Saturday, March 6, 2010

Galactic: A Long Time Coming

By: Wesley Hodges

These are epic times to be in New Orleans, and that may be the understatement of the young decade. Although Carnival season officially got under way in early January, the full-bore pandemonium that generally commences the last week leading up to Mardi Gras Day got a considerably early start this year as the Saints finally ascended to the pantheon of NFL glory, winning their first Super Bowl in the franchise's 43-year history.

"It's been a long time coming," says Galactic keyboard player Rich Vogel, a comment applying to his band's new album, Ya-Ka-May (released February 9 on Anti Records - stream it on JamBase), and the general feeling of a brighter tomorrow for New Orleans. "[The Saints have] had a lot of good seasons since Katrina and it's been almost like something's been building that's strong, and I think it's a great metaphor for the city."

Now, the time has come to celebrate that achievement and Ya-Ka-May is an excellent soundtrack for fans of the "overgrown rhythm section." With a colorful parade of very special guests like Allen Toussaint, Trombone Shorty, Rebirth Brass Band, Big Chief Bo Dollis, Walter 'Wolfman' Washington and Irma Thomas, the album picks up where 2007's rap-centric From the Corner to the Block left off, providing the rest of the world with insight into not just Galactic's ongoing progression but also the city's revitalized music scene as well.

JamBase: Looking at the track listing and the names of all the special guests, this album feels like it's been a long time coming for Galactic. How was this album finally conceptualized and eventually conceived?

Rich Vogel: It actually has been a long time coming. I think it's an album we've kind of wanted to make for a while. There were some tracks on the last record that kind of hinted at and pointed the way towards this record; I'm thinking of some of the instrumentals that have brass players. On From the Corner to the Block we had Soul Rebels Brass Band on a track, we had Monk Boudreaux [and the] Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, and those tracks were kind of pointing the way towards this one. It was an album we've always wanted to make to get some of the NOLA artists we've loved and admired over the years like Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas. Having done this for many years, we've bumped into everyone and gotten to know them. We're at the stage in our career where we can say, "Let's call Allen Toussaint," and he might actually call us back [laughs]. So, we started doing that and one thing led to another and we were so pleased that he came over to our studio one day and listened to a few of our tracks and took them home and wrote some fantastic songs. With Irma Thomas, she came by and we had a tune in mind for her, and she went and learned it and came by and cut her vocals.

At the same time, we wanted to get some [artists] that some people don't know outside of New Orleans at all and kind of bring in some of the talent from the people just playing in the clubs; artists who are famous on the local level and are a part of the late night musical party, which is New Orleans on an almost nightly basis. We wanted to do that and mix it all up in a way that hopefully made sense. I don't know if we were really trying to make a specific point. This is all New Orleans music and we wanted to show the city the way we see it.

JamBase: It's an interesting cross-section of artists you guys were able to work with. Was there any kind of formula as far as crafting these songs with the artists, or did it just depend on the artists and what they arrived to the studio with?

Galactic :: 02.07.10 :: Brooklyn, NY by Dino Perrucci
Rich Vogel: Yeah, it was definitely a case-by-case basis, for sure. A guy like Allen Toussaint, who is the consummate songwriter, we'd have these little demo tracks we liked with a groove and a change and could form the basis for a verse and a chorus, but they were instrumental ditties essentially. We had a couple of these that made us think of him, so he came by and listened to them and was into it. He actually took them home and wrote songs in a more classic sense - wrote lyrics, sung harmonies. It was the kind of thing you would expect an experienced songwriter and arranger like Allen Toussaint to do. On the flip side, we'd have some of the rappers come by and just roll with a rhythm track we'd made and spit as much as they wanted to, sort of a stream-of-consciousness thing like they like to do in the clubs. Then, we'd mix it down, kind of distill it into something we thought was hook-y, find what we thought was the best verse material and sort of build the track up that way. The whole project was a very collaborative effort. It was just amazing to see the parade of people we saw go through our studio over the past year. It was covering a lot of ground, but to us it made sense because it was all New Orleans music with good energy and groove to it. Everybody, even the classic artists, go back to the same thing of playing the clubs, parties and entertaining the party people. It's really the common denominator that binds us as artists down here. Playing the clubs until the wee hours you gotta keep the party going.

It had to be surreal to send a guy like Allen Toussaint home with one of your tracks. It seems to play in really well with the collaborating you guys do out on the road and especially at festivals.

Absolutely, we've always liked to collaborate, because Galactic is, in a sense an overgrown rhythm section. We love collaborating with people we think are special songwriters or people we think have an interesting vocal element.

What is Ya-Ka-May?

We hyphenated to make it kind of look like "Look-Ka Py Py," the old Meters song, which is just an old Mardi Gras Indian term. "Ya-Ka-May" is kind of an alternate pronunciation of a noodle dish we have in New Orleans called Ya Ka Mein that they serve at the corner store or at the second-line. Somehow that led us to Ya-Ka-May, which we thought was cool.

How is it different to tour in support of an album than to just be out there in the grind?

