launch of their Landing Festival (see sidebar), which will bring a host of musical friends into the mix. It’s all part of what makes Galactic’s world go round—which would be playing hard, playing all the time, and finding fresh collaborators on every corner.
The five official Galactic members—Moore, Mercurio, keyboardist Rich Vogel, guitarist Jeff Raines and saxophonist Ben Ellman—have now been together just over two decades; but you don’t often see them in their original quintet form. Beginning roughly with the departure of singer Theryl “Houseman” DeClouet in 2004, they’ve augmented their lineup with any number of singers, rappers and guest players; trombonist Corey Henry, who originally hired Ellman to the Li’l Rascals in pre-Galactic days, has been a permanent guest for years now (“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” he says of his arrangement with the band). Though they’ll always identify as a funk band, Galactic has stretched those boundaries, widening their embrace of hip-hop and electronica. Without catering strictly to the jam-band audience, which continues to love ’em anyway, Galactic has widened their scope with each release.
“We’ve been called a jam band because of the business approach more than anything else,” Moore says. “We make a living touring and playing live shows. But some of the bands that you think of as penultimate jam bands, we don’t sound like them musically and we don’t throw as many songs in. So many of these bands will play different covers and things at every gig, but we try to present our best material a lot. Maybe subconsciously we’re always trying to do things that make people say ‘Whoa, is that a jam band’?”
“You can’t create music for the fan base. Not to sound like we don’t care about them, but you have to play what you’re feeling as opposed to what the fans want,” Mercurio adds in a separate interview. “We started out as a New Orleans funk band, and got accepted into the jam scene unknowingly. One product of being a band after so many years is that different elements work their way in. But we always try to keep within certain guidelines; we try to keep it funky and soulful. I don’t think you’re ever going to see a heavy metal record coming from us.”
Which isn’t to say that Galactic hasn’t played heavy metal: When Living Colour’s Corey Glover was their regular singer (between 2010-13), they did “Cult of Personality” at most shows. That’s one reason Galactic hasn’t had a permanent lead singer since 2004: the more guests they bring on, the more directions they can go. The latest album Into the Deep features a different singer on every vocal track; and there’s been a rotating crew of frontmen/women onstage.
Glover had the longest tenure, then there was a switch off between Cyril Neville and Maggie Koerner—visually and vocally, about as different as you can get. Currently the much-admired jazz/soul singer Erica Falls does most of the shows; she’s up for the forthcoming tour. Other voices, including the Revivalists’ David Shaw and Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, have done occasional shows as well, and most everyone who’s sung with Galactic (including DeClouet once in a blue moon) turns up again down the line. So it seems they’ve maintained good relations with all their part-time members, which can be a feat in itself.
“At the core of it, we’ve always been an instrumental band in search of a singer,” Moore says. “In some ways Houseman was irreplaceable, so we decided we wouldn’t replace him with a single vocalist. Since then it’s been more of an organic process—one thing about working with great singers is that they always have other projects going; this person has another commitment so that one comes in. We try to always leave the doors open.”
The recent use of female singers—something they’d never tried before, aside from Big Freedia—has stretched the band’s sound and personality, but this too was pretty much a lucky accident. “We never said ‘We should get a female singer now’, but Maggie had been working with David Shaw, who brought her to our attention, and Erica came in after working with Corey Henry—and now she’s killing it.”
Then there’s Macy Grey, perhaps the biggest musical stretch of all. When they played with her at Jazz Fest, arguably their highest-profile show of the year, it was only the second time they’d played live together—the first was a semi-secret show at One Eyed Jacks the night before. “That really was a jump into the deep,” Mercurio says. “It could have been disastrous and it could have been great.”
While it was no disaster, it seemed that day that Galactic had taken on more of Grey’s slow and slinky groove. “That’s something we figured out with her, that Macy Grey does Macy Grey,” Mercurio says. “She isn’t a Corey Glover or Erica Falls who can sing any song you throw at her. We had to find our common denominator, which was us going towards her. So it was a little more laid back, maybe a bit softer. But it was fun for us because we’ve been fans of hers for a long time. And personally, I learned something because I noticed the power of bridges in her songs—in every one of her songs the bridge is the biggest part, and that’s something in songwriting I’d overlooked.”
Grey’s continuing to do occasional shows with Galactic through the fall. “I feel we’ve been able to get more comfortable with her and to present more of our personality within the songs,” Moore says. “That didn’t happen as much at Jazz Fest, but you’re going to get complaints either way—if we go out and do the same thing we do every year, people have heard it before. And with what we did, some people are going to say ‘I wish there’d been more Galactic’. But if you don’t experiment your audience starts to dwindle.”
Houseman’s departure is usually named as the point where Galactic’s experiments really began. But their final album with him, 2003’s Ruckus, was already pointing to parts unknown. The idea of making jam-style, live-band albums went out the window after their first live album, We Love ’Em Tonight. Meanwhile, they’d been listening to a lot of Beastie Boys and absorbing the loop/sample influence. At this point Ellman and Mercurio in particular started seeing the possibilities of using the studio as an instrument.
