By Andrew Nusca, photos by Robert Downs (originally published in the April 2010 issue of DRUM! Magazine)
There is light.
It’s coming through the window, hostile and unforgiving. Stanton Moore rustles awake, turns over, and looks into it. He squints.
It must be morning. God, it felt like sleep finally came just a moment ago.
He sits up, quickly at first, then slower — a sudden realization that his body is still stiff — exhales deeply, and runs his hand over his face. It’s swollen from the dehydration. His ears are ringing. He grasps at his glasses on the bedside table. He finds them, puts them on, gives his eyes a second to focus. He runs his hand through his hair.
Last night’s Galactic show at Tipitina’s was one hell of a blowout. You’d think it would be easier by now — the band has been playing the coveted Lundi Gras gig at Tip’s for more than ten years now. But last night, when the boys ripped into “Hey Na Na” — the lead single off their new record, Carnivale Electricos — and that electric guitar buzzed, and that snare drum cracked, and the cowbell rung like the cows really were coming home, the crowd just lost it. It certainly helped that Living Colour’s Corey Glover was onstage, singing with that liquid caramel voice to the rafters, eyes rolled back and shoulders undulating like he was seeing God.
But that was last night. Well, technically this morning — the sun was peeking through the needles of the bald cypress trees as the band played the final, pensive notes of “Quiet Please,” capping a marathon effort that lasted eight hours. No wonder the 39-year-old’s limbs are stiff.
No matter. Today, there’s work to be done. This is New Orleans, and it’s Mardi Gras.
In many ways, it was only natural that Moore’s band made an album centered on Carnival. Galactic formed 18 years ago as a New Orleans funk outfit that specialized in playing — embodying, really — its hometown’s biggest festival. After seven studio albums and two live recordings, the time felt right to record once again.
Carnivale Electricos opens with nothing less than a bang: Big Chief Juan Pardo shouting megaphone orders over the thundering drums and hip-shaking bass line of “Ha Di Ka.” The party continues for another 12 tracks, from the tribal street shuffle of “Magalenha” and accordion march of “Voyage Ton Flag” to the singer-soul groove of “Out In The Street” and dirty-alley slink of “Move Fast.” Through it all, Moore’s wrists uncover new ways to subdivide the beat, bobbing and weaving among brassy horns and gurgling keys to keep the party machine pressing forward.
“I’d come up with a bunch of different grooves at different tempos; I’d get to experiment in the studio by myself for a couple days,” Moore says. “Just lay down tons of ideas for the guys to come in and write to. We’d go in every day when we weren’t on the road and chip away at it. It’s a slower process, but the results are good. Being free and experimental, cutting and slicing and stacking and filtering and revamping and rewriting.”
The record — which officially goes on sale in stores on Mardi Gras — is an attempt to harness the energy of Galactic’s legendary live shows and combine it with the clarity of a studio recording.
“We tried to push ourselves sonically and texturally. We really want to look at it like it’s two different mediums — the studio is a different type of thing . It’s almost like painting and sculpting: both have amazing results, but they’re two different mediums, two different ways of expressing yourself. We try to dig into the possibilities and see what you can come up with.”
By the album’s pensive final track, “Ash Wednesday Sunrise,” your ears are ready to surrender from the exhaustion — or do it all over again.
There is shouting.
At any other time today, it would be from the man out in front, the tribe member called “Spy Boy” who is tasked with whooping and hollering as he leads the Mardi Gras Indians, triumphantly, down the street. But it is only 10 a.m. now, and members of the Golden Eagles tribe are quietly gathered here at Big Chief Monk Boudreaux’s modest house on Valence and Magnolia Streets to prepare for their resplendent debut.
Each corner of the house is an explosion of beads and feathers in whites, blues, purples, and yellows. Tribe members assist each other in mounting elaborate headdresses. It’s not just a nice gesture — at more than 100 lbs., the sumptuous suits are hardly something to simply throw on. There is an excited energy in the air, a low hum of chatter punctuated by laughter. It’s almost showtime.
