Galactic’s Rich Vogel: From Riff Rock and Window Dressing to Ruckus
Rich Vogel loves the riff rock. You may not realize this by listening to his keyboard work with Galactic but this is in keeping with a band that is quite content to defy expectation. The latest manifestation of this proclivity is Ruckus the group’s first studio release in more than three and a half years. Producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura (Gorrillaz, Dr Octagon) draws on his hip-hop background to sculpt layered tracks that also place an additional emphasis on Houseman’s vocals. The group is currently featuring the music from Ruckus as it traverses the country on tour, joined by singer Teedy Boutte who also appears on the release. Vogel shares his thoughts on all of the above while professing his deep admiration for Deep Purple in the following interview.
DB- Before we move on to talk about the current album and tour I’d be interested to learn what music you listen to either at home on the road. We just launched this section of the site that offers up various artists’ essential discs and I’d love to hear yours.
RV- When we’re on the road I listen to what everyone else brings which can be anything, whether its on the bus or backstage. For instance Ben Ellman played on a session for the new OutKast record. Then again, sometimes we’re in Romanian brass band mode.
I listen to all kinds of music really. I recently purchased a remastered version of Machine Head which I hadn’t listened to for some time. That’s a new old favorite. Lately, actually, I’ve been exploring the whole Deep Purple catalog. Depending on my mood on a given day it could be any of the first four Van Halen records .
DB- So your tastes run to 70’s guitar rock?
RV- I grew up with it. I was steeped in classic rock, a lot of that was the first music I loved. I listened to my older brother’s Led Zeppelin records and I was totally into that stuff. I saw Van Halen when I was 12 years old at the Omaha Civic Auditorium on the Diver Down tour that was a pretty reverential moment for me. I also love all the old ZZ Top records, I thought they were a killing band before they discovered drums machines. But Deep Purple has a special place in heart because they had an organ player.
Later I got into jazz musicians via funk fusion- Herbie Hancock stuff, Head Hunters and all that. I love all those Herbie records all his funkier ones- I love his jazz playing too, his straight ahead stuff, but his funk records were kind of a jumping off point for me to get into different types of music. That’s when I started figuring out who a lot of jazz musicians were and checking out jazz because I had Herbie’s funky records- Head Hunters, Fat Albert Rotunda, Thrust, Man-Child.
But you know I listen to everything. I find music that really strikes me in most genres. It’s about the particular artist, what it is that they’re doing or what they’re saying. It’s also hard because so much of it is about where you’re at or the kind of mood you’re in. Sometimes you get something new and you’re really hot on it and sometimes there’s not anything new and you rediscover something old that you loved at some other time like me and my Deep Purple. I do have an affinity for hard groove type rock though. I love the riff rock.
DB- Given your range of interests, I’m curious, during your off-time from Galactic do you play out and if so in what context?
RV- I like to play in more traditional organ trio type settings. I’ll pick up gigs with friends in New Orleans usually playing organ in the traditional sense of kick and bass and I’ll be on the organ. In Galactic I’ve been doing a lot of tweaking, making weird sounds, more into textures and things like that. So when I’m home I like to play more straight-ahead organ gigs in a groove jazz, souljazz style. I’m also in a quartet that Ben plays in and I do a side project thing with Stanton, and another drummer, Johnny Vidacovich, who Stanton learned so much from, and George Porter.
DB-Along these lines, can you talk a bit about how you feel your role has changed in Galactic and to what extent has this led to you to incorporate new keyboards and technology?
RV- In terms of the way our music had developed we started out just playing old school funk with soul jazz mixed and I was basically doing what keyboard players in those styles do. Being from New Orleans the Meters were all heroes to us so I was doing an Art Neville thing and a little bit of a soul jazz organ thing like Lonnie Smith. But as our music has developed to be stranger and a little more sonically adventuresome, my role has developed into not playing so much but thinking about textures and little sounds and line here or there that suit the music. Not playing as much of the traditional boogaloo organ kind of stuff although we still do a little bit of that. In some sense we think more about composition in our tunes and we have more vocal tunes so a lot of it is about playing the right little parts whether it be a melody here or there or harmonic content or a little ethereal sound or whatever. It’s a little bit like being in charge of window dressing- the rhythm section lays it down, the singers sing the song and I just dress it up.
But it has definitely pushed me to think about new sounds and textures. I still play these vintage keyboards but I try to think how to use them in non-traditional ways, whether it be the effects I run them through or using delay or how I process them or even just the things I play. So I still like the old keyboards the best in terms of a sound source but I’m always trying to stretch them or take them somewhere new and use them in non-traditional ways. On our record there are a lot of things that I used a Wurlitzer for that people wouldn’t identify as a Wurlitzer. Those keyboards are still great, there’s a lot you can do with them beyond what they’re known for, so that’s a big part of it. That’s something I think about all the time still, what devices are out there, little bits of technology that can help me stretch those sounds but still have them rooted in the organic basis of the sounds. I’ve decided I have more luck with the old instruments running them through different effects and new gear than using newer keyboards although I use them to some extent.
DB- Somewhat along these lines, while there is certainly a continuum with Ruckus, the disc certain expands the band’s sound. All things being equal would you prefer a listener to hear something off the album and recognize it as Galactic or would you prefer someone to be slightly confounded and not quite able to identify the group?
RV- I say the latter as long as they like it enough to ask who it is. It’s more fun that way [Laughs]. The thing is, if you come see us play you’re still going to see us play, we haven’t completely reinvented ourselves. You’re going to hear some new music but it’s still us you’re going to hear- a little bit of the old stuff and we’re still going to stretch out on some things. This is just the latest little flavor. To me this some of what making records is about and hopefully it sounds good to people.