It's more fun and exciting because we have to challenge ourselves. We make a record like this and we haven't really performed this material. All we're doing this week is meeting in the studio, hashing it out and figuring out how we're gonna play this [material]. We're lucky we're gonna have Cyril Neville with us, and he can sing just about anything you ask him to. So, we're gonna work some of the tunes up with him, and we can kind of cover the brass-y stuff because we'll have Corey Henry. I can play some of the horns stuff on the keys and cover that angle of it on tracks like "Boe Money" and "Cineramascope." It's great when you have a new thing to present, new music to play. Sometimes the challenge is good and intimidating when you realize, "I overdubbed four keyboards here," and you have to figure out how to play it.

It was an album we've always wanted to make to get some of the NOLA artists we've loved and admired over the years like Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas. Having done this for many years, we've bumped into everyone and gotten to know them. We're at the stage in our career where we can say, 'Let's call Allen Toussaint,' and he might actually call us back [laughs]."

-Rich Vogel

I feel very blessed having just moved to New Orleans in late July. It seems like such an exceptional time to be here now with Mardi Gras season under way, the Saints having their best season ever, and each day getting further away from the mess of Katrina. How would you describe the energy of the city right now compared to the last few years?

It's definitely at a high point, we had a couple of shitty years there; there's no two ways about it. I think that's why people are particularly enjoying things and are fired up and getting pumped about the Saints. Now we're moving into Carnival season and with each passing year getting further from the past, things slowly do get better, things get rebuilt. It's felt like a slow crawl at times. I live in Mid-City, an area that was pretty devastated, and I think about what it was like in '06 and I just think, "Man, life is good." You just got to appreciate the little things, things you used to take for granted.

Give me a few artists outside of the jazz, funk and New Orleans style that you guys listen to out on the road.

Ben [Ellman - sax] has us listen to a lot more Balkan and Eastern European music than I would have otherwise. He loves blending that stuff with New Orleans music. I listen to a good deal of classical music when I'm home. It gives me a complete departure into a different world. I've always had an interest [in it] on and off. I studied it a little before all my road days.

What have been a few of your favorite moments performing over the last several years as a band here in New Orleans?

Any Jazz Fest; I love that one! First of all, I live near the Fairgrounds, so I get up, have breakfast, walk over, get to play in front of 60,000 people, look out over the Fairgrounds on a beautiful day, go get a soft-shell crab po-boy and walk home.

So, that almost resembles a normal job for you on a day like that?

Yeah [laughs]. When you have a moment like that, you're kind of like, "My job is kinda cool and conveniently located." I kind of miss some of those theatre shows at some of the places that didn't come back because of Katrina, places like The Saenger or The State. I remember the circus [show] we did when we played Bolero, with acrobats performing on and above the stage with trapeze artists. That was a memorable one. There have been so many really.

Try to explain Mardi Gras to people who've never been a part of it. How is music incorporated into the whole celebration?

Wow, that's a good question. There are books upon books about that. Mardi Gras comes out of the Carnival tradition and is celebrated in the Catholic traditions and a lot in the Latin American world, and serves as a sort of blowout before the Lenten season when you're supposed to live this life of sacrifice. Of course, Fat Tuesday is Mardi Gras Day and ends the season. Mardi Gras goes way back and New Orleans has a lot of ties to the French and Spanish culture and has those Catholic ties that you don't see in a lot of the more Anglo-Protestant areas of the country. So, that's kind of why it's celebrated here.

The thing about Mardi Gras that I try to explain to people is that there are many Mardi Gras depending on who you're with and where you go. A lot of people think Mardi Gras is just Bourbon Street and people flashing, and that's definitely one part of it. That's something when you're in college and you come down here that you tend to gravitate towards. But, there are a lot of rich, local traditions with the Krewes [and] debutante balls. Then there are the Mardi Gras Indians who go out and parade early on Mardi Gras Day. You're talking about guys that make these incredibly elaborate, beautiful headdresses getting ready for this day. You think about New Orleans and partying late night for the most part, but on Mardi Gras Day it's really about the daytime celebration. It's an incredible party to see if you end up at the right place at the right time. Everybody's out in the streets from Uptown to Downtown. There's an Uptown vibe that's a little more family-oriented and Downtown it's a little grittier, with people partying very hard and less children. It's a huge day of celebration with people everywhere making the most of the day and getting their yee-haws out, if you're a good Catholic, which I'm not... but I pretend that I am.

What has the Saints' success meant to the overall morale of this city?

It's just thrilling for the team to go to the Super Bowl. It's been a lot of fun for a lot of people. It's been fun to watch it build and progress. We've all been working hard and it's nice for everyone to see something built [in New Orleans] that is very successful. Also, the lifelong fans have grown quite cynical through the years from their days wearing bags over their heads.

I'm not from here and I root for the enemy, but it's hard not to take a liking to a team with such a blue-collar feel with stars like Marques Colston, who seemingly came out of nowhere to help lead the team to the Promised Land.

Yeah, guys like Drew Brees, who's not just a great QB but also a great citizen in the way he's embraced the town and given back, and his story of coming here to play and adopting the city as his home [has] been really special. Brees is gonna be the King of Bacchus, he's kind of god in this city and he can do no wrong.

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