Liven It Up: Sound Tribe Sector 9


Sound Tribe Sector 9's live show
All Photos: C. Taylor Crothers

Most fans of electronic music might think life is pretty special for the genre's biggest names. As LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy pointed out eloquently in the March 2007 issue of Remix, “I'm a DJ, and it's a fucking ridiculous life. You go out, and someone pays for your flight, picks you up at the airport, pays for your four-star hotel, pays for your dinner, and you go and play fucking records for a few hours. They take you back to the hotel, you stay there for a few days and go to the beach and enjoy the city, and then they take you back to the airport and fly home with fucking thousands of dollars in your pocket. I played in rock bands my entire life and I never made any money.”

But if you look at the names really making waves in electronic music circles these days, they all seem bound by the common thread of live performance. While there is still a high demand for superstar DJs, bottle service and the “nose in the air” clubbing mentality, the dance music genre's most intriguing artists are increasingly raising the stakes when it comes to live presentation. However, it's a double-edge sword because the problem for most artists is often how to translate recorded electronic songs into an interactive live experience. While there have been significant upgrades to the “checking your e-mail aesthetic” of laptop performances, there's still a lot to be desired when taking it live.

California-based Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) goes against the grain in many ways. This five-piece outfit — Hunter Brown (guitars, effects), David Murphy (bass, effects), Zach Velmer (drums, effects), David Phipps (keyboards, effects) and Jeffree Lerner (percussion, effects) — leads an immensely popular improv-heavy music subgenre dubbed “livetronica.”

Much like artists on the traditional jam-band circuit, STS9 thrives heavily on a rabid fan base that travels to shows around the country and trades tapes. All of this loyal support created a machine that helps to drive the band around the world without the benefit of radio hits, music videos or the kind of overhyped attention well-known dance-music artists often garner. This is a success story built on rolling up the sleeves and getting dirty. Hell, it would even make James Murphy proud.


STS9 is unorthodox in that they don't have the same type of problems most other electronic-skewing artists endure. The band has made a name for itself primarily as a live act, and they pretty much have that down pat. The problem has always been how to capture the intense energy and unpredictable improvisational nature of the live show in a studio setting. “This time we wanted to create a really energetic record,” Brown says. “With Artifact [1320 Records, 2005], we were using the studio and the space away from the road to explore a sound that we weren't making on the road. We were on the road so much that it was almost a necessity to do something different.”

STS9's new CD, Peaceblaster (1320 Records, 2008), might take fans by surprise in just how much the band has veered off the course from Artifact. The music is a lot darker, punchier, beefier and more cinematic. “Peaceblaster has everything to do with our lives right now, things we think about and things we talk about. Lots of people in America and around the world are thinking about the world and what we can do to make it better,” Brown says.

It's never easy to capture the dynamic feel of a live show in a studio recording. Initially, STS9 started two years earlier with the idea to capture the energy of a live show on a recording and already had a group of new tracks they were playing out live. However, after recording the music, the band realized they played the tracks much better live and scrapped the idea. Brown soon realized that STS9 couldn't literally capture that live feeling on Peaceblaster. “It was hard, but some things we did to add more of that live dynamic feel was to fluctuate with our tempos more instead of being locked to a certain tempo,” Brown says. “We can build energy without building tempo, but it's hard and goes against the grain. Some of our music doesn't allow us to do that because of sounds we are using. With this recording, we tried to look at it differently and came at it from an organic place but added more textural sound effects that accomplished more of the energy and overall aesthetic.”

Recorded in a span of just a few months in between national tours, Peaceblaster was the fastest STS9 album ever to be completed from start to finish. It was common for previous albums to take several years because recording sessions never took place at a fixed time. As a result, albums comprised loosely associated “tracks” as opposed to something more cohesive or of the moment. “We just knew that we wanted it all to sound like it came from the same garage,” Brown says. “It was hard because I don't like to put any time constraints on our art, and this really pushed us in a way that was fun, interesting and exciting. In past projects, things dragged on so long that we kinda lost the impact. It just feels so immediate this time instead of everything we were doing over the last five years — bam!”


When writing, the guys often build an entire song before realizing that they like only small segments of it. These segments then go on to form other tracks. “It's a lot of addition and subtraction,” Brown says. “You spend all this time adding so much to a track and then subtract to get to the core of what's trying to be said.”

Peaceblaster track “Metameme” evolved from an unreleased piece Brown created four years ago with a different version recorded by labelmates sub-ID. Brown took elements from the older track's original beat and reworked and reprocessed it into a new light. “Metameme” also offers STS9's first foray into drum 'n' bass for quite some time, despite being greatly influenced by the likes of LTJ Bukem and his Good Looking Records sound. Likewise, during the production of the track “Empires,” STS9 took little snippets of the track to create four additional songs that appear on Peaceblaster.

