Galactic, arguably the most popular New Orleans band in the contemporary galaxy, celebrates its tenth anniversary on September 9 and 10 at Tipitinas’s, augmented by a universe of guest stars, ranging from retired vocalist Theryl “Houseman” DeClouet to Allen Toussaint to DJ Quickie Mart.
Bassist Robert Mercurio, who founded the band with childhood friend, guitarist Jeff Raines, while a Tulane undergraduate, was interviewed at OffBeat headquarters on a sweltering August day, while seated on a sofa that has previously supported the posteriors of such New Orleans musical luminaries as Ernie K-Doe, Ellis Marsalis, Zigaboo Modeliste, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Irma Thomas and Miss Pussycat.
The following day, after recovering from the nearly three-hour conversation, Robert dispatched a pleasant email, ending with the p.s.: “Don’t screw me.” Therefore, we would like to acknowledge that Robert possesses excellent posture and clean fingernails. His slightly unruly hair, we assume, is merely the latest style.
Robert, what advice would you give to a college freshman who just arrived in New Orleans?
I would say—and I’m not just saying this because I’m in this office—I would pick up an issue of OffBeat and look at the music listings and read about what people are writing about and go out and see some of the music because you’re probably not going to have heard about 90 percent of the stuff that’s out there. Go see the ReBirth Brass Band on Tuesday night at the Maple Leaf. Go see Galactic at Tipitina’s on September 9 and 10. Go and really dive into what’s happening in New Orleans culture.
That’s what I did when Jeff and I first moved here. There was a bar called Benny’s. For some reason, we found it our first couple of nights here in New Orleans. We were on our bikes and we were just drawn to this bar. It’s not around anymore but Jeff and I both owe a lot to Benny’s and the way that it taught us what was really going on in the New Orleans music scene. We met a lot of great musicians through hanging out at Benny’s. We met Theryl there.
Benny’s kinda reminded us of our favorite club in our hometown of Washington, D.C. It used to be called the Vegas Lounge and now it’s called the New Vegas Lounge and they haven’t really done anything to make it “New” except for maybe a new sign. It had this looseness, you could drink when you were underage, great R&B, funk and soul music that we were starting to really get into. We grew up basically as little punk rock kids. I never listened to any R&B or soul until I was about 16 and I heard Parliament’s Mothership Connection. I was like, “Wow—this is killer!” I started getting into James Brown and everything.
What drew me to clubs like the New Vegas Lounge and Benny’s was the warmth of the people that owned them and the patrons. I think that they were all a little bit in disbelief that these young 16-, 17-year-old white kids wanted to come to these clubs and actually enjoyed this music. I think we were a little bit of a surprise to these people—they really welcomed us in.
Benny’s didn’t have food—thank God—but the place in D.C. did and they’d be like “We’ve got ribs” and come out with food and really overly welcome us—I think because we were so young and so white.
We should point out that Benny’s was like a funkier, more decrepit version of Tipitina’s.
Funkier and way smaller. It’s something that I don’t think could ever happen again in New Orleans, the way things are. I think the environment, when I moved down here, was a little different than it is now. I don’t know if I’m just out of touch but it seems like people were going out to hear live music more back then.
Perhaps we didn’t have the crack epidemic and high murder rate back then.
I think there was tons of crack being sold at Benny’s. From going to that club, it opened up my eyes and ears to this whole different sound. Jeff and I knew about James Brown and P-Funk, but knew very little about the Meters and the New Orleans sound. We just knew it was a very funky town. We moved down here and were immediately sucked into it—the sounds of the street beats and ReBirth. Everybody at Benny’s was covering Meters songs so even before we saw the Meters for the first time, we had heard “Cissy Strut” and “Africa” done by every other band in town.
I don’t even know what club you could go to at this point that’s similar to Benny’s for incoming freshmen. Every night there was free music and it was good.
Isn’t it true that music was the main reason you decided to attend college in New Orleans?
Yes, we were really picking schools based on the cities. And New Orleans was obviously a great music town and a great music scene. We didn’t know that we were going to become musicians later in life. Actually, Jeff did—Jeff always told his mom, when he was a little kid, that he wanted to grow up and be a rock star.
What were you studying at Tulane?
Psychology. Everybody else went to Loyola. We didn’t know we were going to make a living off of music—we were just into it. It’s funny because Theryl, to this day, will say, “Those guys—I knew ’em for three or four years and I didn’t even know that they played music.” We were just there to suck it up—we weren’t trying to mosey our way into sitting in on stage. And Theryl will say, “It made me mad when I found out they could actually play!”
So you never played music in college?
We would but we would play in our dorms or at college parties as Galactic Prophylactic. Galactic Prophylactic started in ’91 and we graduated in ’94.
