Galactic’s Ben Ellman and Robert Mercurio

When Galactic and Theryl “Houseman” DeClouet parted ways in 2004, there were whispers of concern about what the band would become without a vocalist. Rather than replace DeClouet, they recorded From the Corner to the Block, a hip-hop-oriented album that showed Galactic to be harder and more contemporary than their previous albums had suggested. “Second and Dryades” presented a modern incarnation of Mardi Gras Indian music with looped percussion backing Monk Boudreaux, and the title track updated the brass band sound with guests the Soul Rebels and Juvenile.

backtalk.galacticThe new Ya-Ka-May follows in that direction. On one level, the album documents who’s out there, presenting such legendary figures as Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas and Bo Dollis next to such beloved figures as Walter “Wolfman” Washington and John Boutte and bounce artists Cheeky Blakk, Katey Red, Big Freedia and Sissy Nobby. But it also presents each in a more context; so much is stripped away from Irma Thomas’ “Heart of Steel” that what was once likely a fairly standard R&B track becomes skeletal, almost dub-like, giving Thomas’ voice enough space to hear it as iconic. When Galactic makes bounce, it makes it as Galactic bounce, referring to the beat without losing the band’s personality. It’s bolder than From the Corner to the Block in that it often treats the vocalist as an instrument—regardless of his or her stature—and shapes it and the music to create something new. It’s the product of the group embracing the studio—something many New Orleans musicians do with great reluctance—but the result is an album that isn’t just good for New Orleans or good New Orleans music, but something that’s good with New Orleans at its core.

What will happen to these songs live? Have you considered bringing some of the voices on tape?

Ellman: Yeah, there’s a couple. There’s the one with Bo Dollis, which is already set up in a modern context like a sampled voice anyway in the song. Maybe Morgus, too. (Morgus the Magnificent is sampled for the album opener, “Friends of Science”.)

Mercurio: Yeah, Morgus is definitely coming on.

Ellman: Did you know it was Morgus?

Yeah, that’s a pretty distinctive voice.

Mercurio: He didn’t want us to put his name. That was an interesting thing, trying to get clearance from Morgus.

Ellman: It was kind of hard to dig him up, and we finally we got a letter from—I guess it was from one of his partners—who mentioned that he was very doubtful that Morgus would give us clearance because he’s very protective of his likeness. We ended up writing Morgus a really nice letter telling him what fans we were, and we sent him a track and we just made it a little more personal: “Dear Mr. Morgus.” He responded to that in a positive way, but in the end he was like, “I’d prefer if you not put my name on it.”

Mercurio: I’m wondering how many people are going to get that one. I think maybe you’d have to be from New Orleans to really get that voice.

How were the songs written?

Ellman: We sent tracks to different people, and a lot of people ended up recording in one context, which was later changed. We set up a lot of situations where the artist would feel comfortable, more in their element, and then did some work after they left. From Allen Toussaint who came in with probably the most elaborate idea to the sissy rappers who came in and did their thing.

Mercurio: We set up an Indian beat for Bo Dollis and ended up just sort of using his a cappella vocals as sample material, which we incorporated into our music.

Where did the idea come from to process Allen’s voice?

Ellman: Putting Allen through a Leslie (speaker) was a nod to production techniques that he’s already come up with. I wish we would have invented that but it’s been done for a while, particularly with Allen on one of our favorite songs, “Southern Nights”. Allen, more than a lot of people, had done a lot of homework. We had sent everyone the tracks that we considered scratch titles without the intention of anyone writing the narrative based on the title. And that one we had come up with during the Bacchus parade so we called it “Bacchus”. What Allen did though, was he read a lot about who Bacchus was, and learned a lot about Bacchus as a person and the history of Bacchus. Which I really didn’t know anything about at the time. I think he was very disturbed about what he had learned because Bacchus was, I guess, a strange character.

So he wrote the lyrics?

Mercurio: Yeah.

One thing I admired about that track is the nerve to record one of the most beloved piano players in New Orleans and reduce his piano part to one phrase.

Ellman: We were just serving the song. We weren’t serving the guest on the track.

Mercurio: We didn’t want to make another Allen Toussaint song; we wanted to make another Galactic song.

Ellman: And one way to do that is to deal with it in a more modern context. I don’t think Allen would have made a song like that necessarily, and that was the goal of our record—to take them out of their element a little bit and put them somewhere else.

Where’d the lyrics for Irma’s “Heart of Steel” come from?

Ellman: They were something we had kicking around from some demos for Ruckus that we figured Irma would sound great singing. It was another one of those songs that in the context in which she sang it, the music in the background was a little bit different. Really, a lot different. The song was originally a more standard R&B song.

Mercurio: She thought it was an Allen Toussaint song. I remember her saying, “Did Allen write this?”

Ellman: But once again, we did this same treatment of stripping it and reimagining it after she left and we had her vocals.

One of the interesting things about this album is the degree to which you embraced the studio.

Ellman: It’s just fortunate that we have a studio. These days, the concept of going into the studio and recording a record has changed so much because everyone has a project studio in their bedroom, and it’s so much easier to record music that way. It gives you the time to look at it differently, rather than look at it as a snapshot as the musical moment that happened right then and there. It’s more like painting a picture instead of taking a snapshot. The hardest part is to say when something’s done. We’ve made a lot of records going into the studio recording road-tested material. We’ve done many records like that, and that’s what we do for a living. We go on the road and we do that and people tape it, and being able to go into the studio and work with the music the way we’re able to is really exciting. There is a world of possibilities, so it’s also an exercise in discipline in that way of knowing when something is right and moving on and accepting it.

What track took the longest to find its final form?

Ellman: Maybe the Irma and Allen songs. It’s Allen and it’s Irma, so you’re trying to serve the artist in a way that’s respectful and modern and artistic. I think those two probably because they changed more from their original state more than the other ones.

Were there points where you remade it in one direction then realized you made a wrong turn days ago?

Mercurio: Sometimes we had to take it back two days.

Ellman: We had a goal to make the music modern but still reflect what’s going on in the city, and try to really be a cohesive thing that reflects the city and all of the different kinds of musical styles in the city. There were moments when we realized that we weren’t accomplishing that, and that all we were really doing was something that has been done before, or taking the easier road like, “This is Irma, and this is how you would expect to hear Irma Thomas in a song.” And there was some rethinking of the goals of our music, and making it cohesive. If something sounded too much like something Allen had already done or too standard R&B, it lost its cohesiveness in the way the album plays together.

Were the last two albums a result of working with Dan “the Automator” Nakamura [Gorillaz, Dr. Octogon] on Ruckus? Using the studio as a creative space?

Ellman: At the same time we started working with Nakamura was the time when we got our first studio, so he really wasn’t all that involved.

Mercurio: He really wasn’t.

Ellman: One thing we did learn from him was that it’d be a lot better to do it ourselves. We’d save a lot of money and get more freedom to get what we wanted.

Mercurio: What he did was he hooked us up with some people that helped collaborate on some writing, and I think that was the first time that we worked with somebody else that was a lyricist. That just proved to be a good thing for us. Dan, I think he just showed up and I don’t know what he did.

Ellman: It was just a coincidence that it was the same time that we got our own studio.

Mercurio: That was the first project that we had done when we had set up our own recording space. We learned the process a little more; we learned on each record more and more. We engineered our last record. We engineered this on our own, and we learned how to use our studio.