When Vinyl Music Hall opened a couple years ago, one of its major emphases was to bring as much of the cultural mecca of New Orleans to the Panhandle as possible. It’s doing just that in Galactic, the most complete modern example of how wide the Big Easy’s musical reach is. For almost 20 years, the funk and jazz band has been on the road honing its craft. Keyboardist Rich Vogel stepped away from that incessant touring to chat with the IN about camaraderie of the New Orleans music scene and the evolution of the band’s sound and live show.
IN: Galactic has been able to successfully bounce around from instrumental jazz and funk to hip-hop to international party music. What drives the band to find such uniqueness with each project?
VOGEL: When it comes to making records, we want to have an identity. Galactic is often referred to as an overgrown rhythm section. We’re not like most bands that revolve around a singer-songwriter and front man. We are more in the mold of The Meters or Booker T & the M.G.’s that were creative enough to write and record instrumental music and be comfortable in the studio. Once we established that instrumental identity, we realized we were capable of working with all sorts of different vocalists and songwriters. We do approach each project with some sort of idea in mind. Saying ‘concept’ is a bit heavy-handed, but you have to define some space for yourself to work in.
IN: Is that full album mindset difficult to have with the general public’s thirst for immediacy with artists?
VOGEL: A lot of people aren’t bothering to make complete records these days, but we want to make sure all our albums are cohesive pieces throughout.
IN: What was the most difficult part in bridging the cultures of New Orleans and Brazil like you did with the latest record, “Carnivale Electricos?”
VOGEL: In a lot of ways, New Orleans is the North Pole of the carnival world that encompasses the Caribbean and Brazil. There were some obvious connections we were pointing to both musically and historically. It was the same approach we use with all our collaborators. What ingredient of theirs would be a good fit with the larger scheme of Galactic? We were lucky enough to have connections with musicians with those skill sets.
IN: Galactic is viewed by many as modern-day ambassadors of New Orleans. Does that put added pressure on the band?
VOGEL: It’s not a pressure we feel. Sure we represent New Orleans on a certain level, but we are just one band and five musicians of many. New Orleans music has come into the consciousness of this country in the last five to ten years. Part of that has to do with Katrina. There are also more bands from New Orleans out on the road these days. People have been coming to our city for years, but now New Orleans is coming to them.
IN: If there’s a common thread that runs throughout Galactic’s career, it has to be the embrace of collaboration. Can you talk about the importance of that?
VOGEL: We formed around the idea of playing funky music together that feels good and in the spirit of New Orleans music and old school funk and R&B from other places. The lead singer aspect of having a band didn’t feel right full-time, so we simply worked with people who inspired us. We’ve worked with legends like Allen Toussaint and great MC’s like Chali2na. That flexibility is something we are really proud of.
IN: How does the band choose what covers to perform? You guys have been doing some Zeppelin stuff for a while now, and it’s still absolutely killer. How does stuff like that that end up in your repertoire?
VOGEL: It’s in our wheelhouse, to be honest. When you’ve got a drummer like Stanton who is so tapped into the Bonham thing, and a vocalist like (Living Colour’s) Corey Glover, we can do it and not feel like we shouldn’t be. The worst thing you can hear is a mediocre cover band with a singer that can’t touch Plant and a drummer who couldn’t hold a stick next to Bonham. Trust me, I’ve heard it.
IN: Give me your best New Orleans travel advice. Food, music, bars, or anything else off the beaten path that we should know about.
VOGEL: It depends how deep someone’s trying to dig in. First off, go to the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. Get that out of the way as quickly as possible. The French Quarter is beautiful during the day, but in terms of nightlife and music, it’s not the place to be. From there, head to The Marigny and/or Frenchmen Street and start talking to people and feel out what’s going on. Those will be the real people talking about real music.
Photo: Galactic Official