Dragon Smoke & Galactic Travels with Robert Mercurio
As side projects go, Dragon Smoke is one of the more intriguing bands, not just for its endurance, but for the potent music force brought forth by each member of the group. Alas, the quartet only plays on rare occasions, including an upcoming five-date West Coast tour, which commences on December 12 at the The Mint, finds its way through Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and Sebastopol, before ending at Crystal Bay, Nevada, four nights later on December 16. Dragon Smoke consists of Eric Lindell on guitar and vocals, Ivan Neville on keyboards and vocals, and has been fronted since its inception by the rhythm section from Galactic—Robert Mercurio on bass and Stanton Moore on drums.
Mercurio sat down with Jambands.com during rehearsals for the upcoming tour to speak about the ongoing project and its rare live gigs around occasional discussions of a studio album, and the link between San Francisco and New Orleans, while also touching upon Galactic endeavors, the differences between international audiences versus American crowds, and the ongoing need for variety, in not only a musician’s art, but in one’s life, as well.
RR: Let’s begin with the genesis of Dragon Smoke.
RM: It’s the reason that the name is what it is. There is a promoter out in San Francisco from the Boom Boom Room, Alex Andreas, and he’s a big fan of putting people together that don’t normally play together, and trying to make a new group out of it, ala a supergroup, or Super Jam, or what it has been called for many years. I think in 2000 or 2011, he put the band together, and, originally, the band was Eric Lindell, Stanton [Moore], me, and Jon Cleary, who is a New Orleans piano player.
The gig took place at the Dragon’s Den, which is a tiny little bar down in New Orleans, which holds about a hundred people. It was a great success, it was really fun, and we did a bunch of tunes that none of us normally do. The next year, Jon Cleary couldn’t make it, so we called Ivan [Neville], and it’s become a yearly tradition since then, and we’ve stayed with Ivan for a number of years since then. I think it has been ten or eleven times doing it on the Tuesday in between the weekends at the JazzFest. But it’s moved. We did it at the Dragon’s Den for about three or four years, but it’s became too packed, so we moved it to another club called the Blue Nile, and, recently, the last four or five years, we’ve been doing it at a larger club called One-Eyed Jax.
About four years ago, we all said, “Why do we do this just once a year? Why don’t we do more than just once a year?” (laughs) So, I put together a string of shows on the West Coast, and I think the first time, we just played Santa Cruz and San Francisco. That has become another yearly tradition—to go out to the West Coast in December. For one, that seems about the only time the four of us have free time with our schedules. It’s been very difficult to get this band together. So, yeah, we’re kind of a band of tradition, even though we don’t really play too often. (laughs) But it’s a really fun time when we do.
We don’t play too much, so it is a very special time. We’re getting together today for rehearsals. It’s a band that we all just happened into, in a way, unintentionally, and we grew from there from the original Dragon’s Bend evenings.
RR: You mentioned the significance of a key player at the Boom Boom Room, which, of course, is across the street from the Fillmore in San Francisco.
RM: We have played there in the past after gigs. Stanton and I and a lot of bands have a long relationship with the Boom Boom. The Boom Boom Room’s Alex Andreas was also promoting shows in New Orleans. He put this thing together, and he definitely has an affinity for it. I know there are people who try to do these [collaborations] with bands or musicians, and sometimes it is a little far-fetched. But he has a good way…he’s done it, actually, twice with bands that I was in—there was another band that doesn’t play too much anymore, the Frequinox [a quintet featuring Mercurio on bass, Stanton Moore on drums, guitarist Will Bernard, keyboardist Robert Walter, and Donald Harrison on sax], and he put together five band members, which was really cool. Sometimes, promoters are not musicians, so they think, “Oh, this guy would be fun, and that guy would be fun,” but there is a chemistry that you have to look for in a band. He has an affinity for it.
RR: I want to follow up with what you just spoke about as far as chemistry. I also want to pursue a thread between the cultures of San Francisco and New Orleans. I’m from the Bay Area, and I’ve also spent some time in New Orleans, and it strikes me that there is some rather significant cultural similarities between the two cities. Do you find that same distinction?
RM: Oh, yeah. I always have. From Galactic’s early touring when we first started going out there, I remember our singer Houseman [Theryl DeClouet] always saying, “San Francisco’s our sister city to New Orleans.” And I always thought that was so weird. When I finally went out there, I thought, “Oh, I see it.” It’s funny because it’s very different looking, and they are socially economically different, especially when we first started touring—the dot com thing was blowing up in San Francisco. There is just a general love for music that I notice out there, and clubs like the Boom Boom Room and stuff like that, remind me of New Orleans because they are small smoky clubs, and people playing long, exhaustive shows.
I think that a lot of people moved out to California in the 50s and 60s, certainly into Oakland and other areas, because there were better opportunities, and less racism, and Civil Rights were happening out there. I remember Theryl telling me that. But I still can’t quite put my finger as to why. It does feel like that.
RR: And Eric Lindell is originally from the Bay Area, right?
RM: He’s from San Mateo. Eric is the wild card of the group. Whereas Stanton and I have similar musical backgrounds and influences and we play similar music, Eric whips out artists that I’ve never heard of, and he’s definitely into the singer/songwriter world and comes from a whole different kind of background of making and playing music. He brings in a blues element and a singer/songwriter element that the three of us don’t really have, so it’s great and it makes the project a lot more vocal-oriented than any other projects that Stanton, Ivan, and I are involved with. Dragon Smoke is a very song-oriented band, which is refreshing for a guitarist.
RR: You go back pretty far with Ivan Neville.
RM: Ivan is the patriarch. He brings the knowledge, voice, and some badass chops to the band. He brings in a musicality and he’s also a great vocalist. He also has songs that we perform. In Galactic, we’ve toured with vocalists, but nobody in the band is a vocalist. It is exciting in that way—to be around people who are musicians and great vocalists, and so that stands apart from other projects as Eric and Ivan bring a vocal element that we don’t always have.
RR: And then there’s Stanton.
RM: It’s really cool that we’ve moved around together as a rhythm section. Every person that we work with, we get deeper together and learn more about each other. Even though we’ve been roommates in the band together and we’ve been touring together forever, musically there is always new ground to familiarize each other with. Being in Dragon Smoke got us so vocal-oriented that it got us playing to the song and to the singer, and it took us years to be able to play like that. When you first become a musician, I think, one of the hardest things that a musician has to learn is that it’s not about you, it’s not about your part, it’s about the whole. And nothing makes that more apparent than when you are playing a vocal song and you are supporting a singer. Being in Dragon Smoke has helped Stanton and I with that connection in that kind of way.