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Published: 2002/01/22
by Dean Budnick

‘A Cutting Edge Kind of New Groove Band’: Jeff Raines’ Galactic

Don’t believe the hype. Galactic is not a New Orleans funk band. Well okay, the group is based in the Crescent City. And come to think of it, the band did begin its career as ambassadors of that sound and many of its signature tunes are steeped in the idiom. However, in case you haven’t noticed, Galactic’s music has long since eclipsed that initial realm, by offering elements of klezmer, drum and bass, hill country blues and soul with the occasional heavy metal riff tossed into the gumbo for good measure.

Guitarist Jeff Raines is an active facilitator of this ongoing transformation. In particular, over the past two years his own development has helped to spark the band. In the following interview he discusses this contribution as well as the group’s revitalized commitment to songwriting and a project he just completed with chain gang music recorded by Alan Lomax.

Galactic is currently on the road supporting its recent live release, We Love Em Tonight with a tour that also features the Triple Threat DJs Apollo, Shortkut and Vinroc. This promises to be an interesting run of shows- for details, visit www.galacticfunk.com.

DB- Let’s start with the current tour. How did the band’s association with Triple Threat come about?

JR- DJ Shortkut opened up one our gigs in Austin a couple of months ago. Then he came out and played with the band and we all had a great time because he’s such an aggressive DJ, he’s cutting the whole time. We thought it went really well and it was interesting. He was really good at what he was going and he had a really good ear working with the band. Then we had him do a show at the Fillmore over New Year’s weekend and we had the whole Triple Threat there and we all just loved it. So we’re excited to do a tour.

DB- Before that first show when DJ Shortkut came out with you, did you work out something with him in advance?

JR- No, we all kind of showed up early in Austin to check him out, and just from getting a vibe of what he was doing we knew we could work it in pretty easily. Plus when he was up there with us he was watching everybody and Stanton would cue him off. The next time we did the same kind of thing with Triple Threat and they played off each other as well as the band. It went really well.

DB- From my experience in that type of situation the person who typically has the most trouble finding space is the guitarist. Has that been a challenge?

JR- [Laughs]. It doesn’t bother me to lay out if it’s better for the music. I try not to let my ego guide me. We approached it like we would a soloist, we played our rhythm parts and let them go on top and put breaks in it and do breakdowns and stuff. So it wasn’t that different from having any other musician sitting in.

DB- Over the course of the upcoming tour do you imagine that things might evolve to the point where instead of them soloing over the top you all will be improvising collectively?

JR- That’s what we’re hoping for, because we’re going to have ten shows with them. We plan to get them up there every night. They’ll also do their thing during set breaks and we’d like to come out and do a tune with them and make the set break less of a break and more of a DJ section. That way the show will be more cohesive. The other interesting thing we’re doing is for Mardi Gras we’re putting on this festival on Saturday and we’re going to have them and the Mardi Gras Indians and a brass band all in one set. We’re going to go out there with all three hopefully, with us just backing up the chaos.

DB- That sounds like chaos upon chaos.

JR- Well it was too tempting. If we have them all there, we’ve got to do it. The Indians and the DJs should be enough to kick ass {laughs}. We were trying to figure out something special for this one day festival. We’re also going to have Drums and Tuba so maybe we’ll get them in there somehow as well.

DB- You’ve done a number of shows with Drums and Tuba. How did that association come about?

JR- They were friends first with some of the guys and then they got their band rolling. When we heard them we were like, “Hell yeah.” It’s pretty interesting stuff they’re doing with the live looping, and it’s stuff we’re all pretty interested in.

DB- Jumping back to Triple Threat do you have a number songs singled out that you think would be perfect ones for them to sit in on?

JR- There are a few that almost have a hip-hop bassline and groove to them and that stuff will be easy to do. But over the tour we’ll mix it up with different moods and grooves. We have a lot of new stuff coming out too

DB- New original tunes?

JR- Yeah we’ve been rehearsing a lot and trying to work on writing new tunes at a quicker rate than we have in the past. We’ve always focussed on touring so hard that I think we all felt like compositions went out the window for a while.

DB- What is the band’s approach to songwriting?

