Dissecting Digitonium with Dave Brandwein of Turkuaz
Words by James Farrell
Photo by Dani Brandwein
When Dave Brandwein’s band, Turkuaz, was recording its latest latest album in a studio in Syracuse, it paid a visit to Adam Gold of fellow funk band Sophistafunk.
“We went over to his place, and he’s just got hundreds of vintage keyboards,” Brandwein said. “We loaded up our van with, I think at least 20 vintage keyboards and we just set them up for like the entire couple weeks we were there and just had them strewn all over the studio. I think we got around to using every single one of them.”
These electric keyboards would push Turkuaz in new directions, all leading towards its latest album, Digitonium. “We used a lot more analog recording techniques in general in the past,” Brandwein said. “This one, we did a super digital, Hi-Fi kind of sound.”
In Brandwein’s words, Digitonium is about “the struggle to, sort of live in the digital world and have control over it as a human being and not be controlled by it.” Navigating Gold’s mess of keyboards to compile a digital collection of funk jams is, in a way, a micro example of this very tension. And from the band’s origins in 2012 to the Oct. 2nd release of Digitonium, Brandwein has always been aware that being a musician is, with or without technology, about control — being able to master one’s resources to create a unique sound that rises above the noise.
Most of the members of Turkuaz met at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and began touring full time in 2012 after moving to Brooklyn. The New York City music scene taught the band that they had to manufacture their own survival.
“So many amazing musicians in New York City. So many amazing bands. We really had to learn how to set ourselves apart to find a fan base in the city,” Brandwein said. “New York City is not necessarily the easiest crowd in some ways. I think they can be pretty discerning because they have so much music at their fingertips. Like, they’re not going to do any band any favors and come out to see a show unless they really want to.”
“It, by default, taught us how much better we needed to get,” Brandwein said.
Ultimately, Brandwein says that they set themselves apart with the versatility of their lineup — with nine members, Turkuaz boasts four lead vocalists and two female singers. Brandwein also believes that the band’s song-based approach to funk music, as opposed to other bands’ drawn out, improvisational approach was important.
“A lot of the other funk bands nowadays are mostly focused on instrumental jam kind of stuff. So I think some of that sets us apart,” he said.
He also credits his wife, Dani, the band’s visual coordinator, for making the band unique. Dani handles wardrobe, photos and videos for concerts. “It’s really a show as much as it is about music,” Brandwein said of Turkuaz concerts.
Digitonium is an ambitious project, weighing in at 24 tracks and at least 70 minutes of music. Brandwein considers it a concept album, just shy of a rock opera, but linked by loose, running themes. It was born out of his childhood love for Disney’s The Sword and the Stone. The album’s name comes from a song from the movie called “Higitus Figitus,” where the character of Merlin sings “Higitus figitus migitus mum, presti digitonium!”
“For whatever reason it sort of served as a source of inspiration throughout writing the album,” Brandwein said of the film.
The Sword and the Stone influences the album by providing some recurring characters and ideas. The lyrics of “Lift It Up,” for instance, read, “Uther once was feeling strong / But weaker as time rages on,” referring to Uther Pendragon, a character from the film. But Brandwein says that the album is a play on Merlin’s words used to address issues of technology. Later in “Lift it Up,” the band vaguely alludes to the advent of the digital age, singing “Digi-digi-digi-tonium / did you ever think the day would come?”
“Some of the best concept albums out there do stop short of…completely spoon feeding it to people, and leaving some things a little bit more open for interpretation,” Brandwein said. “I’m glad that we kind of followed in that tradition of, kind of, pulling it back just enough that it’s subtle. But I like that there are some themes in it and that there is some fun lyrical stuff that can be explored throughout.”
Previous Turkuaz albums channeled funk and rock groups of the past — Sly and the Family Stone, Joe Cocker, Parliament-Funkadelic. But Digitonium is a modern day product of the ‘80s, fusing the band’s funk foundation with Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson and the Talking Heads. Brandwein also says that modern hip-hop worked its way into the production style.
“It was a very purposeful, new kind of sound and new kind of experience for us,” Brandwein said.
In the wake of Digitonium’s release, Turkuaz is on a fall tour after a string of shows on the east coast, including a run at the Brookyn Bowl, the band’s “hometown venue.” The tour will run until about Thanksgiving, and then the band will break until their annual New Years show, “The Ball Drop,” at the Worcester Palladium in Massachusetts with Kung Fu and Dopapod.
Brandwein prefers touring to other forms of promotion — it gives the band control and removes that cumbersome filter of technology entirely.
“Being able to see the impact, literally, from night to night in different places, in different regions of the country. It’s kind of gratifying,” he said. “It’s not just sitting on Facebook sending around an event promoting a project or a band or whatever it is. It’s like really going out on the frontlines and getting one fan at a time. It’s like a really grassroots kind of thing, but it’s really cool.”
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