Interview: Robert Mercurio of Galactic

words by Mark Huddle | photo by Taylor Crothers
| Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

galaticI guess in the name of full disclosure I should start off by mentioning that I am a former resident of New Orleans. I moved there in the late ’80s — a wayward twenty-something searching for new beginnings, trying to make sense of myself and the world. To say the “Big Easy” was different from any place I’d ever experienced is an understatement. Back then it was a big, steamy, rollicking city, violent, poor, rich in history and culture, and it was all about the music.

I’ve been lucky — I’ve been around some of the most interesting music scenes in the country: DC, Boston, Athens, GA. But New Orleans was a different bird. Maybe it has something to do with its damnable geography, a crossroads for the Atlantic World, a place where European, American, African, Caribbean, and Latin cultures collide. If music is your one true faith then New Orleans is your Mecca. Jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, reggae, hip-hop, and maybe most importantly, funk. Hard-driving, low-down, dirty-ass funk. The city oozes the stuff. Funk is about the rhythm and New Orleans is a rhythm city.

Since 1994, the band Galactic has been dishing up a steady diet of New Orleans funk. Comprised of guitarist Jeff Raines, bassist Robert Mercurio, drummer Stanton Moore, saxophonist Ben Ellman and organist Rich Vogel, the band modeled its sound on instrumental acts like the Meters and Booker T. and the MGs. Eventually Theryl “Houseman” DeClouet settled in as the band’s vocalist. Galactic went on a roll of stellar albums including Late for the Future (2000), We Love ‘Em Tonight: Live at Tipitina’s (2001), Vintage Reserve (2003), and Ruckus (2004).

Change, as we all know, is often a catalyst to creative action. In 2004, DeClouet left the band and Galactic returned to their instrumental foundations. Amidst their near-constant touring the group began incorporating new sounds into their already heady musical stew including electronic, world music, and hip-hop. In 2007, Galactic shocked fans and critics alike with From the Corner to the Block, a record that featured hip-hop artists such as Boots Riley (The Coup), Gift of Gab (Blackalicious), and Lady Bug (Digable Planets). I remember a friend of mine calling me up and exclaiming, “Holy crap, Galactic has made a rap album!” Well not exactly. From the Corner to the Block is a flat-out funk record that just happens to have some of the most interesting MCs performing today front and center. It is also one of the most ambitious concept albums recorded in this century as each MC was asked to tell their own story about a corner that meant something to them. It is an album about the importance of “place.” And I’d say that makes it a quintessential New Orleans album.

In February Galactic will release their eighth record, entitled Ya Ka May. The name is a play on an Afro-Asian soup — ya ka mein — that has in recent decades become ubiquitous in the city’s many hole-in-the-wall eateries. It is a hot, spicy mélange of beef, broth, and noodles, and locals consider it one of the finest of hangover cures. It is also a wonderful metaphor for what Galactic has cooked up on its latest outing. Ya Ka May is a distinctively New Orleans record that features something old — stalwarts like R&B/soul legend Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, and Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias — and something new — sissy bounce MCs Big Freedia, Katey Redd, Cissy Nobby, and Cheeky Blakk. Sissy bounce has percolated up from the hip-hop underground of New Orleans’s many housing projects and features transvestite MCs who battle, it seems, almost incessantly. A little strange? Maybe, but absolutely exhilarating. Wait until you hear this record! I had the pleasure of speaking with bassist Robert Mercurio recently and he broke the whole thing down.

Robert, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us.
No problem Mark, thanks for your interest.

Well, I’m really excited to chat with you because I think we have some common interests. I know you come out of the DC punk scene.
Me and the guitar player grew up in Washington, DC so we definitely love our share of ’80s hardcore as well.

That’s one of the weird things — I moved to DC in ’83 and was in around the Dischord scene for about eight years or so, and then moved to New Orleans in ’89 or ’90.
Oh wow, same path as me. It was even the same year, it was 1990.

Exactly. Did you go to Loyola?
No, I went to Tulane. Our guitarist went to Loyola.

