A talk with saxophonist Ben Ellman from New Orleans’ reigning masters of funk
How does a band with little or no radio airplay become one of the top touring units in the country? Just ask Galactic, the hottest band to come out of New Orleans in nearly a decade. With funky syncopated rhythms, soulful vocals and virtuoso instrumentalists, Galactic—originally known as Galactic Prophylactic—goes beyond genres but never over the heads of its audience. This is funky jazz with the focus on the ‘funky.”
Chicoans will have a chance to check it out when it appears in the new Student Union Auditorium (the old BMU Garden Café) on Aug. 29.
Saxophonist Ben Ellman, with his energetic, adventurous blowing, embodies Galactic’s sound and evolution. The Southern California native lived in Santa Cruz in 1989 but left shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the World Series. The son of a film distributor whose stable includes Yes’ legendary concert video, ‘Yessongs,” Ellman also used to host a blues, gospel and jazz radio show in Santa Cruz.
During that time, he played harmonica with his buddies: Jonathan Frehlich (later to become guitarist for the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars), Luke Frederickson (later to become Walter ‘Wolfman” Washington’s piano player) and Santa Cruz soul singer Ghost Love. En route to New Orleans, Ellman even hit the road as a lighting technician for Whitney Houston.
His current band, Galactic, has a new live record coming soon called We Love ’Em Tonight, named after a line Ben picked up from Ghost Love. Ellman also makes cameo appearances on new records from the Little Rascals Brass Band and Austin, Texas, band Teratomo. Ellman spoke with the News & Review about the road—and the road to success.
What did you learn from your lights gig with Whitney Houston?
I got a couple lessons from Whitney’s sax player, Kirk Whalem. I brought my sax on the road. All I would talk about was New Orleans, how I just wanted to go play music and hang out with Jonathan [Frehlich]. Kirk was sort of the guy who talked me into it. He wasn’t like, “Fuck music, man, you got a good gig here with this lighting thing.” He was encouraging to play music.
What I learned on that tour was that I didn’t want to be a behind-the-scenes guy. I wanted to be playing, be a musician. Lighting guys are the first ones in, last ones out. We would show up super early and start working, working and working our asses off. And mid-afternoon the band would just sort of stroll in and get to play music and then they’d leave, and we’d have to break everything down.
How did Galactic progress from a club band to a big-time touring band?
A lot of it had to do with the strategy of touring. It wasn’t random touring. If we played a town, we made sure we headed back there within three or four months. We wouldn’t let ’em forget about us. The whole touring strategy was pretty well planned. It had certain areas, certain markets, certain cities, and then we’d keep working them. We wouldn’t try to go too far or spread ourselves too thin. And a lot of it had to do with the grass-roots style of really working the email and letting people tape your shows.
Now that Capricorn has folded, Galactic is on its third record label. Has that been tough?
My experience with record companies is, we don’t really rely on them. We do what we do, and if they can make things better for that, then that’s great. We try not to let them get in the way. Capricorn saw us as what we were. They’re not gonna pump a hundred thousand dollars into making a video and pump us on commercial radio. They saw us as what it was, as a solid touring unit, and promoted our shows and sales that way.
Has the touring paid off for you personally?
I bought a house. It was built in 1894, 4,000 square feet. It’s monstrous. It was a cheap house. Real estate’s cheap in New Orleans. But we’re starting to do all right. I was on food stamps four years ago. I can’t complain. I just bought a TV. … It’s nice. Things are definitely picking up. But in the same sense, it’s the music business. At each step when we can pay ourselves a little bit more, we sort of up the production a little bit. It’s pretty scary. We’ve got five crew guys.
How did Galactic get lumped into the jam band category?
I don’t like the jam band label. People like to classify and categorize, and it’s an easy one to do right now, if you’re young. People who like Phish or Widespread Panic, if they like your band, then you’re a jam band. I don’t really know what it is. Bands that tour that bring out maybe a certain demographic of kids, of music lovers. It really doesn’t have much to do with the music. There’s a lot of people that jam.
All I can say is, it’s music that you can shake your ass to. That’s one way you can describe it. It’s got a lot of different things in it. It’s definitely danceable and grooving.