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Published: 2003/03/25
by Robert Massie

Galactic’s Robert Mercurio: Breaking Down the Boundaries Again

The first time I heard Galactic, I didn't believe my ears. Maybe I had one too many Abita Ambers, or maybe the house speakers at Benny's (a stripped-down after hours dive on the corner of Valence and Camp in the Crescent City) were playing tricks on me. I closed my eyes and listened very carefully, trying to figure out exactly what I was hearing. The influences of the Meters and Neville Brothers were there, but this was clearly much more than just another New Orleans funk band. The drummer was playing break beats, stutter-stepping and precisely chopping his way through the thick but smooth layers of horns, bass, organs, and guitar. One song blended into the next and, with a quick switch in the tempo, and I started to imagine the Rex parade in all its smooth brassy glory, rounding the corner from Napoleon to St. Charles. After the third or fourth song, I stopped trying to categorize this band, partly because it defied everything I knew about musical genres, but mostly because I was dancing too hard to analyze anymore. I was going to call this organic instrumental acid jazz and leave it at that. And then the Houseman came out and I, once again, found myself in a state of ecstatic confusion.

Ten years later, Galactic has come a long way. Their music is still hard to categorize, but fits pretty well into the "neo funk" neighborhood of the jam band scene. One thing is for sure, fans and experienced listeners alike know when they're hearing Galactic. They shift gears more than a trucker driving through the West Virginia hills, but their grooves, as unique as they are, are very identifiable.

Well, the second you think you have their sound pinned down, Galactic enlists the services of one of underground hip-hop's heralded superstars to guide them in their next musical evolution. I was fortunate enough to sit down with bassist Robert Mercurio and discuss what's next for Nawrlins' favorite future funkateers.

R. Massie: So, Robert, the last time we spoke you were very excited with the prospect of getting together the "official" Galactic New Orleans based studio. How’s everything going with that?

Robert Mercurio: It's going really well, man. I actually just got an email today I got to check on about all the new gear – and, actually, we've been recording in there recently. We recorded a track for the Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute album that has tracks from other bands such as Phish, DJ Z-Trip, 3 Doors Down, Widespread Panic, Gov't Mule, and North Mississippi All Stars. We got in the studio and worked around with the gear we had and we successfully recorded one tune in there. We've done a lot of demo work in there but we finally got our board and all the other little bits and pieces we needed to put it together, so we're getting in there during March to start working on the new record.

Massie: So the next Galactic record will be recorded in house?

Mercurio: Yeah. It's going to be a different experience for us. We're gonna track it all there and then Dan will go ahead and mix it in his studio.

Massie: And that’s got to be the most exciting development for the band these days {Dan "The Automator" Nakamura of indie hip-hop supergroup "Gorillaz" fame has been signed on to produce the next Galactic album]

Mercurio: I can't even begin tell you how happy we are – we're REALLY really excited about that. It's going to be an interesting process to go through and I think it's going to do a lot of good towards exposing us to a new fan base and creating some new directions for the band to go in.

Massie: It seems to me that, when compared to other producers who let the band develop a total album blueprint themselves, Dan is more of a collaborator and his signature will add another unique dimension to the sound.

Mercurio: Yeah, that's something that we talked about with him and, for example, he likes to do a lot of sound replacement – like the drums on a track, he'll take the kick and he'll layer a Zeppelin kick and another kick on top. Just the overall sound and the vibe of the record are going to have more of a hip hop feel. I think songwriting-wise he's really about getting to the point – taking the tunes, trimming them down, even trimming down the instruments to get just what's essential to make the tune a tune. I think it's really good to have an outside source like that, someone who's not in the band making comments about the tunes. We find sometimes when we're recording in the studio, you know, you play the tune and you're thinking about your part and how your part's going to sound best. I find that its a little hard to step back and see the big picture, especially when it comes to making the WHOLE album a complete thought or statement, but when you have a really good producer, especially with someone like Dan who's never produced us before, he can take it one step beyond. It's like what you're saying, another dimension to the sound. He'll get a little more involved and it becomes an interesting form of collaboration. So, I don't know, we really can't say what will happen until we start working with him, but it's obviously something we're really excited to work at and we're very impressed with the stuff he's done. We've been really happy with the work that producers have done for us in the past, but this should be a whole new and exciting experience.

