If not for the Vegas Lounge, Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio might be playing in a Washington, D.C. surf-punk band rather than serving as an unlikely ambassador of New Orleans funk.
Mercurio and lifelong friend, Galactic guitarist Jeff Raines, stumbled upon the D.C. funk club en route to a punk gig.
“We’d go into this all black club and they totally accepted us and invited us back,” Mercurio says. “We started sitting in with those guys, and they taught us about funk and the groove. A lot of them talked about New Orleans and the grooves down there.”
Those grooves, particularly the funk of The Meters, inspired Mercurio and Raines to attend New Orleans’ Loyola and Tulane Universities.
After three years of soaking in the scene’s loose, positive, airy vibe, they got together with New Orleans drummer Stanton Moore, keyboardist Rich Vogel and saxophonist Ben Ellman and blended the Crescent City groove into the sound of acid jazz, a psychedelic mix of jazz, funk and house music.
Enter veteran New Orleans vocalist Theryl deClouet, who made a guest appearance on the band’s 1996 independent debut “Coolin’ Off” and hasn’t missed a gig since.
Currently touring non-stop in support of its Capricorn debut, Crazyhorse Mongoose, Galactic slowed down long enough for me to speak with Mercurio.
How do you put a new spin on New Orleans funk?
Little, different things. We just try to bring some hip-hop influences into it. We combine genres, but it’s not like it’s anything new really. It’s kind of taking a traditional thing and taking some new things to it. The idea was to take the New Orleans grooves and rhythms and try to do different stuff within that, different beds to improvise on.
Theryl has been jamming in New Orleans since the Neville Brothers were just brothers and not a musical group. How did it first feel being a white boy from D.C. jamming with someone with such authentic New Orleans roots compared to now?
He went to high school with all those people. Our first introduction to Theryl was within the first week we moved down there. He was singing at this corner bar called Bennie’s. His whole thing was just so New Orleans to the bone. He’s just the soul man. He came out in a suit and everything. He really blew us away.
We first got to New Orleans in 1990. Then we formed Galactic when we were seniors in 1994. Theryl joined in 1995. He was supposed to be a special guest on ‘Coolin’ Off,’ because we were still an instrumental group. We just wanted to have some vocal tracks on an instrumental record, so we wrote a couple of tunes and he went into the studio with us. Then he showed up at a gig and sat in with us. He hasn’t missed a gig since.
He still has this special appearance thing, because we still love the instrumental side to the music. It’s just that his special guest appearance is every night. Some people are like, ‘What’s up with this? Is this an instrumental group?’ But after a few minutes, they totally dig it.
We don’t have the normal lineup at least the way our shows go. Usually, you see a band and in the first tune, they sum up what they’re going to be like. With us, we change throughout the night. I like it like that.
Theryl has almost this standup comedy routine in the middle of it. He’s one of the funniest people. We do so much improvising that his role as the singer is improvisational. A couple of tunes we do with him are totally off the cuff every night. It’s cool for us. Everybody in the band was soloing and improvising and Theryl’s out there totally the opposite of that. It’s hard touring every day doing the same song the same way. So we started to write tunes that way so he can improvise. He makes up lyrics on the spot. He’s a total poet. He sits in the van and just comes up with stuff.
We all do it. We call it spontaneous composition. We do it a lot at shows and rehearsals for sure. We just pick a key, a tempo and just start playing. We can do it easily now that everybody knows each other’s playing so well. Sometimes we come up with best tunes of the night, because they have this great feel, something we’ve never played before.
We were in the studio a couple of weeks ago for a Windham Hill (Hammond) B-3 compilation, and we recorded this tune ‘My Little Humidor,’ which is a joke about Clinton’s pet name for Lewinsky. That had the best feel to it, because we were just making it up for the first time playing it. Nothing’s better than the first time.
Why pursue New Orleans funk? Why not Fugazi-like D.C. punk or anything else for that matter? What is it about improvising over New Orleans funk that moves you?
Well, with the bass particularly, it’s totally freeing and much more interesting than playing in a surf punk band. Everybody’s parts are so intricate, the way you connect together. It’s not really individual parts. It just creates this whole that’s funk. That’s what I dig about it. When I heard The Meters, I heard that. The way you hook up with the guitar and the way the keyboard comes in on the one, they took music to a totally different level of complexity, not just reaching people’s heads but their bodies. Last night, we were playing in D.C. Everyone was grooving down. To do that to somebody feels great.
Would you say that there’s a jazz-groove scene that you’re a part of?
Every time we return to a city, there’s some new funk jazz band playing. It’s really growing.
When Galactic first started, grunge was the big thing. How does it make you feel that young music listeners are now getting into jazz-oriented acts like jazz-groove and also swing?
I never thought we could be on the forefront of this scene. When we were just starting out, we didn’t know if we’d every really get a crowd. Then there was this reaction to that type of music. People are really ready for something different every night and something that makes you feel happy. We want to dance and have fun at a show. Not every tune is a happy song. We have some dark moments, but it’s not like that’s what it’s all about.
Like Medeski Martin and Wood, Galactic is a part of the jam band scene, a connection strengthened by your participation in the HORDE. Comment on that
When you say jam band, I instantly think of hippie rock bands. I didn’t used to think of us as a jam band, but we are one. We’ve taken some of the same influences some of those bands have and we’ve played with them, like Widespread Panic and Phish. This is this place where we meet and get a lot of crossover.
Have you ever played with The Meters?
We just played with them in Baltimore. We’ve played with them a few times in New Orleans but not a lot on the road.
How did it feel to be playing with your inspiration?
I’m amazed when people compare us to them. I’m just some guy from D.C. that moved down there. Any band in New Orleans could do what we did. We just got lucky and found a group of people on the same page at the same time, really willing to give it a go. We put in a lot of hard work that a lot of people in New Orleans are not willing to do, like, touring-wise. It’s more than just playing in a band. It’s the other 20 hours of the day spent off the stage. The reason The Meters and The Radiators are so successful is because they are willing to bring it to the masses. I don’t think we’re as great as the other bands in New Orleans, but we were willing to go for it.
Comment on the influence Maceo Parker has had on Galactic and the whole jazz- groove scene.
He’s one of the original jam-funk guys with James Brown just vamping on the one, making it up and seeing where it goes. Maceo is one of the top musicians in charge of taking that stuff and bringing it to the ’90s, still doing it with all the taste and fun of the ’70s. So many in that genre are just doing what they always had done back then, rehashing old tunes, but he’s taken it to the next level.
Bob Makin is the entertainment writer for the Courier News.