Jeff Raines and the Do-It-Yourself Approach to Slammin’
Galactic represents an ethos and work ethic exemplary of the jam scene, not just in the band's playing. Jeff Raines and Robert Mercurio first found a lust for music in the Washington D.C. hard core scene. The two learned the importance of the DIY attitude of the bands they saw as far as booking and promoting their own shows, making their own merch etc. After moving to New Orleans for college, and repeatedly having their minds blown far away by the Meters at Tipitina's, the two applied like-minded values to the spicy gumbo of New Orleans funk, rock, jazz and soul now known as Galactic.
Since 1994, the band has toured a growing number of shows as far as Japan, and shared the stage with the Meters, Maceo Parker, Medeski Martin & Wood, War, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Johnny Vidacovich, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Charlie Hunter, Jon Fishman, Skerik, The Wild Magnolias and Warren Haynes. Aside from playing many festivals, Galactic now runs the winter Freezestyle tour, adding DJs and other acts to an already funky flavor.
Jeff Raines and I spoke about punk roots, the influx of more structured songwriting and Japanese horn players before Galactic’s gig at the Vic Theater in Chicago on March 6th. In support of the DIY ethic, the band brought out local harmonica wizard Jeff Grossberg to jam, after he talked with the band members before the show, with similar passion Galactic must have felt while watching the Meters in New Orleans.
B: There’s a different approach on the new album. How did that all come together?
J: This record was a lot different from previous ones because we had time. This time we had like six weeks, as opposed to ten days. Being in our own studio helped a lot because we didn’t have to worry about making every minute count. We had time to refine stuff more. We could put a song down in a few days, and then listen to it with a fresh set of ears. It was a great experience in that way. Having our own studio enables us to keep going. We’re about to be off over the next week, and we can get in there, and continue the process after the album.
B: What do you feel Dan the Automator brought to the table ?
J: We were looking for a producer with a different approach to recording. He was the perfect fit. He definitely didn’t want to go into this electronic, samples, sequenced drum world too far. He wanted to keep the organic nature of the band intact. It was interesting because some people in the band wanted to go further in that direction, and some didn’t. There was kind of a push and pull during this session between those two worlds, which I think helped in a lot of ways. It made a more interesting record. You get those two elements. We are a band that plays instruments, so you wouldn’t want to do a record that’s all synthesized sounds. We did use some sequenced drums, and we did find a way to blend the two sides. We’d make a loop of Stanton, and then the live drums can be brought in and out of the mix. It made for an interesting push/pull between the two. Dan definitely was a different filter to put songs through. Some songs he’d immediately be like, No.’ Songs we had worked out live were brought into the studio, and they just weren’t happening. He was very valuable in his gauging what was going to work for the album and what wasn’t.
B: Were some of those songs that didn’t work at the outset able to be remolded?
J: On this album, we didn’t want to make a jamming improvisation-style record. We wanted to focus on song structure, you know, have more parts and make it more set. We felt we play hundreds of shows every year. In the studio we felt we could something a little different, and really focus on structure, parts and lyrics as well, you know?
B: Warren Haynes said recently that you can improvise more if there’s a solid foundation of written material.
J: Yeah. When you bring stuff from the studio and on to the stage, interesting things can happen under those structures that are created. The songs are kind of starting to change just from playing them live."
B: Anything in particular?
J: Songs like…well, The Moil’ has new sections in it now. Some songs we’re playing to a video on this tour, so we haven’t really expanded on them. They’re set in time. There’s six tunes we do that to, so we haven’t let loose with those…yet!
B: What led up to doing this video thing?
J: At one point, we realized we weren’t the most exciting visual band (smiles). It’s not like we’re flying around on stage like Angus Young. So, we started talking about video. We know a guy Andrew Smith, from New Orleans, how does video installations for a living. Then, we got a bunch of original content, and then picked like six or seven tunes that it would work well with. It definitely adds a solid element to the show.
B: Moving back into your past what are some albums or players you listened to that sealed music in your mind as something you enjoy?
J: My aunt gave me a stack of records, one of which was the Clash, London Calling. I loved that record. It just blew my mind. Also, this compilation of Motown bands that was killer. It had the Temptations, Psychedelic Shack,’ which was my favorite tune when I was a little kid. There was also a band called the Vapors. I got into the punk rock side of things first. We could go to shows when we were really young, since they were at community centers. It was an environment where even if you were a kid, you could still go see matinee hardcore shows."
B: How did you attention shift from hardcore to a more groove-oriented thing?
J: I got Mothership Connection by P-Funk. The Chili Peppers were happening then, and there was this acid jazz movement happening. All of that opened my ears up to groove, especially the Chili Peppers. At that time you could really go find Funkadelic and P-Funk records in goodwill stores. So, you know, we started to find all that stuff and that sort of led to Maceo Parker and James Brown’s older records. Then, in my band in high school, we just shifted straight to a funk band. We would learn P-Funk riffs and play in a basement."
B: Do you feel the hardcore upbringing influenced the heaviness of your sound, even with the groove there?
