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by Dan Grunebaum

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 in."

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 years ago."

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 good funk..."

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 kid."

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 grooves.

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 kids."

Galactic play Club Quattro on February 4-5. See concert listings for details.

credit: Danny Clinch

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