In 1990, two childhood friends from Chevy Chase, Md., guitarist Jeff Raines and bassist Robert Mercurio, moved to New Orleans to attend university. During college, they fell in love with the local funk, jazz and R&B scenes and looked to form their own band.
In New Orleans, they hooked up with organist Richard Vogel, saxophonists Ben Ellman and Jason Mingledorff, drummer Stanton Moore and vocalist Theryl DeClouet, a.k.a. House Man. They called themselves Galactic.
Drawing upon the vibrant traditions of New Orleans, they’ve built a loyal following with their brand of funk, jazz, rock and electronic music, with influences from legends like The Meters and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
The band parted ways with their vocalist in 2004 due to health issues, and they continued as an instrumental group with high-profile guest vocalists like Irma Thomas, Trombone Shorty and Glen David Andrews. Galactic has been releasing albums and touring consistently since 1996.
Robert Mercurio joined us in the Gumbo Kitchen for a chat.
When you got to New Orleans, were you already in love with the music, or did that happen once you got there?
Truthfully, it happened when we got here. We were somewhat familiar with New Orleans music, but it was still pretty much a regional music. It wasn’t as prevalent as George Clinton, P-Funk, James Brown, stuff like that. We had started getting into that kind of music in our later high-school years, then when we moved to New Orleans it was an eyeopening experience to figure out that there was so much regional music. It was so vast, from the brass bands and Professor Longhair to the uptown Meters, Neville Brothers funk stuff. I fell in love with all of it. It was really awesome for us to move to a town where we could go out and see this music. It was all being created nightly.
You guys have been touring for about as long as I can remember. It seems like you’re constantly on the road.
Yeah, we’ve been touring for 25 years, which is kind of crazy. We jokingly put on one of our first tour posters, “Nonstop national tour.” It kind of feels like that — 25 years of a nonstop tour.
In 2004, your singer House Man left the band. Did you think at that point, maybe that’s it, we’re done?
That definitely went through our minds. We had toured at that point for eight years with Theryl and had made three or four records. It did seem like a definitive point. We had always been an instrumental band first, so we just decided to continue doing it as an instrumental band. We did that for two or three years, and then we were like, “We can’t ever find a replacement for Theryl,” and at that point decided to make this record involving a bunch of emcees and rappers that we had fallen in love with over the years. We put together this record From the Corner to the Block, and it has a bunch of guests. At that point, we decided to start touring with some of these rappers. That opened the door for us to continually bring in new special guests to tour and record with us.
What I find really interesting is how Galactic started as an instrumental group, and one of the groups you admired was The Meters, who of course were the rhythm section for so many incredible artists. And now here you guys are doing just that. You look on the stage and there’s Cyril Neville, Irma Thomas, Trombone Shorty. It’s pretty incredible, isn’t it.
You’re correct that we definitely based ourselves off stuff like that — The Meters, Booker T. & the MG’s. We learned a lot of that music and were really attracted to that sound and vibe. It’s kind of worked out like that, where we’ve become somewhat of a rhythm section that can co-write and produce and work with different vocalists and stars. I don’t know if we intentionally set out to do that, but we definitely have ended up there.
What was it like working with Glen David Andrews?
He’s such a kook, man. I love that guy. He’s extremely unpredictable, full of energy, and he’s one of the most unique guys in New Orleans. He really does sum up the city in his approach. We worked with him on that song You Don’t Know from Ya-Ka-May, and then Ben and I ended up writing and producing a song for him called NY to Nola. He’s such a character.