Straight off of the streets of Toronto, Turbo Street Funk has combined musical forces from all around the world to bring Toronto a cultured, fun performance that has spread far past the city streets. Topping the radio charts, Turbo Street Funk took the scene by force with their powerful live performances, unique instruments, and playful covers of beloved songs.
While they started as a busking act, they haven’t played a street performance in quite some time. Their talents have been brought to the big stage at festivals across the continent, clubs and bars in many provinces and states, on top of, or maybe even thanks to their success on the Canadian radio charts. The Bus got the opportunity of speaking with the five piece funk band before their show at the Rainbow Bistro in Ottawa. In our interview, we spoke with Casey Van, Ian Feenstra, Camillo Gallon, Juan Manuel, and Eric Szabo about how Turbo Street Funk came together, their fun personal quirks, and much more.
We’ll start off with the basics. How’d you guys all meet?
Casey: Juan, Eric, and I were all going to York University. We were studying Jazz and Classical music and Camillo and Juan knew each other from back in the day when they first came to Canada. They’d been playing music together for a long time before that. Ian, Ian’s the new guy who’s been with us for two years now. We just met him through the scene in Toronto, where you just call people and say “we need a new Sousaphone player, who do you recommend?” and they gave us his name and they were right.
That’s the cool thing about the Toronto scene, it’s close knit.
Casey: Yeah, the music industry is tiny everywhere you go.
You guys played mostly on the streets of Toronto, a lot of the time it’s outside of the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Casey: We haven’t been busking since 2014, maybe 2013.
Yeah. Were you just sick of it, or?
Casey: No, we’ve just been getting enough gigs and festivals that we can keep ourselves busy without busking too much, but it was a good way to start off.
Fun too, do you think you’ll ever go back to it?
Casey: We have a few busking stunts planned, but not as a regular thing.
It must’ve given you a lot more performance ability.
Casey: It was! It was great. A lot of us had jobs and we were doing it enough that we quit. I used to work at a record store, HMV, which was great, I met a lot of great friends there. They got me into radio, but that’s another story. Anyways, we were busking about four or five times a week for like six hours a day, so we couldn’t have a second job and I liked busking. I think the reason we did it is because we could practice our instruments and make a bit of money while we were doing it too. So instead of working a job and then going home and practicing until 2 a.m. so that we’re ready for class the next day, we’re still warm and fresh for busking.
Now that you’re doing more shows, do you prefer festivals over bars?
Casey: Festivals are always fun, I mean, wherever people are partying. If they’re partying in a club and having a good time that’s great, festivals are great too. Festivals are generally a bit easier because there’s a lot of support, you show up and the stages are already there and they take care of you. You’ve got to fill in the time between festivals. This tour we have five festivals from July 14th to the 30th, so that’s five festivals over eight days and the other bunch of days we have to fill in with club dates. So we get to play new places we’ve never played before, which is kind of low pressure. We played in St.Andrews New Brunswick, St.John’s New Brunswick, Charlottetown P.E.I., we had a festival in Moncton, two nights in New York City after a festival in upstate New York, we payed in New Haven Connecticut at a blues club, which was a last minute thing.
You’re from the states, right?
Casey: Yeah, I was born in Toronto, but I grew up in Staten Island New York and then New Jersey. Then my family moved to the Netherlands for a bit because my dad is Dutch. So I got to hang out with my Dutch roots for a bit and experience the culture.
What have your favourite venues been to play over the years?
Casey: We had a nice home at this one place called Monarchs Pub, which [was] in a hotel [in Toronto]. For like 20 years they had music every single night of the week and then a different company bought it and they shut down the venue all together, it’s not even a bar anymore, it’s only a conference room now. It sucks because great blues bands played there, it was a great place to go and they never charged a cover, so people would show up. Bar Nine in New York was fun, people party really hard in St.John’s at Peppers Pub, we played a little tiny place called the Red Herring in St.Andrew’s on a Wednesday and it was packed because Wednesday was like the weekend over there. It was beautiful. We’ve done a lot of gigs at the Horseshoe Tavern, which was the home of both our CD release parties. They’re nice folks there.
What were each of your musical influences growing up?
