By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
"The whole instrumental thing for me is that I know what we do is different because we are obsessed with groove and a dance-music feel. Everything with our music has to keep moving. We like to see head nodding, but nothing would make me happier than if we played a show and nobody was even looking at us; just dancing as if somebody was playing a record. That would be awesome."
In hindsight, Justin Chearno, guitarist for Brooklyn disco-rock outfit Turing Machine, might as well have been outlining the aesthetics he, bassist Scott DeSimon, and drummer Jerry Fuchs operated under during a 2008 weekend in the Catskills, where they jammed out what eventually became their third album, What Is the Meaning of What (Temporary Residence Limited).
Chearno's epiphany actually happened at the turn of the millennium—that quote came from a soused-up 2000 interview conducted shortly after the release of Turing Machine's debut, A New Machine for Living. That record made plain the way that the post-instrumental trio, like their producers James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy "for DFA" (as they were credited on the album), shared a forward-thinking affinity for movement, repetition, and groove, as well as an obvious dance-music obsession.
What—the band's first record in eight years—not only keeps with the trio's perpetual-motion aesthetic, but it's also a testament to Chearno and DeSimon's drive to complete the record they started with Fuchs, their friend and bandmate who passed away after falling down a Williamsburg elevator shaft in 2009.
Neither a de facto tribute album nor a subdued affair, What is an ecstatic, propulsive, synth-drenched dance beast that conveys the trio's monumental synergy. The sonic Devo-on-speed new-wavey opening salvo—aptly titled "Yeah, C'mon!"—instantly sets a party-riot vibe while exchanging the dissonant clutter of the band's earlier material for a spacious arc.
"I think of it in [the sense] that the album is a tribute to playing with our friend Jerry. But it's a Turing Machine record that we were working on—all three of us together," DeSimon says. Chearno agrees, "The idea was more [that] we wanted the hard work and our friendship and the things that we did together, and we really wanted to finish this thing for Jerry and for everybody."
That's not to say abandoning What—and Turing Machine completely—wasn't an option after Fuchs's accident. "There was a period, even seven months later, [when] it was very hard to listen to the drums from the speakers in the studio," Chearno recalls. "It was a really awful feeling. It took a lot, but I think also in that way of working on the record was something that helped Scott and I really get through this, be comfortable with thinking about the band as a band, working on this record together, and being able to do it. It was very difficult and certainly would've been a lot easier for us to just leave it alone."
Chearno and DeSimon, equipped with the 16 hours of demos Fuchs had recorded in the Catskills, decided to face the quandary head on. "Scott and I decided that it was more important for us to go back to that stuff and really try to finish it because we had a really clear vision of what we wanted everything to be—the three of us did. We had a very good idea of what we wanted the songs to be and what we wanted the record to be like. We just didn't get to finish it together."
Chearno and DeSimon enlisted ex-LCD drummer Pat Mahoney to help confront the arduous task of completing Fuchs's unfinished demos. "What we were able to do was set up Jerry's drums and ask Pat—who was really incredibly familiar with Jerry's playing and a very good friend of Jerry's—and get him to come on and play some of the stuff that we needed," Chearno explains. "We set up Jerry's drums, and Pat hit toms, played some hi-hat, snare, and kick stuff. We were able to sample clear sounds on the same drums in case there was a moment in a song that we needed to sample replace a drum hit with a clearer sound.
"What that does is preserve [Jerry's] original performance, which was the most important to all of us. When we needed clearer hi-hats or a snare hit or kick, we were able to plug in the sound of a cleaner hi-hat or tom—but still have the actual feel and intention of what Jerry was doing on the song remain. It's amazing and complicated and sounds strange, but it really worked. We only needed to use it in a few moments on some songs, but it was able to save the song and get it on the record."
For the tour supporting this record, Turing Machine have expanded into a quintet, bringing along old pal DJ McNany (synths) and What producer Abe Seiferth (guitar). Well aware that Fuchs is an irreplaceable force, Chearno and DeSimon devised a plan to remedy the delicate situation when they hooked up with Chris Egan, drummer for electronic pop wonder Computer Magic. "The great thing about Chris is he's this monster drummer," Chearno says. "He didn't know Jerry, and it was really important for us, as it turns out, to get a drummer who doesn't feel like there's any weight in the situation, like he doesn't have to imitate someone. We'd get him in there, he could be himself, and we could play our songs."