There is a sacred lineage at work within the Sound Tribe Sector 9 that is multi-dimensional every step of their path. Each footprint along the way is a moment in time, expanding like a nautilus shell in its continuous form, while rooted in its ancestry. The successive chambers house the DNA of a living organism, one whose helix has been unfolding for 15+ years, still rich with an abundance of unrealized potential. Ever since STS9's inception in Atlanta, they have been a life force transcending each boundary, growing into that unexplored space, yet never being content with it. They have constructed their own unique musical language in this progression, which is communicated through shared human truths such as inspiration, creativity, exploration and the collective experience. These central tenets have sustained the band’s pioneering spirit throughout their existence. Originally known as just “Sector 9” (referencing "Baktun 9," the period the Mayans believed their civilization reached both an artistic and communal zenith), the group has moved from their brief existence as a funky trio to a free-form/synthesizer-infused quintet to a full-fledged-may-the-force-be-with-you-powerhouse that has come to define, re-shape and dominate the ever-evolving frontier of live electronica. Whether steeped within the festival subculture or in the midst of a stalwart touring regimen, STS9 has built an immensely loyal following that thrives on their live dynamic. The “Sound Tribe” is that band-audience synergy at its core: one that connects with an amalgam of divergent listeners - jam-band, dance, jazz/fusion, hip-hop, funk and so on and so on. Their sound is on a cosmic trajectory - always seeking, absorbing, and pushing limits into oblivion in the quest for a higher level of harmonic possibility. The exponential energy from their music has manifested into endeavors including their own 1320 record label, scoring the soundtrack for an acclaimed documentary as well as philanthropic efforts like canned food drives and building an eco-friendly home for a displaced Katrina family. They are not only the American Dream incarnate, but a testament to the human spirit. Their vision and journey have been symmetrical to one another, both ingrained with a constant yearning and curiosity for the world around them. Last week, I had an interesting conversation with guitarist Hunter Brown, ranging from the band’s origins to their live aesthetic to the upcoming album due out this year.
MC: Hunter, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me today. So I had the opportunity to meet Zach Velmer’s Dad once backstage after a show. He told me that when “Sector 9” was starting out back in ‘97, you guys would practice in the basement of his house in Atlanta. He also said that Zach was in a few other bands at the time, but decided to quit them. Primarily since he only wanted to play in a group that had the motivation to practice every single day of the week. With that in mind, clearly the focus was present from the beginning. What gave you this drive?
Hunter Brown: That's kind of how it all started. Zach and I were in a different band together that we had been with for awhile. And they just weren't as hungry as we were. Any spare time that we had, we were in Zach's basement just playing. And that just kind of led us astray I guess (laughs). And (David) Murphy had just moved back from North Carolina. I was thinking, "Oh, I know this other bass player, we could jam with him too." And it just kind of took off from there. The Velmers let us crash the basement and we took over that place for a long time. They even gave us a mini-van at one point for a little bit, which was our first band vehicle. So all of our friends and buddies would be at the Velmer’s after school and just play and hang and do this whole thing. That's kind of where the "Sound Tribe" came from. It was because we were all really inspired by each other. We were a family that was really just having fun and being creative together. So we wanted to pay homage to that when we named the band.
MC: Did having that kind of atmosphere, that kind of environment that you created for yourself, fuel your hunger early on?
Hunter Brown: You know, I'm not sure. I think that it comes from a lot of places. That would be almost a whole ‘nother conversation. For us, something clicked and we just wanted to chase after it. And that's what we did.
MC: So it's safe to say that things just gelled for you guys right from the beginning?
Hunter Brown: It did. Yes, just creatively and as friends. We all had mutual friends. At the time that Murphy and I met Zach, we all went to different high schools, but we knew some of the same people. And I think through our little group, there were a handful of us that were really serious about our art at the time. That's all we wanted to do. We wanted to talk about it. We wanted to travel. We wanted to experience new things. We wanted to put that stuff into what we were trying to express. And I think it was one of those things where - whoever was down, was in (laughs). The 3 of us just did that and kind of ran with it. Then we met (David) Phipps. And then not too long after that we met Jeffree (Lerner). And you know, thinking back about it now, it was all just so easy. It all happened so effortlessly in a way. Just how we came together and things kind of took off. We got one show here, another show there, and then all of a sudden we were playing shows everywhere. It was just kind of surreal.