Casey: My dad got me really into Blues, so Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Little Walter on the harmonica, I could go on forever but those are a few.
Ian: It’s kind of cheesy, but my brother actually played the Tuba and I grew up around it and kind of took it up.
Casey: I didn’t know that! We’re learning!
Ian: Clearly you don’t listen. (laughs)
Camillo: I started playing traditional Afro Colombian music, so Latin music and Cuban music and stuff like that, that’s what I grew up with.
Juan: Me, I’m from the same part as Camillo, we’re both from Columbia. When I was a kid with my dad we would play a lot of Colombian music together, so that was my first influence. Then York University I got more Jazz, studying Jazz.
Was there anything specific that inspired you to make that change?
Juan: I just thought [that] Jazz is such a rich… there are so many elements that you can take from Jazz and apply to other [types of] music, so I thought this would be a really good thing to study. To learn all of those techniques and all of those tools that Jazz offers and then you can apply that to everything else.
It was the base for most music.
Casey: Most North American pop music came from Blues and then Jazz and then it branched out into Rock N’ Roll, Country, and everything like that.
Then to 150 million things.
(all laughing) All: Yeah, 150 million things.
Casey: Just in the metal world alone there’s 150 million things.
Eric: I grew up listening to a lot of pop and rock and lots of funk too. Playing French Horn you can’t help but learn some classical music too. So all of that classical stuff, I’ve played some orchestra things too when I’m not too busy with the band.
I get a pretty heavy ska vibe from your music as well, kind of funk meets ska. Is that a comparison that you’ve heard before?
Casey: Eric and I had a Reel Big Fish phase and a Streetlight Manifesto phase. One of the big ones is that there’s this pretty crazy swing revival band for me called the Squirrel Nut Zippers and they started off as a punk band and then turned into a swing band. They have a little bit of everything mixed into them.
What would you say is the most rewarding part of everything you do?
Eric: It’s got to be the fan interaction. Being on stage, interacting with fans, that’s the best part of it for me at least. You’re playing a show and you make eye contact with them, they make eye contact with you. They make a Rock N’ Roll face to you and you make a Rock N’ Roll face to them and you have that moment – that’s it.
It’s interesting too because that goes both ways. You see at most shows and festivals that people have fixated on that one guy that they want to make eye contact with and their whole world explodes when it happens.
Casey: I was at a comedy show and one of the guys made eye contact with me and I’ve been playing live music for like 10 years and even I was like “yeah! He looked at me! Yes!”
Go a little fan girl for a second.
Casey: Exactly. Talking to fans before and after the show and during, having people lose their minds is the best part because that means we’re doing it right. This is why we’re doing it. Also the fact that we do what we love. I couldn’t really imagine doing too much else. We’re our own bosses for the most part, so that’s nice too. We answer to ourselves and each other, but there’s no CEO at the top saying “we’re going to cut your budget.” It’s nice.
Outside of musical influences, what are you guys listening to right now? What’ve you got on your day to day playlists?
Casey: A lot of top 40. I like to keep in touch with what’s cool. I like July Talk, The Arkells new album has horns on it, which makes me happy. I’m on a Billy Joel kick, he writes very good songs.
Ian: I’ve always had a real soft spot for 80’s synth-rock. That goes on repeat a lot.
The Bus: Anything specific?
Ian: I’m not sure I’m willing to put any of it on record.
Camillo: I listen to a lot of music, I listen to a lot of Latin Jazz, a lot of things that are going on in South America right now, I listen to some funk. I just put Funk playlists and listen to it, I don’t know too many things, but that’s mostly it.
Juan: I listen to a lot of different things, it depends on the mood. Classical music, Jazz, but something that I particularly like is the big bands. Old school big band Jazz bands I really like. Anything with horns I like, anything with big horns sections is really good to me.
I was surprised, I was covering Bluesfest and Jake Owen, who’s super country, had a whole horn section.
Casey: Yeah, horns are in!
Eric: For myself, I listen to a lot of radio because I drive. I teach lessons and I’m driving a lot, so when I’m in Toronto I’m listening to a lot of radio. Sometimes CBC Radio 2, but there’s lots of cool radio stations in Toronto. You just surf the channels and you’ll find everything, everything, everything. There’s lots of cool different channels. You’ll find rock, you’ll find jazz, you’ll find latin music, you’ll find everything. Anything you can imagine, it’s on Toronto radio.