Massie: I just know when you first told me about Dan producing the album, it immediately sounded like a natural direction.

Mercurio: Totally, it's funny, when we tell people – like when we were doing those dates at the Fillmore with Medeski, Martin, and Wood – John Medeski was like That's pure genius…it's a great idea…he was good for a band like us, but we're a little more abstract'. (Medeski) thinks (Dan) will make a tight little instrumental and poppy (but super cool) record. That's totally what we want right now, something that's true to the way we do things but takes it to a different place. We're so hyped that everyone we talk to thinks it's a great idea. We've been hearing about him for a while and have been reading lots of articles about him and his style since setting up this opportunity to work with him.

Massie: Well I think it seems like a natural progression – like the sounds that you guys have surrounded yourselves with are making their way into the band. Galactic’s tours and musical aspirations have always been inclusive to stuff like hip hop – you’ve had DJs and lyricists tour with you in the past.

Mercurio: We just think the sounds complement each other. We just like to share the bill with acts who we think our audience should be exposed to, and we make it a point to put them up there and let them sit in with us. Tonight, Lyrics Born will sit in with us – he actually got sick at last show in Cleveland and left right after his warm-up set. Also, DJ D-Sharp will sit in for a few songs, do a rhythm battle with Stanton (Moore, Galactic's drummer), and spin records during the set break. We've been playing with Z-Trip a lot lately – he's a great guy and has such a crazy ear for music. The triple threat DJs have toured with us and we had a great time playing with them. Also, in a few weeks (March 1st) we will be at the second annual Carnival Electros Mardi Gras gig at Twiropa Mills in New Orleans. It's an awesome time – this year we're there along with Z-Trip, Rebirth Brass Band, Wild Magnolias, Triple Threat DJs, and, well, too many others to even name. We love playing all night long when its Mardi Gras time and all these bands should lead to some great collaborations. We think of Galactic as a band without too many set boundaries, and we love to bring in new influences.

Massie: I think the ease that the DJs seem to have meshing with the band is a good indication that this new direction for the band will be successful – and hopefully pretty seamless too.

Mercurio: It flows really naturally and it always had. We've had rappers and beat makers sit in with us forever and it's just always just worked – it's been a nice match. We've thought about doing some projects or experimental gigs around New Orleans to feel out different elements we could bring out for a tour, like different vocalists or backup singers. The other day we were saying it would be great to do a tour with Jurassic 5 and have us do a set then back up them on their set. You know, we just got to thinking after seeing Eminem with The Roots backing him up on the Grammys, it adds so much to the hip hop live show – makes it so much more organic and enjoyable. The Roots are great and I'd hate to see us take their niche (laughs), no seriously, we could do it on a much smaller scale. They'll be with Jay Z and Eminem and we'll be with Jurassic 5 and Lyrics Born. I would love to do that!

Massie: Do you think the new influences may naturally lead to having people remix or re-interpret your songs for a club or lounge type of environment?

Mercurio: Well, the idea has popped up, and we've thought about licensing some remixes or making a full-on remix album, but then the idea occurred to us – why not just make the album reflect some of that and have the songs themselves be a type of remix. I'd love for this concept to open us up to that world, even though we're known as a live band, we would love to be able to trim down our shows schedule and focus a bit more on defining our sound off the stage. Right now, we do about 100 shows a year. I think if we did more like 80 we could spend more time in the studio and concentrate on our recorded sound and venturing into new channels for our music. Its not that we don't enjoy touring though, we just know we can't explore other outlets and do it as much as we have been. We were recently contacted to license one of our songs to a video game – stuff like that, movie soundtracks, I really think that would be the preferred movement of the band. We've always incorporated elements of theater and art into our shows, and that kind of stuff inspires us. We'd like to contribute to some multimedia projects and stuff – especially now that we have this home studio.

Massie: Those late night sessions can lead to some crazy stuff…

Mercurio: Exactly. It's a great thing – it's always been a side of the band but we've never had the money to really experiment sonically. Now that it's on our time, we have the freedom to really refine and push what we do.