“We approach the studio not as a snapshot of what you do on the road, but as a different picture,” says Ellman. “Look at Beatles records or D’Angelo—they’re super-crafted, and we like that process. Before Ruckus we’d just got our own space, a building right next to TwiRoPa—in fact, the same building where Stanton’s father used to work. I’d just gotten an MPC2000, one of those original drum machines, and it was the beginning of our using ProTools. We did more pre-production for Ruckus than we’d done for any other album.”
Instead of building songs through band jams, they sat down and formally wrote them—and since nobody in the band felt especially good at lyrics, they opened up to outside writers. California hip-hop figure Dan the Automator was the official producer for Ruckus, but the songwriting team of Jim Greer and Brandon Arnovick, who record as the Rondo Brothers, were the real movers in that project. “Not to knock Dan, but those two dudes he sent to help us with songwriting wound up doing most of the work. We did maybe three weeks of songwriting together before Dan came to New Orleans; and that helped us shape and craft the sound. What we were after was to do a Beastie Boys, remix-y type album, so we were still wearing our influences on our sleeve…”
The hip-hop influence really blossomed on the next album, From the Corner to the Block. Employing rappers instead of singers, it was one of the first bridges between the jam and the bounce worlds—even embracing sissy bounce, at a time when the jam world wasn’t too into exploring sexual politics and gender identity. Big Freedia was among the MCs who joined the band on tour, when the idea of her getting a national TV show was farfetched at best. “I can remember Freedia opening for us at the Fillmore and people staring at her, saying ‘What is this?’,” Moore recalls. “But you can’t be too concerned, and you have to keep in mind that it’s just music. I’ve just started a book about Keith Richards, and the Stones got that reaction all the time—‘What are these dudes doing?’ You have to be a little fearless sometimes.”
It was the next two albums, Ya-Ka-May and Carnivale Electricos, that refined the approach. While both albums embraced local traditions—the first was a salute to New Orleans R&B, the second a Mardi Gras and carnival album—the production was forward-looking, cutting and pasting studio ideas into a complete song. Instead of taking an arranged song into the studio, they would now record first and then learn to play the songs live. It’s an approach the band carried into other projects, notably the two albums Ellman produced for Trombone Shorty.
“There was a lot of throwing stuff at the walls to see what sticks, and still making sure it had a human element,” Ellman says. “The studio became a blackboard, with these Frankenstein pieces of songs. During Ya-Ka-May in particular, Stanton was really busy and he wasn’t around a lot. So he would record a lot of BPM’s [beats per minute], so we had tools to work with and some of Stanton to structure our songs around. We would do a lot of chopping and editing—maybe take two different beats he had and put them together in some strange way. But then he’d come back in and play it all as a performance—so you’re still hearing him playing, it just took a different process to get there.”
The others’ parts were also chopped up and layered, and this became a jumping-off point for songwriting. “I think we found it easier than everybody sitting in the room together saying ‘Come up with a part now.’ It avoided that pressure of staring at each other trying to collectively write. It gave people time to stew on the thing, instead of just feeling the pressure of the moment. Because art by democracy is a bitch.”
“It was like creating a remix record, but making that as the actual record,” Moore adds. “Ben and Robert were experimenting with different production approaches—sometimes I’d feel there was maybe too much of that in there, but let’s give it a try. There was a lot of overdubbing and guys not necessarily playing at the same time, or maybe the guitar playing through a filter that wouldn’t make it sound like a guitar. With the new album we tried to get back to the sound of us playing together as a band, maybe not pushing the envelope quite so much production-wise.”
Indeed, Into the Deep wound up as something of a back-to-roots album—but once again, pretty much by accident. Going into the album, the only concept was to not have a concept. “The last few had a distinct narrative than ran through them,” Ellman says. “This one didn’t, which felt really liberating. I hate to use the word throwback because to me, it’s all music. But it does fit into that package if you want to hear it that way.”
The members’ various side projects also serve to bring new ideas to the band—or in some cases, to keep them out. Consider Moore’s acoustic jazz trio, which plays regularly at Snug Harbor and elsewhere. “My favorite drummer is Elvin Jones. So if I don‘t have an outlet for that, I’m going to be at a Galactic gig playing all my Elvin Jones licks, which might not be appropriate.”
It’s no secret that Galactic bandmembers were and are major fans of the Meters, and they’re arguably becoming what the Meters were in the ’60s and ’70s: a flexible band that marries a New Orleans groove to any singer they work with. Joe Jackson recently chose Moore, Mercurio and Raines as the New Orleans core band for his new album Fast Forward, which combines four sessions from four cities, although Moore doesn’t promise there’ll be a pronounced influence there. “Joe is very particular about what he wants; he came in with the demos and the parts configured. So it’s not the vintage Joe Jackson sound but it’s his vision and we gave him what he wanted.”
But the Galactic guys aren’t planning to make a career out of outside sessions—not when they can assemble a different dream team on each of their own releases. “In some ways, what we’re doing is a flip on what our predecessors have done,” Moore says. “In the making of our own music, we can be the core band that supports these different artists of our own choosing.” Adds Ellman, “We’ve been so fortunate to have this list of artists orbiting our world—hey man, we’ve had Allen Toussaint on our record! For a bunch of guys who aren’t even all from New Orleans, it’s pretty mind-blowing.”