Pittsburgh's independent music source
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pittsburgh Artist of the Week: Watererer

David Bernabo

Watererer is a project from prolific Pittsburgh musician David Bernabo. Pulling influences from minimalism to baroque to indie rock, this studio project is bursting with adventurous compositions. The song “Tomorrow Finds Me Out” is a gently sad song featuring vocalist Muoysorng Meng.

Bernabo recently spoke with WYEP’s Joey Spehar about playing games with language, making movies, and what a song would sound like if it were a Steven Wright joke.

Watererer are:

Matt Aelmore, bass, vocals, trumpet
David Bernabo, vocals, vibraphone, marimba, guitar, pedal steel, water, percussion, accordion, keys
Allyson Huneycutt, clarinet, bass clarinet
Muoysorng Meng, vocals
Katie Palumbo, piano
PJ Roduta, drums, percussion
Sandro Leal-Santiesteban, violin
Nadine Sherman, cello

This conversation may be lightly edited for content, clarity, or length.

What’s your musical history up to this point?

As a kid, I studied piano with Dr. Marta Sanchez at her house in Squirrel Hill. My dad took me to lessons, which involved sitting at one of two grand pianos, surrounded by a chihuahua, a cat, and one to two parrots that would often sing along. In 5th grade, my friend Phil Maciak started playing guitar, so I did, too. In high school, I took two years of guitar and upright bass lessons, joined all of the jazz groups I could join, and played in a few bands. During my freshman year of college in 2001, I joined the chamber rock group Boxstep, met a ton of contacts in the city, toured a little bit, and most importantly met drummer Greg Cislon. We started our own band, Vale and Year, made seven records, listened to a lot of Archie Shepp, Peter Gabriel, and Wilco, and played a lot of ping pong. Vale and Year really set a template for the music I created later. We were certainly indie rock, but genre distinctions were not terribly important. Also, I had always been a home recordist, starting with two cassette decks, bouncing music back and forth, but it was through Vale and Year that I first learned the basics of self-recording to tape in a studio. Later, when I met Will Dyar, we eventually started a band called Host Skull, and Will showed me strategies for digital recording. Cut to today, I play in three bands, Watererer, How Things Are Made, and Else Collective.

HTAM (Brian Riordan, Matt Aelmore, and myself) is sometimes a serious improvisational, sound synthesis-based band; at other times, it’s like if a Steven Wright joke was a band. Else Collective is led by drummer PJ Roduta, and includes bassist Matt Aelmore and myself. It’s a heady instrumental band with a lot of counting involved. 6 against 11, anyone? The three of us, along with cellist Nadine Sherman, make up the core of Watererer. Playing in bands is one way to connect to music, but I have a few extracurriculars, too. I’ve been on the board of new music ensemble Nat 28 for a number of years, run an informal record label called Ongoing Box, and I’ve made documentaries about composers “Blue” Gene Tyranny and Mathew Rosenblum.

How do you describe your sound? 

Watererer is mainly a studio band, which allows the sound of the band to change dramatically from record to record. There are dominant strains of what some reviewers have referred to as late aughts indie rock, and I think there are many influences from minimalism to baroque to ECM to Stan Kenton. Our latest record, "Flax-flow’r..." is really percussion-heavy. Percussionist Jeff Berman lent me a vibraphone, and I picked up a wooden xylophone while filming a documentary called Peerless City in Portsmouth, OH. So, the latest iteration of Watererer is focused on repeating melodic percussion cycles, bouncing from freely played pieces to through-composed songs and arrangements. Plus, we had a rule for this album – no drum kit. So, PJ Roduta is playing a wide assortment of hand drums and percussion.

Tell us more about the song “Tomorrow Finds Me Out” What inspired you to write it and what does it mean to you?  

I wrote this song, because my friend Muoysorng Meng and I were looking for a song that we could sing together. We talked about how we both like sad songs, and, well, this is a pretty sad song. The lyrics are quite simple and purposefully open-ended, so interpretation can vary. I can certainly read thoughts of having imposter syndrome – my formal training is in finance and yet, I’m currently an oral historian at CMU. I think there’s also something about experiencing a sense of dislocation in a country that isn’t living up to your expectations; viewing yourself as both part of and apart from or against your surroundings.

Your new album has a very interesting title. What can you tell us about it?

"Flax-flow’r Hue Quaked and Chiseled Stone Polywater Thermal Vision Adamant Run." Maybe you can tell, but Watererer is a vehicle to explore language, to see how certain words react to other words when placed side by side. This title is a series of real and unreal things. There’s the theorized “polywater” and its elevation as a source of fear in Cold War America. There’s “adamant,” an indestructible metal in comics that is rooted in Greek mythology. So, how does stone cracked in an earthquake measure up to adamant? Not sure, but there could be an image in there. It’s an unreliable list. It’s basically a game, of sorts; the smallest unit of provocation.

What was the first album that really changed your life?    

There are so many course-shifting records, but I’ll go with “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s "The Somewhere Songs/The Invention of Memory." Vocalist Thomas Buckner released these two song cycles by “Blue.” I picked it up at Paul’s CDs, popped it in the car player, and instantly regretted the purchase. 30 minutes later, it became my favorite record. It’s completely gorgeous and both song cycles are filled with mystery and some form of gnosis that is just out of reach. Years later, I wrote to “Blue” about making a film about his music. He said, yes, and I got to spend four wonderful hours interviewing him and hearing stories about the ONCE Group in Ann Arbor, the Mills College scene in the 1970s, and all the folks who collaborated with composer Robert Ashley. Completing the film was actually quite difficult, but I loved the process of interviewing composer/performers Joan La Barbara, David Grubbs, Kyle Gann, and others. To pluck out a common theme, the interviews validated the act of making music. *Tangent* – I recently interviewed Van Dyke Parks, and he told me, “The arts are not a decoration!” I love that. I do think that attempting to game the music industry is one of the least enjoyable things to pursue. I welcome any reinforcement that music is a creative act and a potent force in and of itself. Anway, I was also happy that “Blue” was able to listen to the film – he had since lost his sight – before he passed away in 2020. So, I feel very privileged to have worked on the film and a subsequent book project of the interviews.

Who are some other Pittsburgh artists you think more people should listen to?  

My two favorite Pittsburgh bands are Pairdown and Mirakler – to be reductive, fingerstyle guitars and thrashed, needly grunge, respectively. Vocalist Raquel Winnica Young is a massive talent. I recently saw a duo performance with Raquel and guitarist/lutist Dieter Hennings-Yeomans of five centuries of music from Spain and Argentina that was mind-blowing. Michael Johnsen, either on electronics or saw, is always a favorite. Merce Lemon and Feeble Little Horse already seem to be getting heard by more ears. Oh, and saxophonist Patrick Breiner, who is on the first four Watererer records, basically any group he plays in is incredibly impressive. Another massive talent!

Any other super interesting things we should know about you?

Staying on topic, the vinyl edition of our new album comes with a two-color letterpress print that I worked on with Haylee Ebersole at Meshwork Press. Meshwork is a really great shop in Wilkinsburg, run by Haylee and Kyrie Bushaw, with a ton of in-house designs, artist collaborations, and youth programming. I’m infinitely excited about letterpress and am trying to make as many prints as Haylee and my bank account will put up with.

Learn more about Watererer:


Check out previous Pittsburgh Artists of the Week here.

Joey Spehar is a Pittsburgh native who started as a volunteer D.J. at WYEP, fresh out of college in 2006. He took on any job they’d let him do like editing audio, engineering remote broadcasts, and shoveling snow.