That takes me back to watching your video of you guys hearing yourselves on the radio for the first time. Is it still surreal like that? That was adorable.
Casey: We still try to tune in and enjoy the 15 seconds of limelight as it comes. We stopped filming it now. (all laughing) A big moment was when we released our album last year, our publicist emailed us and said “hey you know your guys’ album charted, it was on the top 10 jazz albums in Canada.” We were like “for real?! Why?” (laughs) [It] was really cool because we started by playing on the streets and we didn’t know how to do anything, really. So to go from busking on the streets to having albums that are charting and being nominated for independent music awards in Toronto is really cool. It helps us understand that we should keep going with this.
One more thing for the musical influences, for all of us, we try to listen to as much New Orleans influences as possible. That’s a big influence on us and New Orleans music is one of those things that was influenced by Spanish, French, African, Cluster music, and everything. It’s super cool. If I could go back in time. So we listen to like the Neville Brothers, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Trombone Shorty, cool guys like that that are doing stuff now. Bonerama.
I’m surprised that’s not a punk band name. That’s one of those things that you joke about when you’re growing up when you say something stupid and you go “oh that’s my new punk band name.”
Casey: (laughs) We have lists that we keep on our phones that have band names. They’re usually puns, but we keep pretty good track of the stupid stuff we say. (laughs)
Can you think of any funny ones that you would be willing to share?
Casey: None that are PG. (laughs while looking through his phone) What a mess.
I like to finish my interviews off with something that focuses on the person rather than the musician, because I find it gets lost within most interviews. Are there any funny moments or quirky personality traits you’d like to share?
Casey: Ian and I sometimes feel like we’re Frasier and Niles from Frasier. We’re that type in the band.
Juan: I met this really cool guy in Harlem, New York and he had this ring. I went out trying to find that exact same pinky ring. [I found it and] I’m going to wear it to all of the shows.
Camillo: (laughing) Then he went back to the guy to show him.
Casey: Juan I think met his new idol. The gentleman was quite a fixture in the Harlem scene. He was a civil rights lawyer, he played on the New York Giants, he owned the Harlem Globetrotters at one point. Huan found his idol and wants to be just like him. “How can I be cool like you?”
Eric: We all have quirks. Camillo is great with machining and mechanical stuff like that. He does a lot of our stuff.
Casey: For a TV reference he’s the B.A. Baracus of our A team. He can build stuff out of nothing, he’s a macgyver.
You have a drum set that you built too, right?
Camillo: Yeah, I have all kinds of weird things that I imagine [and] that I make. I have a machine shop at home and I’ve done a lot of animation. Little robots and stuff. Machines that make things. Every time we imagine something, somebody is like “it would be cool to have a box for us that does this,” and then we just build it.
Ian: You made an integrated carbon fiber microphone mount for the Sousaphone, which is really slick.
Casey: You can’t get it anywhere in the world.
Camillo: Anyone thinks of anything and we can build it.
That’s awesome, because when people come to your shows they’ll see something that they’ll never see again.
Camillo: Somebody always asks about some of the things that are on stage.
What’s your favourite one? Do you have a favourite one?
Camillo: No, I’ve built so many things [that] it’s hard to have a favourite one. Some are very useful, some are not. (laughs)
The process is the fun part.
Casey: He built a box car that plays music as you drive it.
Ian: A soapbox derby car.
Casey: It depends how fast you’re going. As the wheel turns, the wheel has a drum stick and a brush attached to it and as the wheel turned it would hit something called a guiro, which is a raspy sounding thing and the stick would hit a cowbell, so as it was going downhill it would [make sound effects]. So you could hear it coming down (imitating the sound), and what was the name of the car?
Camillo: La coo-ca-ra-cha.
That’s like the ultimate… how you used to put a playing card in the spokes of a bike so it’d make sound effects as you rode and get more intense when you went faster. I won’t keep you any longer though. Thank you so much for your time, let’s get back to the venue!