Galactic: Uptown Funk

Matt Inman on April 16, 2019
Galactic: Uptown Funk

photo by Melissa Stewart

Galactic have pushed the Crescent City’s sonic boundaries for over 25 years. Now, as Tipitina’s freshly minted owners, the band officially holds that funky legacy in their hands.

This article is part of our 50 Years of Jazz Fest celebration and appears in the special Collector’s Edition April/May 2019 issue of Relix. Subscribe here using code NOLA50 and get 20% off.

Stanton Moore lived out one of his wildest dreams the first time he set foot in Tipitina’s. As a teenager growing up in New Orleans, the drummer attended weekly youth jazz workshops in the venerable club named after a song by Professor Longhair. Soon after arriving there, he met and had a chance to play with one of Fess’ collaborators and an early musical idol, Johnny Vidacovich. Little did he know that three decades later, he’d not only be able to cross the venue’s threshold whenever he wanted, but also see his own group’s name on the club’s lease.

At the end of November 2018, Moore and his bandmates in veteran funk outfit Galactic purchased the legendary spot, which has served as their unofficial homebase since their formative years in the Big Easy.

Galactic first played Tipitina’s as the opening band for Cowboy Mouth during a Tulane homecoming celebration, but that was hardly the members’ first time in the building. Recalling the myriad musicians that they saw at Tip’s in their younger days, Moore lauds the diversity of acts that rolled through the building. A Saturday night show could feature anyone from The Meters to Fugazi to Soundgarden, followed by a Sunday packed with youth classes and an evening Fais Do-Do with Bruce Daigrepont (who, Moore says, is one of the very few people who have headlined Tip’s more than Galactic).

Both Moore and his bandmate Robert Mercurio refer to the process of negotiating the purchase of Tipitina’s as an arduous, stressful and emotional endeavor—what was once a pipe dream for a group of young musicians slowly became a tantalizing possibility. The closer they got, the more they wanted it. But the work is far from over.

“It’s not like we won the lottery—‘Yay, now we own Tipitina’s and we can all buy pools!’ We just agreed to a huge responsibility of overseeing this cultural legacy and this place that means a lot to a lot of people,” Moore says, checking in from backstage before Galactic’s soundcheck in Pittsburgh. “We probably wouldn’t have done this if it was any other place. We weren’t looking to own a bar or be music-club owners, but we are very interested in preserving the cultural importance of our favorite place on the planet, which is Tipitina’s.”

But they won’t be alone in that effort—many of the staff that have been at the venue for years will continue to work under the new management, much to Galactic’s relief. Although they feel that they do have a unique perspective on running a venue like Tip’s—from attending shows there as fans to headlining the stage countless times, along with their vast experience with other venues around the world—this is their first attempt at actually overseeing such an operation.

“When we had our first meeting, it became really apparent how dedicated the upper-level staff is and how much they were keeping the club going,” Mercurio, Galactic’s founding bassist, says while calling from the band’s tour bus before the same recent Pittsburgh date. “We were really fortunate to inherit a great team that knows the ins and outs of the club. It would’ve been a huge undertaking to also staff it and all that. It just needs a little bit of help, including untying the hands of these people—they were held back a little bit because the previous owner wasn’t the most involved. So they’re like, ‘This is amazing; you guys answer your phone when we call!’ Hopefully we can expedite movements—we just want to take what it is and make it better. There’s not gonna be chandeliers in there, no red velvet hanging around. But we’re trying to improve areas that we know how to improve from our experiences.”

“And by ‘make it better,’ we don’t mean renovate and put tile on the dance floor,” Moore chimes in. “We mean give it the space that we can give it so that it can be the best version of itself. We don’t want to change the vibe of the place; we just want to make sure that everything functions properly. We want to keep the funkiness of it, but just make it a little less gross.”

Galactic’s story is part of a long journey from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to Uptown New Orleans—one that started with a couple of wide-eyed East Coast teens getting an immersive, firsthand lesson in the rich musical landscape of the Crescent City. In 1990, two former punk-rock kids from Chevy Chase, Md., who knew more about Bad Brains than they did about The Meters—Mercurio and guitarist Jeff Raines—made their way down to the Big Easy to attend college and play some music. Almost three decades later, Galactic have released their 10th studio album, Already Ready Already, and are the more-than-proud owners of a NOLA cultural institution.

“Moving to New Orleans when we were 17-18, we had put the punk music behind us—our tastes had changed at that point,” explains Mercurio. The bassist also notes that he and Raines had already started to explore some corners of the funk world through rereleases of Parliament Funkadelic and James Brown albums, along with newer material from Red Hot Chili Peppers, who helped them bridge the gap between punk and funk.

“And we came to this city that is just so full of R&B, funk, soul and brass—it was just like going to Disneyland as a kid!” Mercurio continues. “Like, ‘Oh, my god; this club has this band and this band!’ And all the record stores—I just started buying up all these used Meters and Neville Brothers records, and anything that was hitting us at that time. It was really eye-opening because, truthfully, I wasn’t that aware of New Orleans music like Rebirth or Dirty Dozen. So it was a huge experience for both of us to be exposed to all that, and we just fell in love with it—and maybe went out to too many night shows. But, it was an education in music for us.”