I was teaching school down there then. I lived on Arabella Street and took classes at Loyola and hung out at Audubon Park.
Nice, we were neighbors.

There was this place on Oak Street called “Muddy Waters” that was right across from the “Maple Leaf.”
Oh yeah man, that place was great.

I was basically having my mail delivered to that place.
They were getting the most eclectic bands back then.

That place contributed mightily to my education [laughs]. I saw Walter “Wolfman” Washington and Snooks Eaglin and I just loved those guys and seeing them regularly, it just broke me out of my hardcore obsession.
I had the same experience! Me and Jeff had sort of started to get out of punk rock and hardcore in the late ’80s but moving to New Orleans really solidified my love of funk and R&B and stuff like that.

It was about the time — I guess it was around ’90 — and The Meters had reformed with David Russell Batiste on drums.
Yeah, they were playing regularly.

Remember “Jimmy’s Music Club?” God, do those places even exist anymore?
No, Jimmy’s is gone and so is Muddy Waters, but those were the places we all hung out at and moved from bar to bar. We were probably at many of the same shows.

Wow, that’s hilarious. Well I usually like to work my way slowly but surely to the new album but I’m thinking that maybe we should just jump right into it. I, like so many others, the last album from 2007, From the Corner to the Block, was just a mind-blower as far as taking you in a really interesting direction. So many great MCs on board — but it’s clearly a great funk record that just happens to have that serious rap thing going on. And it’s a classic concept album on top of all that.
Yeah, great. I’m glad you felt that way about it. That is exactly what we were going for. We didn’t want people saying, “Oh, they made a hip-hop album.” We wanted it to still be us but with some our favorite MCs on top. Glad it came across like that to you.

Well I know that maybe some of your traditional fan base was a little taken aback by the record.
(laughter) Yeah, some people definitely were.

The question that is buried in here, I guess, is that given that very powerful experience, with recording From the Corner to the Block, how has that influenced the new record? Are you building off the 2007 release, or do you guys see Ya Ka May as going in a new direction?
We really didn’t want to make “From the Block Back to the Corner.” (laughter) You know, “From the Corner to the Block II.” We wanted to make something that was an obvious progression, but maybe that wasn’t in a totally straightforward way. And to tell you the truth, these two albums are albums we’ve wanted to make forever.

When we first started as a band in the mid-’90s, we always wanted to make like a hip-hop themed album with some of our favorite MCs and we always thought that our music lended itself well to doing something like that. And then living here we’ve always loved collaborating with all the different vocalists. I mean we’ve had Allen Toussaint sit in before, we’ve had Walter Washington sit in before, John Boutte — we’ve had these artists perform with us live so we’ve been excited about the idea of — you know, we’ve always seen ourselves as being some sort of a rhythm section a la the MGs or The Meters back in the day. So when we parted with [Theryl] Houseman [DeClouet] in 2004 it was like, okay, this is the time to do what we’ve always talked about doing. Not that we were secretly plotting. I mean, Houseman knew we wanted to do these albums, too. It wasn’t like, “Okay, he’s gone, now we can do this.” It was just apparent it was time to make these albums.

So who knows what the next concept is going to be? We just finished this and we’re starting to work on some soundtrack music and video game music so we haven’t yet totally envisioned what the next concept is going to be.

There’s always something old — and there is always something new in your music. That is one of the things that has always attracted me to what you guys do. You reference a band like The Meters — as they were originally configured — they were the house musicians for Allen Toussaint’s label and they were backing all sorts of great New Orleans acts like Lee Dorsey and Dr. John. But that way of doing business is long-gone. So how do you pay homage but also do your own thing and still look to the future? So these records and your ability to draw together everybody from Irma Thomas and Bo Dollis to Cissy Nobby into the mix is really…well, it’s a very New Orleans thing, I think, that kind of genre-bending. But it also must be pretty liberating as well.
Yeah, well I’m glad you noticed that as well. That was something we really wanted to do. A New Orleans album — we wanted it to be beyond Disneyland. (laughter)

We didn’t want to be like those tourists who just go to Preservation Hall and that’s it. New Orleans — there’s so much more to it. Its not just about Irma Thomas and the R&B legends. Or its not just about the brass band scene. There’s just so many other genres that are New Orleans that all kind of live together in this city. And what we’ve tried to do is just sort of connect the dots between the generations and show the connections between Allen Toussaint and Katey Redd.

