Twenty Years Later: Galactic’s Robert Mercurio Reflects On ‘Coolin’ Off’
Words by: Chad Berndtson
On top of all the wild, funktastic nights, ferociously soulful parties, guest-laden affairs and legendary New Orleans Jazz Fest parties, Galactic will do something this year it never has before, but that’s a certain right of passage in the live music world: headline Red Rocks. It’s part of a Summer Tour that will return the band to favorite markets all over the country ahead of an anticipated appearance at Lockn’ at the end of August.
A lot of jam scene staples are celebrating recent or upcoming anniversaries and so too is it Galactic’s turn. It’s been 20 years since the group roared onto the scene with its debut recording, Coolin’ Off, still a landmark and wonderfully fresh-sounding album of soul-drenched Crescent City jazz-funk. And what’s remarkable about Galactic in 2016 — Robert Mercurio, Stanton Moore, Rich Vogel, Ben Ellman and Jeff Raines, with special guest Erica Falls — is how much it still sounds like the greased-up funk collective from those Coolin’ Off days but has also absorbed so many other flavors since then, from hip-hop to hard-edged rock ‘n’ roll, that keep it gaining bigger and more varied gigs.
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of Coolin’ Off, JamBase has teamed with Galactic to offer $20 tickets to the band’s first-ever Red Rocks headlining gig. Along with Boombox and The Pimps Of Joytime, Galactic will play the iconic venue on Thursday, July 14. Head here to purchase tickets for the show and use the code “JAMBASE20” to take advantage of the $20 ticket deal anytime before Wednesday, June 29 at 10 p.m. MT or while supplies last.
I asked Mercurio to look back 20 years but also look ahead. Galactic is anticipating a new album and many, many more hot nights.
JAMBASE: So are you actively reflecting on 20 years since Coolin’ Off, is that something you pause and let sink in?
ROBERT MERCURIO: Like any milestone that comes up, it kind of shocks you. I felt that way in 2015, too, which was the 20th time we played Jazz Fest. When it’s happening the first time you never think you’re going to be in it that long — project 20 years. Back then there was even doubt we could be a band. What’s interesting with Coolin’ Off is that we just got the masters transferred to digital. We had recorded it to analog tape, which was kind of what you did back then.
JAMBASE: What do you remember about the making of Coolin’ Off?
RM: I remember the time of year we did it was summer and it was really, really hot. We were just a bunch of fresh-faced college kids, outside of Houseman, but even then he wasn’t quite an official member of the band yet. That was about the beginning of working with him professionally, and for most of us, it was our first recording experience. So we didn’t know what to expect. It was a whirlwind, totally, to think back on it now. We were kids and we were opinionated.
JAMBASE: Have you all changed much since then? I mean, obviously there have been lineup changes and different sonic focuses for Galactic but are you different?
RM: In some ways we haven’t changed all that much, and in some we have. We’ve added more of an aggressive element to our sound since Coolin’ Off. Coolin’ Off didn’t have all that many heavy, aggressive moments. That stuff filtered into the band over the years as we played more shows and got more comfortable. Stanton [Moore] and Jeff [Raines] and I grew up loving punk rock and some of that came into what we do. But you don’t hear much of that on Coolin’ Off. That said, in many ways we are still that band. There are tunes on our more recent albums that could have been things off Coolin’ Off.
JAMBASE: You mentioned Houseman and I remember Stanton telling me that it’s you who talks with him most often.
RM: Yeah, we talk, sometimes a couple times a week, sometimes every other week. We’ve been talking about writing a song, actually — working on a new single.
JAMBASE: Very cool. Robert I think ever since Houseman retired from active duty with Galactic the question of involving different singers has come up. It seems like you guys have kept to a pretty organic rhythm of having singers who never quite join the band but who are key ingredients in different eras of Galactic, from Corey Glover to Maggie Koerner and now of course with Erica Falls. Is that an accurate way to describe it?
RM: Yes, and we really enjoy everyone we’ve worked with. They seem to come and go fluidly, and it doesn’t change so often as to be too much. I think the switch-up has helped aid our longevity — we get to slightly reinvent ourselves with a different vocalist, because it makes us pick different songs and go to different places of the repertoire.
We really enjoy our time with Erica and don’t have any foreseeable time that we’re going to part ways. There have been times, of course, where we talk again about permanent interest in a singer, and then for whatever reason we don’t commit, but we’re glad we didn’t, because a different opportunity turns up. I don’t know many bands who switch up their front person, you know? It’s usually the core of the band that changes. Luckily our fans — most of them anyway — have been willing to embrace these different frontpeople.
JAMBASE: What else do you want to do with Galactic? You personally, as well as things you’ve talked about as a band.