A few years before that, Moore had a similar awakening, though his tutelage in the genres his home town is known for began earlier than that of Mercurio and Raines. All three musicians found themselves at universities in the city—Raines and Moore at Loyola, Mercurio at Tulane—and began to run into each other thanks to the town’s web of late-night music venues. Mercurio met Moore first at a low-key jam session organized by a mutual friend, guitarist Rob Gowen.

Stanton Moore (front) and Rich Vogel at The Capitol Theatre in 2014 (photo by Dino Perruci

“[Rob and I] were both in the jazz department, but a little bit frustrated and wanted to play some funk,” Moore remembers. “Rob was like, ‘I met this bass player; he plays funk and he’s a really cool dude.’ So I showed up at Rob’s house, brought over my drums, and we just played in a bedroom and had a blast. Shortly thereafter, I was out at one of these night shows at Tipitina’s and bumped into Robert, who was like, ‘Hey, here’s my buddy Jeff. He’s that guitar player I was telling you about, and we have that band together from D.C. We know you’re playing a lot of gigs, so you might be too busy, but would you know any drummers that would be interested in playing some funk with us?’ And I said, ‘I wanna play funk!’”

Moore was indeed already busy with a variety of musical outlets, building his burgeoning résumé as an in-demand drummer around New Orleans by playing everything from traditional jazz on sunny riverboat casinos to Zeppelin- and Sabbath-influenced rock in dingy bars with a group called Oxenthrust. But, Galactic Prophylactic—which was the early-‘90s moniker of his band with Mercurio, Raines, keyboardist and fellow Loyola student Rich Vogel and a few other players who have since departed—eventually stood out from all those other projects.

“I was playing with everyone that I possibly could, just trying to get my foot in the door,” Moore says. “Sometimes I would march in a Mardi Gras parade with a snare drum in a traditional brass band and then run from that, change in a bathroom, and play a night show with Oxenthrust or with Galactic Prophylactic. I was just picking up every kind of gig I could possibly do.”

Soon after, Moore also started drumming in the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars—filling in for Willie Green, who couldn’t travel with the band due to his commitments to The Neville Brothers—where he met Ben Ellman, a saxophonist who became the next recruit into their nascent band. The members of Galactic also struck up a friendship with veteran singer Theryl DeClouet, better known as Houseman, who agreed to contribute to the group’s 1996 debut, Coolin’ Off, despite being significantly older than the twentysomething musicians and having never played with the ensemble.

“He performed at Benny’s Bar, which isn’t there anymore, but it was a very popular late-night spot Uptown where shows went until 4 or 5 a.m. every night of the week. It was kind of crazy,” Mercurio says. “It was a club that Jeff and I frequented—it turned out Stanton did, too—and Theryl performed with this band Michael Ward and the Reward. As anybody who ever crossed paths with Houseman knows, he was friendly to fans, very welcoming. We’d go see his band and started becoming friends with him. Then for Coolin’ Off, we were just like, ‘We have this guy who we think could be a cool singer on the record.’ It just came together, last minute, during that session.”

From there, DeClouet began gigging around New Orleans and with Galactic adding to his repertoire with the band, which led the members to invite him on the road with them. And—though it somewhat baffles the bandmates today—DeClouet agreed.

“Looking back, we’re all like, ‘Man, that’s so amazing that this guy—who was basically our age now—was willing to take a risk and jump into a van with a bunch of kids.’ I mean, I don’t think I would do that,” Mercurio says with a laugh. “There’s this up-and-coming band and they’re like, ‘Come on out! Maybe you’ll make 10 bucks a night. Maybe there’ll be a $50 night. We’ll be sleeping on floors.’ I’d probably be like, ‘Eh…’”

DeClouet passed away in July 2018, well over a decade after parting ways with Galactic in 2004, when complications from diabetes forced him to scale back his touring, but his bond with the band never wavered. After his death, Galactic shared a heartfelt note, while Mercurio’s personal statement referred to DeClouet as being “like a second father,” and the bassist credits him with helping the group achieve the popularity they still enjoy today.

“He was just so good at hanging with the fans,” he says. “Everybody that met him loved him, so it really helped ingratiate us with them. He was definitely more of an extrovert than any of us are.”

“We were all a little bit more introverted—maybe even shy,” Moore adds. “At the time, if I saw somebody I wanted to talk to, like another musician I admired, he would just start a conversation with that person. Next thing you know, he would know all about their family and was friends with them. He was very open in that way.