Out in front of the house, Moore is searching for his equipment. He finds what he’s looking for: a black sparkle-finish floor tom, whose woven fabric strap he slings around his neck and over his black leather jacket. Next to him, revelers prepare tambourines, cowbells, and brown-bagged 24-oz. cans of Coors beer. A fellow nearby takes up a bass drum, turns it sideways, and removes a pair of mallets from his jeans pocket, giving a test thump to the head. Ready.
Behind the group, Big Chief Boudreaux steps through the door, his feathers barely clearing the moulding. In his left hand is a white plastic tambourine, which he gives a brief trial shake as his shoulders adjust to the suit’s shifting bulk. Shhk. Shhk. The clattering zils offer a reassuring rattle. From the corner of his mouth, a grin escapes. On any other day, the septuagenarian would be sitting at home in a plaid button-down and blue jeans, playing with one of his seven grandchildren. Today, he’s a proud peacock.
If Galactic is a New Orleans band, Stanton Moore is most assuredly a New Orleans drummer. Raised in adjacent Metairie, he was immersed from birth in the rich musical history of his hometown.
“My Mom started taking me to Mardi Gras when I was eight months old. There are pictures of me as a tiny baby in a clown outfit — I’ve been going since before I could remember.”
As his chosen career took off, and Moore developed into a coveted industry veteran, he came to serve as chief diplomat for his hometown and a sound that is loosely described as “New Orleans-style drumming” — a distinctive, groove-based approach that draws as much from early African and Latin traditions as it does from the American jazz, rhythm and blues, and funk that followed it.
If Galactic was the vehicle for Moore to blend together those disparate influences, Carnivale Electricos, then, is where he pulls back the curtain to expose their very roots — and discover new ones.
“I was trying to dig deeper to come up with stuff I hadn’t before. A guy named Scott Kettner has been blending New Orleans and northern Brazilian stuff — it’s got a lot of similarities — and he reached out to me in 2010 to meet and share some ideas. I just took a lot from him to come up with a bunch of grooves. It was a learning experience.
“What I’m going to walk away from is all the stuff I’ve learned and developed and gotten freer to walk in and improvise with alternate setups. What I’m having fun with now is playing these grooves live — it’s got me reworking my kit. I’ve actually got a brand-new kit from Gretsch that I’ll be debuting . It’s exciting, the constant forward motion.”
There is rumbling.
It’s 11 a.m. and the entire city is electric. The Mardi Gras Indians have made it, slowly and with much fanfare, to Second and Dryades Streets in the Faubourg Delassize neighborhood.
Centuries ago, the area was a small, quiet settlement on the outskirts of New Orleans. Today, the intersection is bulging with the cavorting members of a dozen tribes of Mardi Gras Indians, some from uptown, some from downtown, all of them magnificent in their vivid plumage.
Here, the tribes have historically confronted one another in an aggressive, sometimes violent display of one-upmanship. Today, more than a century after the first meeting, the tribes gather to boast, perform, and unify into a single celebratory mass.
The crowd is thick. Among the baseball caps, straw hats, bandanas, and fedoras are the foot-tall feathers of Indians in their suits, all swaying to the clattering beat of the syncopating drummers. A man, missing teeth, nods his head to the beat as he sips a can of Budweiser. A woman with an auburn bob smiles as a videographer captures her gaze. A man with a white fedora shakes a tambourine, toothpick hanging out of the corner of his mouth. Another rocks his head back and forth as he plays a cowbell.
As the mass of bodies sways in front of the Sportsman’s Corner bar, there’s Stanton Moore, rapping drum sticks against the head of that sparkle floor tom, tucked away in a tight nucleus of percussionists fitted with bass drums, bongos, and bells. The players are nodding their heads in unison, silently urging the crowd to follow. Despite the density, the beat never wavers, and the onlookers watch as Big Chief Boudreaux extends a hand to a peer from another tribe.
The crowd erupts in cheers.
Call it a simmering gumbo or merely just great New Orleans’ musical history — it’s what keeps Moore inspired year after year.
“New Orleans is so rich, historically and culturally. It has such a deep well of diverse cultural influences. Unfortunately, a lot came through slavery, but with it came all of this culture directly from Africa, and Haiti, and Cuba. Georgia, Charleston — these cities rejected slaves from the Haitian slave revolt, and they came here. New Orleans is one of the only places that embraced those elements.”
