Some bands defy categorization.
For the rare few, there is no single applicable label; no simple black or white, but instead an undefined gray area that encompasses a taste of black, a smidgen of white and a whole lot of color in-between.
For Sound Tribe Sector 9 (Hunter Brown-guitar, Jeffree Lerner-percussion, David Murphy-bass, David Phipps-keyboards and Zach Velmer-drums), there is no one genre, or five at that, that can accurately define who they are, how they sound, or what they’re about. On the contrary, they are a band that readily and happily goes against the grain, choosing to rebel against categorical constraints and pave their own path by not being afraid to include all of music, and its glory.
With Artifact, the band’s first studio release in five years hitting music stores everywhere February 8 and the band embarking on a two phase, 40-plus show coast-to-coast tour to support, STS9 is primed for another breakout year. I had the opportunity to sit down with guitarist Hunter Brown before the band’s meet-and-greet in Boulder to get a proper glimpse into the evolving world of STS9.
“We want to change the world in a positive way,” started Brown. “We really want to bring it, to come and be at our best.”
It’s been a gradual climb from regional spotlight to national recognition for a band that’s made the transition from three-piece jazz-funk ensemble to exploratory improvisational fusionists to now, post-rock, refined electronic pioneers. STS9 is a band that is constantly evolving, that is perpetually undergoing transition. In doing so, the band has become one of the tightest units in today’s music scene by maintaining an approach that possesses five distinct focal points but stresses one cohesive sound. They move as one, and as a result, the production-from lights to sound to hospitality-has taken shape and the product glistens like never before.
As Brown said, “It’s being truthful to ourselves; you can’t really apologize for being who you are. We started at a really young age and didn’t have a certain idea in mind. That’s the foundation of what STS9 is.”
Over the last few years, the sound of STS9 has changed dramatically. What used to be an assortment of 20-minute extended forays into sonic space have become more refined, highly composed and textured palates of artistic music. There still are heavy doses of improvisation, but they’re offered in a more polished approach that utilizes band cohesiveness and five-person textural layering.
While situating firmly in the electronic, they also routinely dive into the waters of progressive rock, hip-hop, dub, funk, jazz and even Latin. Whether it is Jeffree Lerner’s African and Latin flavored percussive hues, Phipps’ onslaught of deep synthesized electronics, Brown’s smooth jazzy guitar licks or Velmer and Murphy teaming-up for some bass-heavy hip-hop beats, STS9 encompasses music as a whole.
STS9 is not a jam band, but they sure can jam.
“It’s a constant struggle to get it right. That’s (improvisation) everything-being in the moment and simply being open, that’s where we’re coming from. (We’re) keeping it open so we can take the sound places,” admitted Brown. “It takes some stripping down and new techniques of sampling and sharing processes.”
No more can the new appeal of STS9 be found than on Artifact. A collection of 20 songs, some already in the live rotation, some as new as a shiny penny, Artifact offers a glimpse into the ever-changing world of these five Georgian instrumentalists. Ranging from the subtle acoustic guitar work and underlying piano melodies of “Better Day” to the lap-top filled synthesized landscapes of “Somesing” and the sultry vocals and rock n’ roll feel of “Music, Us,” Artifact contains the most well-rounded and whole sounding piece of STS9 work to date.
“The response to the album is all over the place. Everybody keeps using the word ‘mellow,’” said Brown. “It’s a painting. This album is more of a cohesive statement to create a more listenable album. We’re really happy about it and we’re really surprised where we got to, but it’s really hard to let go of something you’ve worked on for so long.”
Now in the midst of Phase I of the Artifact Tour, already having sold-out shows in several spots throughout the country (most notably the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver), the band is continually reshaping and molding the new, and older material. With tracks like “Trinocular,” “Tokyo” and “Today” already regulars in the live rotation, STS9 is working hard to get a steady feel for new tunes like “Peoples,” “ReEmergence” and “Possibilities.”
“We’ve become really structured. We have more tools, more songs, more experiences now,” Brown stated. “It’s (Artifact Tour) let us get into the material more, to get more comfortable with it and lead to new creativity.”
What Artifact and the resulting tour have also done for the band is continue to propel STS9 away from the pesky genre classification and the whole “jam band” scene. A feat Brown summed-up in, “We don’t believe in genres, we like little bits of all music.”
For Brown, the message is simple. “I want people to feel that inspiration to do things differently, to really do what you feel. We’re really focusing on the art. To do so, we give up a little control to be able to spend the amount of energy we need on the music and the art. It takes every single day, 24 hours a day to make this happen. You’ve got to work hard to do what you do.”
A portion of the STS9’s success can also be attributed to the band’s loyal fan base that grows each night out. With a dedicated grassroots promotional campaign, a devoted online community and nationwide word of mouth, the STS9 fan kinship has helped bring STS9, their music and their message to the listening public.
“That’s everything,” maintained Brown. “That’s allowed us to find this music-that can’t be overstated. We’re truly thankful.”
As for the future, the sky’s the limit. After the cancellation of last year’s Lollapalooza Tour, the band is making-up ground with the coast-to-coast Artifact Tour that concludes at the end of April. Fans can expect some overseas shows later this year, appearances at festivals like Bonnaroo and Wakarusa, lots of collaborations, some possible remixes of Artifact material and pretty much, a whole lot more of Sound Tribe Sector 9. 2004 was a big year for the band and 2005 is poised to be an even bigger one.
“The foundation of our house is finally finished. We can do what we want now,” concluded Brown.
For more info see sts9.com