Who was in Galactic Prophylactic?
So many people—the only consistent people were Jeff and I and our singer at that time, Chris Lane. He’s a hilarious guy, an actor now around town in a lot of local plays. We went through two or three drummers before we met Stanton and we had a big three-piece horn section. [Saxophonist] Clarence Johnson was in the band—he was so out of our league. He was so much better than we were at the time.
How did you meet Stanton Moore?
I met him through a jam session at a mutual friend of ours’ house. Back then, and still to this day, we’d go over and jam at people’s houses. We did a lot more of that then because now, we get paid to do that, like at d.b.a., like “Hey, let’s get together and play at a club and we’ll get paid to do it!” Back then, we weren’t playing in clubs so we’d go and have jam sessions at people’s houses all the time. So this guy Rob Gowan invited me over and invited Stanton over and we played a bunch of Hendrix songs and Meters songs. After the jam, Stanton and I exchanged numbers and really thought each other was cool. Stanton was playing with Oxenthrust at that time—he was in a lot of heavy bands that were into that Seattle sound. But, at the same time, he really enjoyed this other side of music—the New Orleans stuff, that I think the friends that he grew up with didn’t really appreciate ’cause they just took it for granted. Like you said in one of your reviews [of Corrosion of Conformity], the real music of New Orleans is the heavy metal you hear on the lakefront. [laughs]
Hey—Jimmy Page’s girlfriend was from Metairie and he has a son by her who went to school at St. George’s on Napoleon!
Really! Anyway, Stanton was in all these heavy bands at that time and I think he found it really refreshing to find other kids his age that were into the New Orleans music and really studying it. So I invited him over to our band house on Magazine Street during a Christmas break. We ran through “Cissy Strut” and “Africa”—a lot of the tunes that we still play today—and after that, we all sat down and he was like, “God, I’m so glad I found you guys ’cause no one my age wants to play this stuff. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what my parents listen to!’” We were really glad to find him, too, because he can really play that stuff well and really studied it. And still does.
When did you change the name from Galactic Prophylactic to Galactic?
Galactic Prophylactic was a joke band. The name was a joke, the songs were all about jokes, our big hit song was “Winn-Dixie Diva.” We all had this crush on this Winn-Dixie check-out girl—the Winn-Dixie on Tchoupitoulas and Jefferson. So our singer Chris Lane—great lyricist, not the best singer—would write these songs about wooing her and making love in the frozen foods section. The whole thing was just a little less serious then when we became Galactic. I think we grew up a bit. We started Galactic Prophylactic in ’90 and then Galactic officially was about ’95
Galactic coincided with your college graduation.
Yeah, sadly to my parent’s dismay, I told them at the Tulane graduation what I was planning on doing for the rest of my life. My dad said, “Well, good luck.” He’s happy about it now and he was happy about it after he saw we’d had a little bit of success. But he was really worried that he was going to have to support his son the rest of his life. And he hasn’t had to.
There was so many different people who went in and out of Galactic Prophylactic. The two people who have been through it all were Jeff and I—we grew up together. What made us come to the realization to call ourselves Galactic was that we weren’t really the same band that we were back then. We had lost our singer, we had gotten rid of the horn section—we had pared down to just one horn player, and we were writing just a little more sophisticated music than the Galactic Prophylactic stuff. It still wasn’t much, and it still isn’t today the most sophisticated music—it’s more about making people dance than anything else. We just really thought that we needed to make a new beginning.
We used to have our band meetings at La Péniche over hamburgers with our band fund. We knocked around so many names and the only one that we could all feel good about was Galactic. It made sense because it was the same guys but a new sound.
When did the other guys join?
Rich [Vogel], our keyboard player, joined us in ’94, mainly because he had an organ. He was one of the only young kids out there that actually owned an organ and he could fill in those parts, like the Art Neville parts, that we’d always been missing.
He had a Hammond B-3?
He had a really good copy—this Korg thing—and he had a Leslie [speaker cabinet] and to us, it sounded great. It sounded like an organ. And he was really into that music, had studied it and enjoyed it.
Where was he from?
He’s from Omaha, Nebraska, Home of the Funk. Rich joined the band in ’94. He’s a couple of years older than us so he had been out of Loyola for a couple of years, working in a coffee shop. He was really psyched to finally join a band: “Please! Get me out of this coffee shop!”
The four of us were kinda gigging around town: Café Brasil, the Mermaid. With different horn players. And then it came time where we were like, “Let’s record our first album.”
Our producer really encouraged us to have a vocal element on the album. He thought that instrumental albums were hard to sell and hard for the general public to listen to.
