With the exception of performances by acts such as Prodigy, Underworld, the Chemical Brothers and Orbital, very few live electronic-music shows leave a lasting impression. These groups have done what few dance-based artists remain unable to do: build an electronic-music show around the rock 'n' roll aesthetic. For instance, front men such as Prodigy's Keith Flint added charisma and made audiences forget that the music played onstage was mostly prearranged.
Also notable about these groups was that they appealed to music fans from multiple genres, not just the dancefloor. Sure, a lot has changed since America's electronic heyday, but the industry really hasn't seen any new acts grab the torch from those dance gods and bring something new to the table. One exception is Atlanta-based art collective Sound Tribe Sector 9, an act that has vast musical knowledge and technical skill; a rabid, loyal following in the vein of Phish; and a sound that traverses many different genres.
TRAVELING DANCE CIRCUS
“It's a manifestation,” says STS9 guitar player Hunter Brown. “It's a collective — we have a lot of people that help us. From the light designer to the sound designer, it's more of a family-oriented thing. Sector 9 is the band at home, making music, and Sound Tribe is the whole entity when you see us live.”
Made up of five core members — Brown (guitars, effects), David Murphy (bass, effects), Zach Velmer (drums, effects), David Phipps (keyboards, effects) and Jeffree Lerner (percussion, effects) — STS9 is the byproduct of each member's individual influences, resulting in an overall sound that shifts between soul, liquid jazz, rare groove, hip-hop, breakbeat, ambient, dub and drum 'n' bass. Formed in 1997 in Atlanta, STS9 thrived on the neo-soul scene inhabiting the city's Yin Yang Café. The scene developed after the electronica explosion and sought to bring live music back to crowds that had become accustomed to popular but impersonal DJ sets. The band, famously known for its improvisations, was a part of this movement, often playing six-song sets that lasted a whopping three hours.
The concept of five guys onstage soon evolved into a “collective” entity; now, STS9 carries on like a big family, incorporating music with lighting, live artists, decor and DJs — a complete environmental experience provided by the people who make up the band's extended Sound Tribe family. Above all, this extended family includes copious amounts of die-hard fans who follow the band across state lines to catch performances that change on a nightly basis. The makeup of the fans also provides an interesting topic of discussion: Because STS9 plays a type of fusion that unites many different musical worlds, you'll often find a colorful array of people attending any given show. It's a place where jazz and soul fans meet with hip-hop heads and dance kids and where the music becomes a unifying bond.
On the production tip, all of the Sound Tribe Sector 9 members are well-schooled on instruments and up-to-date production gadgetry. It shows on the band's fifth release, Artifact (System, 2005). The disc is a tripped-out journey through music's most soothing sounds and wicked beats and showcases what pushing the envelope is all about. But don't expect to hear the same songs played when you go see the band live: Improvisation takes a hold of the group and leads to on-the-fly versions of album tracks that are so good, you have no problem dancing with that hippie, hip-hop head or raver who might be right next to you. In fact, the band has been known to do live remixes of its tracks, and the style depends on where in the world the band is currently playing. For instance, one specific track might be presented in drum 'n' bass style in America but in more of a house style in Japan to keep up with the Japanese taste. Whatever your flavor, this is music for everyone, and it's built on fun and the ability to move.
A TRIP THROUGH THE JUNKYARD
With improvisation such a big part of the Sound Tribe Sector 9 experience, it's really no surprise that this method informs how the group creates most of its material (past and present). Improvisation works at an advantage for the band because it takes the pressure off of forcing song structures. Instead of planned song creation, the band hooks up the instruments, turns on the recorder and lets the ideas flow from the instruments. At the core of this creative process is the group's sound junkyard, where all ideas, streams of consciousness and unfinished songs go for future reference.
“With this album, which started four years ago because of that junkyard of material, making beats and little sounds for a live setup, we were making a lot of sounds that wouldn't work with what we were doing back then,” Brown says. “So they just got pushed aside. By the time we started the new album, we had all this material that hadn't been finished but we really liked. We took about 30 of those songs and started to finish them, and it went down to 15 and then 10 and then back up to 20 because we made songs out of the songs we were making. We are still going back to that junkyard because there is still a lot of stuff we want to finish for the next album.”
From the sound junkyard, the Sound Tribe guys then embark on a process of arranging those pieces, doing overdubs and filling in the space. “The biggest part of this record was kicking away a lot of the overdubs we did and really getting to the core of what was there,” Brown says. “We knew the songs would sound better if we paid more attention to the sounds that were there and bring them out in the mix instead of pile on more things.”
