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Interview with Rich Vogel, keyboardist for

Galactic

by Paul Doyle Jr.

Galactic is one of the hottest up and coming live bands in the nation. Forged of the humidity and energy of New Orleans in combination with invisible music zoning laws, they display their prowess with long ascending soulful grooves designed to keep a body in motion. There latest release, Crazyhorse Mongoose is available through their new label, Capricorn Records. Currently they are on a national tour that will take them through the Northeast. Rich Vogel, Galactic keyboardist, explains the history of the band what to expect from a Galactic experience.

Vermont Review- Where did you grow up?

Rich Vogel- I grew up actually in Omaha, Nebraska.

V.R. What was your early exposure to music?

R.V. There was a lot. I guess I started out with the obligatory childhood piano lessons. I was taking from the "little neighborhood grey haired lady" piano lessons. I can’t say I was a star pupil or anything. I got a little older and I got hooked up with a really great jazz pianist-singer-composer from Omaha name Tony Gulizia. I started hanging out with him about the time I was getting into high school. He started teaching me about music theory, chord structure, the blues and things like that, really what the elements of music were, and got me away from trying to read music off the page. I was already playing by ear...along with whatever records I had be it...The Doors, Led Zeppelin— a good healthy dose of mid-Western classic rock upbringing. Tony was the man. He turned me on and sent me off in a whole other direction. He gave me a couple of records which I will never forget to this day. Two in particular he gave me, Headhunters, Herbie Hancock, and he gave me a Stanley Turrentine record called Blue Hour, which is Stanley Turrentine and Gene Harris on piano. It’s this great soulful bluesy jazz record. He gave me those two things and that started to open up a whole other world to me and got me looking in a different direction beyond my traditional mid-Western classic rock upbringing. Actually, I always talk about...when I was a little kid my brother’s Led Zeppelin records were one of the first things that got me turned on to music. To this day I still think it was really significant. They were such a great band, but they were so groove oriented. They copped all their shit by listening to old Motown and Stax records and soulful American music like that. So secondhand, I guess that was my first real introduction into groove.

V.R. What happened after high school?

R.V. After high school, I went to New Orleans, that’s what happened. That’s kind of where it really all started happening. I went down to New Orleans ostensibly to go to college, but I really just wanted to go to New Orleans although I did go to school down there. That’s where the story of Galactic begins because Rob (Mercurio, bass) and Jeff (Raines, guitar) came down to New Orleans to go to school...a year or two after. They grew up together in DC and played music together all their lives. They came down to New Orleans also under the pretenses of going to college, but really just because they wanted to go to New Orleans and delve into the scene and play music. We were all going to school about the time and we lived in the same neighborhood. So Rob and Jeff had a place where they lived and had a little practice space and jammed and got together with people. They eventually hooked up with Stanton (Moore, drums), who was also at Loyola. Jeff and Stanton and I all went to Loyola, Rob went to Tulane about the same time. They got Stanton over there and they were playing and they got a little college funk band going that actually proved to be pretty popular for like a year or two run playing the clubs of New Orleans. Eventually I hooked up with them. I just lived a few blocks away and we had mutual friends. Stanton and Jeff had come over to my house and heard me playing some organ...they came over, heard it, and were just like "man, why don’t you come over." So it just kind of all led from there

V.R. What year was this?

R.V. I think it’s been a little over four years...this would have been 94 maybe, late 94. That was a transitionary period, this college funk band that they had, called Galactic Prophylactic actually, was sort of dissolving. About that time I started playing with them. We were just jamming around. We’d take some gigs around town and just play instrumentally. We didn’t have any vocals at the time. Then around the summer of 95 we scraped together a little bit of money and decided to go buy a couple days in the studio and go record. That is when we did the sessions that became Coolin’ Off, our first independent record. That was really the time when we first hooked up with Theryl (deClouet, vocals), our singer, the House Man. He was a great New Orleans singer, a veteran of the New Orleans music scene, playing R n B and soul and funk and stuff like that. We knew him from hanging out at an uptown music club. It’s not there anymore but a very infamous little place in New Orleans music history called Benny’s Bar, which was uptown on the corner of Camp and Valence (?). This was a late night spot, a little corner bar thing, no cover where you could just go late and there would always be some music. It’s an uptown neighborhood where the Neville Brothers came up, and actually almost on the same block where Art Neville still lives to this day, and it’s a fixture on the uptown music scene. Theryl used to play there a lot with this band called Michael Ward and Reward, which was this great New Orleans R n B-funk-soul band. They did a regular gig up there at Benny’s. Really it was Jeff and Rob, befriended the House Man by just going to the gigs and hanging out on set breaks and smoking him out or whatever. That was kind of a hook up there. So we knew him socially as friends but then when we started to record we didn’t have a singer. We were basically just doing instrumental stuff, but we were like "Man, it would be so cool if Theryl would come sing on a couple tunes when we go into the studio." So we asked him and he was into it. He came into the studio and we basically put together a couple things right on the spot. Something’s Wrong With This Picture was a tune that he’d written with another group of his, this vocal a capella soul group called Hollygrove. He came in with that and we worked that up real quick and cut it. The other thing he sings on that record is Everybody Wants Some which was just totally an improv thing. We were just jamming in the studio and he just walked up to a microphone and started ad-libbing that stuff that was on there. So that was kind of the beginning of it, of Galactic as it’s constituted now. At the time we never really dreamed that House Man would want to be in our band and would come on the road with us and all that, but after we finished our record and got it out, we were like "let’s buy a van and hit the road and see what happens." We made the record and our friend Dan started Fog City Records this little label in San Francisco, which basically was a label started to release Coolin’ Off. He was helping us out there and in a partnership we got the record going and we bought a twenty year old van and starting booking our own tour. We were just doing it ourselves then. To our surprise and delight House Man got in the van with us and has been there ever since. He just started making every gig, and just seemed really down for the cause. He seemed to be attracted to something, the spirit of the thing and the fact that we were willing to go for it, not wait for anyone to notice us.

