Turkuaz is no small act. Literally, with nine members, stirring up a big funky party is no problem for them. If you can’t catch them on their tour, worry not! For there is plenty of music online, as they’ve released three albums since last year. However, if you can, I recommend seeing them live because it’s always interesting to see the chemistry between artists on stage, especially with a band so big. In anticipation of this Saturday’s show at The Rex Theater in Pittsburgh, PA, I spoke with guitarist and vocalist, Dave Brandwein to talk Turkuaz. It was interesting to talk to Dave in particular because of his involvement in the way the band composes songs, and his approach to composing vocal lines and lyrics. Check it out!
So, you guys just came back from Rock ‘N’ Roll Resort. How was that?
Yes, we did. We went for just the Sunday. We had a series of album release shows in DC, Philly, and New York on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. It’s been quite a weekend. We had the three shows, and then we went right up to Rock ‘N’ Roll Resort to play two more sets on Sunday. It was fun, it was a good time.
It’s in a hotel, right?
It is all in a hotel, which was very strange. It was an interesting experience to be honest.
So what are some festivals that you haven’t played before that you’re excited to play this summer?
Very excited for High Sierra out in California. That’s a big one that we’ve been, kinda, haven’ our eye on for a while that’s supposed to be really cool, and uh, we’re returning to a bunch that we have played before, but there’s some other ones that we haven’t done yet. There’s Mad Tea Party Festival in West Virginia, I’ve heard really cool things about that, and they’re actually teaming up with us for our residency down in Baltimore at the 8×10 in June. They’re kinda helpin’ us do some cross promotion and sponsoring our residency there.
I met them once before, they’re really nice people.
Yeah, Taco, I was hanging out with him at Rock ‘N’ Roll Resort this weekend. But yeah, Leaf Festival in North Carolina…it’s supposed to be really cool. Bootsy Collins is gonna to be there, which we’re pretty excited about, and we’re doing two days there. That’s on our way back from New Orleans at the end of this month, which of course is another one we’re excited about, going down during Jazz Fest to play a few different showcases down in New Orleans. We’ve got three shows while we’re down there, and then a bunch of stuff on the way back, so it should be really cool.
So is your schedule pretty much packed all the time?
Yes. We’re up to, I’d say, about 180 shows a year at this point. Um, and that doesn’t include travel days, so we’re probably traveling about 200 and change days of the year. So, it’s definitely…yeah, it’s a lot. We’re booked, at this point, from now solidly through August, and then September, we’re gonna do some recording again. So, yeah, our schedule is pretty jam packed. I also run a recording studio here in Brooklyn, so everyday that I’m not on the road, I’m here engineering and producing music but luckily I have some partners who fill up a bunch of the time here while I’m gone. So, people in the band have other things that they do, you know, for extra cash or other passion projects they do as well whenever we’re not touring. But you know, for these few years we’re very realistic about the fact that we’ve gotta put the time in if we wanna get where we wanna be. That’s what a lot of the big touring bands had to do before they got to pick and choose their dates and have a relaxed schedule…they had to put this much time in for anywhere from five to even ten years sometimes.
For sure, but I mean, it’s worth it.
Yeah, I think so.
Yeah, so what kind of festival setting is ideal for you to play? Do you like smaller festivals like Mad Tea Party, or do you like the bigger ones like Catskill Chill?
Um, I mean, I think that there’s benefits to both. I mean, the smaller festivals are cool for us because we really feel that people are excited to see us and they come to those festivals specifically to see us, so we feel a lot of love in the air when we show up. At the larger festivals, ’cause we’re a smaller band, you know, we’re there for the exposure, so we kinda just come in and do our thing. The upside to that, of course, is that we get a huge amount of exposure to new fans. So it pays off down the road and they’re also, I mean, you know, the smaller festivals–God bless ‘em, but–a lot of the time, they’re not quite as efficiently run, and you never know what you’re gonna get. It might be a bit of a crazier scene, whereas the larger festivals, it’s like, they’re just so seasoned, the staff is often just, you know, they know what they’re doing and things tend to run pretty smoothly, but truth be told, we really do love playing both. It’s cool to see our name at the top of the billing on some of the smaller ones, so there’s really upsides to both.
