Robert Mercurio, cofounder and bassist of Galactic, has heard it before: "How did five white guys get so cool?"
"Yeah, people ask us that sometimes," he says, "but it's never been a diss, which is cool. It's usually more like, 'God, you guys sound really good for some white guys playing funk!' It's more of a compliment.
"And white guys playing funk? That's just part of being here in New Orleans. Race doesn't really matter when you're standing in front of a microphone. The bandstand is the one place where people meet and see each other equally."
Actually, the question Mercurio more often gets asked is, "Is this funk?" He admits that calling Galactic a "funk" band is slightly misleading. "When we first started out, in '94, funk summed it up," he says. "We were more of a retro group, heavily influenced by the music from the '70s. But I think we've developed our own sound, bringing in rock and roll, heavy stuff and hip-hop, and even futuristic sounds. That label isn't quite big enough anymore. What I've called it in other interviews is 'future funk,' just to kind of help describe it a little more accurately."
When then-18-year-old Mercurio and longtime friend Jeff Raines left Washington, D.C., to go to college in New Orleans, neither had any idea they would become part of the city's ever-expanding music scene. "The first place we went was Benny's," says Mercurio. "It was a tiny little hole-in-the-wall. The music didn't start until about midnight and would go until four or five in the morning. It was the spot where all the musicians would come after they got off their gigs and sit in. It was a loose atmosphere. Too loose, actually, because it ended up having to be closed down (laughs). But it was an amazing scene. It introduced me to New Orleans R&B and funk music."
While still in college, Mercurio and Raines started an eight-member band called Galactic Prophylactic, a name indicative of their age rather than their sound. "When we started touring, we thought, 'Let's drop the Prophylactic,' so we did -- and then the guys started having kids (laughs). No, no, I'm just kidding. We matured a little, the music matured and when it was time to start touring, we thought we needed a clean slate."
That first tour led to another and then another. Eleven years later, Galactic spends most of its time on the road and is currently in the middle of a four-month sweep through the South and East coasts. "We're booked until April right now -- and we don't even have an album out!" laughs Mercurio. "We have an album coming out in July or August. And, oh my God, I can't even imagine what it's going to be like when the album comes out. It's tough being on tour like that. A few of us have kids, which makes it harder for them. I'm married, which makes it harder for me. But being on the road is something that I've grown to accept in this business."
After a pause, Mercurio adds quietly, "And I do get an itch. I've been home for about a month and a half, and I'm already starting to get anxious to get back out on the road.
"But more than anything, it's the business. People seem to like seeing us live, which is great. Plus this is how we make our money. We don't make a killing from our record sales. For us, records are more of a by-product of touring."
Galactic, like many groups who enjoy a mostly regional success, sees CDs playing a smaller and smaller role in generating income. "People are way more into individual tracks and iTunes," says Mercurio, seemingly disheartened. "People just don't buy CDs anymore. They don't.
"And the whole burning thing is out of control. I do that myself, so I contribute to the problem as well. I don't know what the answer is to that. It seems like the CD is dying, if not already dead."
Mercurio acknowledges that easy access via downloads has made music more available to consumers, but says that the practice has affected the way that many bands, including Galactic, make music. "With iTunes and all that, there's pressure to make every song a hit, to try and make every track something people will want to buy. Every song's not going to be a hit, that's just a fact. There are tunes that you put in an album for continuity, for flow, for transition. Looking at the album as a whole, those songs work, but looking at each individual track, you'll be like, 'Why the hell did they do that?' That means people put out less music, because right away, you're worried if it's going to be a hit or not.
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"We've put out a lot of live albums through our Web site for download, and that has opened up the possibility of putting music out in a different way. When you don't have to put a lot of money into manufacturing or distribution, you aren't worried about selling thousands and thousands. You can sell 500, and that's okay."
Galactic has always enjoyed performing in Houston, but that ride down I-10 has taken on new meaning since Hurricane Katrina. "We all saw what Houston did for us," he says, "and we were like, 'That's so cool of Houston. They're really taking it on and doing a lot of good for a lot of people.' Our keyboard player lost everything. No one lost any family, but we all had our houses damaged. Our studio got ruined, but you know, we made it through. We're still here.
"And so is New Orleans music!" he says firmly. "There's no doubt about the music continuing. Now there may be some questions for the city, it might not come back to be what it was. But the music will continue -- and grow even. Really, music is the lifeblood of this city. There's no doubt it's coming back."
Galactic performs Saturday, December 30, at the Meridian, 1503 Chartres, 713-225-1717.