For Atlanta-bred electronic jam band Sound Tribe Sector 9, better known simply as STS9, innovation is at the core of their musical modus. Next Monday STS9 will release a collection of live recordings via a massive BitTorrent bundle, including their New Year's Day show at The Fillmore in Denver. While the BitTorrent release method alone might not quality the band as outliers, ONE / ONE's bonus package-recordings from 50 live performances of 2014-is a bold move for the dance music scene, even if the group's jam fans are far more familiar with a deluge of live concert audio.
Co-founded by bassist David Murphy in 1998, STS9 has been creating mind-bending improvisational live music experiences for at least two generations of concertgoers, with fusion-heavy performances designed to appeal to a variety of tastes. Last year's 50 shows aren't unusual; STS9 is a bankable touring act, due in part to their ubiquity on the festival circuit. Murphy's unexpected departure at the end of 2013 fundamentally altered the composition of the group but after a brief hiatus of cancelled dates, they returned to the road a year ago this month with a new bassist, Alana Rocklin. It's rare that such a change in lineup isn't accompanied by considerable drama, but if there was any, it stayed decidedly behind the scenes, with the band mostly declining to discuss it.
_Listen to "Crystal House" from _ONE / ONE: Live From the Fillmore Auditorium.
"The intention of what we've been doing has just been on the music," drummer Zach Velmer explains. "This is only the third interview we've done in nine months. We want to find our voice together."
"It's been an incredibly tough year and the only thing we know how to do is show back up in the studio, get behind our instruments and continue forward," adds guitarist Hunter Brown.
"The intention of what we've been doing has just been on the music."
As a founder, Murphy was the spiritual nexus of the group in many ways. In his absence, the band has refocused on the music itself for direction. "We just try and listen to it," Velmer says of the music (and perhaps their muse). "What does it want us to do? What's naturally coming from us when we come together? We're trying to build off of that versus trying to go back and save something. We're a new band in a big way."
Along with groups like the Disco Biscuits and the String Cheese Incident, STS9 can take credit for the infusion of classically crunchy jam band sounds philosophies into the digital age. More than just a production choice, their electronic leanings help them present a specialized edge on what a band can be. While their beats implore you to dance, there's a force to their sound analog acts can't match. Even without Murphy, the lifeforce of the band continues with vibes born in the rave.
When the band began in the late 90s, the CDJ was just being invented. Ableton was to be founded one year later followed by the first version of Reason-programs that would ultimately become synonymous with advances in live music production in the new millennium. Rather than turn their back on the legacy of jam band music, STS9 chose instead to bring electronic gear to spaces usually reserved for Stratocasters and Pearl drum kits. In comparison to their rig today, the early years of STS9 were downright primitive.
"We had a tower of milk crates that had one of those big screens bungee corded to another crate that was rolled in on a skateboard," Velmer says.
"There wasn't a type of machine that could do what we wanted yet, so we were running Reactor, Reason, early stages of Live through the screen," says Brown. "We were doing stuff on stage that we were doing at home. We wanted to share it and that was the only way at the time."
While each band member grew up playing instruments, often in bands, it was their individual obsessions with vinyl records that led to some crucial discoveries.
"Aphex Twin was huge for me," says Velmer. "LTJ Bukem-this was all around '96 when we were just coming up," says Velmer. "We loved Warp Records too in the beginning," adds Brown. "We really started from a fan perspective. We'd be on tour and would have a couple days off to go out of the way to check out a DJ we liked."
While Velmer describes STS9 as a funk-fusion band, he is clear about the impact many electronica and IDM producers of the late 90s and 00s had on their sound and progression. "From B3 organs to Moogs and other synths we were all incredibly influenced by that music and scene and everything that was going on," he explains. "But we were a band, so it was kind of an uphill battle."
"It was always developing," Brown interjects. "We kept on something or someone or some certain sound and allowed ourselves to explore that. A lot of it was influenced by the crowd and trying to create a connection between us and them, and where we could kind of build an energy that was like…" A rave? "Exactly. We wanted to incorporate the rave into what we were doing, even though it wasn't strictly dance music-we were trying house, drum and bass, two step, garage."
"We were doing stuff that I don't think others were, we were challenging ourselves," Velmer says with a smile. "Now it's all coming back, it's super underground again It's fucking nuts to us."
As die-hard STS9 fans delight in studying the performances and setlists of next week's live bundle releases, even a casual audience member can appreciate how the band changes many of their songs from show to show. At their NYC gig last year, "Kamuy" was reinterpreted with a live drum box solo while on other dates, Rocklin jams out on an upright bass. Some of their shows, dubbed Axe the Cables, feature all acoustic performances, just because. One of the more unexpected evolutions of the band's career is their association on lineups with the many colorful DJs of EDM.
"We were doing stuff that I don't think others were, we were challenging ourselves,
"We love all those guys," says Brown. "We love that we can be a band around all these DJs because we grew up on that music. But we've chosen to continue on this path to try and hone our craft of musicianship. I think we're a good balance to some of the more DJ-centric acts. We reference enough of the same material where it makes sense."
It's not just the music that sets STS9 apart from the DJs.
"We get older and they stay the same," laughs Velmer.