Written By: McClain Johnson
Bassist Robert Mercurio is best known for his work with New Orleans-based Galactic, but also stays busy with other NOLA acts Dragon Smoke, Good Enough For Good Times and The M&Ms. Galactic is once again returning to their hometown for the 2015 New Orleans Jazz Fest where they will be performing with recent frequent collaborator Macy Gray. Mercurio recently discussed the formation of Galactic, his love of Jazz Fest and some of his favorite sit-ins with McClain Johnson.
McClain Johnson: What first got you interested in playing music?
Rob Mercurio: I had taken piano lessons and stuff. I didn’t really get into playing music music until I got a bass when I was in the seventh grade. It really got me into it because then I could start playing with people. Jeff [Raines] was in the band. Jeff, who’s in Galactic, we grew up together. He got a guitar for his birthday, or Christmas and then I got a bass and another friend got drums. Just from the minute I got my bass, I was in a band. That made it really cool and made it a lot more fun than just taking lessons.
McClain Johnson: What first got you into NOLA music? How did you get into it?
Rob Mercurio: I grew up in Washington, D.C., and actually grew up more into punk rock. When I turned about 16, I started getting into funk music more. When I was 17, I moved to New Orleans to go to school, so then I was fully immersed. I was already into funk music. Then I moved to New Orleans, which is all about R&B and funk and brass band music. It just became an instant love.
McClain Johnson: After you move down there, it gets in your system. It makes you funkier, man. It changes you for the better.
Rob Mercurio: Oh, yeah. It does change every person in a way, but definitely every musician in a great way. Any time you spend in New Orleans as a musician here, it’s going to be a good influence on you.
McClain Johnson: Absolutely. How did Galactic get going in NOLA?
Rob Mercurio: Jeff and I, our guitar player, we grew up together. We both moved to go to college together when we were 17, just over the years slowly pieced together the band. Throughout college, we met different members, and different players. Around 1994, we had settled with the current players now, Rich Vogel and Stanton [Moore] and Ben Ellman. That was a big turning point. It was 1994 and then we recorded our first album in 1995, Coolin’ Off. We, at that point, were relatively successful locally. We were playing a lot of the smaller bars. We had a pretty good following and then about 1996 we started taking off on the road and touring.
McClain Johnson: You guys made the choice to tour early on. Not enough NOLA bands were touring at that point.
Rob Mercurio: We even took that nod from following the guys like Medeski Martin & Wood, and stuff like independent funk bands that knew that you needed to tour, and get outside of your city to get recognition outside of your city. We had no real record label or support that a normal band would have. We just independently did it, it was true, before a lot of bands were touring that already had a radio hit or something. It was a rarity to be a band like us touring. Now, it’s pretty common and that really did set us ahead of the game.
McClain Johnson: Absolutely. You guys became the modern NOLA ambassadors. For people in other cities, you might be the first introduction to live NOLA music, and that’s cool.
Rob Mercurio: We very well could have been, and I think that, that is what definitely gave us a jump start versus the other bands.
McClain Johnson: You’ve worked with so many different vocalists over the years. That’s got to be fun for you too. How did you meet Houseman?
Rob Mercurio: He was performing pretty much weekly at this bar that we would frequent called Benny’s. We just met him. He’s just super-friendly to fans and what not, and we definitely just met him. We were talking to him and always thought he was a great singer. Really, we just asked him to guest vocal on a couple songs on our first album. The producer we were working with had suggested maybe it would be a good idea to have somebody sing vocals.
McClain Johnson: Sure.
Rob Mercurio: We were like, “We know a guy. Let’s get Theryl ‘Houseman’ DeClouet,” and then one our first shows after that recording we’re like, “Let’s invite him out.” We always said he was a permanent special guest. Then we started touring, and then we were like, “Well, why don’t you come tour with us?”
McClain Johnson: In that typical NOLA laid back fashion.
Rob Mercurio: Exactly. It was very organic, it was just very natural how it happened, and then it was like, “OK, you’re in the band. We’re going to tour together.”
McClain Johnson: You guys have worked with so many different people over the years. This year you’re doing some special gigs during Jazz Fest. How did the Macy Gray collaboration come together?
Rob Mercurio: We’ve all been big fans of her for a while. Our manager reached out and worked it out. We met for shows down here in New Orleans, and talked about it, and it just came, again, naturally, just one of those things where we just reached out to her and she was into it.
McClain Johnson: How are you going to approach these sets? Are you going to approach them differently than your other sets, in terms of what you’re going to play with her?
Rob Mercurio: We’re going to sing a couple of our songs. We’ll probably perform the majority of her stuff with us being the rhythm section. We’re going to try to figure out a couple or two to do. It’ll be like how much we normally have when one of our guest singers perform with us. There’ll definitely be more of an emphasis on her music I’m sure. We just co-wrote a song together as well for our album. That’ll be neat too, that we’re going to have a new song that we wrote part of.