J: I think so, yeah. There’s definitely similarities. In our first band in college, we played some hard funk, like the Ohio Players. But also in the punk movement it was the do-it-yourself attitude. Make your own shirts and flyers. Low ticket prices. There was a certain punk ethos that we did take on, business-wise. You don’t need the giant corporate machine to have a successful band.
B: You guys have been around the jam scene for a while. What are some changes you’ve seen over the years?
J: We were just discussing how in this scene a lot of band come from this Grateful Dead, bluegrass electric kind of vibe. So what I’ve found interesting now is that you’re getting this electronic band influx with bands like Particle, Sound Tribe Sector Nine and the Disco Biscuits, you know? A lot of those beats is sort of a disco, four-to-the-floor, you know? I think that’s interesting to watch. And a lot of these bands are having a decent amount of success. It is kind of a new thing in the scene…well I guess it’s not new. It’s also interesting how the jam scene handles modern technology, and all the digital, computer-orientated things that are happening in music. The scene has come around to it, despite itself (laughs).
B: Yeah, I think that’s a testament to the genuine open-mindedness…
J: I agree. That’s the thing.
B: Who would’ve said in ’93 this electronic-based music would emerge?
J: A few years ago we had the Triple Threat DJs with us out on the road. It was interesting to see how the crowd…you know, we get a wide range of people at the show. I don’t think it’s all taper jamband fans. It was interesting to see how they reacted to these DJs. I mean, they were beat juggling and doing a lot of super hip DJ stuff, and the crowds would just go off! We were just like, Oh, okay. People’s ears are opened to this.’
B: Going along with ideas that might not appear to fit at first, but then take hold, has there been special moments on this tour, an awesome sit-in, or anything that seems like you haven’t done it before?
J: We just did this one thing that was fun with this band called Ego Rappin in Japan. We were doing dates in Japan about three, four weeks ago. The singer came out, and she had seen us at the Fuji Rock Festival, and she was this little Japanese woman. She came up and played No No No,’ which is this old, classic reggae tune we’ve been doing. We were on this jam cruise and thought we should learn a reggae tune. We had done it before, but this time it was more with a straight funk beat. We didn’t change the arrangement too much. It was just killer to have this woman with a pretty heavy Japanese accent singing this reggae tune! We also had a couple horn players from the Tokyo Paradise Ska Orchestra come up and play with us. They were killer. Great, great horn players. We also played with moe. at the Fillmore in Denver, at the beginning of this leg of the tour. So we did band swaps, where one band comes out and takes the instruments of the other band, and then the other band comes out in the middle of the set. When they took over our instruments, I think they did a better job then when we took over (laughs). But, it was all good. We’re talking about maybe doing shows with them in the future. The different crowds worked out well. There were no inflamed ego things going on at all."
B: Did you see any style differences with the Japanese horn players, as opposed to the ones you play with here?
J: They were just throwing down, man. The Tokyo Paradise Ska Orchestra is a big band in Japan. I saw their show a couple years ago, and it was just slammin’. Hard charging ska. They are very knowledgeable in jazz and blues. They can really play.
(Quick smoke break. I try to coerce Raines and the boys to play in Champaign/Urbana, IL. He coerces me into having a frappacino)
B: What differences have you seen in crowds across the country?
J: I’ve noticed when we’ve gone to the south, that the fans are a lot more wild. Whether they’re jumping on stage or just screaming, the southern fans really get pumped. I think we get a younger crowd down there, college kids, which probably plays into that. I was thinking about that the other day. When we played in Memphis, and then started going north…I don’t know if in the colder environment, people are more subdued. It seems so.
B: That’s exactly why you gotta come to my town. No one’s subdued!
J: Hey, we feel very fortunate to have the crowds we do wherever we go. I did notice a certain drunken insanity of the southern crowds (laughs).
B: It fascinated me when Theryl Houseman’ deClouet comes out. He’s an older guy and yet he is completely open to what you guys do, and real complements your sound. How did you meet him and what’s his influence been on the whole thing?
J: We met him in ’95 or ’96 at this little club called in New Orleans called Benny’s, which isn’t there anymore. Benny’s was a cool club. They had no cover charge with seven nights a week of live music. Bands would get paid by a tip jug, sitting right by the stage. He was always hanging out, and he’s a very approachable guy. So, we just struck up a friendship with him. When we were doing our first album, we wanted to have a vocal element and we didn’t know what to do. His name came up and he came over for practice, and it just worked at that point. So, we went into the studio, and killed it in the studio. When we went on tour we sort of convinced him. I remember Robert [Mercurio] and I were sitting and we called him, Hey man, you wanna go on tour?’ and he was just like, A thousand dollars a week,’ and just hung up (laughs). So we’re sitting there like, A thousand a week?!’ So we call him back and said, Look man, maybe (mumbling) a hundred and fifty a week?’ But he agreed, and I think he was trying to…"
B: Get a rise out of you?
J: (laughs) See where we were at. He’s been touring ever since. With Ruckus, I felt like that was our most successful vocal use of him so far. It had definitely the best songs, and the best lyrics we’ve done."
