You could say Galactic actually are big in Japan, as outside the United States, and following Canada, Japan is second on the New Orleans’s funky jam band’s list of most visited countries to play. But Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio wouldn’t put it that way. “I would say we’re small in Japan, but they like us,” he says, humbly, a few days after Galactic returned from playing Japan’s annual Fuji Rock Festival. “There is a strong connection with New Orleans music and Japanese people. We were one of those bands with a modern funk aesthetic they liked, and we were lucky to be brought over to Japan in 2000. I think that was our first year. We just clicked with them. Also, being mostly instrumental helped. If they don’t understand the English lyrics, they can connect with the instrumental side of our band.”
That’s one theory. And while the term “big in Japan” is often used in the music business as a slight, meaning the band is not popular in its homeland but in some faraway place, Galactic’s four-night stand at Brooklyn Bowl this month — part of a massive nationwide tour behind new album Into the Deep — would indicate otherwise. This marks Galactic’s twentieth year of doing its funky soul-groove thing, which adds up to an amazing feat for an independent band.
“We definitely appreciate the support our fans have given us over the years. It’s not like we’re turning out the same product all the time, and we might have turned out some things that may have pissed off some fans from time to time. But we’re so grateful for the ones that stuck with us and for constantly gaining new fans,” says Mercurio, his gratitude coming across without sounding like he’s reciting a rote award acceptance speech.
Galactic has fans in high places, too: Into the Deep, which was released on Provogue Records, enlisted gospel great Mavis Staples, soul siren Macy Gray, and jambandland mainstay JJ Grey.
Gray, an old friend, practically joined the band this year: Billed as Galactic featuring Macy Gray, starting with this spring’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and on through to Fuji to include around eight festivals together, the troupe switched between Galactic songs, covers, and Gray’s own work. “Learning Macy’s stuff, to find out what makes her songs click, it’s been nothing but inspiring,” recalls Mercurio. “If you just play your own songs and don’t learn someone else’s way of approaching songwriting, you’re limited to only what you have in your own mind.”
It’s unlikely the Los Angeles–based Gray will join them in Brooklyn. “If she lived in New York she’d be there for sure,” Mercurio says. “She loves to perform and she’s awesome. We sometimes happen to be in the same city and she calls up and says, ‘Let’s go out tonight.’ ” That said, Galactic’s usual singer, Erica Falls, is more than capable of handling vocal duties: “She has such a range and is such an amazing singer, we never worry she can’t take on someone on the record’s part.” Brooklyn can expect at least one Galactic album alum guesting, as Mercurio promises that Corey Glover from Living Colour will perform during one of the shows at Brooklyn Bowl.
Collaboration is the name of Galactic’s game, really, and it keeps the band on its toes. “It’s rejuvenating. It’s fun,” says the 41-year-old Mercurio, a D.C. native who moved to New Orleans for college and never left. “We’ve been a band for twenty years, so as long as it’s within the vibe of our band, collaborating is something we’ve always enjoyed doing. It brings a little spark to our thing.”
Galactic just wrapped tracking for Joe Jackson’s next record. “We recorded five of the songs on there — with him, obviously,” says Mercurio, who also plays in a band called Dragonsmoke and one called the M&Ms, both with Galactic drummer Stanton Moore. The former includes Ivan Neville, and the latter Papa Mali and John Medeski. “In New Orleans, it’s very common to be in five or so different bands,” he says.
According to Mercurio, everything you hear about New Orleans’s fecund musical “stew” is true. “It’s not something they made up for movies,” he insists. “There really is this musical stew like no other I’ve ever seen in my life. You can go down some streets and there’s bar after bar after bar with great bands performing. You can bounce around the city; you can drink outside and float through the city and see some of the best bands ever in some of the smallest bars ever.”
For Galactic it was the perfect home, a place to grow a long and happy career. “We hoped for this,” Mercurio says, “but it’s hard to plan how long a band will last. Going into any project, you never look at an expiration date. With Galactic, we’re all really good friends and get along together professionally really well. That is quite an achievement, I think. You hope to do it as long as you can.”
Galactic play August 12–15 at Brooklyn Bowl. For ticket information and more, click here.