Q’s with Robert Mercurio: Galactic’s Bassist Talks Buying Tipitina’s

Galactic Tipitina
Melissa Stewart
– Galactic Tipitina
With a name taken from a classic jam by vaunted New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair, Tipitina’s is among the Big Easy’s most beloved venues – so when news broke earlier this year that its ownership had fallen on tough financial times, it was a crisis. But in a feel-good story, hometown heroes and Tipitina’s mainstays Galactic purchased the venue.

Tipitina’s holds special significance for the jam band. The members have frequented the club since they were teenage music fans, and saxophonist Ben Ellman’s first New Orleans job was in the now-defunct kitchen, serving up cheese fries. “We all have our individual reasons why this club means so much,” bassist Robert Mercurio tells Pollstar, “but for him it’s extra special: to go from fry cook to owner.”

Since Galactic formed in the early ’90s, they’ve played the venue upwards of 100 times, and even recorded two live albums at the club. “We’re so proud and honored that the city has welcomed us as the new stewards,” Mercurio says, “and we really are going to do everything to make a brighter future over there.”
Pollstar: How did the Tipitina’s purchase come together?
Robert Mercurio: We did a festival with the club owner called The Landing, in September 2015, out by the lakefront in New Orleans. Through that process, us and our manager became closer with the owner. Then earlier in 2018 it became apparent that he was having some financial issues keeping the club going and whatnot. It opened up the possibility for our manager to approach him about Galactic buying the club, which seemed crazy and a pipe dream for us. But that’s what managers are for, to help you think a little outside the box. The conversations started with, “Well, I’ll sell you maybe half the club” and then turned into “OK, let’s do the whole club.” Our manager years ago had mentioned, “Oh, you guys should start a club in New Orleans. You should think about spreading out your brand.” We did look at a couple spaces here and there, but nothing really seemed right. When this came along it was a slam-dunk. 
What’s your favorite part about playing Tipitina’s?
Not to sound sappy but it feels like home, and it always has. Even when we were a young band. For one, we’ve grown up being fans and seeing shows there. I’ve been in the front row of that club looking up at the stage as a child. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, literally. When we first were on the stage it just felt like I had been transplanted from fan to performer. It just was a natural feel. And the venue has a warmth to it. I never feel as comfortable as I do there. Also, we’re always surrounded by friends and the staff has been so welcoming and warm to us. Even when we were drawing 100 people, they were always really cool.
How would you describe the club’s significance to the New Orleans music scene?
Of its size, it’s the only venue left that’s been here since the ’70s. They’ve all either come or gone, changed names and/or been completely revamped. There isn’t a venue of this size […] that you can say had B.B. King, had Fugazi, had Bad Brains, had Rage Against The Machine. All that history, there really isn’t a place in the city that can hold that reputation. It’s also uniquely located in uptown New Orleans, which is close to the colleges and makes it very local feeling. 
Do you plan on making any changes to the venue under your ownership?
There’s things that we think are perfect about the place; there’s definitely things that can improve. We’re planning to upgrade the lighting, the PA, the backstage experience. We want to do things that will attract fans and make fans happier, but not change the vibe of the place. We’re not going to put a fresh coat of paint on the inside. It might [need] a little bit of redecorating, but there’s gonna be no velvet curtains or chandeliers.

You mentioned things that are perfect about Tipitina’s. What stands out to you as something essential you wouldn’t want to change?
When you walk in, there’s this gigantic painting of Professor Longhair. It’s probably 14 by 14 feet and it hangs right above the stage. It has this iconic presence. The second you walk in, you just feel like you’re part of history. It has this authentic, not faux, history to it.

Anything you plan to change with the venue’s booking?
The staff that’s in there now slightly had their hands tied with the financial situation that was going on. We love to see them now untethered and being able to make changes and corrections that they wanted to make. We’re in a unique situation in New Orleans where there’s AEG, there’s Live Nation, there’s Bowery. All their venues have a little bigger capacity and they’re going to be able to probably outbid us. Our plan is to make the venue so good that even though you can get outbid, you’ll want to play our club instead.
What do you think an artist can bring as a venue owner that a non-artist might not?
That’s one of the biggest sales pitches we had for the SBA. We’re in an extremely unique position. We’ve been a touring band for 23 years. We know what we like, what we don’t like – the experience, the vibe when you walk into a venue. The other day we were in there and I mentioned, “Why don’t we move the monitor desk up here at stage level and more visible?” And the manager was like, “Wow, we never even thought of that.” We were never owners and we could never make comments like that. We know how important it is to treat the artists like artists – and babies, sometimes. That stuff goes a long way. Little things, cupcakes at the 9:30 Club, stuff like that goes a long way. When the second you walk into a club they have a pot of coffee and some donuts, that makes our crew so happy. General attitude is huge – and that’s free. That’s not something you have to pay to make happen. That’s just something that comes from the top down.
On New Year’s Eve, Galactic plays their first Tipitina’s gig as owners. Anything special planned?
Nothing I really want to tell you, but it’s going to be really special. When the five of us in Galactic all step onto stage for the first time, it’s going to be above emotional.