Coming up with a technical definition for funk isn’t easy, but New York Times critic Jon Pareles did a pretty good job in his review of a Nov. 2003 concert by the New Orleans band Galactic. Stating that the “discipline of funk [is] the repetition and deliberate space that give the music its solidity and swing,” he then complimented the six musicians who “showed off by restraining themselves.”
Restraint sounds like the opposite of what a band should practice in order to get an audience dancing, but by keeping the beat slightly off-center in order to create tension, funk musicians allow their audience to provide the release themselves — with their own bodies. Galactic’s stylistic forebears are hometown legends The Meters, James Brown’s contemporaries in the invention of funk as a musical genre.
While everyone acknowledges Galactic’s funk capabilities, they are still described as a “jam band.” Even Pareles does it. Jam bands are infamous for not restraining themselves; for, in fact, following any and all impulses.
The band’s bassist, Robert Mercurio, finds the label misleading and frustrating. “It can be a drawback,” he says in a phone interview from his home in New Orleans, “especially in the eyes of critics and radio. On the other hand, concert promoters like it, because it sells tickets. In America, at least, the jam-band label is used not to describe the actual music but rather the vibe or the way the group runs its operation. We improvise and we sometimes have jams, but mainly it’s because we make a lot of our money from touring. And then we’ve opened for a lot of jam bands, like Widespread Panic.”
The group may finally move out from under the jam band umbrella with its latest album, “Ruckus,” which they recorded in their new studio with Dan “the Automator” Nakamura, the producer behind progressive hip-hop projects like the Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School and Deltron 3030. Airier than the group’s past albums, “Ruckus” is also experimental — not so much in the band’s use of loops and samples but within a broader definition of funk itself. Mercurio boldly calls it “future funk.”
“It’s not as derivative, not so old-school,” he explains. “On our earlier albums we just did what you’d call authentic funk. But we want to come up with something new. It’s a natural development from having played so long together.”
The group’s roots aren’t completely funk. Galactic formed about 10 years ago around the kernel of Mercurio and guitarist Jeffrey Raines, two white boys from Washington, D.C. who cut their musical teeth on that city’s postpunk scene, which was was centered on the DIY methodology of Fugazi and Bad Brains. “It was a very independent, noncorporate environment,” Mercurio says. “Actually, it was close to the current jam-band ideal, which is to forge your own path.”
A lot of the D.C. bands incorporated funky elements into their punk rock, and the two youngsters decided they wanted to explore those elements in a purer form.
“We were moving away from straight punk into real funk before we moved to New Orleans — this was before the so-called punk revival. We wanted to learn where it came from, but we didn’t want to learn it secondhand.” So when both had to pick a college, Mercurio chose Tulane and Raines went to Loyola, both of which are in New Orleans. Mercurio says he spent as many hours in the city’s famous clubs as he did in class.
Two other members are also refugees: keyboardist Richard Vogel is from Omaha, and sax player Ben Ellman from Los Angeles. The group picked up some cred when Theryl “the Houseman” de Clouet joined as vocalist. A generation older than anyone else in the band, de Clouet went to school with Cyril Neville in New Orleans and is the only nonwhite member. But the band never really needed de Clouet to earn props in New Orleans, which, as de Clouet points out on Galactic’s Web site, is still “racially segregated.”
If Galactic had a secret weapon to disabuse cynics of the notion that they were no more than pretenders to The Meters’ legacy, it was drummer Stanton Moore, a native son who grew up playing hard rock but whose annual exposure to Mardi Gras and the city’s ingrained musical rhythms quickly became flesh when he decided to become a funk musician. Nakamura says Moore is one of the best drummers he’s ever heard. He plays with so many groups in New Orleans that his band mates call him “Stanton Moore, the drumming whore.”
The hallmark of a great funk band is its cohesion, and in terms of paying dues Mercurio estimates that until only a few years ago Galactic played “more than 175 nights a year.” He’s quick to point out that New Orleans does not need Galactic to carry on its musical legacy. There are plenty of hometown musicians doing just that, but because Galactic was willing to tour, they were able to carry the New Orleans sound farther afield. In the process, they met a lot of people who influenced them.
“We’ve recently started to re-explore our punk rock roots, as well as hip-hop,” says Mercurio. They did a tour with San Franciso rapper Lyrics Born. “We toured with The Roots, too, and their bass player sat in with us. We’ve played with Triple Threat and other DJs, though we don’t incorporate scratching or that kind of thing in our shows.”
“Ruckus” reflects these developments in several ways. Since funk is organic, the cut-and-paste aesthetic central to a lot of hip-hop would seem to be anathema to musicians who not only play their own instruments but play them exceptionally well. Not so, says Mercurio.
“Usually, our songs are worked out through live performance. In this case, we went back and listened to DATs of our shows and isolated moments of improvisation. In the studio we then analyzed the grooves and expanded them or added new parts. We’d start with a drum track and lay a bass track over it and then figure out the vocals. We’d never written that way before. A lot of stuff came from fooling around with samplers. We’d chop up my bass and mess with it. So while we used a lot of loops and samples, they’re almost all loops and samples of ourselves.”
The results are real songs that hold together more tightly than their previous work, which in contrast sounds more like jazz progressions built up into songs. There’s a practical reason for this new focus. “Any money that comes in from records is gravy,” Mercurio says. “I think I would definitely like more gravy. That’s what we’re trying to do: make records that will be able to reach more people. That’s why we brought in Dan. We want to make our music more concise, more listener-friendly, more something that you’d want to listen to at home, as opposed to just being a souvenir of our live shows.”
The band no longer maintains a jam-band schedule, but they still tour a lot, “about 110 shows a year.” Their visits to Japan, however, they see as a romp rather than an obligation. They first came in 2000 and have returned three times since, including several sets at the 2002 Fuji Rock Festival where Mercurio’s hero, George Clinton, sat in. During a sound check at a Liquid Room show, they wrote what has since become one of their live standards, “Shibuya,” and “Bongo Joe,” the best instrumental track on “Ruckus,” is built around a sample of a Japanese girl talking that they recorded here.
“We’d come all the way to Japan just to play one show,” Mercurio says. “In fact, we have.”