For Galactic, the past two years have been ones of rapid evolution. Born in the early '90s, after two Washington DC punks guitarist Jeff Raines and bassist Robert Mercurio relocated to the Crescent City and found themselves intoxicated by the sounds of the scene that nurtured The Meters, Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers and Dr. John, the crosspollination between the sextet's own trademark jazz-funk-rock fusion with other genres has accelerated rapidly. Since the release of its last full-length, 2002's We Love 'Em Tonight: Live at Tipitina's, the band's interest in hip-hop and electronic music flourished and was reflected by their sharing stages with like-minded artists including The Roots, Lyrics Born, Pharcyde, the Triple Threat crew, Kid Koala and Z-Trip, and inviting graffiti artists SKW and Doze to create original murals during sets on their 2002 Sight of Sound Tour.
Galactic knew their next album would utilize a broader sonic palette, but that was only one area on which they wanted to focus. "The main goal was to concentrate on songwriting more than we ever had before, utilizing as many different techniques as possible," emphasizes drummer Stanton Moore. "So we wrote the old-fashioned way, coming up with verses and choruses, fine-tuning lyrical content." Yet they also integrated new techniques, improvising over loops and found sounds, and refining experiments individual members had been making with samplers and sequencers during off-stage hours.
No matter what angle they approached the task from, composing succinct songs without diffusing the trademark Galactic groove was always the #1 priority. "Our last three studio records had a lot of solos," admits Mercurio, referring to Coolin' Off (1996), Crazyhorse Mongoose (1999), and Late for the Future (2000). "Those songs were written more in the classic jazz style, with a head or melody up front, then a solo or two in the middle, followed by some sort of an outro. This time, we wanted to make the songs shorter, more song-oriented than solo-oriented, get in and out quicker."
To help achieve all their aims, the group enlisted Dan "The Automator" Nakamura to produce Ruckus. Having defined and transcended trends in hip-hop and electronic music since the early '90s, collaborating with Kool Keith, Prince Paul, Gorillaz, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion along the way, Nakamura proved the perfect man for the job. "My specific goal was to make an album that was more concise, and had all the hooks of a pop record," he says, echoing the band's wishes.
A buddy of Dan Prothero, who founded Fog City Records specifically to release Galactic's first album, Nakamura was already fully aware of Galactic's strengths and versatility. "The band is very solid," Nakamura notes. "Stanton Moore is one of the truly great drummers out there." The Automator also realized that working with a group that heretofore has relied primarily on touring not radio or MTV airplay to reach fans allowed more room for experimentation. "When you work with a band like Galactic, you have an opportunity to do something more interesting, because nobody is thinking, 'We're going for a hit single.' They're more interested in making a great album."
Mission accomplished. In 13 tracks, and just under 44 minutes, Ruckus covers an array of territory that touches on all the band's myriad influences, without losing the plot. "The Moil," which anchors guitar squalls worthy of Hendrix or Zeppelin with thick, primordial funk, sits comfortably alongside "Bongo Joe," a lilting number laced with scratchy blues licks, harmonica, and simple organ lines. With its rumbling rhythmic assault and a weird Moog melody concocted by keyboard player Rich Vogel, "Mercamon" sounds like the opening theme to some lost late-'60s sci-fi spy thriller. Meanwhile, the summery "Uptown Odyssey" and a laidback update of General Public's '80s fave "Tenderness" both of which feature the warm, gritty voice of Theryl "The Houseman" DeClouet just might yield one of those hit singles Nakamura says Galactic aren't concerned about.
The writing and recording of Ruckus involved many changes for Galactic. In the past, the band had road-tested material for months, even years, before committing it to tape; this time, they wrote specifically for the album. Which doesn't mean life on the road didn't play an integral part in the album's evolution just in a different manner. Well before they retired to their brand new studio to concentrate on composing and refining their new originals, before Nakamura and his assistants rolled in to town, Galactic had begun laying the foundations for Ruckus.
"We record everyone of our shows," explains Mercurio. Later, the band would sift through the recordings and isolate episodes whether they were 10 seconds long, or two-and-a-half minutes that felt truly inspired. "Then we went back through the recordings, and made a CD of just those moments." In many cases, those tiny highlights provided the seeds for entire songs when writing commenced in earnest. But not in an esoteric, sample-happy fashion; instead, the band would recreate these highlights live, expanding on them, until whole melodies and arrangements for solid new tunes began to emerge.
Another change: Working in their own studio for the first time meant the sextet didn't have to worry about financial constraints or a ticking clock. "We'd never been in a position to just lock ourselves up in one place, sit down, and concentrate on writing before," says Moore. They were free to make demos, and play around with the array of new and vintage instruments at their disposal; the fat drum sound on Ruckus stemmed from engineer Mike Napolitano's offhanded suggestion to Moore that he erect a kooky, oversized, "Flintstones kit" in lieu of his typical set-up. "We experimented a lot," adds the drummer. "This is, by far, the most ambitious record that we've done."
Ironically, though, while "The Automator" was excited about working with an organic band, and marrying the Galactic sound to more conventional song structures, at least one band member was excited about using computer technology and elements of DJ culture to give his group a new edge. Even while the group was still out on the road, Ben Ellman had been tinkering on his new multimedia personal computer. "Every day after sound check, he would be on the bus working on that thing," remembers Moore. At any given opportunity, the sax player would summon his band mates over to hear permutations and combinations he had cobbled together from various loops and samples.
Thus, during the making of Ruckus, when other members were busy recording individual performances, or polishing songs in the main studio, Ellman was holed up in the room affectionately dubbed Studio B, making like Dr. Frankenstein with various sonic bits and pieces, elaborating on them in ProTools. Then he would share his results with the others, who in turn would improvise over his creations, and refine the musical fruits of those sessions into new songs. It was in this fashion that some of Ruckus' most memorable moments including "Mercamon," "Bongo Joe," and particularly, the explosive "Kid Kenner" were generated.
With Ruckus, Galactic set out to make a record that captured, via concise songs, the skillful playing and improvisational chops that, in performance, have won them a legion of fans. So now all that remains is
translating those new songs to a concert setting. "There are nine tracks on this record that we've never played before," reveals Mercurio. One suspects that at this point in their career, that's one challenge Galactic can meet.