V.R. What is the age range in the band?

R.V. The youngest is probably Robert...anyway, probably 25 on up to the House Man who is 46, 47.

V.R. So, actually it has been a fairly fast track for you guys.

R.V. It’s kind of tempting to look at it that way now because a lot has happened in the last year. The last year has been really good for us and a lot of things have just come together in the last year. But we’ve actually spent a couple of years playing around New Orleans both before we made Coolin’ Off and after, building up an audience in New Orleans. Then we put out the record and got in the van and sort of did ourselves for awhile. So that whole first year was uh...we were kind of eating it...but having a good time and seeing enough response in certain cities and certain markets that it was encouraging to us to continue. This last year is when a lot of stuff really started coming together. In that first year, we hooked up with a booking agent who started helping us out and kept us rolling on the road and we got to the point where we could actually support ourselves playing although barely and we had to play all the time to do it. But yeah, you’re right. In the last year things have really progressed nicely. We hooked up with good management. Then Capricorn came along and seemed like the right label for us and seemed down with the cause and kind of understood what we were about. Things have just been rolling along ever since.

V.R. Was the Capricorn thing a surprise?

R.V. Not really. By the time we did the deal we were getting some interest and talking to some different labels and people were coming out to the gigs. We noticed that people seemed to be paying a little bit of attention, which was nice. We were looking around and trying to be cool about it and patient and not just jump at the first thing to come along. And we were in a good position, we didn’t need to do that because we’d sort of built up our thing on our own to where we were kind of self sustaining anyway. And we were supporting ourselves just by playing our gigs. So we didn’t feel like we needed a label, you know, we didn’t need the first label that would take us kind of thing...So that was good because that allowed us to relax a little bit and take a cautious eye to the industry and try and feel out whoever was talking to us. Capricorn just seemed like the best bet...like a good fit. They seemed to understand what we were about. They knew that we were a live band that our live thing was very strong. We had built this thing up on our own and had it going, and they just seemed to be of a position of "look we are here to just help you out and enhance what you are doing and do it better and give you the help you need to progress it." That was exactly what we needed at the time. We were just getting to the point where we were like "Boy it’d really be nice to have some help", and it would really be nice to have our record truly distributed and have people trying to push it and have advertising. Just the fact that our record would actually be available in stores where we were killing ourselves to get to to play gigs. They came in at a good time for us, when we really needed that support.

V.R. You are not a "hit" band. How does the energy level compare live versus the studio for the band and how do you keep the intensity in the studio?

R.V. That’s a really good question. That’s one that we ponder a lot. Especially with the first record. With Coolin’ Off I think there’s a big difference between what you get on the record and what you’d get if you came to the show. A lot of people comment on that. A lot of people really like that record but there is no question that it is definitely a more mellow vibe than what you get when you come to a Galactic show. I thing with the new record (Crazyhorse Mongoose) that gap has been narrowed a little more. I think the new record is maybe a little bit more representative of what you’d get if you come to a Galactic show. Although it’s sort of distilled a little bit. It’d have to be 2 hours long if it was going to be what you get at a show. So it’s more of a capsule, maybe, of what you would get...at a Galactic show. But it really does represent us in terms of the instrumental side and the vocal side, plus some tunes that are more booty shaking straight up funky as opposed to some things that are more of a jazz flavor, maybe a little more laid back.