We had known Theryl from hanging out at Benny’s and always thought that he was a great singer. So he was our obvious choice. We called up Theryl and he came over to our house on Magazine and Valmont, and we wrote “Something’s Wrong With This Picture” together. We invited him to record it with us a couple of months later.
And then we had a show after that and said, “Hey Theryl, why don’t you come and sit in and sing a couple of songs with us?” He just kinda became this permanent special guest. And that was his role until the end of his being in the band.
We recorded the album in July ’95 at Sea-Saint Studios, so that’s why we say we’ve reached our tenth anniversary as Galactic. The summer of ’96, we started touring—I was our manager, booking agent, publicist, road manager. I did it all back then.
I booked us a five-week tour of the West Coast and we needed a horn player. And Ben Ellman was willing to come out and sleep on people’s floors for cheap. ’Cause he was used to it—he had done some touring with Lump and with the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars. At that time, Ben had never done a gig with us. We had been using these jazz cats—Eric Jacobson, John Ellis—who weren’t all that into sleeping on people’s floors, really didn’t see that this was what they wanted to do with their lives. They wanted to play jazz. You don’t sleep on floors unless this is what you really want to do. Do I really want to go out and make five bucks a night playing music that really isn’t my favorite genre?
Ben was willing to come out for cheap. He was a friend of ours and we just hit it off. Once you’re on the road with a band, friendship means so much more…you play three hours and hang out 21 hours together, outside of the bandstand. You’ve got to get along. That’s when we were like, “Okay, this is the band—the six of us.”
After the initial intensity of forming a band, how do you maintain the energy for over a decade?
We’ve always tried to incorporate new styles. Our first album was very rooted in old school funk and New Orleans—you can hear a lot of Meters influence on it. Our second album was still influenced by old music but it was more of the Blue Note, early ’60s soul jazz stuff. Our third album we started getting into some of the R.L. Burnside and New Orleans brass band stuff. Lately, we’ve been incorporating a lot of the modern elements of production. A lot of that’s because we have our own studio and maybe we have too much time on our hands and we over-produce our stuff [laughs]. We’ve gotten a little more into the craft of making an album, as opposed to just documenting what we do live.
Our previous albums were “Okay, we need 12 songs—guess we have 11. We’ll record ’em just like we play ’em live and we’ll put out an album.” That was not all that satisfying to us. I guess it was to our fans maybe. You never know. We started trying to produce records as good as they possibly could sound and then playing live is a totally different thing. You can play songs for eight, nine, ten minutes live and it doesn’t feel that long. But a ten-minute song on a record can be a little long-winded.
Kids always tell me not to judge Galactic by its albums—that you’re primarily a live act.
Yeah! [laughs] That’s what I hear all the time! There’s something—the way that Stanton might build a solo or the way that we interact—that you just can’t really get on a record.
And that’s how you make your living—from touring, not CD sales.
If we didn’t tour, we would all have to work other jobs for sure.
I don’t think you’re ever going to be on MTV.
Well, right now, we’re an instrumental band and you’re never going to be on MTV with an instrumental band.
Do you see that as a problem? Are you going to get a lead singer?
We are not throwing out the possibility, but we’re not set on it. Right now, everybody’s been really happy kinda getting into playing. We wrote the last album Ruckus and it was very non-solo oriented. We went out and toured behind that album for a year, playing a lot of those songs, and it was more about playing the music than jamming within the music. Now we’ve gotten back into opening our tunes up and expanding upon them. To credit Stanton, he’s really encouraged all of us to play with other people, which has been great for everybody’s musicality.
I play with another band called the Frequinox, with Stanton, Donald Harrison, Jr., Robert Walter, Will Bernard. I was Eric Lindell’s bass player for a year or so. In the past year, I’ve done probably five gigs with Leo Nocentelli of the Meters.
Ruckus was produced by a famous producer, Dan the Automator Nakamura, but it didn’t really sound like one of his productions.
That’s because he didn’t really do anything. [laughs] We paid him a lot, too! The best thing he did was hook us up with two songwriter guys that helped us co-write some of the songs. None of us have ever been strong lyricists. Like Stanton once said, “None of us wakes up in the morning thinking of a vocal tune.” We wake up thinking of bass lines and drum lines and keyboard parts and melodies. So we got burned a little bit with Dan as the producer. But this next producer we’re going to work with—I can’t say his name yet—it’s going to be a good fit, it’s going to make sense.
Why do you think Galactic has been so successful when so many other local bands of the same era failed?