JR- The best stuff we write is when someone brings in an idea and we all sit around and hash it out. Now we have a Pro Tools rig that we rehearse with, so that’s been really helpful. We can play for thirty minutes and then go back and be like, “Right there, that was cool,” and do that over and over again (laughs). We also write at gigs. If someone plays a particularly memorable thing during a solo or does a cool rhythm part, we’ll say, “Remember that.” Right now we have all these fragments and we’re working to put them together. Another priority is getting more vocal tunes in our catalog which is always something that we try to develop. We’ve also been trying to get lyrics from other songwriters and work with other people to broaden our horizon. Different moods, the different moods of Houseman

DB- You’ve written a few over the years. Do you have any new vocal tunes in the works?

JR- I’ve got a new one.

DB- What’s it called?

JR- It’s called, “It’s All Behind Me Now.”

DB- Is it odd for you to write for someone else? Do you try to take his perspective into consideration or do you approach the lyrics as a discreet entity?

JR- I just give them to him and he makes them sound better [Laughs]. A couple of other people have written vocal tunes too. We’re always just trying to get new vocal tunes into the show just because we play live so much, we feel like we have to be throwing new stuff out there as much as possible.

DB- You mentioned that you come up with a lot of ideas at rehearsal. Has the band’s rehearsal regimen changed over the years?

JR- Yeah. If anything we’ve buckled down so when we’re off we get together five days a week.

DB- So even when you’re off, you’re on.

JR- We’ve gotten to the point where we can write new tunes at a faster rate than before because we were going crazy playing the same stuff all the time. We have some great new stuff coming out. At one point we thought we were going to put a new record out but that’s on hold for now.

DB- When do you think you’ll record again?

JR- We have a lot of material so by the summer we could really have a good record ready. Now we have this Pro Tools rig so we’re focusing on doing it ourselves. We’re not on a label anymore, so it’s been left up to us.

DB- Volcano let you go.

JR- They trimmed the fat [laughs]. That’s okay with us, we didn’t sign with the label, they just bought a contract [editor’s note: Volcano purchased the Capricorn roster]. They didn’t know what we were about and it was clear that this was not the type of label that was interested in working with us and vice versa. It was a big rock machine. We actually were really shocked when they agreed to take the live record {We Love Em Tonight). We were ready to be dropped and put it out ourselves.

DB- The disc was recorded about a year ago. What do you think when you listen to it now?

JR- I think they might not have been our most stellar shows to date, so we were happy that we got what we got. Making a live CD can be very nerve-wracking. It has its moments though.

DB-Such as?

JR- Some of the new instrumental stuff is kind of cool, I think. That was the first time we put down “Shibuya” and a couple other tunes we play a lot live.

DB- One thing the album demonstrates is an evolution in Galactic’s sound. From my perspective there have been periods where different ideas filter through pretty intensively for a particular stretch of shows and then you incorporate those elements in some way and move on. The group’s sound became a bit harder a year a half or so ago, and I think a lot of that comes from you. You’ve been more aggressive, especially with the bluesier stuff. At least that’s how it sounds to me. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

JR- I did become obsessed with the whole hill county music thing for a while- Junior Kimbrough and all those people. I always wonder about how one of us working on stuff privately will find its way into the band. But you’re right, when we have stuff we like we run with it and then we pull back after a while. I was really interested in that music and it came out in my playing. With us it’s always about the dynamics of the set, taking it up and bringing it down, and that raucous hill country stuff really plays into the more raging moments.

DB- What do you think are the defining characteristics of your sound?

JR- It’s groove. What we’re playing is groove music with a very organic quality That’s what we do when we rehearse, we sit there and try to distill grooves and cool little sections and parts. That’s definitely the defining element of our band, the groove. A lot of people see us as a retro throwback band but I see us as a cutting edge kind of new groove band.

DB- In terms of distilling grooves during rehearsal, with so many members in the band is it difficult to isolate and agree on the ones you want to explore further?

JR- When something clicks everyone knows it instantly. Our saxophone player has a middle eastern background and he brings in some of that. Our keyboard player Rich has been studying the great organ players, so we have a few places we take stuff from. In terms of what stays and what doesn’t, I think everyone knows instantly. There’s a consensus that’s reached pretty easily.

DB- When you’re in rehearsal working on new stuff, how does that process begin?

JR- Stanton will have a groove and one of us will come up with a little melody or a rhythm part. Then we’ll keep playing it until we get it down to whatever’s cool about it and then try to add parts onto it. Recording has been real interesting for us because it cuts through everything to the core of the groove. Another thing we do is make loops and then play the loops and create melodies against the loops. We probably have thirty different little sections in different states of arranging. It take us a while to write a song, We’ll work on something and get it down and then come back to it and finish it later. Getting a little distance definitely helps.