I think Coolin Off was more a vibe we happened to catch on two afternoons that we went into the studio and that’s all we had to do it. It was our own money, we were borrowing money or getting credit card advances. With the new record we had a little more time and I think we got more down that really represents the band, although I would still say that the live experience is a different experience. Obviously we are going to take more time and have time to go off on whatever tangents seem to pop up on any given evening. We will do that. You never really know exactly what you are going to get when you come to one of our shows because we don’t know entirely. We usually don’t work from a set list. We just go up there and play and see what happens and hopefully it is different from night to night. Usually the energy level is pretty high, maybe still even moreso than you could get through a record. The only other thing I would say about that, we are determined to always try to make good records. Being known as a good live band, sometimes bands like that are associated with being really good live but not making very good records. All I can say is, we don’t see why we can’t do both, why we can’t make records that you would want to have, even if you do go to the shows and you got live tapes. We’d like to make a record that offers something a little different than that and is a worthwhile product. That’s our goal, we’ll see if we accomplished that or not. That’s that we are going to try to do.

V.R. Are you responsible for most of the synthesized sounds on the album?

R.V. That is really just synthesizer, and also...some of the weird sounds are being made my a Theremin...It is a little electronic device that kind of works like a reverse radio. It has this wand and it sets up this electrical field that you play with your hands. The one I have is sort of a simplified version of it, just this tiny little box, with one little wand. There is a bigger one that you see, Angelo from Fishbone had one, and I think Phish, Page, uses one. The most famous example of a Theremin is that weird sound at the beginning of Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys. The beginning of the old Star Trek Theme is a Theremin and a woman’s voice. But mine is a simplified version. You can’t really even control it well enough to play melodies like that, it’s just more of an effect, but that is the thing that you are hearing that is making all those crazy sounds. And then a little Moog synthesizer that I have that people are always asking me about because it actually came from Radio Shack. It says Realistic across the back...The truth is that Moog designed a little synthesizer for Radio Shack back in the day, like in the late 70s early 80s. That’s about it for trippy sounds, otherwise it’s pretty much classic stuff, organ, Wurlitzer, Rhodes.

V.R. The horn section has changed between the albums. What is it currently?

R.V. That’s been sort of the open chair part of the band although now we have a steady horn player, his name is Ben Ellman (saxophone), who is definitely the Galactic horn player. On that first record, we didn’t have any horn players at the time who were members of the band. We were using great horn players from New Orleans that we knew that we hired to do the session and were doing gigs with us at the time. At the time we were trying to play with a horn section but once we started going out on the road we realized there was no way we could bring a whole horn section with us so we pared down to our current line up which is how it’s been for all of the time we’ve been on the road, which is just one horn player. But when we record, we might give ourselves the luxury of using multiple horn players. Or actually what we are doing a lot now is Ben is just overdubbing multiple horn parts because he plays tenor and baritone. On Crazyhorse Mongoose the horn players are Ben Ellman and Jason Mingledorff (sax) who also was playing with us for a time, and would come out on the road with us.

V.R. Musically you are a very patient band, taking time to build moods and jams slowly. Where does this patience come from?

R.V. That’s an interesting question. It’s almost a new question, I like it. I have never heard anyone ask it that way, in terms of patience. You know what, I think it comes from...a lot of it has to do with being from New Orleans quite honestly and having learned to play in New Orleans where we would just play for hours and hours. People want that down there and often demand it quite honestly. The thing about New Orleans and even myself when I was making a living on Bourbon Street and stuff like that, it was just a lot of hours. We would play a lot of time and you had to kind of pace yourself. Also the fact that we knew we had all night to get there. It is a different mindset from a more pop music mindset where you are trying to convey a little story in 3 minutes and that’s it. It’s this self contained thing. For us, in New Orleans, it was more about keeping people moving, keeping the dance floor moving. You had to hone a groove. If you got that going on, you got this solid bass happening and the groove that you are honing and trying to just keep people moving, then the creative part on top of that is how do you work with it, how do you develop it and how does it change over time. Funky music is about something consistent and then something that’s changing or evolving on top of that to keep your interest. You got to lay it down and keep the groove happening but then you don’t want it to just be the same thing over and over, so you work on developing it and expanding it, stretching it out. Just coming up playing gigs in New Orleans there is no better experience to that approach to playing music. It is not uncommon for us, especially during Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest time, to get on stage at midnight and play until the sun is up, at 6:30 or 7 in the morning. Even a more typical gig would mean playing to 3:30 or something like that.

Actually the hard thing for us was the opposite. The thing we had trouble with was when we started going out doing some of these opening slots, like going out with Widespread Panic or on the H.O.R.D.E. tour. We’d have 30 minutes or 45 minutes. That was hard for us because we are a band that’s ready to play. After 30 or 45 minutes we felt like we were just getting warmed up. We had to stop and reassess and think about how to do that more effectively. That was a new discipline we had to learn. We are prone to spend maybe 2-3 minutes on an intro to a tune, before we even get to a tune itself. When we were doing those gigs we had to stop and think about how we do this more concisely...give them a little capsule of what Galactic is because they are not going to get the full thing in 45 minutes.

For your own Galactic capsule check them out at one of the stops on their current tour, pick up there latest disc, Crazyhorse Mongoose (1998, Capricorn), or check out their website at www.fogworld.com/galactic/.