McClain Johnson: What tracks of hers are you looking forward to digging into?
Rob Mercurio: Oh God, she’s got so many. I love her first few albums. Her latest album just released in the last year has some really cool track too called, “Bang, Bang,” that I love. Of course, I love her hit, “I Try.” We’re going through that as we speak, emailing her, and figure which tunes of hers we’re going to do.
McClain Johnson: It’s got to be fun to dig into totally different material.
Rob Mercurio: We definitely listen to her material recently with the eye of, or focus of thinking of how we’re going to do it. I think that’s it’s going to be really cool. I think that we’re going to be completely capable of bringing something new, but still playing true to what her songs are.
McClain Johnson: Oh, yeah, absolutely. That’s the thing is that you guys are always so real with anyone you’re working with. It’s true to both people: you guys and the vocalist.
Rob Mercurio: Thanks. We try. This stuff is recently new, but not completely, you know, not make them totally have a refocus. It’s just making music together and trying to make something that works.
McClain Johnson: Absolutely. You’ve played so many editions of it of Jazz Fest. What have been some of your favorite Jazz Fest shows over the years?
Rob Mercurio: Oh, God, every year is awesome. I love it. It’s such a special time to be able to play such a big show in your own home town. It’s really hard to pinpoint just one more special than the other. Clearly, every year’s been great.
McClain Johnson: How do you feel that your Jazz Fest sets have changed over the years from when you first started out?
Rob Mercurio: It’s clearly pretty much similar. We’ve been playing late night shows forever. I know when the theaters were more open, and others just reopened, we were playing a few theater shows. It’s been pretty much the same I’ve got to say. Me personally, I probably gained more shows outside of Galactic. My schedule and the band’s schedule have gotten a lot busier throughout Jazz Fest, but besides that the Galactic stuff has been pretty much the same.
McClain Johnson: That’s what so much fun about Jazz Fest, you get to play in so many of your different projects.
Rob Mercurio: All at home, which is cool.
McClain Johnson: Exactly. You get to show off so many different sides of what you do. What sets do have coming up during Jazz Fest outside of Galactic?
Rob Mercurio: I’m doing a James Brown tribute set that’s going to be really cool. You’ve got people from Lettuce and all kinds of bands. I have one with this new group that we’ve started playing with last year called The M&Ms. It is Stanton, me, John Medeski and Papa Mali.
McClain Johnson: Oh man, that’s serious business.
Rob Mercurio: We all have Ms in all of our last names. We played on Jam Cruise this year. We’ve done a couple of gigs in Colorado. That band is also headlining the Telluride Jazz Festival this year. It is a really great group. We’ve recorded three singles together. I also have this other group, Dragon Smoke, which is with Ivan Neville, Eric Lindell, Stanton and me. We have our annual Tuesday night show at One Eyed Jack’s. I have assorted shows like that, that are really fun and cool groups to be a part of that I have. I’m actually trying to take it a little lighter this set, just want to be able to really focus on the Macy Gray stuff. We’re going to have some rehearsals and what not. I’m also doing a punk rock show with Mike D and HR from Bad Brains.
McClain Johnson: That’s going to be crazy man. Mike is nuts.
Rob Mercurio: Mike is awesome. He’s got such a great energy. He grew up as a punk rock kid as well. So did Stanton, you know what I mean? In our youth, we were definitely like little punk-skater kids who grew up and got more into funk and R&B and stuff.
McClain Johnson:Absolutely. What do you enjoy best about Jazz Fest?
Rob Mercurio: The best thing is that it’s like being on tour with not having to leave your town. You play all these different shows. I’m playing a show every night, sometimes two times a night. I get to go home and be in my own bed. It’s like being on tour, but you’re on your own turf, and that’s amazing position to be in. It’s more like everybody comes to us for once. We tour so much. We do so many gigs. It’s really nice to be able to play a bunch of shows at home. The energy and the sit-ins are insane. The energy of the crowd, it’s just the corroboration of big-time music lovers. The sit-ins, the collaborations that are going on that just naturally happen because people are in town. Who is going to show up at your show? You never know and can make it more of a special night.
McClain Johnson: Absolutely. Who have been some of your favorite sit-in’s?
Rob Mercurio: Just over Mardi Gras we had Angelo, the singer of Fishbone. That was so cool. He just happened to be at our show. It’s Mardi Gras, we had never had a sit-in with him before, he’s quite a character, man. He really made for a very entertaining sit-in. It’s hard to pinpoint. I’m trying to think of other sit-in’s that we’ve had, George Clinton.
McClain Johnson: How was that?
Rob Mercurio: That was awesome. He basically just took over. It became like a P-Funk party. Just a lot of our musical friends, from Skerik on saxophone or John Medeski or Cyril Neville, who we collaborated with, people just pop up. Just like, “Alright, cool. Let’s do it.”
Galactic returns to the road starting on Wednesday, March 18. The band plays the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with Macy Gray on May 1.