One thing I’ll say, and I want to credit Joe Cabral of the Iguanas for this, he told us, “Pick the guys in your band and then that’s it. No subbing, No ‘Stanton can’t make it, we’ll get Kevin O’Day.’ None of that.” He credits the Iguanas’ success to that. When you go see the Iguanas or Galactic, you know you’re going to see these guys. Then you build some consistency, which is the flaw of many New Orleans bands. It seems like such a simple thing, but it’s not because people in New Orleans are in 20-million bands.
The second thing was definitely getting out on the road and not thinking, “We’ll just play around town and hopefully somebody will come along and turn us into rock ‘n’ roll stars.” That just doesn’t happen—especially with New Orleans music, like the stuff we were playing. Maybe if you’re in a rock band or a pop band, that can happen, but we knew that no A&R person was going to stroll into Café Brasil and make us the biggest funk stars out there. There’s a reason there’s not a term called “funk star.” [laughs] There’s rock stars!
I think we always knew there was a limit to the chance that someone could come in, push a magic button and make us stars. None of us ever believed that. The magic button does get pushed for a few people, but we’ve never seen it. We said we’re going to have to push our own button and go out and tour. It was hard. We would do 200-plus gigs a year and make so little!
That was our success. I don’t think it’s because we wrote great music, I don’t think it’s because we’re just the best looking bunch of guys out there. I think it’s because we went out and toured and stuck together.
We also had a strategy to it, which was every three months we had to come back to a town. If we played L.A., we were going to be back there in three months. What a lot of bands do is that one tour and if doesn’t go that well, they’re like “Oh, we can’t do that again.” Our first tour didn’t go that well—some nights we had maybe two people, maybe our cousins were there. But we knew that the reoccurring thing is what you have to do. You have to get into people’s heads. Every three months, we would do a loop of the country. The east coast for five weeks, the west coast for five weeks, back and forth, for two or three years. Now every year we hit a town.
We brought out a lot of opening bands from New Orleans and it’s something, when we’re on the road with them, that we always tell them: “You’ve gotta come back and play these markets. You’re opening for us tonight in Athens, Georgia—you’d better come back within three months or no one’s going to remember you.” There’s hundreds of bands out there and people forget about you quick. I’m not saying we’re the smartest guys in the world but there has to be some sort of rhyme and reason to do what you’re doing or you’ll never move forward.
Do you make a decent living?
I personally make a decent living because I don’t have a wife and a child. Jeff, our guitar player, has a wife and a child, and it makes it a lot harder. I would say he doesn’t feel he’s making a great living. We all own houses, but it’s pretty easy to own a house in New Orleans. We’re not owning houses in Beverly Hills or Manhattan.
Why do you have most of the usual suspects booked for your tenth anniversary shows but no one, shall we say, a bit more innovative?
That’s a good idea!
Everything at Tipitina’s is always Big Chief Bo Dollis, Jon Cleary, Cyril Neville—the same old guys…
It’s true. I hear you. Hold on a minute. [Robert records a reminder on his cell phone: “See if Quintron’s available for the tenth anniversary show.”] Quintron toured with us and would sit in with his Drum Buddy.
Do you believe it’s true that New Orleanians are very envious of any kind of success?
Oh, we felt so much backlash. Houseman always warned us about it in the beginning: “You’re going to get the New Orleans backlash. It’s a self-defeating city. Everybody wants it to grow but if anybody has any success, they’re mad about it.”
We were these young white kids, not from New Orleans—I even think we might’ve got some backlash from you, huh?
I’m naturally going to be against you. Because you’re white kids and you’re not from New Orleans. I grew up knowing the Meters. I don’t need any imitators.
[laughs] I can totally understand that viewpoint. We came in from out-of-town, we did nothing different than tons of other bands had done before. I can see people being really pissed if that magic button had been pushed for us. Then, I would be like, “Okay, I can understand why you hate us. Because you guys have been here your whole lives and then in comes whitey and we get the button pushed and now we’re like huge.” But we did a lot of hard work to get there. And we’re still not millionaires! We could’ve picked much more lucrative careers. Rich always says, “I think New Orleans police officers make more than we do. And at least I’d be home doing that.”
Let’s end on a sexy note. Tell us a stripper story from the road.
The worst stripper story: we’re in Syracuse, New York. Right next to the club we’re playing at there’s this strip club called the Wild Rose. We go in there after the show and this girl has a swastika tattooed right on her crotch and it’s Ben Ellman’s birthday that night. He’s our one Jewish member. For some reason, she’s drawn to Ben Ellman that night and she has to give the same story: “Oh, this is actually a Native American symbol.” But she wasn’t an Indian, she was about as white trash as you can get. And I know she was told that this is what you need to say so you don’t offend anybody. So Ben getting a lap dance from a girl with a swastika tattooed on her crotch—I bet his grandparents were turning in their graves. That’s my favorite strip club story. It was horrible!