Obviously one of the things that you’ve done — any of us that love R&B, we’re going to know who Irma Thomas is, we should know who the hell Bo Dollis is, but for a lot of people, “bounce” is something they will have had very little contact with.
Yeah. Sissy bounce even more! (laughter) Transvestite-inspired bounce which seems pretty specific to New Orleans. It is really rare. Even people in New Orleans don’t know about it. It is just so unique. We didn’t have a plaque over the door of the studio or anything but we kept asking ourselves, “What’s unique that we can pull out of this thing that’s New Orleans in a very specific way. How can we portray that through our music?” So we picked people like Katey Redd, Cissy Nobby and Big Freedia, because they’re just the most creative right now.

It’s a funny thing but I was in New Orleans for two or three years before I moved back up north. I was in the clubs constantly — I was obsessed with the music scene. But the amount of hip-hop I heard — and we’re talking ’89-92 — the amount of hip-hop was nil.

I think it was Cyril Neville that had an MC performing with his band?
Yeah, the Uptown Allstars.

That’s it. That was the only hip-hop I heard.
Oh, I totally agree with you. It was very devoid on the club scene. Although, you know, in the projects and the poorer areas there was bounce going on. I remember hearing it back then. The early stuff with DJ Jubilee, I mean that stuff was starting to come out it is just no one was really performing it live in the uptown white clubs. I mean they were doing it, and I feel like such an idiot in a way because I had heard it and stuff like that but it has only been in the last few years that I’ve ventured into some of these bounce clubs and seen the scene. And its like, man, this has been going on for 15 years! That means we just kind of discovered it which is slightly silly to feel like that.

But you know hip-hop is kind of strange in that something new needed to happen. Now we’ve seen the emergence of all these regional scenes that to my mind have reinvigorated the genre. New Orleans has been at the forefront of that when you think of the list of names that have come out of there just since 2000.
That’s because bounce became kind of — Juvenile figured out a way to get it across to the mainstream and its slowly been infiltrating a little easier nationally. People will accept it now. I just think that the sissy rappers are what is making it freaky still. (laughter)

Sure, absolutely. I didn’t know anything about that until I started preparing for this conversation. I’m not a huge hip-hop guy. I’m a 50-year old school teacher for godsakes. (Robert laughs). But I know what bounce is, and I’d never heard of the Sissy rappers. But then again there is this long cultural history in New Orleans of masking and cross-dressing and transvestism. So in a weird way it makes perfect sense in the context of New Orleans hip-hop...
(laughter) Yeah right.

But hip-hop culture in general is notoriously homophobic.
I know. It’s really ironic.

It is incredibly subversive music which I guess is how it should be. That’s what the music was when it started.
And you know what’s funny, the crowd is not gay or its not a bunch of transvestites showing up for the shows at all. Its just like a normal crowd. We went to a show last Thursday, a Big Freedia show, and there was like 10 women up dancing and…and it didn’t have the feel of being a different scene at all. The performer just happened to be a transvestite. (laughter)

Okay, I don’t want to get to far away from the new album which is just great, a really high-energy affair. No ballads on this record!
No, we’re not exactly a ballad band.

Was there a particular song or experience on this session that really stood out for you?
I remember when Katey Redd came in — I mean her performance, which was edited later to make that song with Cissy Nobby — her whole vibe and all the sissy rappers performances really were the most different kind of recordings that I’ve ever been involved with. I mean they just came in and threw down like it was a live show. They had so much energy. It was crazy. The other R&B performers, they are all seasoned pros and they got into it. They know what goes on and how the process works. So the sissy rappers stick out because it was so different. But you know when I heard Irma coming through the microphone, her voice just blew me away and we were in the studio and were like, wow, she sounds as hot and sexy as she did 40 years ago.

