Most of the people who have met David Turbeville in the last few years call him Dave. He thinks it must be an Upstate New York thing. Even when he introduces himself as David, they’ll still call him Dave. That’s how he’s labeled in the Felice Brother’s press materials, the band he plays drums for, but I’m going to keep calling him David.
When I first met David, long before he was in the Felice Brothers, or before he even knew how to play the drums, we were both volunteering at a DIY community space in Gainesville, Fla. As is often frequent in small towns, our connections became more and more pronounced, eventually linked by roommates, then a boyfriend, then a best friend. David was somewhat of a Florida scene celebrity, having played in Lakeland punk band Cowboys Became Folk Heroes in the early 2000s. Being in that group damaged his voice, and when I met him he had long moved on to the softer, quieter Deep and Holy Sea.
In a town known for No Idea Records — think Against Me!, think “beard punk” — Deep and Holy packed the same stages with acoustic guitars, banjos, orchestral instruments, and many, many voices. Their music was cacophonous in its beauty, and though there were at times seemingly a dozen players, it was all really David’s doing. As a contributor to the now-defunct Gainesville-based Satellite Magazine, I wrote about Deep and Holy, and the resulting story is one of my favorites that I’ve ever written.
Over the next few years, the Deep and Holy Sea whittled itself down to five main members, a significant decrease if you ever saw them in the spring of 2007. I lived with the bassist and violinist. Over the next few years, they kept playing shows, and they toured and were recording new music, and then one day I heard that David was going to be joining some big-name band, or maybe bigger-name is a more appropriate description, and he wouldn’t be living in Florida anymore. He’d be playing drums, only David had never played drums. Through the grapevine, I learned he would be moving to upstate New York, where he’d have a month to tame the percussive beast before going on tour with the Felice Brothers.
David was a friend of a friend of Greg Farley, the Felice Brothers’ fiddler, when he crashed in Farley’s basement in New York in the summer of 2005. “I kept waking up with spiders on me, and eventually they found snakes down there, so I only stayed for a month or so,” David says. When above ground, he met some of the other guys in the band and stayed in touch. David played a show in Brooklyn four years later, and he called up Greg and invited him over.
“He asked me if I knew how to play the drums. I said no. He asked me if I ever just sat behind a drum kit and messed around. I said no. He asked me if I could keep a beat. I said maybe,” David recounts. The next day he went upstate, and they taught him a beat. They jammed. “It was terrible,” he says. “A couple weeks later, they told me that if I moved up and learned to play the drums, I could be in the band.” So that’s what David did. He got rid of all his stuff, quit his job, played some final shows with the Deep and Holy Sea, and then met the Felice Brothers on the side of the road at 4 a.m.
“It was a pretty tough adjustment, actually,” he says. “I was living in a warm, comfortable town, with lots of old friends and nearby family. I had a great girlfriend, a job I liked, and a pretty good life altogether.” He was feeling really confident playing guitar with his own bands, and he went from that to sleeping in the aisle of a freezing Winnebago in the middle of February. And when he started to learn the drums, he was terrible. “I spent eight or nine hours a day in the dead of winter playing drums in a cold chicken coup. My hands were swollen and blistered, and I was eating canned beans and ramen. I was ripped out of my comfort zone, and it was really humbling.” He says he’s come a long way since then, now with two years with the band under his belt, but still feels far behind.
And the Felice Brothers weren’t playing the same kinds of shows that Deep and Holy did, the frequent cozy house shows where the audience sat Indian-style on David’s own living room floor — the Felice Brothers opened for Dave Matthews Band. But David says the transition into this new world of small-scale fame was fairly easy. “The band is definitely more popular than any I’ve been in, but my role is much more anonymous, so it balances itself out a little bit,” he says. “There are some weird things — autographs, for example — and every once in a while you end up in some pretty funny situations with famous people, but mostly it’s the same thing as always: a lot of practice and hanging out and making music with people that you love.”
And while at first serving as kind of an accessory, playing songs that were written long before he arrived as he picked up his new skills, his role in the band has grown. Now that they’re crafting songs around beats more frequently, percussion plays a much larger role. “Everyone seems more ambitious, in general, and songwriting seems to be more of a group effort, even if there are only one or two primary writers,” he says. “We really labor over arrangements and song structures, and it can be a little exhausting, but it’s also a lot more rewarding, and you end up taking a lot of pride in something you work so tirelessly on together.”
The Felice Brothers is David’s life now. That means he doesn’t have to have a day job like he did in Gainesville. It also means he didn’t have time to pick up a guitar for a year and a half. “I just felt so exhausted from so much practice, that it felt good to just let it rest for a little while,” he explains. Having been to an excessive amount of Deep and Holy Sea shows, it’s hard to think that that project is spent, but as David explains, he’s in a different place in his life. “When I was writing a lot of songs, a lot of people close to me were passing away, and I think songwriting was my way of trying cope with that. It felt really urgent,” he says. “After a while, you have to stop fixating on those things. You change as a person and don’t feel so connected to the things you used to create, and want to do something really different.”
Recently, he’s starting writing a lot again on his own, and this new instrumental stuff feels really satisfying. “Sometimes you have to just give things a little time to either shift shape or come full circle.”
The last time I saw David was in December 2009 in front of a house, when he had some time off to visit Gainesville. I remember it because it was a new house that used to be an old house, overhauled by the experts of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition just that week. We had arrived separately, with different people, but we were both there to see if the rumors that KISS would be performing for the television show were true. They weren’t. The person I was with didn’t know me when I knew David, and so some introductions were made, as if I’d never been to David’s house or given him a ride to work or if David had never gifted me that Spice Girls vinyl single that was somehow in his record collection. He was reintroduced to me as David. I’m not going to call him Dave.