DB- When you’re writing music in that manner how do you decide what turns into a vocal song?

JR- We’re always looking for Theryl tunes so we try to put aside anything that lends itself to vocals. Generally if we have an instrumental we’ll play it as an instrumental for a while and when the lyrics come we’ll incorporate them. We play stuff live that are works in progress and hash them out at the gigs where you can really see what works and what doesn’t.

DB- Speaking of which, in the live setting, what do you think is the optimal balance of instrumental and vocal tunes?

JR- What we’ve been doing is five or six instrumentals and then three vocals. It changes the dynamics of the set. We try to use the vocals to get a new feel or slow it down a notch or bring it up. A lot times lately we’ve been doing big vocal closers, although it depends on the night.

DB- For me, that transition when Theryl comes out with a band is slightly smoother that it was a few years ago. On occasion I though it was a bit awkward. I’d like to hear your perspective.

JR- I think we’ve gotten better at it for sure. When we started writing new vocal tunes we did it with sets in mind. I think we’ve gotten better at it.

DB- Let’s change direction and talk a bit about your musical development. I know that when you and Robert [Mercurio, Galactic’s bass player] were growing up you were into the DC hardcore scene.

JR- We definitely came up listening to punk rock. I also got into blues early on, buying a couple of Muddy Waters records. Then I moved out of DC in high school so I got more away from punk rock after that. Then I got Maggot Brain. It’s a big day in anyone’s life when they get Maggot Brain. I heard P-Funk and that was about it. We started our P-Funk cover band.

DB- What about specific guitar influences?

JR- I always remember going to see the Meters, the first time I saw them here, being eighteen and in college and seeing Leo play- I want to do that.” It was a big moment. I used to see Danny Gatton a lot when I was in high school and he really opened my eyes to what you go could with a guitar, not that I am a fly on his ass. [laughs] Danny was the master. Jimi Hendrix as well. Eddie Hazel [P-Funk] of course.

DB- What about now, do you listen to guitar players?

JR- I listen to a lot of old dead guys. It got to where I recently made a point of going to the record store and buying only live musicians. Radiohead, Soul Coughing. I love Fred McDowell, of course. Muddy Waters, obviously . I’m also a Howlin Wolf man.

I just recorded this Alan Lomax thing that Scott Billington is doing for Rounder. It’s these old Lomax recordings of chain gangs. George Porter and David Torkanowsky who’s a keyboard player down here did one, Henry Butler did one, so they let me do one in a hill country blues style. I just did that a couple of days ago.

DB- When do you think that will come out?

JR- The project is just inching its way along. I had a great time though. You can hear the axes falling on the tune we did, it was killer. I’ll let you hear some, check this out

[Jeff is right, the sound of axes striking rocks comes through loud and clear. The track opens that way, principally a cappella, as the guitar buzz then builds and explodes. It will be interesting to hear the final product]

DB- Do you have any other side projects in the works?

JR- Not at the moment. I’m always thinking about working something up. In one sense, I don’t want to take any focus off Galactic, that’s my baby. I would like to do a record of new blues with samples, sort of stuff like the Come On In record [R.L. Burnside]. So I might do something like that.

DB- Back to Galactic, you recently performed with John Bell down in Orlando, describe that experience.

JR- He has a charity for his goddaughter who has this spinal muscular disorder. JB is a really nice guy, and I’ve gained a lot of respect for him, the way he handles his fame. He’s very calm. But he’s just a great guy. We feel that Panic has done lot for us in terms of letting us play in front of their crowds and a lot of people have gotten turned onto us through Panic fans, so doing something for him is jut a little payback. We went down to Orlando, played in the golf tournament and did the gig.

DB- Final question, looking back over the past few years, does any particular show or moment on stage stand out as your favorite?

JR- What comes popping into my mind was last year on New Year’s when George Clinton came and sat in with us. My whole life I’ve loved his band and just dreamed they’d go back on tour. So George is up there and basically, he took over. He had his own drummer and keyboard player and went through this medley of P-Funk tunes which some people in the band may have been upset about. But for me it was like a dream, I was in P-Funk for twenty minutes.

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