RM: Me, personally, I want to keep pushing forward in songwriting, recordings and stuff like that. I would also like to see us doing a little more the opposite of what we have done, where we’ve picked an artist and collaborated with him or her. I’d love to see more artists pick us, as a rhythm section for example, or as a production rhythm section. That’s really exciting because we get to make music as a band, but it doesn’t have to be Galactic. Everyone’s mind is in a different place because we can be like, oh, this isn’t our sound or our thing, so this will push us in a good way.
I’d also like to involve myself more in movie music. There’s a movie coming out called Car Dogs that we scored, and I was the producer of the score. It was kind of exciting to work for someone else’s vision and make music for that.
JAMBASE: I’m guessing you’d hold these up because these experiences inform different streaks of creativity when you guys return to Galactic?
RM: Yes — you learn from it and you take a little something back. Jeff and Stanton and I did some work with [singer] Joe Jackson, and it was so cool and liberating. It was us, but it was Joe Jackson, not Galactic. We took a lot from that.
JAMBASE: You guys show off some eclectic tastes when you look at the Galactic catalog cumulatively, but are there any musical influences that fans of Galactic would be surprised to hear about?
RM: Good question. I think that most musicians do have those tastes, and if fans are familiar with me, they might be like, wow, you really like that pop song? [laughs] But hey, I went to Weezer the other night, and I was singing pretty much every song. That was great. I like a lot of stuff that people might be surprised I listen to. I guess there was probably an era of my life where I lived in the Coolin’ Off style of funk exclusively, but as a healthy musician you need to listen to a variety of tunes.
JAMBASE: Speaking of variety, there’s a healthy sub-section of the Galactic fan base that keeps asking if you’ll ever do another hip-hop-centric album like From The Corner to the Block.
RM: We kept a little bit of that of that element in Ya-Ka-May  and in Carnivale Electricos , which came after From the Corner to the Block. But we intentionally didn’t revisit sounds like that in Into the Deep . That record was trying to depart from that era before it. Which is not to say we don’t love it — we do, and we just had Chali 2na with us at Jazz Fest and Ben and I finished producing a track for Chali 2na that features Galactic.
We still touch on it. We’re working on another track, actually, with Mystikal and Mannie Fresh. But I know what you mean — that album was probably the biggest departure from what we normally do, and there are people who really dug it. A friend of mine, a good friend, told me not long ago he thought that was the best thing we’ve ever done.
JAMBASE: Do you guys still create new music the same way? Does the material come together much differently now than it did in the Coolin’ Off era?
RM: There’s always something about that first record. We were a band for almost three years before Coolin’ Off, but still about half those tunes were written as jams in the studio. I don’t think you can ever get your headspace back into where it was when you made your first record. Life in general, so much changes.
When you’re in a new band, also, you’re doing like five rehearsals a week. Now it’s harder to get everyone together, but the way we record and collaborate can also be more economical and requires less of us having to be in the same room together. We’ve gotten better at composing, too. A lot of Coolin’ Off is one-chord vamps that we brought in and jammed on, and they were loose and juicy and they came out pretty cool. At the same time, we’re happy to have more songs now — a little bit more meat on some of the material. But we’re still true to jamming. We jam a lot during soundcheck, and if something’s cool, I might stop the band and press record on my iPhone so we capture it.
JAMBASE: Who would you like to work with, musically, that you haven’t?
RM: Wow. D’Angelo. Robert Plant. Chuck D. They come to mind.
JAMBASE: Ha, all together?
RM: Yeah. Shit, yeah. It wouldn’t have to be, but that might be kind of cool.
JAMBASE: What would surprise longtime fans of Galactic who are familiar with your music but maybe don’t know you as people?
RM: I don’t know how surprising any of it is, it’s just little things that crack me up and that people might appreciate. I’ll go on the bus, after a show, and it’ll will have been a sold-out show, and everyone left his soul on stage — we just were on. And we’ll feel that, and then get on the bus, and someone is making some tea, and watching a cooking show. [laughs] Things have tamed a lot since the old days. The partying and all that has mellowed a lot. Our backstage scene has mellowed a lot. But I think that’s natural — you get older as a person and as a band. But it still cracks me up. We could be on stage playing our asses off for thousands of people, and then 15 minutes later there’s someone making ravioli and ready for a quiet night.
JAMBASE: What else is coming up for you and the gazillion side projects you always seem to be working. Any M&Ms dates in the near future?
RM: No M&Ms dates at the moment. We are doing our usual December run of Dragon Smoke shows. Stanton is doing some jazz trio gigs. I think over the next few months we’ll be plugging away on the next record.
JAMBASE: And what does it sound like?
RM: So far, it’s not that far off from Coolin’ Off but I don’t want it to sound like a moving 20 years backwards kind of thing. It’s got a really cool funky, seventies element to it. But who knows how it’s going to end up? We could change our minds 10 times. It’s about a third of the way there. We like being without a mission statement on it.