Galactic's Jeff Raines and Robert Mercurio were in eighth grade in Washington, D.C., and the Skitzmatics was their first band. "We played whatever Robert's sister thought was cool," Raines says. That meant surf covers inspired by Agent Orange's punked-up version of "Miserlou."
"Our most difficult song at the time was 'Tequila,' which never went over that big, but it took an immense amount of concentration," Raines says. The band only played a few parties, but it was their introduction to playing before an audience. By the time the two were ready for college, their shared affection for the Red Hot Chili Peppers led to a love of funk --Êinitially, Kool & the Gang and George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic. When they moved to New Orleans to go to school -- Mercurio to Tulane, Raines to Loyola -- they knew they wanted to play in a funk band.
Their love of funk led to the formation of Galactic Prophylactic, later renamed Galactic. The band was scheduled to celebrate its 10th anniversary the first weekend of September at Tipitina's, but Hurricane Katrina washed that out. Galactic went out on tour after the storm and started writing material for its next album, its first since the group parted ways with long-time vocalist Theryl "Houseman" deClouet. Mercurio and drummer Stanton Moore have returned and keyboard player Rich Vogel is looking for an apartment since his Mid-City house was severely damaged. Raines has a family and is deciding what to do, while saxophone player Ben Ellman has rented out his place and is using the opportunity to live in New York City for six months. The band (minus Ellman) performs Friday at d.b.a. and Saturday at Le Bon Temps Roule, and the anniversary gig -- complete with an army of special guests -- has been rescheduled for New Year's Eve at Tipitina's.
Anniversaries, though, can be a little arbitrary. The birth date of Galactic could well be 1990, when Mercurio and Raines started their funk education. "We were really not going to school too much at the beginning," Mercurio says. They were often at Benny's, the longtime live-music hole-in-the-wall on Valence Street. "At that point, Benny's was organized enough to have a calendar, and I kept that on the wall right by my desk so I could look who was playing each night and go down and check it out," he says.
Then again, the band could have formed at its first gig, a house party on Claiborne Avenue that they played as a trio in a garage with drummer Ben Arab. "We were opening for a band called Tadpole Generation," Raines says. He remembers playing a few Meters covers, a Headhunters song and an instrumental version of "Red House," and his dominant memory of the set was that it was short. According to Mercurio, though, "we had one original we still play to this day called ... now we just call it 'Church.' Then we called it 'Church of the Epileptic Jesus.'"
Galactic Prophylactic went through a number of drummers, but things took a solid step forward when Stanton Moore joined. In the early '90s, the band also included singer Chris Lane and second guitarist Rob Gowen -- Gowen went to Loyola with Moore, who was playing in a number of jazz combos and in the heavy rock band Oxenthrust. Moore also wanted to play funk, so Gowen invited Moore to jam with him and Mercurio. They got together, played some Meters, James Brown and P-Funk tunes, and it went well enough that around Christmas 1992 they asked him to join. He started learning songs for an upcoming Valentine's Day/Mardi Gras party.
At the time, Gowen was also playing organ. "He knew a few chords," says Rich Vogel, then a Loyola student a few years ahead of Raines and Moore and a fan of the band. He lived with Gowen and one day joked, "If you guys want an organ player, you should get me." When the others saw he had a Leslie speaker and a Korg keyboard that mimicked the sound of the Hammond B-3 that Art Neville plays, they invited him to jam. When they heard him, they asked him to join, replacing Gowen.
"Rich came on board and had to fire his roommate," Mercurio says, laughing. "They were supposed to (tell him), but it wasn't happening," Vogel says, "so I had this weird, silent tension of, 'I know you're gone, but you don't know you're gone,' which I couldn't take, so I told him."
Recording "Black Eyed Pea" in 1994 for the San Francisco-based Ubiquity Records' acid-jazz compilation Is That Jazz? became a turning point. The opportunity to get a song on the album forced the band to reconsider its identity, and so they decided they didn't want to record with vocalist Lane. To a man, they agree with Mercurio's assessment of his talents: "a very hilarious guy, a creative writer, he just didn't have the best voice." As their instrumental chops improved, they realized they wanted to become an instrumental band and parted ways with him.
Recording "Black Eyed Pea" confirmed for them the correctness of their decision. "Everyone thought, 'This is the future,'" Vogel says. It was also at that point that the band officially became Galactic. Ubiquity loved the track, but people at the label thought the band's name was too silly.
With a clearer direction, all the members had to do was graduate. "For me, there was a lot of support and pressure to finish school," Moore says. As much as his parents indulged his love of music from an early age, taking him to Benny's and the Columns on weeknights while he was in high school, they also expected him to finish his studies. "It was ingrained in me," he says. And besides, "It wasn't like we had all these killing tunes and the band was so solidified and established musically."
Though he was determined to graduate -- which he did with a 3.0 grade-point average, he says proudly -- he wasn't the most focused student. "Stanton started getting gigs at casino boats and all over town," Raines recalls. "He literally had girlfriends writing his papers and slept through classes. It's a miracle he graduated."
In 1995, after Moore had completed his foreign-language requirement -- Italian -- he graduated and everybody was free from scholastic obligations. Dan Prothero, who produced "Black Eyed Pea," returned to work with Galactic on its first album, Coolin' Off. "We figured the recording of the album was probably a good marker for the beginning of the band," Moore says. It led to the band's first Jazz Fest performance in 1996, and it led to the first tour.
Galactic continued to evolve, adding regular guest singer Theryl "Houseman" de Clouet in 1996 and Ben Ellman in 1997, and it no longer wears its Meters influence on its sleeve. Galactic has become a distinctive groove band as comfortable in classic R&B as it is in contemporary soul jazz, and the members are now in-demand players in the jam-funk community.
"I thought we all had a long way to go," Moore says, looking back, "but it's hard to find like-minded people who are willing to go out and make that sacrifice together on the road -- sleep on people's floors, make no money, but know you're investing in your future together."