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Galactic's spirit of exploration continues with new EP

Goldmine’s Natural Funk Projekt caught up with band keyboardist Rich Vogel to talk about how they keep their explorative sound anchored to the Crescent City,
Calactic's  TCHOMPITOULAS cover

Calactic's  TCHOMPITOULAS cover

By Ray Chelstowski

Galactic are a band that can back anyone, and they’ve pretty much proven just that across their 30-year career. Formed by students who traveled to New Orleans for college they have since become an important part of that city’s musical fabric, taking the rhythm section torch forward that others like The Meters before them so singularly mastered. After the early departure of their lead singer, Theryl DeClouet, they embarked on a journey where they committed to collaborating with a wide variety of artists. That began with rappers and MC’s and has evolved to include established artists like Irma Thomas and Mavis Staples and emerging acts like Boots Riley and Gift of Gab.

They are about to release a new EP, TCHOMPITOULAS, and their spirit of exploration continues with a collection of songs that involve voices like Afro-Cuban rocker Cimafunk, rapper Eric Biddines, singer/songwriter Eric Gordon, and fellow New Orleans musician Glen David Andrews. It begins a new year that will also include a five-night residency at New York’s famed Blue Note, and their inaugural Big Easy Cruise, sailing November 4-11 aboard Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam from Ft. Lauderdale, FL to New Orleans and Cozumel, Mexico. The Big Easy Cruise will deliver over 70 live performances by New Orleans-inspired acts including Little Feat, Tab Benoit, Samantha Fish, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Leo Nocentelli from The Meters, Anders Osborne, and more.

Goldmine’s Natural Funk Projekt caught up with band keyboardist Rich Vogel to talk about how they keep their sound anchored to the Crescent City, how his use of keyboards has evolved over the years, and where this Blue Note residency may take them as far as touring goes in the future. Along the way we covered more ground that can be captured here. But the exchange with Vogel demonstrates why this band is so sought after for collaborations, and so respected among musicians in every possible genre.

Galactic. Photo credit: Josh Brasted

Galactic. Photo credit: Josh Brasted

Goldmine: Your sound has really evolved over the years to embrace a variety of influences. How do you ensue that it always ties back to “NOLA?”

Rich Vogel: It really has to do with the groove. The way we all play started when we were trying to get together as a rhythm section. At first, even before we had horns, we tried to emulate our favorite rhythm sections in music. In a New Orleans context the obvious example is The Meters. At that time we were really digging into records we could find because the world of music wasn’t available to you then on your phone. So we would get pieces here and there. Someone had a copy of Look-ka Py Py on vinyl which was like gold to us. A lot of that stuff hadn’t been re-released at that point. We really tried to model ourselves after these rhythm sections that were funky and could play in different contexts or styles and I think that’s just always there. So whenever we collaborate with someone new it’s about finding the right rhythmic elements and getting “the feel” going.

GM: When the band started out you played the Hammond organ almost exclusively. How has your roster of keyboards expanded over the years?

RV: I have an odd collection of random keyboards from the 1990’s and I love them, especially Yamaha’s from a certain era like the 1980’s. Sometimes you find some really surprising sounds on them. I would often buy these on the road in pawn shops for like $50 and they’d have a sneaky way of finding themselves on certain records. So I do love looking for odd little toys like that. But I still love the old keyboards like the Hammond and the old electro-acoustic keyboards like the Rhodes and the Clavinets. You can get really interesting, stretched sounds out of them.

GM: The band is well-known for so many memorable vocal collaborations. What was the first one to make you all decide that this was going to be your future?

RV: After Theryl stopped touring we found ourselves at a fork in the road. We actually played instrumentally for a while because we didn’t have a singer in mind that could really replace him. Then we decided to reach out to a number of people we had met over the years, work on music together and see what develops. We started doing one after another but maybe the most memorable one we did was the one with Irma Thomas, “Heart of Steel.” She’s a New Orleans’ legend and an amazing singer and the performance she gave on the record was just incredible. Then we did what we did around it, deconstructed it a little bit and made it a little different from anything she had ever recorded. When we had her back in the studio to listen to it we played it for her and the first thing she said was “oh, you made me sound young again!” We felt like we did her justice and of course since then it’s become one of our most popular tunes.

GM: This new release is an EP. Moving forward do you see this shorter format becoming your “norm?”

RV: No, it’s not to say that we won’t release a full-length album again. It was just the right thing for right now. Guys our age often bemoan the lost art of “the album,” but it’s not really the way people listen to music any more. It’s also not the way they hear about or discover new music.


GM: You are doing a residency this year at The Blue Note in New York City. Can you see this approach to touring becoming more common for the band?

RV: Absolutely! We love that idea. After 27 years of being a band on the road it has a lot of appeal. The opportunity to also have different guests help change things up every night is great as well. We’d love to more of it. There’s obviously not a “Blue Note” in every city where you can do five nights and make it work. But we have already begun to move that way in terms of how we work. If we can do a residency, even if it’s just a long weekend, then we absolutely will.

GM: Is there any particular sound that you haven’t explored that the band is eager to tackle?

RV: Most of that comes through the collaborations because we pretty much know what we can bring to the table. We’re a rhythm section that has a pretty strong sense of the groove. We contribute that to whatever a songwriter’s idea might be. So it’s usually more about where someone else might take us musically and we’re always open to that. In the end, we’re always going to sound like Galactic because after all of these years that foundation is now just second nature.