The annual Carnival season gives Moore a chance to bring that music back to the city from which it came.
“There’s the whole Indian thing and the marching thing — I’ve tried to incorporate those two elements into what I do, and with something as deep as that you can never get to the bottom of it. What keeps me in New Orleans is that I’m into a kind of music that is bottomless. Out of that you can get jazz and funk and blues. From metal to polka to country-western, anything you can think of that has a backbeat in it traces back to New Orleans. It’s the ground zero of Western drumming for me.
“If you’re going to be groove- or blues-based, there’s no better place than New Orleans. The music and the culture here is alive and in the streets on a daily basis. You’ve got brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians in the streets. Every Sunday there’s a second line in New Orleans somewhere. That brass band? Those people dancing? It’s not just on Mardi Gras. This is something these people do all year long. This is their life.”
There is chaos.
It’s now noon, and throngs of people push into the Vieux Carré, sporting electric pink wigs and black tricorn pirate hats and sequined mustachioed masks and yellow T-shirts and black overcoats and face glitter and white driving caps and purple body paint and what appears to be bee costumes, complete with yellow and black stripes, from Halloween.
The horns blare. Scraps of colorful tissue paper fall from the Spanish-style wrought iron balconies, strings of beads swing from the necks of virtually every reveler and a thousand hollered conversations strain to continue.
The traffic whistles shriek. A flash of light appears over the crowd as a partygoer tosses a fistful of metallic confetti into the air over her head. The grand bell of a marching tuba peers over feathered headdresses, multicolored umbrellas and raised fleur-de-lis flags.
The deafening noise ripples through the canyon of 18th century buildings, filling every crack in the cobblestones underfoot and saturating every passing second of time.
It is madness.
Behind it all is Stanton Moore, strutting alongside the rest of the Krewe Of Julu, an immense walking parade group that grew out of an Eastern European Jewish folk music troupe, of all things. At some point — it’s unclear when — Moore bid adieu to the Mardi Gras Indians and joined up with this group, which includes his bandmates in Galactic. They’re here, somewhere, lost in the fray.
Moore and company pound away on their drums, piercing the noise with bass thumps and snare cracks to give the revelers something to hang onto besides their half-empty beer bottles. On every fourth beat, the wild-eyed crowd shouts in unison with hands raised: “Woo!”
It is an assault on the senses.
“I enjoy playing different things. Garage Á Trois is a different side of my playing than Galactic, which is different than the trio. It’s different personas that I take on, but all rooted in a groove-based, blues-based thing.
“When I’m playing, I try to look at things on a song-by-song basis. In Garage Á Trois, for example, we might do giant tom-toms in 5/4 , and we might do more New Orleans-type stuff. As you learn all these and play them, the elements of your playing get stronger and stronger. In Garage Á Trois, it’s learning how to hit the drums with a lot of impact. I’m playing a big rack in that band; 14, 16, 18, 26 — John Bonham sizes.
“Practicing — you’ve just got to make it your life. I try to shed every morning. Today, I practiced for about an hour and a half. Once you open the computer and turn on the phone and people email you — before you know it, the day is over. You have to steal some of that time for yourself.
“I like where I’m at right now; I’ve learned how to get what I want out of every day. When I have days that are so busy that I don’t practice — very specific, focused, practice — I just feel unfulfilled. Sometimes I’ll improvise on what I learned the day before. Different transcriptions, different conditioning. Sometime’s it’s just one thing, like spending a couple of weeks learning an Elvin Jones solo. But then it’s yours for life.
“I feel like I’m playing even better. It’s an amazing feeling. And I want it. I’ve still got the world in front of me. There’s so much to learn. It’s never ending.”
There is pounding.
It’s not from the drums, mind you, which Moore has been rapping on for the last five hours, but his head, which is throbbing from the yelling, the noise, the acute sense that he didn’t get nearly enough sleep.
By now, the Krewe Of Julu has bloated even further as random passersby joined the revelrous procession, a pastiche of painted faces and paradiddles. As he plays on, Moore glances left, then right. No Galactic bandmates in sight. Here’s hoping they aren’t far behind.
D.B.A., a popular bar on Frenchmen Street in the Marigny, looms over the horizon as the crowd surges forward. At 3 p.m., The Klezmer All-Stars will take the stage and play their peculiar mix of funk, jazz, and the dramatic, jittery Jewish style for which they are named.