MC: In the late 90’s/early 2000’s, the live electronica/jamtronica scene was still in its relative infancy. Although bands like the Disco Biscuits, The New Deal and Particle were coming into form, the scene was still pretty un-established. Being in such uncharted waters, what were some of the biggest obstacles STS9 faced early on?
Hunter Brown: I would say that we really never felt too much a part of a "scene" so to speak. When we first came out, we were playing in clubs in Atlanta and down in the South. We had groups like Tria De Luna, whose members were playing in big pop bands (Janet Jackson and TLC), but then on the side they were all jazz players. So with Tria De Luna, they were doing all this crazy, sort of house-electronic-drum-and-bass, but with live instruments. And at the time, we were hanging out at the Ying-Yang in Atlanta. We used to go there and play with those guys. They'd sit in with us and we'd sit in with them. And we did shows together too. We ended up bringing them to the Georgia Theater a couple years later. And we were trying to get them out there a little bit. So we kind of had our head in our own little world. We didn't know too much about the world outside of our own little band. We started meeting some of the bands. But there wasn't really any scene. Honestly, I think the toughest thing was just finding the resources to do what we wanted to do. Just kind of making it from spot to spot to do everything. We had such an idea that nothing was going to stop us (laughs). There wasn't going to be any kind of promoter or fan or anybody saying, "Well guys you need a singer, you need this, you all need to not do this." We had too many of all that. It's not that we didn't care - we were just in our own little world. It was just easy to kind of stay there and not really think about what was outside of it.
MC: And speaking of that time frame, the first STS9 show I saw was back in 2001. First and foremost, I was captivated by the uniqueness of your sound. But then, on top of that, there was this whole aesthetic that you guys were creating with your live show. There would be a rather large crystal arrangement on the front of the stage along with one, maybe two, live painters. I had never seen anything like that before. And you also had your light show, which was in its early stages. What gave the band the inspiration to incorporate these facets into your shows?
Hunter Brown: It was kind of the same with how it was with the music. You know, it was just friends of ours at the time, who are still friends of ours to this day. People like Kris Davidson and J. Garcia, who did most of the painting with us onstage, were the first to do it with us. They were just our best friends. I knew Kris before I even started playing with Zach. And whether the band was practicing any day of the week or doing house parties, Kris would be there painting and doing his thing. And because we all lived around each other, we were just hanging together, creating together. So it came down to wanting to bring that to the stage. Just something as simple as, "Why don't you paint while we're on stage? That'd be amazing!" It was just kind of funny in jest at first. But at the same time, it was like, "Well, why can't we do that? Alright, well let's do it!" And that's where all that came from. With the crystals too, we had friends who were really connected with that world. They had these huge pieces and a lot of people had never seen anything like that before. And we hadn’t either. We had little crystals and stuff that we'd found in Arkansas, but nothing of that magnitude (laughs). And our friends were like, "Well let's put them on stage. Let's create a place to showcase them." It was just really simple stuff like that. Just having an opportunity and taking it.
MC: The art painted onstage, then and even to this day, has themes rooted in sacred geometry. Needless to say, this is inspired by your performances. And I can see where it comes from. Being at an STS9 show, you can almost see and feel the geometry at work. There is this space that your music creates which is interwoven with lines, patterns and shapes. Furthermore, there is a soundscape that is rich with texture, layers and nuance all fluidly working together. Can you elaborate on this relationship the band has with sacred geometry?
Hunter Brown: Man, that's something that's hard to talk about as far as coming off in any coherent way in a venue like this. We are inspired by everything and geometry in nature is definitely one of them. And nature in general is one of them. Beyond that, it would maybe be an article for another magazine (laughs).
MC: I'm sure there is more than plenty to talk about in that realm.
Hunter Brown: There is and you could go in so many different ways with it. You know, we've been inspired by a lot of artists from Kris Davidson to Alex Grey. Just from some of the things we've taken from their work that have inspired our own. Whether it's just simply looking at their images around us at the time that we're creating something or more deeper intentions than that. Music and this kind of art seem to have a unique relationship together somehow. I don't know...it's crazy. It's not just music though. I think writers, as well, have that. David Foster Wallace used to talk about the "Sierpinski Gasket" and how that influenced his writing and the way he formed his novels. And anyone else would look at it and just say it's a piece of sacred geometry art. I think artists from all different backgrounds use sacred geometry for inspiration. I know that's very un-eloquent (laughs).
MC: Not at all. There is so much to fathom there and I’m sure it is difficult to speak concisely on it. It truly is a conversation unto itself. So with the early days still in mind, I know that the band has had a relationship with the Mayan Calendar to some degree since the beginning. And this was clearly evident within the "Great Cycle Spectacle" shows of last year. Can you elaborate on what draws STS9 to the Mayan Calendar even to this day?