Massie: Well, it seems like right now the band is firing on all cylinders, and a different member can step up and take a lead of sorts any night. For a while I think the rock influence was becoming more prominent and Jeff’s (Jeff Raines, Galactic guitarist) guitar was becoming the focus, but in Cleveland a few days ago it seemed like much more like a funky romp led by Ben (Ellman, Galactic’s Saxophonist) more than anyone else. I know these differences depend somewhat on what you’re playing from the catalog each night, but how do you guys tend to view the focus of the band these days?

Mercurio: Well, I think we've been a funk band for so long that I think that everybody's really digging moving into new territory. Believe it or not, I tell people we're a rock band when they ask what we're like, whereas 8 years ago I would CRINGE if someone called us a rock band. But, I think when we started funk was appealing and now there are a lot of funk bands, a lot of college funk bands. Every town has their group of kids playing funk and trying to make it sound as authentically 70's as possible. For us, that used to be our M.O. but now we're trying to make it, simply put, as "Galactic" sounding as we can. We try to present as much of us as we can make it instead of saying Does it sound like a Lou Donaldson record?' or Does it sound like that Meters tune?' You know, it took us a few years to find and define our sound and I think we finally really have.

Massie: Well, one thing is for sure, 2002 was a huge year for the jam and improvisational music scene. That had to be a great experience – having your management company throw such a notable and successful event.

Mercurio: It was a truly rewarding experience, not to mention a fun time. Anytime we can get together with so many of our contemporaries and play to a hyped up crowd is amazing.

Massie: What about the other festivals that seem to be popping up around the country this summer, seemingly echoing Bonnaroo?

Mercurio: We're playing at 10,000 Lakes in MN and the All Good Music Festival, both of which are actually very well established. We're excited to play at these and expect them to be great events.

Massie: And what about the "Hobstock" festival?

Mercurio: Actually, I think we're playing that one too. It's in Mississippi – um, Tupelo, right? I saw it on our schedule I think, it was TBC, so actually I'm not sure if we're going to be there. (Side note – since this interview, Galactic has been confirmed at Hobstock). We'll play at every festival we get the chance to. We played at Salmonfest, Hookahville and Moe.down last summer as well as Bonnaroo and the Fuji rock festival in Japan. We love playing festivals, it's a great atmosphere to be in and it's a great way to play in front of people who've never heard you before.

Massie: Speaking of which, I think you guys gained a lot of fans at Bonnaroo with your over-the-top late night performance. Are you going to follow it up with another late night show this year?

Mercurio: Yeah, we're trying but, I don't know, they're focusing on changing things up. Even though Superfly, our management company, produces the festival, there are other powers that be. I think they just don't want to get into a rut and have the same band doing the same thing year after year.

Massie: Quite possibly due to these other festivals…they have to stay innovative. It seems like many of the ideas from last year’s Bonnaroo have been adopted by other festivals.

Mercurio: Well, I also think there's room for more "Bonnaroos" all over the country. I mean, not everyone can drive to Tennessee. One positive thing is that the one in Minnesota (10,000 lakes festival) should have better camping – Tennessee is a little hot.

Massie: You’ve still got to watch out for those mosquitoes – they don’t call it the land of 10,000 lakes for nothing.

Mercurio: I guess that's true (laughs).

Massie: Well, are there any artists coming up in New Orleans we should be on the lookout for?

Mercurio: I'd have to say Eric Lindell is the guy to keep an eye on. He's a singer songwriter. I play with him sometimes when I'm off tour. Stanton plays with him too. He sings an awesome blend of blues and soul influences; I really recommend that anyone who has the chance should check him out. He's playing Mondays at the Circle Bar right now. I used to play with him more, but because of travel I had to turn the gig over to a bassist friend of mine who came down to New Orleans from DC. I think that ended up being a positive for Eric, though, because to be a band I think consistency is the key and you have to play with the same members as much as possible to develop new material and feel comfortable playing. Eric's career is moving in a great direction right now – we just heard this week that he is playing on the main stage at Jazzfest the last Sunday of the festival.

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