Also of interest, “The Spectacle” derives from a track STS9 put on its 1320 Records Mix Tape called “Stick Like Marimba.” Initially, the band recorded the track but then realized that it wasn't where they wanted it to be until the four-minute mark. So they erased the first four minutes and used the new starting point as the building blocks for the final version appearing on the CD. Meanwhile, closing track “Squishface” is a reinterpretation of “Ballade 4 Part-55 1” by Glover Gill & Tosca Tango Orchestra, which appeared on the soundtrack to the motion picture Waking Life. Brown used Native Instruments Kontakt 3 to create a string section that replicated the feeling of the original version. “We worked on this track in the studio while recording Artifact and created a new piece around the original theme,” Brown says. “This was in our back pocket, but we waited for the right time to release it because this is our favorite STS9 track that we never really played for anyone.”

One notable addition to STS9's production team was technical whiz, producer and Native Instruments sound designer Richard Devine, who added some effects processing to the track “Peaceblaster '08.” “We just went at it with Richard in the main studio room, and he was incredibly inspiring,” Brown says. “He just picked us up and pushed us more than if we were by ourselves. He programmed the more 606-sounding beat that comes in, and then I did all the arpeggiated cut-up stuff from the first version [opening track ‘Peaceblaster '68’].”

Peaceblaster also provides STS9 with a forum to share their own vocals on a recording for the first time — something that probably sounds just as scary on the surface for fans as it did for the band. “Artifact had some vocals, but none of our own. On Peaceblaster, we did all the vocals, but it was hard making it happen. Getting vocals you love is a hard thing, especially since we aren't singers and don't sing,” Brown says. “We knew that we were gonna get hell for it either way, so it was hard to get through the ideology of an instrumental band trying to add vocals to express ourselves. Some of the biggest arguments we had were around what vocals to use and not to use, and how far we wanted to go with it.”


As usual, STS9 spent the summer months on the road bringing its stellar live show (complete with lighting, live artists, decor and DJs) to fans across the country. The live show centers around samples of original studio recordings stripped down into something that can be manipulated by the band onstage. Sequences are broken down and triggered individually to allow STS9 to take live renditions much further than intended with the original track. As with Artifact, it took STS9 several months to learn how to play Peaceblaster in a live setting.

When not making music or recording, STS9 is blogging. While much of the politics behind STS9 doesn't necessarily come through its largely instrumental music, the band has set up a blog at to help spread awareness for causes it deems important. The site also doubles as the virtual CD booklet for Peaceblaster. “It's a little journal that we share together highlighting politics, media, government and points people toward places we get info from,” Brown says. “The media in this country is just so large and consolidated that it's really hard to get an educated analysis of anything. You need to say your point in eight seconds, and that's it. Also, we don't really write lyrics, so this allows us to express ourselves in a way that we don't need to chew on it.”

For STS9's extensive gear list, go


  • Apple Macs running Ableton Live 7, Apple Logic 8, Digidesign Pro Tools|HD, Propellerhead Reason 4 and Native Instruments Komplete 5 software; Universal Audio UAD-1e Extreme PAK plug-ins
  • Akai MPC2000XL, MPC2500 samplers
  • Clavia Nord Lead 2X, Dave Smith Prophet 8, Korg MS2000, Moog Voyager RME, Waldorf Blofeld and Yamaha Motif 8 synths
  • Hallet, Davis & Co., Rhodes Mark I Stage 73, spinet pianos
  • JoMoX XBase-09 analog drum machine; Monome 64, 128 drum-machine controllers
  • C&C custom drum kit, ddrum DD triggers, Roland V-Drums, 1978 Slingerland drum kit
  • djembe, kanjira, Sol bongos and congas, tablas
  • Deagan marimba, koto, monochorde, Musser One-Nighter vibraphone
  • (2) David Eden 4×10 bass cabinets, Fender Hot Rod DeVille 4×10 guitar amp
  • Fender Stratocaster, Gretsch 125th Anniversary G6118T-125 guitar, 1972 Martin acoustic guitar, Modulus 5-string bass
  • Chandler Limited TG1 compressor/limiter; Crane Song Ibis EQ, Trakker compressor; Eventide Eclipse effects processor; Moog Music Moogerfooger MF-1042 Analog Delay; Universal Audio 8110 preamp
  • Alesis M1, Genelec 8020As monitors