Brijean Murphy and Doug Stuart (all photos: Jon Bauer)
“Should I smile?” she asks the photographer.
Brijean is wearing a green and blue floral blouse with track pants, platform sneakers, rose-tinted glasses — a fittingly unique outfit. She leans over her congas and looks at Doug. The camera clicks again, again.
“Is this your first interview?” I ask the Brijean Band, the musical duo of Oakland-based percussionist Brijean Murphy (Toro y Moi, Poolside, U.S. Girls) and her partner, producer and multi-instrumentalist Doug Stuart (Bells Atlas, Meernaa). They tell me that it is, and I tell them that I’m honored.
Their debut album, Walkie Talkie, is a rare and killer find. Out on Native Cat Recordings this June 28, it’s a shoulder-moving burst of happiness that makes it hard to sit still. It’s backroom disco, a touch of house, Latin jazz, and lots of cabana conga rat-a-tat-tats. It’s transportive and gyrating and sexy, with the perfect tickling of variation to guide and keep you in the scene they’re creating.
I ask them what they’re going for.
“We’re quirky and sexy in a PG-13 way,” Murphy says. They both laugh. “I really wanted to make songs that have positive mental health vibes but also sexy vibes.” Murphy’s signature sexy-as-healthy vibes are apparent in this clip from Chaz Bear (Toro y Moi). He introduces his band, and Brijean starts the song off with her congas.
Murphy started playing with Toro y Moi back in 2011, when Bear saw her playing with the group Waterstrider at a co-op in Berkeley. He dug her beats and asked if she’d be interested in playing with him. Since then, Murphy has become a highly desired conguera, playing with folks like Wiz Khalifa, Astronauts, etc., and others.
Murphy and Stuart are both absurdly busy playing in other people’s bands, and if you look at their schedules, they’re so often touring with their perspective groups that their paths only cross in brief and blissful strips. So how did the two find time to create an album within the few months in which they were actually together this past year?
“The collaboration process has never felt easier,” says Stuart with a warm smile towards Murphy. Over the last year, the two sent each other tidbits of songs on voice memos when they were apart, working together during the times that they were reunited. Last summer, the duo sat down and put it all together within a couple of months. “If one of us was stuck, the other person always thought of that other component the song needed to feel complete. It really wasn’t something I could have done with anyone other than her.”
Stuart grew up in Chicago, where he was immersed in jazz, studying the genre and seeking guidance from musical mentors. He went on to study Jazz and Contemplative Studies at the University of Michigan, where he took meditation courses and examined the parallels between meditation and improvising. Due in part to the unique, mindful songwriting process that Stuart possesses, his compositions have a way of feeling fluid, yet grounded. There are no moments in which the listener feels out of place.
“Doug has a really cool melodic palette,” vouches Murphy. He also plays keys (they both do) and is a master at the drum machine.
Murphy’s relationship and history with jazz feels complementary to Stuart’s: She grew up in Los Angeles, surrounded by Trinidadian jazz fusion. Her father, Patrick Murphy, played congas and keys for greats like Tito Puente, Harry Nilsson, and Crazy Horse.
“They were always playing congas in the living room; the basement,” Murphy says of her father and his friends. Patrick Murphy also played in his own bands, Baya and Mi Alma. One of his best friends was percussionist Vince Charles, who was an honorary uncle to the young Murphy. “When Vince passed away in 2001, he left his congas to me. So I really started taking my conga playing more seriously after I inherited those.”
Family has always played a huge role in Murphy’s musical influences. In fact, they’re incorporated into some of Brijean’s tracks. “When I go home I like to record family stories. So that song ‘Fundi’ was a clip of my Uncle Fundi telling a story.” I ask what the story was about, and Murphy and Stuart look at each other and laugh.
“That’ll have to remain a jazz mystery,” Stuart says. The song eases in with some ting-tangin’ percussions where you really feel that Latin jazz influence — a sexy bassline, a couple of mesmerizing sound clips. At one point Uncle Fundi says, “No, he just like to trip” leaving the listener to imagine the rest of whatever yarn he’s spinning.
I press for another story. Maybe it’s the novelist in me, but I tell them that one of my favorite lyrics is off track “Meet Me After Dark”: “Now get a book and read it to me nice and slow.”
They both laugh.
“Yeah our friends love that song,” Stuart says. “…I guess we have a bunch of nerdy friends!”
I ask if the song was inspired by some sort of sensual book reading night. “Not really,” says Murphy. “It was just this line that came to me that sounded good and just really worked.” That’s how much of their song writing processes seem to go: along with feeling the beat, they feel the lyrics and those combinations help form a little story that’s up for interpretation.
I ask if there were any songs that really morphed in the mixing process. Stuart shares that after the album was recorded, they brought it to friend and sound engineer Rob Shelton over at Tiny Telephone Studios. “Rob always has really sage advice,” says Stuart. They look at each other and he says, “Are we thinking of the same moment?”
They nod. “For this one track, he suggested we mix the tambourine only in the right speaker, so it has this feel like someone’s picking up the tambo,” Stuart goes on to explain. We tried it and it just made this huge difference that really changed the whole song.” Listen to the track “Walkie Talkie,” for a tambo moment in your right speaker.
Brijean is also honored to have been chosen as part of Bandcamp’s pilot vinyl program, which is like a crowdsourcing campaign for records. If they reach their goal by July 4th, their album will be pressed and shipped out to each supporter. What’s more American than that?
The Brijean Band’s debut performance and EP release party will be July 11 at Starline Social Club in Oakland. Catch them on a rare occasion where they’re both in the Bay Area. They’ll be accompanied by Salami Rose Joe Lewis (DJ Set) and Bryson Wallace (DJ Set). Tune in for those sexy conga-infused rat-a-tat-tats.
Brijean, Salami Rose Joe Louis (DJ Set), Bryson Wallace (DJ Set)
Starline Social Club
July 11, 2019
8pm, $10 (21+)