Hunter Brown: This is another one of those questions that is difficult to answer. It goes back to our curiosity as people and as friends and with just being. Just like you are inspired by a certain artist or band or writer or thinker or whatever it is. It's just something that piques your interest and you follow it. And you try to find out more about it. For us, that was one thing at the beginning of the band that was a catalyst for all us to organize some of our creative ideas around. It really comes back to the 13 Moon Calendar. And we're all nature boys. We all grew up going camping, hiking, climbing and backpacking. Or just riding bikes in the woods in our neighborhood. And just being really inspired by nature in general. We were already particularly turned on to Mayan art and their connection to astronomy. So when we found out about the 13 Moon Calendar and its connection to cultural and astronomical things, it became incredibly inspiring and interesting. And it's not something that we were crazy about, but it's something that we became aware of, recognize and are just interested in. It's just beyond fascinating that a culture that long ago was able to map the stars as accurately as we are today with all of our technology. And the biggest thinkers in astro-physics and cosmology will tell you the same thing - the Mayans were on to something. And even our biggest, grandest telescope in the U.S. has at the base of it a mural dedicated to the Mayans and their ability to see. And that inspires us to be able to do what we do now. It's the connections between…you know...things that...yeah, it's just curiosity. So I should have just left it at that (laughs).
MC: (Laughs) It all comes full circle.
Hunter Brown: Curiosity and inspiration. I could just go on about that stuff for days (laughs). Because it all just takes you somewhere else, takes you somewhere else, takes you somewhere else - and that's just what life is all about. That's what is going for us. It's just learning about the world and learning about other people. And that's fun for us. That's where we get our creativity, that's where we get our inspiration. That was one of the key ones early on.
MC: What is or was the correlation between the band and the Moon Calendar? Do you ever still tune your instruments to the key of the day according to the 13 Moon Calendar?
Hunter Brown: No...no (laughs).
MC: (Laughs) Hey man, that's a part of the mystique with you guys. There are all sorts of things floating around.
Hunter Brown: It's true man, (laughs) and I've heard all kinds of crazy stuff. We did used to play like that though. Some of the first shows that we played, we didn't have enough material to fill up 2 or 3 hours. So we'd do these improvs in the key of the day according to the 13 Moon Calendar. It kind of helped us organize some creative ideas. It was something that we could base things on that was not just completely arbitrary. It was like "Okay, what's the key of the day? It's C. Okay, bam, put it down. That's what we're doing." And it's easy and fun and kind of mysterious in our own right. It kind of added an element of mystery for ourselves (laughs). Maybe that extra little intention gave the idea of improv-ing a little more urgency.
MC: While we are delving into the great mysteries of the band, I’ve heard that you guys meditate together.
Hunter Brown: We've done a lot of different things together. We have a ritual that we do every night before the show. And you could call it a meditation. It's a very specific ritual that we do. We've even made videos of it and taken pictures from a certain aspect of it. And it has all those kind of things that you are talking about: it has a little geometry, it has a little meditation and it has some breathing in it. It just helps us connect and bring it all home so to speak. Everything is just kind of moving so fast right before we go play. So right before we go on, we will find a moment where we can get together and kind of push it all out and bring it all in so to speak.
MC: Right on. So I am going to shift gears here. I read an article recently, which centered around the Gathering of the Vibes Music Festival last summer. There is a fascinating quote by Mickey Hart as he describes being turned on to electronica and its emerging role within his music. He said: “This is such a wonderful time where science and art are now handshaking and becoming one.” It’s like the left and right sides of the brain are in harmony. So when he says science, I know he is referring to it in the technological sense. How much music has evolved (electronica being a big catalyst) to such a level where today you can create, access and manipulate sound in real time in unprecedented ways. For example, using software like Ableton and Reason to do this. So it is pretty amazing how much creative freedom is at the touch of your fingers. Can this kind of freedom be overwhelming and/or liberating during the creative process?