Yeah! So what’s the smallest stage you guys have ever fit on?
The smallest stage we’ve ever fit on is probably…Stella Blues in New Haven, Connecticut. Have you ever been there?
That’s a pretty small one. I mean…The Matterhorn in Stowe, Vermont is pretty small. Um, there’s been a lot. I guess my true answer would have to be in Hood River, Oregon, when there wasn’t a stage. Nor was there an area where the band could play, really. So what we did is, we set up the drums, bass, and guitars on one side of the entrance door, and the girls and the horns on the other side of the door, so we were facing each other, and when people walked in, they actually had to walk in between us, so they were like, in the band as they entered the room. The restaurant probably fit about 70 people, and I think we had about 150 of them in there and another fifty outside, just looking in the window, dancing. So, it was just…probably the most insane experience ever, and it was just actually really, really fun and really awesome.
I would imagine. Especially facing each other, you play at each other kind of.
Yeah, yeah. It was very interesting. I found when I was looking at them, especially in a situation that hilarious, I actually, half the time, couldn’t get my vocals out because I was laughing at how ridiculous the whole situation was, but it was really fun. Actually, we’re going back there, but this time we’re going to a venue that has a stage. So, I’ll be excited. We’re gonna be back in Hood River in July.
Yeah, that’ll be cool. Speaking of smaller stages, what do you like about playing at The Rex?
Well, to answer your question, I can answer it more, and I can actually amend my previous answer by saying that, the Thunderbird is one of the smallest stages we’ve ever played too, and that’s the only place we’ve played in Pittsburgh so far. So this will actually be our first time at The Rex.
Oh, okay, okay. Yeah, Thunderbird is cool. It’s a cool venue but geeze, I saw The Mantras there, which was five pieces, and that was…that was pretty tight.
Yeah, so that’s another one. You can throw that on the list there, but you know, the upside, and it’s the same with a lot of these small venues…it gets packed, and it makes for a really fun show sometimes–that like, close quarters, loud, sweaty, kind of boisterous vibe allows for a really good show in a strange way. You know, we grew our fan base pretty quickly that way in Pittsburgh. We’ve only been there two or three times, but we were able to pack Thunderbird all those times, and I know that we have at least a decent amount of people who are now pretty excited to finally see us at a bigger venue. So I think it’s a good progression, the way that works a lot of the time. I do really look forward to playing at The Rex. We’re really good friends with the Dopapod guys. They’ve definitely played there a bunch and they really like it there.
Yeah, the Grey Area Production guys are really, really cool.
So, I’m always impressed when bands with a lot of artists play a show without having those moments of chaotic noise, just too much going on, but you don’t really get that. I’m curious, what goes into writing a song? How do you avoid those things?
Um, I think you sort of, in some ways, answered the question in the way you asked it because it’s not just about how you play it, but in the way that you write it because the arrangement really–as musicians mature, they learn that the arrangement is the most important thing and that’s how a song can consistently sound good live. It’s not a matter of how well is everybody playing, but just, how well are the parts organized before hand. For us, that’s a collaborative experience. I write all of the sort of vocal and lyrical elements of the songs. The band plays a very big role, when we get together, in organizing each song and knowing when we really should let loose and when we should pull back. Honestly, that’s something we’ve struggled with as a band, having so many people for all this time. I think we’re most of the way there, but we still discuss it a lot of the time. We’ll still say, you know, “Hey, this section is a little bit too crazy, let’s pull it back. Maybe, let’s save that horn line ’til the very last time,” or something like that. We are constantly assessing and listening for where we need to kind of tone things down and where we should amp things up. So, it really is about arrangement and listening and you know, even listening back. Listening back to a live show is very valuable in terms of hearing what’s actually going on ’cause sometimes what you feel and hear from the stage when you’re playing is very different than when you listen back from more of the crowd perspective, and you learn a lot from that.
Yeah, it’s always nice to have that, but, um, is your writing a collaborative effort? Do you all sit down at once, or do you kind of write your part and then come to the table with it?
