"Going through it all, we're just like 'Man, we really need to start writing some better tunes,'" says drummer Stanton Moore. "We weren't too impressed with what we had done so far. So that was kind of like a little bit of a wake-up call."
The extent to which Galactic decided to make songwriting a higher priority is evident on the group's new studio CD, Ruckus. To be sure, the vintage funk influence that has always been the Galactic signature remains. But on Ruckus, the melodic hooks are often just as juicy. "Bittersweet" opens with a canyon-deep groove, but is accented by rich bass lines and a sweet chorus melody that forms a strong counterpoint for the song. "Never Called You Crazy" gets plenty of sass from its saucy harmonica lick and chorus. The instrumental "The Moil" is another hard-grooving track jam-packed with hooks.
The CD, as a whole, also benefits from the work of producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura and Galactic saxophone/harmonica player Ben Ellman. They have combined to give the songs plenty of sonic punch by smartly integrating loops, samples and other hip-hop and electronic elements into the music.
"We're just trying to make our music better and make it so that when you hear one of our songs it actually stays with you and it actually communicates with people on some kind of level," Moore says, "as opposed to people just being like 'Oh, that was a great organ solo' or 'That was a great groove.'"
The songwriting upgrade process began with a decision to change the very way the group members -- Moore, Ellman, guitarist Jeff Raines, keyboardist Rich Vogel, bassist Robert Mercurio and singer Theryl "Houseman" DeClouet -- went about starting the writing process. Instead of writing songs from scratch, the band members realized they sometimes had been creating the beginnings of songs in concert during their freewheeling jams.
"We noticed that live we're always coming up with new things and then after we come off the stage, whether it's the first set break or after the second set when the gig is over, me and Robert would be like, 'Man there was a new song inside of whatever song it was we did tonight,'" Moore said. "So we started having the idea of, why don't we go back and listen to that and then we could pull that out? We started realizing there were a lot of those."
These instrumental bits taken from tapes of numerous shows were then compiled on a single CD for each band member to listen to and expand on. One by one, these instrumental bits began getting expanded into full-fledged songs. Then before actual recording began, Nakamura had songwriters Jim Greer and Brandon Arnovick (also known as the Rondo Brothers) joined Galactic at their newly built studio in New Orleans for some intensive writing and arranging work on the new material.
"It just set up this whole think-tank atmosphere and environment where ... me and Jim would be off in one room working on lyrics, while they (other band members) were working on coming up with the melodies for some other part," Moore explains. "And then we set up a studio B in one of the other rooms where Ben would come up with these different loops. He would take things we did and loop them and effect them. So everybody was working on stuff at different times and then we would come in and bring it all together. It was just really a vibing creative atmosphere that we created with that studio.
"I think with previous records, we would write something and go 'OK, now it's written and that's it," Moore continues. "So with this one, we were like 'OK, well, that's written, but it can be better. Let's make it better.'"
That's where Nakamura comes in. His list of collaborations is long and varied; he's produced Cibo Matto, Dr. Octagon, DJ Shadow, Kool Keith, John Spencer Blues Explosion, among others. With an assist in the studio from Ellman, Nakamura worked to bring a modern edge to the Ruckus CD with a variety of loops, samples and production techniques.
Such sonic twists are all over the CD, from the big beats that populate tunes such as "All Behind You" and the cover of General Public's "Tenderness" to the electronic blips on the soulful "Gypsy Fade" to the echoing electronic beats that get mixed into the grooving keyboard-laden track "Mercamon."
According to Moore, the more modern flavor of Ruckus actually began filtering into Galactic's music on the 2000 CD, Late for the Future -- which many critics saw as a move away from their Meters-inspired roots.
"Late for the Future, I think, was the first record that pointed in this direction," Moore says. "I mean, we've been studying, learning how to play vintage funk from the late '60s and early '70s, with vintage instruments and all this kind of stuff. That's cool. We love that music and it really moves us, and that's what we wanted to start learning how to play. So that's what we cut our teeth on, learning that stuff, and the first couple of albums were kind of reminiscent of that kind of stuff.
"But we didn't want to just be a copy, like a copy of the '70s kind of band."
Galactic found inspiration after discovering a variety of hip-hop artists, DJs and electronica artists who also had been crossbreeding vintage music with modern production.
"It's countless the things we've been checking out, where they take some of these loops and samples from the early funk stuff that we're digging, they take it out and they run it through different processes and get adventurous sonically," Moore said. "So we started to think of it like, 'OK, cool, these guys are starting with the same thing we're starting with, you know, vintage funk on vintage instruments, doing it a lot with loops and samples and stuff. Why don't we try to take what we're doing and try to make it more current?' We wanted to make the music of today."
Easily the band's best CD to date, Ruckus continues a journey that began in the early '90s when the band formed as a horn-spiced Parliament-Funkadelic-styled funk group called Galactic Prophylactic. The band in 1994 dropped the horn section, brought in Vogel and Ellman and shortened the band name to Galactic.
An independently released 1996 debut, Coolin' Off, introduced DeClouet to the lineup and led to a deal with Capricorn Records in 1998 and the release of the CD Crazyhorse Mongoose. But shortly after the release of Late for the Future, the band watched Capricorn get bought out by Volcano Records.
Volcano kept Galactic on its roster long enough to release 2001's We Love 'Em Tonight, a live CD recorded at Tipitina's, before letting the band go. By that time Galactic had hired new management, which then negotiated a new record contract with Sanctuary Records, a label that has recently signed such hard-touring groups as the Allman Brothers Band and Widespread Panic.
Moore is happy to see this transition period come to an end. "It was a long set-up process, to set up our own studio and get on a new label and get settled in with our new management and everything," he says. "So the last three years have just been like a regrouping in a way. But now we feel like we're in a good position."