Hunter Brown: Yeah, it can be both for sure. It can be overwhelming and liberating depending on your emotional state at the time (laughs). But the thing about art is that it helps you express those feelings of being overwhelmed or underwhelmed. And it always comes back to the user because there are all these tools available now. And we've always had new technology in music ever since the first person who picked up sticks and started banging them together. That was state of the art at the time. People never thought about banging sticks together (laughs). And then fast forward all these of years and you've got the guitar and so on. I'm sure we are experiencing the same things that other musicians experienced, but it's probably a little more extracting than it was back then. I think the hardest part, personally speaking, is that there is just so much music that I want to make. I'm interested in different kinds of music and sounds and just having the time to explore those fully. But, the technology is amazing. It allows you to set up at home and just go crazy. And we wouldn't be where we are without that ability that allows us to really take what we are doing to another level. Because we couldn't afford to go into studios when we first started out. So that kind of just opened up doors that we wouldn't have had otherwise. I think the main issue is having time to actually create. Because that's all we do when we're at home. Then again, there are never enough hours in the day to keep up with what you want to be doing.
MC: And still talking about the technological aspect of your music, I see and hear criticism at times when it comes to the material being performed by the band. In regard to shows that might be too heavily reliant on laptops, controllers, sequencers etc. versus more conventional instrumentation. Has that kind of criticism ever been an impediment to your evolution as a band?
Hunter Brown: I think it's more of a headache than anything because we don't want to disappoint anybody. And we love both sides of what we do - if there are even two sides to it. We consider it one thing, one expression - STS9 is all of that in communicating together. So although it is hard to separate in our minds, we know how people who have been seeing us for a long time can understand how we've evolved. It's something that can be really detrimental if you get too caught up in it. And for us, we just have to do what we feel like we want to do and we have to stay inspired ourselves. We hear from just as many people about how they wish we did more electronic stuff than the “band” stuff. So it's always a conundrum for us because we want to do both and we are going to do both. We're constantly trying to find the perfect balance in a show to do all of it – and it's impossible. We've just got too much material and just can't do everything in one night. But, yeah, I understand when people say that stuff. I get it. But I don't think there is much that we can do in terms of that. We just can't take it too seriously. We have to follow this natural path. What we do in our creativity together has to be organic. And if that's not happening and we are trying to contrive something based on what we think people want, then we are just...we're done. We can’t be in the studio thinking, "Well, there's people saying this sucks here, so let's do this instead." We've never made music that way. And so maybe we just don't know how to do that. We'll just have to continue pissing people off (laughs).
MC: It really comes back to how you just can't please everyone. I definitely believe there is an evolution at work in your sound. Of course, I dig as much old school material as possible, but I still love all of it.
Hunter Brown: And I appreciate that. With this tour, we've been spending the last year really trying to go back and re-vamp. Just re-learn a lot of that old music, some of the songs that we've left behind that we love. On this tour already, we've busted out 2 or 3 things that we haven't played in years. You know, like literally 4 or 5 years. And so people are excited that we’re bringing that stuff back. People sometimes get upset because they think we are moving away or that we've changed. But sometimes you are just going to see a different show. And sometimes we are going to go on tour and we're going to feel like doing a certain thing for a couple of weeks and that's just what it's going to be. But we never go away from something completely. At the same time, in the midst of this, we are always trying to do all of it. We still do the "Axe the Cables" shows. We are trying to do more of those in order to achieve a good balance. We love to play without any of the electronic stuff. That's fun for us. But we also love to play without any of the instruments too. We're just going to keep on doing what we do.
MC: You are coming out with a new album at some point this year.
What about the album encapsulates the essence of STS9’s sound? What about the album makes it a departure from your sound?
Hunter Brown: Hmmm...the music is coming from...that's a good question. I think it's a great balance between your question before this. I think it's taking the two things that we do - both the instrumental side and the electronic side - and there is a stronger bridge between the two. Honestly, I want to take that back, because...I don't know…music is impossible for me to talk about. That's why I rarely do interviews (laughs).
MC: Music really can transcend language and is so hard to describe in words at times. How long have you been working on this album?
Hunter Brown: We've been focused on it for almost a year. But during that time, we have taken about 3 or 4 months off. Using that time to completely re-vamp our live show from the music to the stage production. So there was a little lull there with the record. So, all in all, about a year into it so far. We're about maybe 90% done. We're really close. We've got the bulk of it, the foundation of it. Now it's just kind of the little details and some of the things that really make it a record, an album - a unified statement. That's kind of where we are at right now.
MC: Speaking of your stage production, you had the "Great Cycle Spectacles" throughout last year. I’m sure you worked at least one song from the new album into those shows. As far as the inclusion of potential album songs, how did that influence their maturation and development? Were the songs already pretty solidified or did playing them within that venue help expand their promise?
