STS9: Right Here Right Now (Relix Revisited)
With STS9 set to perform this weekend at the Ultra Music Festival, today, we look back at the November 2008 feature on the group.
In San Francisco, people are spilling off the sidewalk and right into the bustling street. Cars swerve to avoid them. With index fingers pointed skyward, however, the mostly dreadlocked masses seem unaffected by traffic concerns or potential hospital bills as they masterfully navigate the crowd clustered around the velvet rope. They are determined. They are looking for miracles. It is one of those perfect starry mid-August nights. In a few minutes Sound Tribe Sector 9 will take the stage to play one of its old haunts, a small Divisadero Street nightclub called The Independent. The concert, which precedes one at the much larger Greek Theatre the following night in Berkeley, has been sold-out for weeks. But that little fact isn’t going to put anyone here off. These people want in and the lucky few that actually succeed in procuring a coveted ticket typically fall over in hysterics when one unexpectedly lands in their hands. Most of the kids, however, will end up splayed out on this very sidewalk well past midnight, pushing their heads up against the side of the building in the hopes of getting just a small taste of the fete inside. It would seem rude to tell them how much money went into soundproofing the walls.
Once you get past the door, it’s not hard to see what inspires this kind of devotion. Sound Tribe Sector 9, or STS9 in shorthand, is not quite like any other band going at the moment: an instrumental collective that mixes old-school gear with state-of-the-art software; insistent grooves with free-form song structures; ancient mysticism with futuristic ideals. Oh, and then there are lasers—lots of lasers. The quintet has attracted lots of tags and labels since forming in Atlanta more than a decade ago, but none of them quite fit in reality. What happens onstage is bewildering. As two artists splash paint onto a large canvas off to the side, the five clean-cut musicians work feverishly behind an array of laptops and instruments to create a radiant musical score. With its constantly shifting styles, it’s not a sound that could be conjured on a whim, but clearly comes from a deep psychic connection between the band members that evolved only after years of dancing around bonfires on the beach and sharing the same stale air on tour buses day after day. Midway through the show, when the group takes its customary backstage breather, the evening already feels like a major triumph. Guitarist Hunter Brown, keyboardist David Phipps, percussionist Jeffree Lerner, bassist David Murphy and drummer Zach Velmer sit around a picked-over deli tray looking a little taken aback by the boisterous reaction. And they’ve still got another 90 minutes to really push fans over the brink of ecstasy.
For a long time, Sound Tribe Sector 9 and anyone outside of its tight knit clan chose to ignore each other. That is no longer the case. Over the past five years, the group has steadily seen its profile grow bigger. Its last album, 2005’s Artifact, made it all the way to No. 12 on Billboard’s Top Electronic Albums chart. Its fourth and latest, Peaceblaster, was released earlier this year and did even better, entering the same chart at No. 10 while scaling No. 2 on the iTunes Electronic Music chart. On its summer tour, the group played arenas with Umphrey’s McGee and filled major outdoor amphitheatres on its own. And at the beginning of September, the band returned to Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado for two massive sold-out shows (the venue holds just under 10,000). The band isn’t quite sure what it did to get here. “Everything may be getting bigger around us but we’re still doing the exact thing we’ve always done,” Lerner says. “Putting our heart and soul into the music and everything we play.”
A week later, the group gathers at its studio in Santa Cruz to delve deeper into that question and a few others. Located between stunning beaches and towering redwood trees, the coastal California college town is famous as a gathering point for progressive minds. The Santa Cruz City Council was the first in the U.S. to officially denounce the invasion of Iraq. Its law enforcement officials have been directed to make marijuana enforcement their lowest priority. The city is also a wellspring of feminists, liberal activists and independent media pioneers. The members of Sound Tribe moved here together in 2000. “We kind of took a little leap of faith,” Velmer says. “We did our first West Coast tour and we were trying to expand our horizons a little bit. We had a friend with a house in Santa Cruz, so we thought, ‘Let’s just go there and we’ll figure it out.’”
It was a better fit than anyone expected. “We were really inspired by the things around us—people, culture and nature,” Lerner says. “The excitement of the new experience just fed into what we were doing. It took away some of our foundation, everything we were building on, but at the same time it just threw everything to the wind and everything was wide open. It wiped the slate clean.” Various members have moved around other Northern California cities, but always seem to end up back here save, Murphy who’s recently relocated to Boulder. Call it a two-pronged gravitational pull that suits the band’s strong political and spiritual leanings. Besides, it’s just a wondrous place to be.
Well, most of it, anyway. The band’s actual studio is tucked behind a nondescript commercial building off a grey thoroughfare, facing a parking lot and not much else. “It could be a dentist’s office, right?” says Brown, standing at the door. But the musicians have customized the inside to their liking. Instruments, mixing boards and computers occupy every conceivable open space while the very back wall of the complex serves as a de facto scrapbook. There are beautifully crafted gig posters, personal photographs and little scraps celebrating the people, ideas and causes that drive the band.
Much has been made of Sound Tribe Sector 9’s connection to the Mayan belief system. For a long time the group would play a special annual show to coincide with the last day of the year according to the 13 Moon Natural Time Calendar. It also wasn’t unusual to see huge crystals onstage. They explain that around the same time they discovered musical mavericks like Miles Davis, De La Soul and Jane’s Addiction in their late teens, they were also devouring books that not only helped them derive the band’s name but shaped their basic philosophy of living. But these are things the group has moved away from as it has grown up or simply decided it’s best not to talk about anywhere. “Just to be cognizant of those things and look beyond our borders for inspiration was something that definitely set us on fire,” Brown says. “It turned into something that led to journalists trying to get more out of us than we were capable of giving. People construed it more of an ideology or maybe a gimmick. It always just came down to the books we were reading.” The basic principles remain in place, sure, but these days the members of Sound Tribe Sector 9 prefer to keep the focus on more practical matters.
None of them, for example, actually believe the world is going to end on December 21, 2012, as stated in Mayan prophecy. “At the same time, we are at an interesting place,” Murphy says. “Everybody thought everything was going to go haywire in 2000. Obviously none of that stuff happened. People thought it was a fluke and a hoax but at the same time look how drastically different the world is now from 1999. There was a lot that happened that shifted us in a different place we were at the end of the century. Some people have a certain interest in the world being a certain way. Maybe the 2012 thing is shifting back in a more positive direction or further down the road.”
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