Galactic keyboardist Rich Vogel had occasion to look back and reflect on the career of his band during a recent interview and had to admit, it’s pretty satisfying to consider how Galactic has gone from upstarts on a legendary early ’90s New Orleans scene to now being arguably the leading band in the Crescent City.
“We talk about it a lot. It’s a nice place to be, and it’s an honor,” Vogel said. “Sometimes you need to just stop and just appreciate it. You know, we kind of became the band that we used to go see on Mardi Gras and Halloween. We would be at Tipitina’s (the city’s most famous club). We were just running around and checking out everything, all the brass bands and stuff.
“And the Neville Brothers were still playing in town more and still kind of that older funky version of the Neville Brothers. And Cyril (Neville) had his Uptown (side) project,” he said. “That’s what got us going. Dr. John would be playing here for Halloween at Tipitina’s.”
These days, Galactic is likely to be the group playing at Tipitina’s during Mardi Gras – or a main stage during the world famous New Orleans Jazz &Heritage Festival in May. Galactic has released nine studio albums, gone from the local clubs to touring worldwide and survived the huge upheaval of Hurricane Katrina and the loss due to health problems of original singer Theryl “Houseman” DeClouet.
The talk of the early days came up as Vogel discussed Galactic’s latest studio album, Into the Deep. The 2016 release follows three albums that featured distinct themes.
The 2007 album From the Corner to the Block brought a hip-hop flavor into Galactic’s funky R&B-rooted sound. The 2010 album Ya-Ka-May revolved around the concept of New Orleans. Then 2012’s Carnivale Electricos used Mardi Gras as its theme, and found the band exploring how the music of Brazil intersected with the music of New Orleans and Louisiana.
Creating music that fit those concepts caused the band to expand its stylistic range, and in the process, Galactic started to be known for having a progressive attitude about its music.
But Into the Deep represents a bit of a step back toward the early Galactic sound, as more of the classic R&B/funk that defined early Galactic emerges on new songs like the edgy rocker Higher and Higher (featuring J.J. Grey on vocals), the gritty Dolla Diva (with David Shaw of The Revivalists and Maggie Koerner trading vocals) and the sassy and rousing Right On (with Charm Taylor singing lead).
Vogel definitely hears the roots of Galactic shining through on Into the Deep.
“Overall it had a little bit of a throwback vibe, a little bit of old school R&B kind of groove stuff,” Vogel said. “Like most of our newer records, it had a little more vocal material and songwriting kind of material than the old (albums) had. We were a little more instrumental focused (back then).”
It isn’t just the sound that had an old-school element on Into the Deep. The way some songs on the album were written and recorded took Galactic back to how the group made music in its early years, as band members Vogel, drummer Stanton Moore, sax player Ben Ellman, bassist Robert Mercurio and guitarist Jeff Raines got together in the band’s studio in New Orleans to write and arrange some of the songs together and record a good chunk of the album playing live in the studio.
On recent albums, the band had moved toward writing and recording individually and building the recordings by adding their parts one at a time.
“I think we realized the strongest approach is a blend of, sometimes doing that and passing things around and working individually and adding little bits, but then also realizing like OK, it’s time to kind of play this down (as a band live), with at least the rhythm section together,” Vogel said.
“So I think yeah, we kind of did harken back (on Into the Deep) a little bit to the early approach, just kind of like everyone playing together in a room,” he said. “Now we have kind of this hybrid approach (to writing and recording).”
One thing that also changed is the vocal approach of Galactic in concert. After health issues forced DeClouet off of the road in 2004, Galactic used a variety of vocalists – both male and female – on its tours.
Last year, Erica Falls moved into the vocalist slot. The keyboardist said Falls has been able to put her stamp on every tune the group has asked her to sing – and he sees her staying on board as Galactic moves forward.
“It’s just been going so well,” Vogel said. “And it seems like the more we do together, the better it gets. It’s just jelled so nicely and she’s such a great person to work with and have on the road that there’s just no reason to change it up. As long as she’s happy, we’re happy.”