Moore was once a member of this band; if he’s feeling up to it, he’ll sit in on their set and play drums for another hour or two under the hot stage lights as people in the crowd whirl around in front of him, a debauched bar mitzvah flying off the rails. If the exhaustion is too great to overcome, he’ll duck into the shadows and join the sun-dazed audience, sitting on a barstool and sipping on a cold beer.
This time, someone else can lead the aural assault.
“I’m just finishing up a new educational project. Mark Wessels, the Webmaster for Vic Firth, spent five years writing a book called A Fresh Approach To The Drum Set. He went through every beginning-to-intermediate book out there and wanted to write the definitive foundational book, from how to hold the sticks all the way to jazz, Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban stuff. Each lesson has a little bit of technique, a little bit of reading, a little bit of understanding charts. It’s all very focused.
“Mark approached me and said he felt like I was the guy to do the video elements that accompany the book. I checked the book out and thought it was really killer; I wish I had something like this when I was coming up. So I said yes.
“I knew it would be a huge undertaking. I started going through the book and found that it was highlighting some weaknesses I had; it really put the musical microscope on things. Sure, you can play a samba, but can you do it at 115 bpm and not miss a note and do it on camera for every drummer in the world to judge? By going through all of that stuff again, it really helped reinforce my own foundation.
“I’ve done DVDs before, but it was always presenting my thing. This was, ‘How you hold a stick.’ It’s less subjective. It doesn’t matter what you think. It was challenging — I had to get a little bit outside of my comfort zone.”
There is silence.
It’s 9:00 at night and Stanton Moore’s face is buried deep in a pillow. Moore had been on his feet, more or less, for 34 of the last 36 hours. Now, the drum sticks are packed away, the floor tom is set down by the door, and his signature glasses have returned to the nightstand.
The reckoning has finally come.
At around 7 a.m., just 25 minutes after the sun begins peeking through the cypress trees once again, parishioners will begin to fill the wooden pews at St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter. They will sit, they will stand, they will kneel; they will sing songs of praise, read sacred words, and listen to a priest fortify their beliefs ahead of 40 days of self-denial.
At about the moment that the priests dip their thumbs into a bowl of palm ash, just prior to applying it in the shape of a cross to the foreheads of their parishioners, Stanton Moore will rustle awake.
He will turn over, look into the light, and squint. He will sit up, exhale, reach for his glasses, and run his hand through his hair.
His limbs will once again be stiff. His ears will still be ringing.
No matter. Today, there’s work to be done.
Galactic’s new release, Carnivale Electricos, features a slew of guest artists and the feel-good funky riffs the band has become known for. This release captures all the decadent vibe of a Mardi Gras celebration and Stanton Moore’s drumming is as enjoyable as ever. Moore uses quite an assortment of percussion instruments on this recording, and live he commonly uses an auxiliary snare and low-tuned pandeiro to the left of his hi-hat. (For more information on the notation used in these examples, check out the DRUM! Notation Guide.)
(featuring Big Chief Juan Pardo and The Golden Comanche)
This one is a strange stew of tribal, Mardi Gras Indian, and techno funk influences. It begins with an odd vocal chant and an accented low tom sixteenth-note groove and doesn’t feature Moore’s typical hint of swing. A funky two-handed groove kicks in next with an electronic-sounding snare. For this pattern there’s a bit of swing happening and Moore splits his hands between his hi-hat and snare, moving his right hand over to play the accented backbeats. This section ends with an agogo bell fill played between a lower pitched bell and a higher pitched bell (triangular note heads).
(featuring David Shaw and Maggie Koerner)
This may be Galactic’s attempt at a radio hit. It’s an upbeat party song and Moore plays a straightforward two-measure pattern for much of this one.
(featuring Mystikal and Mannie Fresh)
This track has a simple groove with swung sixteenth-notes that Moore tastefully embellishes with what sounds like an auxiliary snare with the wires off and the pandeiro he often employs. I’ve notated them with white and black triangular note heads respectively. The second line shows a temporary shift to a sixteenth-note hi-hat pattern but otherwise the groove stays the same.
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