Sound Tribe Sector 9's futuristic voice
Trying to get your head around Sound Tribe Sector 9's music takes a bit of work. It's a swirl of electronica that sometimes sounds like punching buttons on the car radio at random. Snippets of noise pasted together form a shimmering soundscape. Songs unfold like budding flowers, opening slowly to reveal their lush interiors.
Intelligent dance music is one label that's been tried on for size, in the attempt to classify Sound Tribe Sector 9. "That works," says STS9 percussionist Jeffree Lerner of the IDM label, by phone from his home in Santa Cruz. "I don't know if it fully covers everything we do, but that's really part of it.
"It's our intention to provide a space of dance for people to leave the house and come out and see live music."
Unless you're into a lot of solo twirling and gliding techniques picked up from Deadhead observation, dancing to this music ain't all that easy. The intelligent part fits quite well, though. If you're new to this stuff, you're going to be pleasantly surprised. It's not just random swooshes of noise with a backbeat thundering erratically, made for clubbies to rave and sweat on. It's a more laid back vibe, akin to smooth jazz with funky overtones.
The Tribe got their start on this sonic path in 1997. Guitarist Hunter Brown, bassist David Murphy, drummer Zach Velmer, keyboardist David Phipps and Lerner built up a following around Atlanta with their onstage jamming, often stretching to three-hour sets. Nobody uses the jam band tag to describe the band anymore -- Lerner says it's too confusing. "Our music has maintained a certain quality that hasn't changed. I don't want to say that the label came and we changed our music. We've always done what we've done and fit into the niches the way society allows."
Livetronica is the term coined for what Tribe precursors like the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy came up with in the early '90s. But while those early pioneers relied heavily on borrowed beats and found sounds, STS9 are accomplished musicians making their own sounds on real instruments. Those sounds are then filtered through various computer programs, loaded onto samplers and taken onstage. The band manipulates these samples live, improvising with the triggered snippets. "We rely very little on loops," Lerner says. "Loops are very limiting in terms of being able to turn on a dime or changing tempo. So everything is being triggered as an instrument, just like you were plucking a bass string."
Some have claimed that STS9 use the computer as a band member, but Lerner doesn't see it that way. The band often composes separately on computers, adding a sketchy rhythm track (or lead track, if it's the rhythm section writing). After these tracks are passed around to the other band members, they try to figure out how to play it live. "The bass player feels comfortable he can cover the bass line, the guitar and keyboards feel comfortable, but what about this sound?" Lerner continues. "Nobody can really recreate that note. So that's where we bring in the computers, to embellish those things we're not able to create. The computer's not really replacing anybody."
So the digital element's there, but Lerner doesn't necessarily want to distance himself from the organic jam band collective. "The jam band description would have nothing to do with the style of music we play," the percussionist says. "I'm choosing to look at it in the sense that there's a whole community of fans who love live music. And they make my life of traveling around and playing music possible."
STS9 are a traveling collective in their own right. An assortment of creative types have shared their stage over the past five years: visual artists, flower arrangers, dancers, sculptors and even a manual typewriting artist pounding out poetry during the band's set. "Just looking at society, there's very few things that people gather together for," Lerner says. "One is religion, another is sporting events and then there's music. So there's a potential for us to create a platform for other forms of art. When the vibe and timing is right, we allow that to happen."
Lerner says he "doesn't feel weird" about the fact that a lot of bands now have adopted the collective idea and are bringing artists along to expand fans' horizons. But STS9's exploration of this format and the group's name derive from far older traditions. "It speaks to [a] time when art and civilization was flourishing all over the planet," Lerner explains. The Sector 9 part of the band's name is taken from the Mayan calendar and a culturally rich world cycle that people called Baktun 9 (435-830 AD). "So Sector 9 relates to that ... we wanted to recreate or emulate a period or space for art and creation in society. This was 10 years ago, so it was a bunch of young kids too," he adds, laughing.
As the Tribe's kids have matured, so has their sound. Although they now use more electronics, their musical knowledge and prowess have expanded as well. And with that musical maturity has come the knowledge that relying too heavily on the electronica side could become more of a gimmick than an art form.
"The technology really does lend itself to mediocrity," Lerner admits. "I don't have that concern for us. We have a good check-and-balance system that we try to maintain, a sort of rootedness, an organicness as well as the electronics. I think in our case it really pushes us as musicians."
"We didn't set out to be an electronic band," Lerner says. But that's not an apology. "This is who we are. I don't want to say we're careful, I just want to say we're tasteful. We really try to maintain the values and principles of a jazz musician, but we're just using the tools of our times."
Sound Tribe Sector 9 plays the Visulite Theater; Monday, April 24 at 8:30pm. Tickets are $18; www.visulite.com.