B: That seems to be a natural growth from having more of a solid foundation with the songs.
J: In the end, we didn’t plan to do more or less vocal tunes on this record, but it ended up that those were just slammin’ tunes so those kind of became the focal point of the album, the ones we really worked on. It was surprising to some degree at just how many good vocal tunes we ended up with.
B: When you first moved to New Orleans for school, how did hearing bands like the Meters and performers like Dr. John impact on you?
J: "I remember when I first got to college, we were really into funk music, and I knew who George Porter Jr. was from magazine articles and such, but I hadn’t really heard the Meters. I had heard Africa’ because the Chili Peppers played that. The Meters were still playing with Leo Nocentelli on guitar and a young Russell Batiste. He was eighteen then, and just so slammin’. We’d go see them at Tip’s [Tipitina’s] every three weeks on like a Tuesday night or Sunday night. We went to those shows for a whole year, and it was just like, Whoa!’ It just blew our minds that a band can be that dynamic and kick ass. They were the best band I had ever seen. I remember just standing there and being like, Fuck yeah. I want to do that!’ So, the goal of Galactic was to sell Tip’s out. That was as far as we saw. New Orleans is a small town, and that seemed like climbing the highest mountain. It was like, Some day, man.’"
B: Tell me about setting up the Freezestyle tour.
J: We took on Superfly as our managers. They wanted to package the tours. We tour so much, and we wanted to package it in a different way. Whether it was just giving it a title, or having the artists paint during the set, or having DJs. The original Freezestyle had DJs. We always do a big winter tour. There’s so much competition in the summer, with so many festivals. If you want to do club dates, you should go out during the winter. It sort of went along with that idea of winter touring. The name gave it something that people could talk about, or write about.
B:. It seems that despite the mad improvising, the band seem to be comfortable with a degree of structure. What are your thoughts on that?
J: We think about it in terms of the dynamic flow of the show. We put together this stuff where we try to have peaks and valleys, but to keep people interested. For instance, you don’t want to come out and for the second song, do the slammer of all slammers, and then the set comes careening down. With us, the way we approach a live show is like a roller coaster, except you go over the biggest hump towards the end. We’ll do the tighter, more arranged tunes early on, and then throw in some big, open improvised tunes about two thirds the way through. And then play a hard hitting slammer at the end.
B: What would be an ideal jam?
J: The best stuff happens when people are taking chances. It’s a two sided coin because people could fall on their face, or something incredible happens, you know what I mean? So, I like to see happen is for us to be on the edge and about to fall apart, and then BAM! You make it through and something unexpected happens. That’s when we’re all like, Whoa! What the fuck was that?!’ We actually have gotten to where something in the set we liked, it can later be pulled into a tune. We’ll make a note after the gig, and we tape all the shows. So, we’ll be back in the studio and we’ll try to flush all that out. We started using the gigs as a way to get everyone to throw in new ideas, maybe during rehearsal, and expound into a new tune. I guess that doesn’t really answer your question (laughs).
B: Asking about an ideal jam is open in of itself. With all of the different styles, you throw, are there any new techniques, styles, effects you’ve thrown in recently?
J: You have a band of five musician, and a vocalist, which I guess is another musician really, everyone’s got different backgrounds. For instance, Ben was in a klezmer band, which is traditional Yiddish music. Rich was very into the great organ players. He has studied classical. You get all these elements coming to the table, so we’ll do a brass band tune, or a Middle Eastern tune, or a New Orleans retro punk tune. For years we were doing that. In fact our album Late For the Future really reflected that personality uh…schizophrenia (laughs) that we had. We really tried to quit that. We wanted to figure out the sound of this band, and focus on that instead of trying to be a power rock band and then something else. We still do a few brass band tunes, but we’re more interested in figuring out what this band is. Now we have this inner radar where it’s like, Oh, that’s Galactic.’ It’s this unspoken quality that is the sound of this band. Hopefully, after playing for so long we have gotten our own identity as a unit. I guess that’s what you go for in the end."
B: Have you found any difficulties in touring as much as you guys do?
J: We always say you get paid for all the traveling. The gig is the best part of the day. That’s the fun part. That’s not looked on as work. I look forward to that in a day of drudgery and traveling. Being away from home is a drag. But if I’m home for too long I start getting itchy, and if I’m on the road too long…you know? (laughs)"
B: To wrap up, any ideas, hopes wishes for the future?
J: I just hope we keep on the same path we’re on at this point. We are about to make another record, and just started putting together material for it. We felt like making albums would be a good exercise in songwriting for the band. Playing music not in front of people, and then when you do that, you have fresh ideas and new places to go. In this band, there were years where we toured so much that we didn’t focus on songwriting. We’d get off tour and just be like, See ya later, man. (laughs)’ Now, we’re trying to look at it as when we are home it’s sort of a nine to five job, and when we’re on tour it’s sort of a twenty four hour a day job. We’re just trying to keep the ball rolling with where we went on Ruckus and just keep going in that direction.