She seems ageless. As people get older their voices change. Hers seems to get more powerful. That song by the way is just killer. That and the Bo Dollis tune really blew me away.
Cool, thanks a lot.

And Allen Toussaint, wow that guy is just everywhere right now. Not only is his song on your album great, but I hope you’ve heard his Bright Mississippi. One of my favorite records of ’09.
Oh yeah, he’s just incredible. So prolific. He actually turned in two songs to us and one of them is on our Japanese-only version. We only asked him for one but he ended up writing two. We were just surprised to even get one.  (laughter) He’s such a legend and has such a killer schedule.

Let me shift gears a little here. I know that you guys have been involved in some of the community efforts since the storm — the foundational and fund-raising efforts. I always like to give people the last word — to maybe call attention to some of the causes they feel passionately about or might be involved in. I’m curious, since we’ve talked tangentially about the city, how you think things have changed? When you and I would have showed up there it really was one of the great poor man’s cities. You could live there for next to nothing.
Oh yeah man, it was a lot more affordable back then. It’s funny, we were talking about that yesterday in the studio, how being a working musician — you know we do gigs with other people around town — and I was just talking to a friend the other day, he’s a working musician, and he’s having a hard time making it work here in New Orleans. Post-Katrina, it’s all supply and demand, there are fewer cheap places to live, fuel prices are up and energy bills. I remember back in the ’90s I shared a house and I paid $187 for my rent! Those days are gone. For a single person you’re going to pay at least $500 for a really minimal place. So its hard if you’re living off playing gigs especially since musicians’ wages really haven’t gone up at all. They’re pretty much the same. Its hard on a lot of people here. I agree that it used to be a paradise here for artists. You could be free and not have to worry about having to handle these costs every month.

What is your sense of the “recovery?” Maybe it’s not going to be as cheap as it once was but will the city ever get back it’s former glory? Or is that just a pipedream?
Well, it’s been five years and I’ve seen a lot of growth. I remember when I came back from the storm I thought it would take at least 10 years to get back. In some ways some things have changed for the better. I think it was a wake-up calls for a lot of city departments that were just running on autopilot. Now they’ve got a fresh start and they have to make this work. So sometimes people need a wake-up call like that. All in all, time will tell.

Are there any organizations or community groups you’d like to mention for this piece? What should our readers be aware of?
Well I definitely would support Tab Benoit’s Voice of the Wetlands — it’s incredibly important and should be supported. We need to put a significant amount of resources into saving what’s left of those wetlands before we get sucked right out into the Gulf of Mexico. I would also mention the efforts to better fund local schools here in New Orleans — schools that have dropped their music programs since the storm. That is one of the reasons that New Orleans has been such a music city. People learned to play their instruments in school.

So you guys have started on your next project?
Well we’re doing the music for this video game and we’re also scoring the soundtrack for this big budget movie that was filmed down here. Neither of which I can give you the name of. (laughter)

Oh come on!
Can’t do it. But the experiences are new. It’s pretty cool. Something new for us.

And you guys are road warriors so I’m sure there’s a massive tour upcoming.
Oh yeah, we’re going to Japan and Australia and then doing the whole US. It’ll be nuts. And Cyril Neville is going out with us this time and the trombone player Corey Henry from Rebirth Brass Band, he’s been performing with us for the past 12 months.

Awesome. Well I don’t want to burn up too much more of your time but I am kind of curious — do you have a personal favorite ya ka mein place in the city?
Oh yeah! Well Danny’s #2 on Magazine Street is pretty great. (laughter)

Very cool. Thanks a lot for talking to us.
Hey man, thanks for enjoying the new album and taking the time to write about us.

Click here to download “Heart of Steel” by Galactic

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