Suburban funk boys
New Orleans' Galactic offer one indication that
the future of funk may be white and suburban.
|(L to R) Ben Ellman,
Jeff Raines, Theryl "Houseman" deClouet,
Robert Mercurio, Rich Vogel, Stanton Moore
Based in New Orleans with its unique gumbo of blues, jazz,
funk, zydeco and other forms of black and black-influenced
music, Galactic are hardly the first or most unusual candidates
to form a funk band. In fact, ever since the Average White
Band emerged from Scotland in the early '70s with numbers
like the oft-sampled "Cut the Cake," young white
musicians have been seized with a fervor for funk.
And it's not hard to fathom why. The uplifting, move-your-body
syncopations that figures like James Brown, Sly Stone and
George Clinton pioneered have a vitality that keeps funk healthy
more than three decades after it was born out of gospel, soul,
jazz and R&B.
It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that when guitarist
Jeff Raines and bassist Robert Mercurio-who form the
nucleus of Galactic-were considering where to go to
college, they were drawn to the Crescent City. "Right
before we moved down, when we were 15, 16, we started growing
up and getting into jazz and R&B and funk," recalls
Mercurio by phone from his home in New Orleans. The pair had
originally been part of the Washington, DC punk scene, but
was increasingly drawn to black music. "When we moved
down here it solidified that even more, because the city is
rooted in that style of music."
While they were technically college students, Raines and Mercurio's
real interest was New Orleans' fertile live scene.
"We would look at the calendar, and regardless of whether
we had a test or not we would go to see as many shows as we
could," Mercurio remembers. "We really did a
lot of research and listening to the bands that were around.
We would take that home to our practice space-the Meters,
a lot of the brass-band stuff that we were digging-and
found other college kids and other types of people that we
would play with. [We] finally met the guys, Stanton and Rich,
[who] are in our band, and clicked with them."
In addition to Stanton Moore on drums and Rich Vogel on organ,
Galactic by the mid-'90s came to include saxophonist
Ben Ellman and, eventually, the vocalist and Crescent City
veteran Theryl deClouet, who also happens to be the group's
only African-American member.
Mercurio says that notwithstanding the city's R&B
scene being dominated by older, African-American acts like
the Meters, the musicians they met were open-minded. "Everybody
was really welcoming. The competition was a very open and
friendly environment where bands allowed young people to sit
This atmosphere provided the environment for deClouet to join
the band. "He's more of a veteran of the generation
ahead of us in the R&B scene," says Mercurio. "We
would see him around town, and when it came time to record
our first record, we thought it would be good to have some
vocal tracks on it... So we invited him to write some songs
with us to include on the record, and we included them and
invited him to play a couple of shows with us, and he kind
of became a permanent special guest. That was about eight
DeClouet, whose gravelly voice gives Galactic their distinctive
New Orleans flavor, describes in his online bio the odd situation
he found himself in, singing with a bunch of college kids
20 years his junior. "We won the Offbeat Best New Funk
Band Award...but everybody that's been around-they
know how long I been around. They laugh, you know: 'How's
it feel being the oldest best new artist?'"
But deClouet says that there was more to it than happenstance.
"In this racially segregated, crazy town that makes
all this great music, I always wanted to do an integrated
thing... It knocks me out every show that I'm up there
with five white boys from the suburbs that's making
For Mercurio, the hardest part of playing New Orleans funk
was not mastering the relatively simple bass lines but internalizing
that ineffable thing known as "feel," which
in the case of New Orleans has a uniquely loose quality. When
asked about the difficulties he faced, he says it was "not
really the patterns, but more the feel. A lot of the New Orleans
bass lines and rhythms are not that complex-the drums
may be but the bass lines aren't as complex-but
more the feel that goes into it. And I still constantly work
on that. It takes a lot of time and work for a white suburban
While Galactic's growing popularity on the live circuit-not
only in the West but in four Japan tours-has proved
the mettle of their rollicking brand of jazz-funk, they've
tried, with their new record, to hone their jams into more
succinct, song-based forms.
"It was a big experiment," says Mercurio of
Ruckus, released in October on Sanctuary/Universal. "We
were like, 'I don't know if this is gonna work,'
but it turned out to be what I think is one of our best-sounding
albums." In addition to more compact songs and memorable
lyrics, the album also took more of a technological turn with
the production alchemy of Dan "The Automator"
Nakamura. Having produced Kool Keith and Gorillaz, Nakamura
brought more tweaky samples and loops into the mix without
sacrificing Galactic's bread-and-butter, ass-burning
And in looking at the latest iterations of the hallowed pattern
of white kids adopting black music-the most famous
current example being hip-hop giant Eminem-it seems
that Galactic may embody the future of funk. Concludes Mercurio:
"It's probably most popular amongst the college
Galactic play Club Quattro on February
4-5. See concert listings for details.
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