Turkuaz: Once in a Lifetime
Photo by Michael Weintrob
Turkuaz turn Talking Heads’ global-groove classic Remain in Light on its head with the help of two of that world’s most eccentric and eclectic players, Jerry Harrison and Adrian Belew.
It’s a mild March afternoon, and Dave Brandwein is touring Jerry Harrison around his Brooklyn neighborhood.
For Brandwein, it’s an interesting sensation to walk alongside the acclaimed multi-instrumentalist. As they bounce from coffee shop to coffee shop, Harrison’s presence seems to change everyone he encounters. Their eyes linger and even the gruffest New Yorkers offer an unusual level of kindness.
“Even if people didn’t recognize who he was right off the bat, there’s definitely an aura about him. Like, ‘I’m a rockstar,’” Brandwein laughs, sitting in his home studio—Galaxy Smith—the following day.
Given that he’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Talking Heads mainstay and founding member of the influential proto-punk band Modern Lovers, Harrison is deserving of the VIP treatment.
However, Brandwein has also racked up a number of notable credits in recent years. While leading funk-jam festival favorites Turkuaz, he’s toured the globe, culled a passionate group of fans, released the feature-length concert film None’s a Ton and, this summer, he and his band will join Harrison (as well as Talking Heads touring guitarist Adrian Belew) on the road to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Remain in Light. [Ed. Note: Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the band’s summer plans have been put on hold indefinitely.]
Alongside his wife Dani, who serves as Turkuaz’s creative director, Brandwein sits beside the control board of Galaxy Smith Studios, a tight-yet-efficient space that exists on the basementlevel of the couple’s Brooklyn residence. It was down here that Turkuaz recorded parts of their Life in the City LP and Afterlife EP, as well as the entirety of their most recent project, Kuadrochome.
Upstairs, their seven-month-old kitten, who the couple rescued from their backyard, putzes around, occasionally using their record collection as a scratching post.
“Jerry is a really multifaceted guy,” Brandwein says, thinking back to his first meetings with the rock legend. “In a weird way, he is how I pictured him. It’s just really easy to talk to him and get to know him.”
The two musicians first crossed paths five years ago when Turkuaz’s management set up an informal meeting at a New York restaurant: “He told me a bunch of really cool stories and he was really amazing, answering pretty much any question I would ask,” Dave grins. They clicked immediately and, when Turkuaz found themselves near Harrison’s home in the Bay Area for a show at San Francisco’s The Fillmore, the Talking Heads multi-instrumentalist sat in on a cover of “Take Me to the River.” Harrison also joined Turkuaz in the studio, producing their tracks “If I Ever Fall Asleep” and “On the Run.”
The collaboration not only marked the first time Turkuaz sourced creative input from an outside producer, but it also planted the seed for what would become the biggest tour of their career.
“Everyone had a really great experience, but I did not foresee what is happening now,” Brandwein explains. “It was a very pleasant surprise when the [Remain in Light] call came in.”
“It’s the meeting of the hipsters and the hippies,” Dani adds with a smile.
Harrison has long been fascinated with the jamband scene.
“Having sat in with The String Cheese Incident and bands like that, the idea that this was the ideal way to get back to playing these Talking Heads songs live had already begun to seep into my consciousness,” Harrison recalls, while relaxing at home.
He realized that a fully formed band, coming from the live-music sphere, would provide an onstage chemistry unobtainable by a piecemeal touring ensemble. According to Harrison, the concept percolated for years, and he often looked to Talking Heads’ Live in Rome 1980 performance as a creative touchstone. That, in tandem with the revitalization of his already-friendly relationship with Belew, was enough to get the Remain in Light tour off the ground.
“Adrian and I were seeing each other more than we had been in some time. We’d always talk about how there was a video of the first large band that I put together for Talking Heads,” Harrison explains. “Live in Rome 1980 is distinctly different than Stop Making Sense. It’s an eight-or-nine piece band. It’s big and it’s powerful, but it’s not as ‘staged’ as Stop Making Sense. It just has a different feeling because there are different players in it. Both Adrian and I said, ‘We should try and go out and recapture that.’”
And while Harrison was all-in on Turkuaz from the start, it wasn’t until the evening before their first rehearsal in Nashville that Belew realized that they had found their new house band.
“Jerry had seen us play before, but Adrian hadn’t,” Brandwein recalls. “They just looked at each other in the middle of our first song like, ‘Yeah, this is going to work out just fine.’”
The next day, at Nashville’s SIR studios, Turkuaz, Harrison and Belew tested the waters and, using Harrison’s words, it was “magical.”
“When we started working together, I immediately realized what really great players they were,” he says. “You can tell that from the records. But when you’re actually in a rehearsal situation, you understand how quickly people pick things up. And if you want to change something, that’s not a problem.”
After convening at SIR, the collective spent their first get-together jamming on Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless,” over and over again, for hours.
“The fact that they have a horn section adds a wonderful element,” Harrison continues. “There are a lot of synth parts on these records that the horns [can cover] really well. And it’ll just be so much fun. It also gives it its own distinct thing so that it’s not just a copy of what we did back then. It’s something new and special in its own right.”
“We don’t want anyone up there doing a David Byrne impression,” Brandwein says of the tour’s formatting. “That’s just as important to Jerry and Adrian as it is to me. They want us to be able to have fun with this—trade things around, open things up and stretch out a little bit to appease some of the jam fans.”
Harrison received further validation when he discovered some curious listeners lurking around their Nashville summit.
“We took a bathroom break and there were 10-15 people out in the hall. They were all trying to listen at the door, like, ‘What’s going on in there?’ It made us feel good,” he chuckles.