“What was invaluable about our time with him was that he actually grew up at the time that most of our favorite musicians were making music,” Moore continues. “All of those Meters records that we grew up loving, those James Brown records—he was around when those came out. And he was friends with The Neville Brothers/Meters organization. So with us striving to follow in that legacy, he was a connection to a world that, for us, was fascinating. He lent some legitimacy to what we were doing in the early days, and he was an evergreen well of stories. I’m still amazed that he was willing to come jump in a 1978 van and tour the world with us. That van was our traveling university, and he was the professor.”

Erica Falls fronts Galactic at Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas in 2016 (photo by Patrick Gray)

DeClouet’s departure, after four studio albums and one live release, marked a new era for Galactic and, rather than replace the singer, the band focused more on their instrumental side for a couple of years. But that collaborative itch returned, leading the group to fulfill one of their longtime wishes by reaching out to a number of artists from the hip-hop world for 2007’s From the Corner to the Block, which featured guests like Juvenile, Jurassic 5’s Chali 2na, Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab, Boots Riley and more.

That record only deepened Galactic’s well of influences, opening the door for the long line of guest vocalists that have recorded and toured with the band in the ensuing decade-plus. The list of featured artists on Galactic’s albums is nothing less than an all-star collection of New Orleans staples and musical icons, both past and present, including the late Allen Toussaint, as well as Mavis Staples, Cyril Neville, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Macy Gray, Irma Thomas, Rebirth Brass Band, Trombone Shorty, Big Freedia and Ivan Neville. The band has also toured with vocalists like The Revivalists’ David Shaw, Corey Glover, Maggie Koerner and Erica Falls, who has been with Galactic for over four years now and is one of the featured singers on Already Ready Already. (As Moore fondly notes, Falls’ contribution to the record, “Touch Get Cut,” was born out of the handwritten labels the singer would put on her food on the tour bus after “anonymous” band members refused to stop eating it before she could.)

“It was great chemistry right off the bat,” Falls says, recalling her first couple of gigs with Galactic after Ellman saw her perform with trombonist/ bandleader Corey Henry, a former touring member of Galactic. “Sometimes you have to find that fit, but it came quite naturally. It started off really well, and it’s been on an upswing ever since. I think the connection of [New Orleans] being our stomping ground helps. It’s been a great ride—great chemistry on and off the stage, and most people can’t say that. When you can have a great camaraderie like that, it says a lot about the people, outside of being musicians.

“It’s an environment of family,” Falls continues, noting that, while she and the band members share a fair amount of musical influences, there are also moments of learning on both sides, like how Ellman got her into NOLA bounce music. (That, in turn, lead to Falls appearing on the title track of Big Freedia’s 2018 EP 3rd Ward Bounce.) “For a small space on the bus, it’s quite peaceful. Everybody has their roles. Our tour manager, Chris, is the bus mom. I’m the bus wife—I help them find stuff. [Laughs.] ‘Where’s my jacket? What do you think about this shirt?’”

Though they first gained local traction as a purely instrumental outfit—and can still fall back into that mold without missing a beat—Galactic have also naturally started to follow in footsteps of their idols The Meters and Booker T. & the M.G.’s, both of whom played on countless studio recordings by other artists while helping shape the influential sounds of their respective musical spheres. But, as Moore explains, they’ve had to adhere to a different playbook than their predecessors. “We’d hoped to be called on to be the backing band for lots of artists that we respected but, just with the way that times change, there are less studio sessions like that,” he says. “So we kind of flipped the script—instead of getting the call to go support artists that we would want to support, we started calling them. In a way, we’ve become an instrumental band that backs up a lot of different vocalists, but not in the traditional way. We’ve created that situation for ourselves. So we’re very much influenced by those models and those bands, but have approached it from a different angle—almost like the reverse angle.”

That approach has helped Galactic stay relevant and successful throughout their career, which has weathered a number of sea changes in the music industry. And though New Orleans continues to be a city stoutly dedicated to keeping its storied traditions alive—music, chief among them—not everything can stay the same, and Moore laments the fact that, these days, someone walking down Frenchman Street is more likely to hear a cover band playing in a local bar than a group creating their own music. (“It’s all about how many heads can you get in the club and how much alcohol you can sell, and guess what sells more alcohol: a band playing original music or a band playing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’?”)

One thing that hasn’t changed for many years, however, is Tipitina’s—except for the name on the deed, of course. And its new proprietors plan to keep that tradition intact—memories and all.

“Depending on who you talk to, there are different sets of magical moments,” Moore says of the enduring venue, listing his own memorable shows like Bad Brains (“On the first note, somebody stage-dove and landed on my head”), Bootsy Collins (“God, he was incredibly loud”) and countless Meters gigs. “You could talk to other people who are like, ‘I was there the first time Professor Longhair played there and they had just named it Tipitina’s after it was the 501 Club.’ Or ‘I was there when Dr. John played there for the first time.’ And these people are still around, and we’re friends with a lot of them. It’s a place where so many different types of musical moments have happened and continue to happen. And that’s what we want to do: continue creating these experiences where the patrons and the musicians walk away like, ‘Oh, my god, that was amazing. Can you believe that just happened?’”

This article originally appears in the April/May 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.