A music revolution is brewing in South Florida and leading the charge is Mt. Lebanon native Dave Brookes.
Although Miami’s famed South Beach is known for sultry dancers swinging to Latin rhythms and world-class DJs spinning electronic beats in lavish nightclubs, Brookes is introducing a new sound as radical as his appearance into the party scene—the electric violin.
Instead of a classical symphony of Vivaldi, Mozart, or Bach, Brookes is wowing nightclub revelers with a digital mash-up consisting of the likes of Rihanna, Usher and Pitbull.
“You could say I’m putting a classic spin onto something that you wouldn’t expect to hear an organic instrument along with,” says Brookes, who is currently a resident performer at Haven Lounge. “I’m adding a more natural element to the electronic sound.”
A travel agency Internet content manager by day, Brookes summons his alter ego at night when he takes the stage as Dave Damage—a nod to the classic punk rockers Brookes models himself after such as Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. To match the name, Brookes sports a bright blue mohawk and plenty of the requisite rocker piercings and tattoos.
“Fortunately I work in technology; tech guys are usually seen as weird to begin with, so my image works out fine in the office,” Brookes jokes.
The self-described “blue-haired freak” is anything but an outcast. Three to four nights a week Brookes transforms into the star of the show in one of the party capitals of the world.
Brookes’ typical routine consists of 10 to 30 minute sets alongside a DJ where he extemporaneously matches his violin with the usual house, rap or pop music of the night without any sheet music or advance preparation. Brookes’ uncanny ability to improvise on stage and create a harmonious mix of electronic music stems from his classical training.
“Orchestra helped me develop my ear and that is key to what I’m doing now, because if I couldn’t play something just from hearing it then I couldn’t do this,” explains Brookes, who started playing violin when he was 5 years old in Squirrel Hill prior to moving to Washington Elementary in Mt. Lebanon. “When I started playing the violin they didn’t teach me to read music for the first year or so. I actually had to learn to recognize the sounds and play them back to the instructor which is a lot of what I do now with the DJ.”
The distinct howl of Brookes’ violin has drawn praise from the Miami Herald and has captivated crowds at premier nightclubs in Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Tallahassee, and even Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. He hopes to bring his act home to Pittsburgh venues this winter.
“Seeing the reaction that people have when they see me playing a violin to house music is always cool,” Brookes says. “I get a lot of disbelief. A lot of people ask me after the show, ‘Is that really you? Are you really playing?’ The show is something they wouldn’t expect. It’s a good feeling to deliver something new and unexpected.”
Despite all of Brookes’ success, Dave Damage almost never came to life.
After nearly a lifetime of playing violin, Brookes grew tired of classical music. He taught himself jazz and Irish fiddling to alleviate his boredom with the orchestra, but he ultimately decided to pack away his violin and quit playing music after high school.
Following graduation in 2004, Brookes headed to the University of Miami to study marine science and biology. In his first three years of college Brookes never picked up his violin. But a pesky roommate senior year changed that and helped breed a new star.
“My roommate kept asking and asking me to play with him, so I eventually gave in,” Brookes says.
Those jam sessions with his roommate soon turned into open mic performances at local bars. Brookes then joined a hip-hop band for a few months before branching out into house music and ultimately launching Dave Damage onto marquees throughout South Florida.
“I never thought I’d be doing this in a million years,” Brookes says. “A lot of people that I know from Pittsburgh can’t believe I’m doing this because they knew I didn’t want to be in orchestra and I didn’t necessarily want to play the violin. So now they sort of make fun of me, because I’m playing all the time. Most people I know from college didn’t know I could even play the violin so they are really shocked when they see what I’m doing.”
Brookes’ former Mt. Lebanon classmate and tennis teammate Jonathan Schuster experienced that shock when he saw Brookes perform in Miami earlier this year.
“I had never seen an electric violin player in a club before,” Schuster says. “The music was great and I was surprised at how creative the whole act was. Dave is really talented and has definitely transformed since high school.”
Brookes hopes to keep his metamorphosis into a music star rolling and turn the electric violin into a full-time job. He is currently focused on building his social media presence (@DamageViolin) and recording CDs to better market himself.
So far Brookes’ future—much like his style of music—comes with no limitations.
“I’m looking to see how far I can take this and where this all goes,” Brookes admits. “If it means I travel the country, great. If I get to travel internationally, great. If it means I stay here and I’m still having fun doing it then I don’t really care as long as I’m having fun.”