Galactic: A Long Time Coming

By: Wesley Hodges

These are epic times to be in New Orleans, and that may be the understatement of the young decade. Although Carnival season officially got under way in early January, the full-bore pandemonium that generally commences the last week leading up to Mardi Gras Day got a considerably early start this year as the Saints finally ascended to the pantheon of NFL glory, winning their first Super Bowl in the franchise's 43-year history.

"It's been a long time coming," says Galactic keyboard player Rich Vogel, a comment applying to his band's new album, Ya-Ka-May (released February 9 on Anti Records - stream it on JamBase), and the general feeling of a brighter tomorrow for New Orleans. "[The Saints have] had a lot of good seasons since Katrina and it's been almost like something's been building that's strong, and I think it's a great metaphor for the city."

Now, the time has come to celebrate that achievement and Ya-Ka-May is an excellent soundtrack for fans of the "overgrown rhythm section." With a colorful parade of very special guests like Allen Toussaint, Trombone Shorty, Rebirth Brass Band, Big Chief Bo Dollis, Walter 'Wolfman' Washington and Irma Thomas, the album picks up where 2007's rap-centric From the Corner to the Block left off, providing the rest of the world with insight into not just Galactic's ongoing progression but also the city's revitalized music scene as well.

JamBase: Looking at the track listing and the names of all the special guests, this album feels like it's been a long time coming for Galactic. How was this album finally conceptualized and eventually conceived?

Rich Vogel: It actually has been a long time coming. I think it's an album we've kind of wanted to make for a while. There were some tracks on the last record that kind of hinted at and pointed the way towards this record; I'm thinking of some of the instrumentals that have brass players. On From the Corner to the Block we had Soul Rebels Brass Band on a track, we had Monk Boudreaux [and the] Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, and those tracks were kind of pointing the way towards this one. It was an album we've always wanted to make to get some of the NOLA artists we've loved and admired over the years like Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas. Having done this for many years, we've bumped into everyone and gotten to know them. We're at the stage in our career where we can say, "Let's call Allen Toussaint," and he might actually call us back [laughs]. So, we started doing that and one thing led to another and we were so pleased that he came over to our studio one day and listened to a few of our tracks and took them home and wrote some fantastic songs. With Irma Thomas, she came by and we had a tune in mind for her, and she went and learned it and came by and cut her vocals.

At the same time, we wanted to get some [artists] that some people don't know outside of New Orleans at all and kind of bring in some of the talent from the people just playing in the clubs; artists who are famous on the local level and are a part of the late night musical party, which is New Orleans on an almost nightly basis. We wanted to do that and mix it all up in a way that hopefully made sense. I don't know if we were really trying to make a specific point. This is all New Orleans music and we wanted to show the city the way we see it.

JamBase: It's an interesting cross-section of artists you guys were able to work with. Was there any kind of formula as far as crafting these songs with the artists, or did it just depend on the artists and what they arrived to the studio with?

Galactic :: 02.07.10 :: Brooklyn, NY by Dino Perrucci
Rich Vogel: Yeah, it was definitely a case-by-case basis, for sure. A guy like Allen Toussaint, who is the consummate songwriter, we'd have these little demo tracks we liked with a groove and a change and could form the basis for a verse and a chorus, but they were instrumental ditties essentially. We had a couple of these that made us think of him, so he came by and listened to them and was into it. He actually took them home and wrote songs in a more classic sense - wrote lyrics, sung harmonies. It was the kind of thing you would expect an experienced songwriter and arranger like Allen Toussaint to do. On the flip side, we'd have some of the rappers come by and just roll with a rhythm track we'd made and spit as much as they wanted to, sort of a stream-of-consciousness thing like they like to do in the clubs. Then, we'd mix it down, kind of distill it into something we thought was hook-y, find what we thought was the best verse material and sort of build the track up that way. The whole project was a very collaborative effort. It was just amazing to see the parade of people we saw go through our studio over the past year. It was covering a lot of ground, but to us it made sense because it was all New Orleans music with good energy and groove to it. Everybody, even the classic artists, go back to the same thing of playing the clubs, parties and entertaining the party people. It's really the common denominator that binds us as artists down here. Playing the clubs until the wee hours you gotta keep the party going.

It had to be surreal to send a guy like Allen Toussaint home with one of your tracks. It seems to play in really well with the collaborating you guys do out on the road and especially at festivals.

Absolutely, we've always liked to collaborate, because Galactic is, in a sense an overgrown rhythm section. We love collaborating with people we think are special songwriters or people we think have an interesting vocal element.

What is Ya-Ka-May?

We hyphenated to make it kind of look like "Look-Ka Py Py," the old Meters song, which is just an old Mardi Gras Indian term. "Ya-Ka-May" is kind of an alternate pronunciation of a noodle dish we have in New Orleans called Ya Ka Mein that they serve at the corner store or at the second-line. Somehow that led us to Ya-Ka-May, which we thought was cool.

How is it different to tour in support of an album than to just be out there in the grind?

It's more fun and exciting because we have to challenge ourselves. We make a record like this and we haven't really performed this material. All we're doing this week is meeting in the studio, hashing it out and figuring out how we're gonna play this [material]. We're lucky we're gonna have Cyril Neville with us, and he can sing just about anything you ask him to. So, we're gonna work some of the tunes up with him, and we can kind of cover the brass-y stuff because we'll have Corey Henry. I can play some of the horns stuff on the keys and cover that angle of it on tracks like "Boe Money" and "Cineramascope." It's great when you have a new thing to present, new music to play. Sometimes the challenge is good and intimidating when you realize, "I overdubbed four keyboards here," and you have to figure out how to play it.

Continue reading for more on Galactic...

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