Generally, one to two people will create a groove, like a demo, whether it’s Garage Band, or Pro Tools or just, a voice memo on their phone…they’ll kind of come up with a groove idea, put it into some sort of sequence, then…thus far, I basically–the way I’ve worked for a long time–I tend to just then listen to it, put it on repeat, and I just write over it. So far, all the vocal and lyrical elements of the song, I generally sit on my own and write. Sometimes the demo that I receive from another band member, or that I collaborate on with them, will have one single idea like a horn line or a vocal line in it, but a lot of the time it’s just a groove. Then from there, I’ll record vocals over that demo, and then I send that around to the whole band. Then usually, what we’ll do, we’ll have a quick–we don’t get to rehearse nearly as much as we’d like because of our touring schedules and the number of people to coordinate on days off when we’re trying to squeeze in other stuff–it’s difficult. We probably only rehearse, honestly, a few times a year, but you know, in rehearsal or sometimes even in sound check, we’ll just kinda–based on the demo–we’ll play it through and we’ll finalize some of the arrangement of parts. Sometimes the horns will come up with their own line. In fact, a lot of the time, over the demo that I send them. So, it’s interesting. It’s not the same way that a lot of the bands do it ’cause of the nature of our schedules and the amount of people. We sort of do that postal service type thing where we create something, we send it to the other person. Then they do something over it and send it back. Then, we have those few hours where we’re actually standing together with all our instruments to finalize the arrangement, and that truly is the most collaborative part of it…when everyone’s heard the demo, everyone’s heard how the song goes. Now we bring it to life. The horns think about their part and Craig thinks about, “What should I do on keys? What should I do on guitar?” Taylor and Mike finalize how the drum part interacts with the bass part. So, it does get finalized as a full band, always, for one collaborative effort to finish it off.
Oh, okay. That’s really cool. So, how do you write lyrics? Like, I used to be an English major, and I can write poetry, but I don’t think that any of it could be lyrics, you know?
Sure. Well, I think the main difference between those two styles of writing is basing it sonically rather than on an idea to start out with. Basically I will listen and see–I’ll just start even singing over it. Not worrying about if the words make any sense at all…just kinda hearing the shapes and sounds that the vocals should have; treating it a little bit like an instrument maybe. Once I’ve sort of locked in my melodic ideas, then I’ll look at, “Alright, what am I trying to say here? What real words can sound like this?” Basically, I almost work backwards from what do the vocals sound like and now, what words sound like that. Then, when I start to see a theme in that, I can write the rest of the song a little more based on what I wanna say here. I do start with trying to just hear what sounds fit well over the groove and finding words that fit into those, and what’s amazing about it is then, the obvious thing someone could think upon hearing me say that is, oh well then your lyrics are gonna end up nonsense. Sometimes, I’m happy to let that be the case, but a lot of the time, I actually look back at some of it, you know, I kinda find it interesting when it comes out that way. I would’ve never thought to say something that way or phrase it that way, I find it kind of interesting. Like, kind of if an artist splatters paint on a canvas. Although it seemingly doesn’t take any ability, if you can find the beauty in it, sometimes there’s something interesting about that too–the way things kinda come out. So, it depends. That being said, there are certainly other songs where there’s been a few times where I sit with a guitar and really, just…something comes out and it makes sense, and it’s a lot more of a linear song lyrically, but a lot of the time I do just see what sounds right and fit the lyrics into that blueprint.
That’s really cool, I wouldn’t even think that way. But you guys have released a bunch of stuff like your calendar, your music video, and your album, Future 86. What was the vision for that album prior to completing it, and do you think that you achieved your goal in the end?