Hunter Brown: It absolutely did. I think in the past we tried to release records where no one had ever heard the music before. And this is going to be one of the first things we've done where there will be a few tracks on it that we've been playing live because we love them. We want to release them and we want to kind of have a finished album version. And because of exactly what you are saying - we are able to take pieces of these songs out in their infant form and try certain things with them live. Then go back into the studio and say "Well this doesn't work, that doesn't work, this is where it’s kind of stifled, this is where it just doesn't need this at all.” And it allows us to see what feels good once we are actually on stage and playing. It gives us a chance to see what fans are reacting to. It allows us to go back to the drawing board, so to speak, and kind of develop the idea a little bit better. So that's been a great tool for us with this record. And to answer your question from a minute ago, we want this to reflect more of the energy that we create live than in more recent releases, which have been more studio-oriented projects. That was a big part of it. Just being able to go out on tour last year and try some new things. To come back into the studio and not feel like the song is complete just yet. It's always kind of telling us what it wants to do now, hopefully evolving into something better over time.
MC: What is STS9's next step on the climb up the mountain? What is that musical pinnacle that you are still striving for? Has there been something that has been eluding you?
Hunter Brown: There are a lot of things that we really want to do that we haven't been able to do. I don't know how to express it verbatim in a detailed way. We want to work with other artists and we want to work with more vocalists. We want to write more dance music. We want to do more "Axe the Cables” shows. We want to keep putting energy into things that we've been doing and taking it to another level. We've got some things in the works right now that we're really excited about and it's going to take a little bit of time to complete. As far as getting it all right and getting it out there. But we've always liked small steps. You know, it's a gradual thing with us. As long as we're healthy and happy, then we're doing the right thing.
MC: In regard to your live show, the band is creating its own space at that moment in time, regardless of what night it is. With that in mind, what kind of indelible imprint do you want to leave on your audience? What do you ultimately want to create for them?
Hunter Brown: For one, we want to create a space where people just feel free to celebrate. We want it to be a celebration of life. Because life is precious and it should be celebrated. And we should express thanks for our lives together through music and art. So the number one thing is to have a meeting place for all of us to get together every once and awhile. To see old friends...you know, that's the kind of simple thing. Another part of it is just wanting to pass on the inspiration that we have. You know, we're fans like everyone else. We're going to see shows and we go to see music for the same reasons. And just to be able to have that experience. To be able to pass on some of the inspiration that has been given to us. That’s both an honor and a responsibility in a way. So we just try to go out there and do the best that we can to create the highest energy with that moment.
MC: And my next question is tied into that. Would you say your music is rooted in the pursuit of attaining higher consciousness through this togetherness?
Hunter Brown: I think there are a lot of ways to put it. And that might be one of them. I think it's just simply to share and to experience and to celebrate and to inspire. That's just essentially what it is. But yeah, we are all connected to that music as a bridge between people. It strengthens our connection somehow and highlights it in a way that everyday life does not.
MC: As far as that musical bridge you talk about, what is the most surreal moment that the band has shared with an audience during a show? That moment where you felt an aura of togetherness at its highest peak?
Hunter Brown: It can be something as simple as a smile that you catch in the crowd. Or it can be when the whole crowd is still clapping once we're done with a song. In the sense that when we are playing and can get the crowd clapping along in rhythm to what we're doing. And take it all the way to where they keep that going even when the song is over. I mean, we had one of those moments just a couple nights ago. And it was touching in a cool way. So you can really harness this energy inside the venue with the band and the art and the crowd - it's truly transcending. It's more than just going to see a concert and it's more than just playing a concert. You feel like you're really connected to the people around you in a way that's hard to explain. But it's powerful and meaningful...and it feels good.
Sound Tribe Sector 9 is a rare breed of musicianship that has found an organic balance between having a conscious vision for their craft and letting everything come together of its own volition over time. This is built on an unshakable foundation - love for their art, love for one another and love for their followers - their symbiotic family. It is this accord that has and always will be the bedrock for STS9’s longevity, vitality and evolution as a band. This year they continue on their pilgrimage into the vast unknown. Propelled by that fundamental quality that is innate in all of us, but in times of darkness we might not see. That allure of moving forward toward what we do not quite understand, yet are so mesmerized by, thus opening new dimensions – showing us what it feels like to be truly alive. To fully be in the moment. Sometimes all it takes is the light from that one star in the universe to illuminate the way, opening that space for a celebration of life.
Their light is ours
STS9 is in the midst of an extensive Winter/Spring Tour which continues until the end of April. Be sure to visit the band's official website for a full itinerary.
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- Matthew Cremer