ONE STEP AHEAD OF THE BLUES | One on One With Dragon Smoke’s Robert Mercurio

07/30/14 | By | More
DRAGON SMOKE (Courtesy photo)

DRAGON SMOKE (Courtesy photo)

Galactic changed my life forever.

It was at a Galactic show in New Orleans at Café Brasil on Oct. 31, 1997 that my wife and I came together as a couple. We met in Telluride but the sparks didn’t fly until we heard the funky, greasy backbeat of Galactic (who were dressed in space suits lit up by battery powered LEDs ).

The architects of Galactic’s rhythm section are Robert Mercurio on bass and Stanton Moore on drums.  For 20 years, Galactic has established itself as one of the premiere funk machines of its generation in New Orleans, and seeing as New Orleans is the funkiest city on the planet, Galactic is in rarified air when it comes to funkitude.

Mercurio and Moore are also the rhythm section behind the band Dragon Smoke, a New Orleans super group that closes the Telluride Jazz Festival Sunday, Aug. 3.

I had the chance to speak to Mercurio in Baltimore a few weeks ago. Galactic had just finished a European tour and hit the ground running with a gig the next day.

Where are you from?

I’m originally from the D.C. area.

What kind of music did you listen to, and were there any bass players that influenced you in high school?
I was listening to a lot of hard rock music and then I got interested in funk – James Brown, P-Funk. That kind of thing. And that really changed the way I heard the bass. In punk rock, the bass basically plays the same music as the guitar, but when I heard Bootsy Collins (bass player for P Funk), I realized that the bass could be the center of a song. Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) became an influence on me as well at that time.

What brought you to New Orleans?

I moved to New Orleans to go to college in 1990, but music was a big reason why I chose Tulane. Also, Jeff Raines (Galactic guitar player) and I had been playing music together in high school and he went to Loyola so New Orleans made sense on a lot of levels.

I met Stanton Moore at a jam session in 1992 at a friend’s house. Jeff wasn’t there but Stanton and I really clicked, so I brought Stanton over to jam with Jeff and we knew we were on to something.  We then brought Rich Vogel on keys and we had known Theryl DeClouet (vocalist known as The House man) and that was the lineup for our first record Coolin’ Off (which was recorded in 1996).

When did Ben Ellman (Galactic saxophonist) come on board?

We recorded Coolin’ Off with a three piece Horn Section that was great but they weren’t really interested in making a career out of music.  Then we met Ben and he was in it for the long haul and we just hit the road and really haven’t stopped. 2015 is our 20 year anniversary. Jeff jokes that he feels like he’s been in Galactic his whole life.

Who has had the most influence on your playing since you first moved to New Orleans?

George Porter for sure. Once I heard him, I took a totally different approach to the bass.

In what way?

It’s not as much of an emphasis on the one bar loop, or a 2 bar or 4 bar, pattern, it’s more reserved, more playing in between the notes, more reserved, slinkier.

In Dragon Smoke, you play with Stanton Moore from Galactic. Describe your dynamic.

We were roommates for six or seven years and we have been playing together for almost 25 years. We play off each other. I hold down the fort while he goes off like crazy. I feel like I’m the foundation. I hold down the fort. He’s such a dynamic drummer I try to give him the freedom to take the band in different directions and keep the groove going.

What’s it like working with Ivan Neville (son of Aaron Neville and keyboard player and vocalist for New Orleans band Dumpstaphunk)?

Ivan is royalty in New Orleans. His knowledge of New Orleans music is amazing. He brings in all kinds of cool songs to the table. He has serious chops on the keys and he is a great vocalist

Ivan comes out of the same “Cissy Strut” school as Galactic, but Eric Lindell is the wildcard in Dragon Smoke. He’s more of a rock n’ roll, bluesy kind of player and singer. How does that work?

Eric runs in a different circle which is fun for the rest of us because it makes the band a little more unique. It’s not Ivan Neville, Eric’s vocal stylings are different. He’s real bluesy, more of a singer songwriter. He is used to playing short, concise tunes. We stretch it out and play his songs funkier than he usually does, and I think Eric has really enjoyed that. It’s a totally different feel.

What’s it like playing in a band with two vocalists when so much of Galactic’s music is instrumental? How has that changed you and Stanton as a rhythm section?

In Galactic, we’ve toured with different vocalists over the years, but the band itself, none of us are vocalists. So playing with two different singers is new to us and Eric and Ivan bring a vocal element that we don’t always have. As for Stanton and me, it’s really cool to do something different as a rhythm section. Every project we do outside of Galactic we learn more about each other. Musically there is always new ground to explore no matter how long you have played together. Being in Dragon Smoke we’ve had to become more vocals-oriented so that we play to the song and to the singer. As a musician you learn early on it’s not about your part, it’s about the whole. And when you are playing a vocal song your job is to support the singer. Being in Dragon Smoke has helped Stanton and me with that connection.

When did Dragon Smoke start and how many gigs do you all play a year?

It started in 2009 at a bar in New Orleans called The Dragon’s Den, a tiny bar in New Orleans, it fits maybe 100 people. Jon Cleary (from Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen) was the original keyboard player. The next year we got together to do it again. Jon wasn’t available and Ivan was, so he stepped in and we have been playing together on and off for the last five years. We play less than ten gigs a year. Our schedules are all packed. Each one of us plays 150 shows a year, but when we’re all in New Orleans at the same time – Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras – we try and do a few shows.

Dragon Smoke has a live recording available on iTunes called Live in New Orleans. Any chance you will make a studio record?

Again, it’s about getting our schedules lined up. I am pushing for us to get in the studio in November. But it’s tough. Galactic is working on a new record as well. (A Dragon Smoke record) would have to be a three- to four-day session kind of deal. We work on new tunes during sound checks, and everyone comes in with different ideas. Eric is a real prolific writer so we’re hopeful we can make a record someday.

Did you know that Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen are going to be playing right before you?

No way, that is so cool.  They better leave his piano on stage. We may have a two headed dragon out there.


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Category: One Step Ahead of the Blues, Watch.Listen.Show.

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