"You've got the whole sort of brass band thing, the Indian thing, the Afro-Cuban thing, the older school jazz thing," Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman says of the band's Big Easy influence. "There's so many different sounds, man, that the key to making it modern is not making it all too obvious."
Beginning in the early '90s, the band built its reputation as a top-notch live act playing music festivals coast-to-coast and marathon live sets at legendary N'Awlins venues like Tipitina's and the Maple Leaf. Fans often prepare to greet the sunrise when seeing Galactic, though Ellman says that's not the band's typical M.O.
"I'll tell you a little secret," he laughs. "We only do that once or twice a year, but we're legendary for it, so it's okay. The reputation precedes us everywhere we go." All it takes is one 12-hour session for the myth to build. "For sure during Mardi Gras, we play all night. We won't stop until the sun comes up, and that is the spirit of the event. But other than that, most clubs have this thing called a curfew and they just won't let us go. It's not that we don't want to, but once they have to stop serving alcohol at 2 a.m. there's no reason for the bars to keep you there."
Ellman, along with bandmates Robert Mercurio (bass), Richard Vogel (keyboards), Jeff Raines (guitar), and master drummer Stanton Moore, unleashes an undulating, nostril-flaring version of Southern funk. Up until last October they were joined by silk-throated vocalist Theryl "Houseman" DeClouet. Since DeClouet's departure for personal reasons this past August, the group has refocused its energies on being an even deeper, fully instrumental unit.
"For us, it was sort of difficult adjusting to him not being there, but musically it's not that far from what we've been doing," Ellman explains. "It sort of feels like we're taking more solos and writing more new music now." Since DeClouet was only on-stage 30 or 40 minutes a night, his departure hasn't left too great a void. Galactic's recent fall tour was its first without him in years, and it brought mixed reactions from fans.
"There's always been a couple different camps on Houseman, with people who really really needed him and people who thought he took away from the show in general," Ellman says.
Their last studio release, the edgy, future-positive Ruckus, was produced by hip-hop auteur Dan The Automator (Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Dr. Octagon). A departure from the tested extended jam formula of their previous work, Ruckus showed the band eager to dip into contemporary production techniques like loops and samples. More concise track times allowed for greater experimentation, and elements of hip-hop, acid jazz, and electronica were folded into the mix. While they're unsure if they'll continue on the same path with the next album, it definitely added fresh colors to their palette.
"We didn't have a meeting and say specifically, 'Let's mix some hip-hop in there,' " Ellman says. "It was something that we listened to and we were lucky enough to work with some great musicians from the world of DJs and MCs, turntablists and such, that really inspired us. It was sort of a natural progression at the time."
Their main focus remains, as always, in the live setting, on stage night after night. Ellman, who cites Archie Shepp, Junior Walker, and King Curtis as influences ("Like a lot of R&B players, I like honkers," he says), is one of the chief proponents of their nomadic existence.
"I'm the one guy in the band who's single. A couple of the guys have kids and are married, and I feel now some people have two lives. Me, I just always want to be on the road."
Still, the band intends to stay true to its Crescent City roots. "I like being in New Orleans, but I enjoy (touring) so much that when I get home I don't know what to do. I work on music, but I just enjoy being out there every day. I hang out and meet people and have fun. You can't complain about that. There's nothing that sucks about it."
Because the band has been together for ten years, Ellman says the element of surprise is crucial to keeping the fires glowing each night. "When I play, I'm trying to play the best music possible. But when it cuts me the most is when I can excite my band members. I like getting a rise out of them more than anything. It's our goal to push each other until we say, 'Fuck yeah!' "