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It’s been more than 20 years since Ben Ellman, Robert Mercurio, Stanton Moore, Jeff Raines and Rich Vogel began exploring the seemingly limitless musical possibilities born out of their work together as Galactic. Since then, the seminal New Orleans band has consistently pushed artistic boundaries on the road and in the studio, approaching their music with open ears and drawing inspiration as much from the sounds bubbling up from their city’s streets as they do from each other.
A key part of that creative spark comes from the teamwork of Mercurio and Ellman, whose ever-evolving production and arranging skills helped usher the band into a new phase of studio work beginning with the loop-centric Ruckus in 2007. A series of albums focused around specific concepts like Carnival followed, as did collaborations with guests hailing from worlds outside the one Galactic calls its own.
On Into the Deep, the band members look within themselves instead, drawing inspiration from people and ideas that have long been close to their hearts – and, in turn, close to the development of their unique sound. Shot through with soul, funk, blues and rock, the result is an organic riff on elements of Galactic’s past, filtered through the lens of where they’re headed in 2015. “I see this album as a kind of culmination of all of our collaborations or experiences, from [trombonist] Corey Henry to the people we met on the road, touring,” says Mercurio, referencing Ellman’s first full-time gig in New Orleans, which kicked off when Henry hired him into the Little Rascals Brass Band in 1989.
“The previous albums took us in the opposite direction,” Mercurio says. “We collaborated with rappers that we had never dealt with and even on the New Orleans tracks, we didn’t have working experience with most of those artists before the recordings.” In contrast, Into the Deep contributors like JJ Grey, David Shaw and Maggie Koerner spent significant time touring with Galactic. A few years ago, Mavis Staples sat in with the band, all of whom are longtime fans of the legendary singer’s R&B-meets-gospel soul style. They caught up with Macy Gray when she performed a memorable concert at Tipitina’s where Ellman says he could see from the outset “how much she cares about the music.” And each of the players had also developed a deep appreciation for the Honorable South’s Charm Taylor, whose contribution, “Right On” was written specifically to suit her vibe.
“Quint Davis [the producer of] Jazz Fest always has a couple people he books at the festival that aren’t big names but that Quint knows are going to be super cool,” says Ellman. “That’s how we met Brushy One-String. We originally wanted to bring him in to do anything, just to see what would happen. But when we heard his song ‘Chicken in the Corn,’ we really wanted to do our version of it.” In the end, he joined them on the road for over a month, collaborating with the band onstage at each show.
For the instrumental tracks, Galactic mined the interests and tastes they’ve cultivated together for years in New Orleans. “Buck 77” was written via improvisation, a long-standing cornerstone of their live shows. The funky bass line and tumbling guitar part on “Long Live the Borgne,” meanwhile, represents an updated, more composed take on some of the concepts that made early albums like Coolin’ Off so strong.
As for the opener “Soogar Doosie,” Ellman points out Galactic tends to record at least one track on each album that speaks to the band’s collective love of brass band music. “We write [those songs] with the idea of how awesome it would be to hear the Rebirth going down doing the street in a second line playing one of our songs. We try to think of a real second line song that would get people slapping stop signs and dancing on cars,” he says.
The album, Ellman says, “is all about people. It’s these connections we’ve made over 20 years. They’re people in our orbit that have come into our little world and affected us in some way.” It’s also about how the individual musicians within Galactic have grown over time. When it comes to trying new approaches as players, producers, songwriters and arrangers, Ellman muses, “it’s an evolution.”
For more than two decades, Lettuce have brought a new vitality to classic funk, matching their smooth and soulful grooves with a hip-hop-inspired urgency and mastery of beat. Now, on their fourth studio album Crush, drummer Adam Deitch, guitarists Adam Smirnoff and Eric Krasno, bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes, keyboardist Neal Evans, saxophonist Ryan Zoidis, and trumpet player Eric Bloom deepen that sound by channeling the sonic freedom and infectious energy of their incendiary live show.
Produced by Lettuce and Co- Produced, recorded/mixed by Joel Hamilton at Brooklyn’s Studio G, Crush first came to life on the road, with the band developing new material and testing it out live as they toured. “We’ve all noticed that our music goes into a lot of different directions onstage, and we wanted to capture that in a way that we never really have before,” says Coomes, who names classic psychedelia and ‘90s hip-hop among Lettuce’s key inspirations on Crush. “It’s definitely more wide-open in terms style, but it still stays true to the funk.”
The follow-up to 2012’s Fly, Crush finds Lettuce brilliantly infusing their psychedelic and hip-hop sensibilities into bass-heavy funk. With its spidery guitar work and hypnotic beats, “Phyllis” is a delicately sprawling epic that embodies what Deitch refers to as “a chill-hop vibe that’s kind of the flip-side of all that powerful uptempo funk that people might expect from us.” On “Get Greasy,” Lettuce give a nod to the groove-fueled EDM subgenre known as future funk, building off its highly danceable rhythm with a blissfully loose and horn-laced arrangement. And on “He Made a Woman Out of Me,” guest vocalist Alecia Chakour lends her bluesy growl to a scorching take on Bobbie Gentry’s 1970 country-soul classic.
Whether paying homage to Led Zeppelin on the fiery and guitar-driven “Silverdome” or delivering a deeply riveting and richly textured hip-hop medley with “Oresteia,” Lettuce maneuver through Crush’s kaleidoscopic sound with sophisticated ease and powerful synergy. “More so than any of the records we’ve done before, this album is very much about the improvised grooves and improvised solos,” says Krasno. “Instead of going at it like, ‘Here’s a melody, now here’s a guitar solo, here’s another melody, here’s a sax solo,’ everyone’s leaning on each other in a way that’s completely unspoken. It’s all of us moving as one unit and creating this new sound together.”
According to Lettuce, that sense of unity and togetherness has much to do with a camaraderie that’s only intensified over the lifespan of the band. Formed in 1992, when several band members attended a summer program at Boston’s Berklee College of Music as teenagers, Lettuce was founded on a shared love of legendary funk artists like Earth, Wind & Fire and Tower of Power. After returning to Berklee as undergrads in 1994, Lettuce started playing in local clubs and steadily built up a following that soon extended to cities across the country and then throughout the world. Releasing their studio debut Outta Here in 2002 and its follow-up album Rage! in 2009, the band dedicated the coming years to balancing their frequent touring with involvement in a host of other musical endeavors (including Evans and Krasno’s role as founding members of acclaimed soul/jazz trio Soulive).
In recent years, Lettuce have watched their fanbase expand as they’ve hit bigger and bigger stages and earned their name as a can’t-miss festival act. And in making Crush, the band had no trouble harnessing the spirit of their explosive live show. “Some of these shows we’ve played over the past couple years have been so amazing, it’s like you go home a different person,” says Coomes. “I’m sure remembering those moments in our minds and our hearts helped bring out something special when we were recording these new songs.”
So while Crush offers everything from all-out party jams to headphone-ready journeys into space funk, each track was born from an unabashed joy and love of live performance. “That energy we get when it’s prime time and we’re about to go onstage and we’re just excited beyond belief—that all came out on this new album,” says Deitch. “There’s a feeling that the band is rising, and it’s a really beautiful thing.”