Voices: An international sound out of Cloyne Court’s cellar

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Originally formed in 2009 at the Berkeley student cooperative Cloyne Court, Waterstrider has gone through quite a few metamorphoses since their incarnation. Guitarist and singer Nate Salman started as a solo artist and then quickly joined forces with other musicians, including conga player Brijean Murphy.

This turned into a six-piece band before finally becoming the current four-person setup of Salman, Murphy, drummer Walker Johnson and bassist Scott Brown. The band has played a variety of venues, from house parties to local spots such as the New Parish and Bottom of the Hill.

The Daily Californian talked to the band about their past, upcoming album and whom exactly Thomas Mapfumo is.

The Daily Cal: Do you have any fond recording memories from recording in the Cloyne basement?

Nate Salman: We took our bass player’s amp and tucked it in the corner of the room when we recorded the song “Water and Stone.” We took a bunch of couch cushions from around the house and threw them on top of it to try and get the drum sound to be separated from the bass, and there was this weird cow pillow in there that we found.

Walker Johnson: We definitely had to work with some props. We also spent some time going around and beating on things like the walls in the room looking for different sounds.

DC: Can you talk about your upcoming album?

Brijean Murphy: I like a lot of the rhythms that are coming out of it. We are working with a four-piece now, so we’re figuring out how the sound and uniqueness of each player can come out. It feels like there’s more layers and depth to the sound, similar to the first EP.

Scott Brown: Another big thing is the fact that we’re a four-piece, but we have both drums and percussion. The only melodic instruments are guitar and bass. Melody and rhythm are the elements that are being explored.

NS: I kind of got over using chords since the last time (laughs). Now there’s a lot of unison guitar and bass lines. We have a focus on implied harmony.

DC: A lot of your influences come from South America, West Africa and Brazil. Could you describe how you initially got into that kind of music?

BM: I started learning the congas when I was a kid because my dad was a conguero, so he has an Afro-Cuban influence, so those were the traditional rhythms that I learned and grew up with, which is also what I bring to the band.

NS: In the very beginning, we were trying to make this huge eight-piece Afrobeat jam band, because I was really into Afrobeat music. We were all learning the style together, but then over time, I started to realize that some of these rhythms that I think are Afrobeat are really more South American-type rhythms.

SB: Before I joined the band, I saw Nate and Walker playing the song “Constellation,” and I thought, “Man, these guys have probably listened to Thomas Mapfumo,” who’s this Zimbabwe guy who makes Chimurenga music.

NS: The secret to “Constellation” is that it’s really just a Thomas Mapfumo song (laughs).

DC: Nate, you’ve mentioned before that you are drawn to singers with androgynous voices. Is this something you still try to incorporate?

NS: I don’t think I’m trying to do it as consciously as I was before. I’m definitely singing more full-voiced than I used to, but it’s something I still really enjoy. I think there’s something really mysterious about androgyny. I like the idea of blurred gender and cultural lines, and I think that’s a theme in our music. For me, it felt natural to sing like this, and all my influences are mainly female singers.

SB: My girlfriend played one of our new songs in her car for some kids she babysits, and she told them to listen hard and say whether it was a boy or girl singing. They said, “That’s a girl, that’s a girl for sure!” When she told them it was a boy, they started freaking out. She actually had to stop the car and convince them, because they still didn’t really believe her. They enjoyed the song, though!

NS: One of my favorite singers is Jonsi Birgisson, the lead singer of Sigur Ros, and he has this beautiful androgynous voice, and every time I see him sing, it’s like seeing some sort of angel singing. It doesn’t matter what the sex of the person is or their sexual orientation — this person’s voice is the sole thing that exists; it doesn’t matter where it’s coming from.

DC: Do you feel the blurring of gender, cultural and other lines is a goal of the band in some way?

NS: There’s kind of a theme of not getting too caught up in how things are supposed to be. We have all of these cultural rules that are thrown at us describing how things should be, how you get to the next level, how you make money, you have to make lots of money, all of these ideas are imposed upon us, and we sort of just accept them over time.

I feel I’ve spent the last year thinking a lot about those things and trying to get away from them. As pretentious as it sounds, I want to make something that resonates with something deeper within us all.