Yeah, the hard part about it was the amount of touring we were doing while creating the album. In some ways, that kind of became the point of it. It was symbolic to us becoming a real, live, touring band with this latest lineup that we have, that is really, really solid–the nine of us—as the band, and you know, it’s hard to say. I think the goal in this one was to put something out that represents where we are now as a band. The tricky thing about that is always, by the time you finish–unless you go in and do something in a couple weeks and put it out right away–it’s hard to not feel like now you have new ideas and a new vision that aren’t represented on the thing you just put out ’cause you’re always a year behind in terms of writing something and releasing something. It’s tricky. I think we achieved what we set out to do when we started it a year ago. I don’t know if it achieves what we would do if we went in right now. We’re already planning to do another one in September that we have, I think more of a concept for than when we started this one, but I do think it achieves what we originally set out to do, which is to capture the energy of this, what is now, truly, a live touring band. I think if you listen to it, you really do hear that energy. A lot of it we tracked playing all together, and you can feel that. It often shows the diversity of the different types of songs that we have. A lot of people have listened to it and commented to me that there’s tracks that are more like rock, funk and other ones that are a little more soul, but it very much works together as one album. So, I think it was very much successful in that sense.
So, did you record it in your studio in Brooklyn?
This album, I did produce and mix it in my own studio. The next one, I think we’re probably gonna go somewhere else to do. I think our general way of wanting to operate from now on is we do one all in-house ourselves, with myself as the producer and engineer. Then we switch it up–different producer, different engineer, different studio–to kind of expand our horizons to get new sounds and different ideas. Then we come back that much wiser and we do another one on our own. We’re trying to do the ping pong thing between those two experiences, I think for a while, as we make more records.
That’s really smart. Oh, in regards to the Live at Southpaw album, how do you choose which show to make a live album out of? Is it predetermined so you have someone there with nice recording gear, or do you just choose from your archive?
That’s a very good question. Well, Live at Southpaw is actually from 2010 and has a bunch of different band members on it. It’s still really good. I love that recording. We just released another live album called A Live Affair, which you can get on our website and Bandcamp. They were both done in very different ways. So, Live at Southpaw, Southpaw is a venue, I don’t know if you’re aware, in Brooklyn that is no longer open. It was in Park Slope. There was this guy there who always just–the engineer–had an amazing recording setup there that was just super dialed in. Every night he’d basically ask the band, “Do you want me to multi-track record the show?” Yes or no and whatever, just pay me however much it is. That particular day we played a gig at a college during the day and we showed up to play some showcase with a bunch of bands at Southpaw at night. It was really thrown together…a couple guys from Dopapod are on that recording; they were in the band at the time. We just showed up, very quickly loaded our stuff on stage. I don’t even know if we had a setlist, we just kind of went for it. The guy had asked me right before we started, and I said yes, and I didn’t tell anyone else in the band that that was happening because there’s this sort of theory that sometimes if you know somethings recording then everyone’s playing kind of stiffens up or changes a little bit. So I made sure not to say to anyone that it was happening, and we just played kind of a crazy show. I don’t think like, even at the time, when we got off stage, we thought it was particularly good, but something about the way he records it there, something about the way we kind of were just having fun with it ’cause it was our second show of the day and we were all tired…I think we were just playing a little whackier than we might usually. When we listened back to it, we were like, “Wow this is actually pretty interesting!” Then we sat on it for a while, and once we heard that Southpaw was closing, I was like, we should really just mix that thing and put it out. So that one was kind of just a serendipitous thing that worked out. We cut a few songs out of it that maybe weren’t as strong. So we kinda went with, I think it’s like, nine tracks or something. Whereas this latest one, A Live Affair, we specifically–between our four Brooklyn Bowl residencies and these four other festivals we played–we actually had someone come with us and multi-track the shows, and I went through and listened to the hundred plus songs that ended up getting recorded, and picking out the best ones and doing sort of a mash up. The way the album goes if you listen to it, it seems like one continuous show. It even says that on the back, that it’s actually comprised of all these different shows, kinda like a “Best Of.” So, two very different experiences that, I think there’s no rule. There’s no rhyme or reason how a live album should go, but you know, it varies. A lot of these famous live albums, a lot of these huge bands that are really classic, I mean, half the time they ended up going in the studio and doing overdubs on them. However you can do it, you usually know if it’s worth putting out or not. So, we had two very different experiences with those.
Also check out Covers Vol. 1 on their Bandcamp page!