DB- In terms of coming out to hear the band, I’ve noticed the setlists on this tour seem somewhat static relative to past tours. Do you think that is an accurate assessment and if so what is the reasoning behind it?
RV- We’re going to play the new material just about every night. Maybe we’ll change up a tune or two but most of the new stuff is going to get played because it’s the new stuff. On the one hand if you’re playing multiple shows in one area there are people coming to more than one show so you want to change it up. But on the other hand you don’t want not to play the new material on a given night because otherwise all the people who are only coming to that one show are not going to hear it, they’re going to hear us how we sounded two years ago. That doesn’t seem like a good idea either. So basically what we’re doing is playing the new stuff every night and changing the old stuff that we play to some degree.
DB- I noticed that you busted out your version of "Tenderness" a few nights into the tour. What led the group to cover that song?
RV- That was Dan’s idea. I thought it was completely crazy and it would never work. But we tried it and the way Houseman delivered it he made it into an interesting song. I kind of like it, although I have to say I know it’s out of character. There’s a lot of debate in the band as whether it really belongs in the set We did it the other night as an encore because a friend of ours who really likes it had requested it and so we decided to oblige. That seems like an appropriate time to do it.
DB- Houseman is more of a presence on this disc than your prior ones and the vocal songs seem to be incorporated more seamlessly. What that the band’s intent going in to emphasize Houseman’s singing or did that develop in the studio?
RV- We definitely wanted to think hard about vocal tunes and give them special attention. Our set has changed too- whereas maybe it used to be two or three vocals tunes in the set, now it’s on and off- vocal/instrumental so there’s a nice flow to it I think. It gives us more balance and doesn’t seem so much like we have a dual personality. The music grooves along and sometimes there’s singing and sometimes there isn’t. In the studio that was one of things our friend Jim Greer helped a lot too.
DB- I was going to ask you about him. He is credited as a co-songwriter with the band throughout the disc. Who is he and how did that come about?
RV- He’s somebody Dan the Automator hooked us up with. We really connected with him and we spent a couple weeks just working on all the tunes before Dan came down and recorded. We were into the idea after we talked with him and received the good vibe from him as somebody from the outside who’s really a songwriter and a lyricist and can come in, help us take a look at the music and just throw his two cents in about the tunes. We had him come down with that thought in mind and we established a good working relationship pretty quickly. Jim had lot of good ideas both lyrically and musically so for some of the tunes it was clear he was a contributing songwriter.
DB- Can you explain specifically how he contributed to the process, perhaps on a particular song?
RV- He helped us refine lyrics, take the lyrics or the basic idea we had and polish it up or rework it to a greater or lesser degree depending on the tune. I think "Uptown Odyssey" was a tune where the verses were cool but we didn’t really have a chorus so it sat for several days. I think Jim is the one who really fleshed out the vocal melody for that chorus and that idea suggested some of the other parts and then we had a chorus.
DB- "Uptown Odyssey" is one of the songs on Ruckus that really stands out, it has a classic feel to it.
RV- I like that one too. I went a long time without hearing the record and then I listened to it before we were getting reading for the tour and that one kind of jumped out at me too. It’s kind of popping.
DB- Plus, BB King joined you on stage for that one on the last night of the summer tour.
RV- That’s a completely unsubstantiated rumor. I have no idea where that came from.
DB- Well I have some idea. We interviewed Houseman on our Jam Nation radio show after you guys came off stage that night and he told us so on the air.
RV- Not as I remember. The last night of the tour we went on BB’s bus and had a long hang with him but he never got on stage with us…as I recall. Well who knows, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. [laughs]
DB- Hey if a band member tells us what more can we do? [Laughs]
RV- [Laughs] No, no, I’m, not questioning your journalistic credibility.
DB- Back to the album, who is Astacio the Nudist?
RV- He is actually one of the Rondo Bros. who are Jim Greer and Brandon Arnovick. He also helped us with the preproduction. Where he is credited?
DB- Keyboards on "Mango Joe."
RV- Oh yeah, some of the ear candy sounds in the background, he put those in there.
DB- Another thing I’ve been wondering about is there were some changes from the initial advance disc I received to the final release. For instance the song now listed as "Kid Kenner" appears as "Snuff" on the advance. What was the reason for the change?
RV- "Snuff" was just a working title I can’t remember how came up with that and we always intended to rename it.
DB- What is the process of naming your instrumentals?
RV- We typically use whatever little term is floating in the air at the time the tune gets fleshed out, some little turn of phrase that people are saying within our own little culture of the band. For instance, I think "The Moil" came about because Ben had just served as godfather at a friend’s briss, so I think that was in his head and it has multiple meanings and ambiguity is always welcome.
DB- In addition "Hoss" appears on the advance but "Never Called You Crazy" is on the final version of Ruckus.
RV- One of the reason why "Hoss" didn’t make the final cut is we liked the vocal tune but we didn’t finish it until after that original press disc went out. So in the end "Never Called You Crazy" trumped "Hoss," which is now only available on the Japanese release as a bonus track.
DB- Relative to your releases, I have one final quick series of questions, I was hoping you could walk through your discs and offer a word or three summarizing each as you look back on them today.
DB- Coolin’ Off?
RV- Funk party
DB- Crazyhorse Mongoose?
RV- Groove jazz
DB- Late for the Future?
DB- We Love em Tonight?
RV- A day at the office.
DB- And Ruckus.
RV- Well…ruckus. That was my title, my first word so I already fleshed out that one long ago…