Even though all of the STS9 members are great musicians, the computer is their main instrument. For example, the band uses Propellerhead ReCycle to chop up beats and then plays with those sounds in Propellerhead Reason. The band members are also auditioning a floating Native Instruments Reaktor rig that enables them to manipulate any part — vocals, hi-hats, synths and so forth — on any given night, live. Brown is more challenged with Reaktor than most other software or gear. “That's a whole other level; I'm like a kid in a playground on that one,” he says. However complex the studio recording sessions might have been, taking the album on the road is a whole other beast.
The live show is based on samples of the original studio recordings that are broken down into something that will be fun for the band to play onstage. Rather than purely play their instruments along with sequences, Brown and company break up sequences and trigger them individually (in Reason and Ableton Live) in lieu of letting them play out. This enables the group to stretch out parts longer than they are in the studio.
“Let's say we have a song, and the first 32 to 64 bars are to a sequence; it will be a situation where I am actually changing the numbers of the matrix live,” Brown says. “When the sequence breaks down, I'll press Stop, and we'll be triggering more samples, and then we'll go back to the click 64 bars later. Essentially, we are going on and off click. It was exciting for us to be able to do this. It took us awhile to be on a click and then to come right back to it. It's really hard for drummers.”
With so much going on at the same time onstage (Sound Tribe Sector 9 sometimes uses two or three samplers onstage at once), it is each band member's responsibility to pick up the pieces. Brown's primary responsibilities are playing guitar and triggering core samples, and because he has only two hands, there are many instances in which some of his parts are given to one of the other guys. Such is the case with the live version of “Something.” “There is a part on the song after the vocal where I bring in a two-bar loop and trigger it every two bars,” Brown explains. “It goes into this big guitar part that I play, but the loop still goes. So I gave that sound over to my drummer, who hits it every two bars on his pad while I play the guitar part. When I come back from the guitar part, I take back the loop, and he goes back to what he was doing.”
With so much improvisation and with so much going on technically, it took more than two months for the band to learn how to play this album live. Although STS9 has it pretty much down pat at this point, the members are still vulnerable to technical malfunctions involving misfired samples and train wrecks. Although train wrecks are a no-no in DJ culture, they might actually work in the band's favor because those mishaps let people know that something really is happening up onstage. “People always tell us how cool it was that we fucked up,” Brown says with a laugh.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
STS9 is currently in the midst of its latest jaunt across the United States in support of Artifact. The band may be far from a household name (even in the electronic community), but its popularity is undeniably enormous. The band is scheduled to play substantial venues across the country and will have an extended stay in major cities such as New York, where it sold out two shows the last time it rolled through.
Although electronic music's mainstream interest may have peaked in this country, forward-thinking artists such as Sound Tribe Sector 9 remind people that this genre is rooted in the underground. Big-name DJs and big beats will always be cool, but STS9 brings the tried-and-true method of improvisation to electronic music, and it works famously. This band is making electronic music relevant again, and people from all over the musical map are taking notice, as they did when acts such as the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy brought something new to the table back in the '90s.
STS9'S STUDIO AND STAGE ARTIFACTS
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:
Apple Mac G4, PowerBook G4 computers
Consoles, mixers, interfaces:
Yamaha 01V digital mixer
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:
Akai MPC2000XL sampling workstation
Roland HandSonic HPD-15, PD-7 electronic drum pads; SP-808 Groove Sampler
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Ableton Live 4 software
AHA drum kit
Axis drum hardware
E-mu Proteus 2000 rack synth
Fender Rhodes 88 electric piano
Gibraltar drum hardware
Korg M1 synth, microKontrol MIDI keyboard controller, MS2000 synth
Koto traditional Japanese 13-string instrument
M-Audio Oxygen8 MIDI controller
Modulus 5-string bass, 5-string fretless bass, guitar
Monochorde string instrument
Moog Voyager synth
Native Instruments Reaktor Session software
Novation ReMote 25 keyboard controller
Propellerhead Reason 2.5 software
Roland Juno-106 synth, V-Drums drum kit
Various drums: bongos (2 sets), congas (3), djembe, tabla
Yamaha Motif 8 synth
Mics, mic preamps, amps, EQs, compressors, effects:
Boss CE-2 Chorus, DD-3 Delay, OC-2 Octave, PH-1 Phaser effects units
David Eden 4×10 bass cabinets (2)
Demeter HM-1 mic preamp
Dunlop Cry Baby wah effects unit
Ernie Ball Volume Pedal effects unit
Fender Hot Rod DeVille 4×10 guitar amp
Grace Design Model 101 mic preamp
Line 6 DL-4 Delay Modeler, DM-4 Distortion Modeler effects units
Mesa/Boogie Tremoverb guitar amp
TC Electronic G•Major guitar processor
Alesis M1 powered monitors