Galactic mixes up the past and present of New Orleans music on the band's new CD

Galactic mixes up the past and present of New Orleans music on the band's new CD
February 28, 2010
by Keith Spera

In the perpetual twilight of their Uptown rehearsal studio’s control room, the members of Galactic anxiously await Irma Thomas’ verdict.
Months earlier, Thomas, the venerated Soul Queen of New Orleans, contributed to a song destined for Galactic’s new “Ya-ka-may” CD.
But the final “Heart of Steel” is far removed from what Thomas first sang. In keeping with the spirit of “Ya-ka-may,” Galactic treated her vocals as raw material for their sonic alchemy. They chopped, sampled, looped and manipulated her voice, even as they pared back the surrounding music to a gritty, bare-bones groove.
And now Thomas is about to hear the end result for the first time.
Chris Granger / The Times-Picayune
As members of Galactic watch, Irma Thomas, right, reacts to hearing her voice on "Heart of Steel," a song on the band's new "Ya-ka-may" CD.
She settles in front of a computer screen as Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman, who also served as producer on “Ya-ka-may,” cues up “Heart of Steel” on the hard drive.
Rob Mercurio’s deep-pulse bass line kicks in, and the song is off and running. Thomas immediately starts nodding her head, then cracks a broad smile.
“That blows me away!” she exclaims. “I didn’t know I could sound like that! It’s just so now.”
As “Heart of Steel” progresses, Thomas, a great-grandmother, gushes.
“I sound so young, for lack of a better word. You’ve got me sounding like a teenager. Who would think that’s a 60-year-old broad singing? Actually, a 68-year-old broad.”
The musicians breathe a collective sigh of relief.
“We were a little worried,” says drummer Stanton Moore. “We didn’t know if you would like it or not.”
“I was nervous to watch you listen,” admits keyboardist Rich Vogel. “You never know. You might be like, ‘What did you do to my voice?’ ”
Thomas loves what they did.
“This has given me a whole other outlook on recording,” she declares. “Thank God for technology. Welcome to the 21st century, Irma!”
Galactic was happy to make the introduction.

At 15 years and counting, the New Orleans funk representative to the jam band movement has crafted its most ambitious album to date.
On “Ya-ka-may,” released Feb. 9 by Anti Records, Galactic collaborates with a multigenerational, multigenre assortment of Big Easy musicians. From the old guard came Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Big Chief Bo Dollis and Walter “Wolfman” Washington. Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, John Boutte, Glen David Andrews and the Rebirth Brass Band take turns. So does trombonist Corey Henry, a de facto member of Galactic’s touring lineup.
They also recruited Josh Cohen and R. Scully of Morning 40 Federation; rapper Cheeky Blakk; and Katey Red, Big Freedia and Sissy Nobby, “sissy bounce” MCs who traffic in a flamboyantly gay variation of local hip-hop.
Even legendary TV mad scientist Morgus the Magnificent gets in on the act. The band wove a Morgus audio sample from YouTube into the album’s opening cut, “Friends of Science.”
“He was the hardest person to convince to be on the record,” Ellman said. “We wrote him a ‘Dear Mr. Morgus’ letter.”
The common denominator uniting “Ya-ka-may”s diverse guests is Galactic’s forward-thinking approach to record-making.
“We wanted to collaborate, but we wanted to do it in a context that was Galactic,” Ellman said. “We didn’t want to make the classic Wolfman Washington R&B song, or the classic Irma Thomas song. We wanted to make the music modern and progressive, and cohesive.”
That said, “having Sissy Nobby in there one day and Irma Thomas the next, was a trip,” Ellman said.
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