Interview with Robert Mercurio from Galactic: Plugged In

If you aren’t able to make it to Mardi Gras in New Orleans this month, listening to Galactic’s new album, Carnivale Electricos, may be your best alternative. After 18 years on the jazz/funk/jam scene, the New Orleans band finally decided to make an album that represented the New Orleans Mardi Gras they held so close to their heart, as well as the carnivals of Brazil.

As a band without a lead singer, they have always had various artists collaborate with them on their albums and this one is no exception. War Chief Juan Pardo (a Mardi Gras Indian Chief), the Kipp Renaissance High School Marching Band, rappers Mystikal and Mannie Fresh, Brazilian drum troupe Casa Samba and New Orleans legend Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, were among the guests featured on their latest release.

Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio took some time to talk about the new album, how the band has changed over the years and what it feels like to play live.

The new album is coming out on Feb. 21. Talk a little bit about how Carnivale Electricos compares to some of your previous releases and what you were trying to go for with the new one.

With the last few releases, we’ve been trying to make the album a little bit more of a concept than just a collection of songs, so it definitely differs from any of the other CDs in that it has a different concept than the other CDs, especially the more recent ones. The concept was obviously trying to bridge the gap between the two musical arcs of Brazil and New Orleans. So, being from New Orleans, Mardi Gras holds a special place in our hearts and it just kind of came about. We were just shooting around ideas on concepts and that one just kind of stuck with the band and the further we dug into it, the more that we saw the possibilities. There are so many facets to the New Orleans carnival and there are so many different sides to the Brazilian one. It just became more exciting and it kind of progressed from there.

As someone that’s never been to New Orleans, can you try to describe the atmosphere of Mardi Gras?

It’s a very festive, anything-goes kind of vibe. Basically, it’s a big buildup for Ash Wednesday. It’s the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday—it’s why everybody’s celebrating, it’s the beginning of Lent, it’s a very Christian/Catholic holiday that’s been adapted into the city. So, it just kind of builds and builds and builds with intensity and excitement and there’s parades with massive floats and high school marching bands that parade through the big avenues of the city. It’s a holiday down here, so it’s kind of one of the craziest Mondays and Tuesdays you’ll ever have. The town basically shuts down and it’s just a wild party.

Did you try to create that chaos on the record?

In some ways, we tried to capture the feeling of Mardi Gras, lyrically and musically. We did a tune with a marching band and we wanted it to have that feel of when you’re on the side of the road and you’re marching between the floats. Our last tune on the album, it’s called “Ash Wednesday Morning,” and we tried to conjure the mood of feeling elated that you made it through another Mardi Gras and also elated that it’s over. It’s this feeling of somber sadness but also this happiness that happened that day. You kind of reflect on how great of a time it was, but at the same time, you’re kind of glad it’s over. We took some liberties in that way and lyrically, tried to conjure a Mardi Gras feeling.

What’s the songwriting process like?

We’ll talk as a group about concepts of songs. We’re kind of a band with no permanent lead singer. We use that in a way to collaborate with other artists or just do an instrumental. We’ll get a chalkboard or a dry erase board and just come up with a lot of different concepts. Like, one of the concepts might have been “record with a marching band” and another one was “record with a Mardi Gras Indian Group.” So then we’ll make a bunch of demos, everybody works on those and we’ll kind of figure out which one might go with which concept. And then, from there—I was the producer on this album—so it’s kind of in the producer’s hands to finish the tune with the rest of the guys in the band and the artists we’ve decided to collaborate with. So the artists might do some songwriting with us, might not. It’s all kind of individually different, but the grand scope of it is pretty much the same.

Talk about some of the collaborations you had on this album. You had Mystikal and Mannie Fresh as well as Big Chief Juan Pardo. Is it true he’s an Indian Chief?

Down here, in New Orleans, we have Mardi Gras Indians, which are African-American Indians and it’s been a tradition over a century. Basically, they have a tribe and they have weekly meetings and they perform and all year they work on their outfit. The Big Chief’s outfit is the biggest deal. His outfit is really grand. It’s silk feathers and Mardi Gras morning is when they debut it. It used to be a way where people would work out differences they’ve had over the year. But it’s become a lot less dangerous and a lot more ceremonial over the last 30 or 40 years. They used to literally fight, like Mardi Gras morning, there was gunfire. It was like they were battling it out. Usually the Chief has a very strong, big voice in these chants and for that song, we kind of came up with the chant “Hatty-Ka” as a band because a lot of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians’ phrases are nonsensical. They’re just melodic. Like “Honda-Wanda.” There are all these ones that they say that really don’t mean anything, but they just kind of have this sound to them. So we came up with our own Hatty-Ka and brought in Juan Pardo to help us flesh out that song. He’s one of the younger chiefs, too, and he definitely has one of the strongest voices in the scene right now. Mystikal, it was a lifelong dream to have him and Mannie Fresh in the studio. That was awesome.

You guys have always been big into the hip hop genre as well.

Yeah, a couple albums ago we did an album called From The Corner To The Block, which was a lot of MCs. We would’ve loved to have Mystikal on that one, but he was in jail at that time. It was something that we had been working on for a long time and it happened to work out for this album. He worked into the Mardi Gras concept in that marching bands are not the only music that fuels the parade. You hear a lot of New Orleans hip hop blasting out of trucks. It’s very much a part of the New Orleans carnival.

You guys formed back in 1994. How the band has changed over that time.

Oh, wow. The band’s changed a lot. I feel like we’ve found our own sound within that timeframe. We started as a very retro funk band, very influenced by music from the ‘60s and ‘70s—which is awesome, we love that music—but I think through those years, we’ve found our own voice and we also parted ways with a long time singer that toured with us until 2004, Theryl “The House Man” DeClouet. He left the band due to health reasons. So since 2004—God, it’s been 8 years that we haven’t had a lead singer—it’s been exciting in a way for the band because we’ve been able to collaborate with whoever we want and we’re not really locked into the same vocalist, which is kind of exciting and not a typical situation. The band changed, we’ve brought on different people. We’ve been touring with a trombone player from Rebirth Brass Band, this guy Corey Henry, for the last 3 years, so it’s really brought out an even more New Orleans aspect to the band. It’s just always evolving and we’re trying to always come up with something fresh and exciting for us and hopefully for our fans.

What do you enjoy most about playing live?

It’s really hard to put a finger on. It’s just this feeling. You could have a cold, you could have the shittiest day, you could have gotten into a fight with your wife and you start playing and your brain just turns off all those things. You’re right there and you’re just having a great time with your buddies. Usually every night, I’ll just have a moment where I’m like, “This is great. I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this.”

It has its downsides, you have to be away from home a lot and go out on tour, but I also really enjoy traveling, so that has its ups and downs as well.

You can see Galactic when they play at Terminal 5 in NYC on Saturday, Feb. 25. Their new album, Carnivale Electricos, is available now. For more information, check out