The members of Turkuaz—who have been winning over fans with their originals and fiery Talking Heads covers for almost a decade—found the sessions just as exhilarating. At one point during the rehearsal, Belew’s guitar rig started malfunctioning and Turkuaz’s Craig Brodhead kindly offered his instrument, a moment that he gushed to his bandmates about later.
Thinking of his longtime friend, Harrison expounds, “Adrian, to me, is the most like Jimi Hendrix of almost any guitar player alive. He’s just capturing this live energy that’s coming through his guitar and controlling it in a way that I haven’t seen anybody else do. And it’s all by feel. I loved his playing before we worked together.”
Turkuaz bassist Taylor Shell was quickly taken by his interactions with the duo, recalling, “Adrian Belew did all his fucking crazy guitar parts, and it was awesome. It was actually really funny hearing Jerry and Adrian discuss the right parts to the chorus. They’re like, ‘No, you didn’t do it like that.’”
Shell is possibly the band’s biggest Talking Heads fan, and he takes credit for introducing Brandwein to Stop Making Sense during their early years in the Allston neighborhood of Boston. Turkuaz have often cited the 1984 concert film as a major touchstone, influencing their onstage theatrics and the choreography of singers Sammi Garett and Shira Elias.
“I had a studio, the first iteration of Galaxy Smith Studios, in the house that Taylor and I lived in,” Brandwein says of his salad days. “In the control room, which was also my bedroom, we had my audio monitors and two screens. We used to watch movies on the two screens, which was really stupid, but we loved it. [Laughs.] That’s when he showed me Stop Making Sense. I, of course, had seen footage of Talking Heads playing and I had heard their albums, but for whatever reason, Stop Making Sense had not made it into my world yet. He showed it to me and then I watched it two or three more times that same night. I was just in the right mood or the right place in my musical development for it to strike a chord with me. It was definitely unlike anything I had ever seen and is still unlike anything I have ever seen. It was right about the time we were starting this band. We wanted to cover their material as much as we could so we could get inside the arrangements and figure out what was going on—what made it feel that way and sound that way.”
Adds Shell, “There’s a Bootsy Collins quote: ‘Funk music is about taking a joke really, really seriously.’ Stop Making Sense embodies that idea. There is clear joy and humor in it, but it’s super specific aesthetically and super specific musically. And that, to me, is the real gold. We’ve adopted that mentality, at least to a certain degree. I don’t want to say that’s the only way that it is but, certainly, that’s how it feels to me. There’s this levity but they are really serious about it.”
Turkuaz certainly embodied that levity in their former rainbow color scheme, with each member claiming a color as their own and dressing in it headto-toe. However, in November 2019—less than a month before the news broke about Turkuaz’s upcoming run with Harrison and Belew—the band announced that they would shed their technicolor look for their Kuadrochrome EP in favor of a more muted, mature palette of black, white, grey and tan. And while some fans were worried that the aesthetic change signaled a major sonic shift, in hindsight, it was simply a stepping stone to the Remain in Light tour.
“Kuadrochrome was not a part of this [tour], but it was a palate cleanser,” Dani explains while sitting at Galaxy Smith. “It opened up how Turkuaz looks, so it wouldn’t be such a stark contrast with Jerry and Adrian. The goal was to meld into this pretty seamlessly.”
“The thing that’s funny is that this is actually the third or fourth iteration of the band’s look since we started,” Shell continues. “[The rainbow] was just the one that we had when people started paying attention. The Kuadrochrome thing is obviously four colors, and we wore black and white when we put out Stereochrome, which was two colors. When we put out Digitonium, that’s when we made the multicolored thing happen. So there’s sort of a bookended reality there.”
“We saw fans online assuring other fans, ‘It’s going to be OK. I saw them before the colors and it was great,’” Dave says with a laugh.
As for the Remain in Light setlists, Harrison admits that the shows will be more of a tribute to Talking Heads’ ethos—and the joy of live performance—than a straightforward recreation of a classic LP.
“It’s going to be a little bit more like the Rome show was—the songs will be there, but they’ll be in an order that makes sense for a live show. The songs from Remain in Light—and most of the [Talking Heads] songs we choose to play—have places where if you wanted to go on an improvisational exploration, then you could. Because of the way the chord changes move, or the way the parts beg for exploration, these [tunes] are ready to explode in that direction.”
Harrison is already glad to have Turkuaz onboard for his upcoming adventure, calling them “one of the hardest working bands” he has seen in recent memory.
He’s even open to welcoming some former bandmates to the party, noting that he’s still close with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth. (“We’d love it if they joined us, that would be great.”) And though a proper Talking Heads still reunion feels worlds away, he also says that he’d gladly jam with David Byrne. (“David is busy with his show on Broadway, but if he came, we’d love it too.”)
As Shell argues, the best part of this tour will be the communal experience between the band and the audience, a core tenant of the live-music world at large.
“Certainly, the jam scene is the only scene that really pays homage to modern music history in a way that is about spreading the music,” he explains. “For me, that’s a big reason why doing this Talking Heads thing is appealing. I want Remain in Light, and that music, to be seen and shared and heard for generations. If I can be some link in that chain, that would be a cool thing to be able to do—a shepherd of awesomeness. [Laughs.]”
Harrison is always seeking new creative outlets. In fact, his extracurricular activities include innovative startups like the health-care investment portal RedCrow and the snakebite biotech outfit Ophirex. He sees this tour as a high-wire act. But it’s a challenge that he’s excited to embrace.
“There’s a certain amount of terror that goes with it, of course,” he says with a laugh. “But I’m really looking forward to it.”
This article originally appeared in the April_May 2020 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.