Being That Conduit – A Conversation with Sound Tribe Sector Nines Hunter Brown
Greetings Jambands.com readers, and welcome to another installment in my effort to interview the most socially conscious musicians in the music scene. This time up it’s Sound Tribe Sector 9 guitarist Hunter Brown. STS9 almost defy categorization, having merged a variety of influences into a unique sound that people seem to have a hard time pinning down. In a recent query regarding the band’s genre, fans threw out answers such as “psychedelic/atmospheric/funkalicious/drum & bass”, “elevator music from the year 2112”, “transcendental intergalactic space funk,” and “organic groove trance funk diddly”. With their transcendent, improvisational jams and Mayan-inspired sense of a higher, metaphysical purpose, the band’s music delivers a spiritual sustenance that has earned them a very devoted core following.
Another aspect that really stands out about this band is what down-to-Earth, friendly guys they are. I first met Hunter Brown in May at a lecture by Mayan scholar/prophet Jose Arguelles. I pitched him on a “Guitar World”-style interview, and he just gave me his phone number and told me to call him. In an era when rockstar egos are known to run to some rampant excesses, STS9 are truly refreshing these guys are keeping it on the real.
I wanted to do a “Guitar World”-style interview because HB’s playing stands out as somewhat unique in today’s jamband scene. His generally minimalist-but-still occasionally-scintillating-in-the-timeliest-ways-style has often left me pondering how a musician of his relative youth wound up generating such an approach. And STS9 doesn’t look like they’ll be fitting into Guitar World’s “nu-metal” emphasis anytime soon. I caught up with HB shortly after the band had returned from its first run of shows in Japan.
GS: Let’s start off by going back to your early influences what were you listening to as a kid?
HB: Well my dad listened to a lot of old soul, like The Temptations and Four Tops, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye stuff like that. I grew up in Georgia, that’s like the soul capital James Brown was a huge one, from the funk/soul thing. When I was able to have my own say in my music, when I really cared about having my own identity with my music was like 6th or 7th grade. I started listening to hip-hop, the whole realm of it, everything from NWA to Far Side and everything in between. What I really stuck with was Far Side, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul the really conscious, more roots-oriented hip-hop that was coming out at that time.
GS: And when did you get your first guitar?
HB: My first guitar was when I was 13.
GS: And who did you look up to guitar-wise at that time?
HB: Hendrix, Hendrix and Bob Marley just because he played guitar, I was really all about him, just really captivated I guess about the whole reggae thing as well. I’ve always gone through reggae spells, and dub spells, where that’s all I’ll listen to for a period of time. And now that I’m older I kinda listen to everything all the time, whereas when I was a bit younger, I’d listen to this pretty much all the time. But hip-hop really turned me on to music that I was unaware of, and that was jazz. Y’know, most hip-hop is sampled from old funk/jazz and even pre-fusion jazz. And I was just like, “what is this music coming from, it’s so gorgeous” and that led me to find different jazz artists and that’s where it all started for me.
GS: Like Miles Davis and all that? Some people have noticed some John McLaughlin influence in your sound.
HB: Yeah, I don’t know if they’ve noticed it in my sound more, or me told them, (chuckles) because I’d love for them to notice that in my sound.
GS: Oh okay that kind of space-funk-fusion thing that he helped sort of pioneer
HB: Yeah, absolutely, I mean, I love, man he really to this day is still one of my favorite guitar players. Mainly his work on Bitches Brew with Miles, and his own album My Goals Beyond – Piece 1 and Piece 2 are some of my favorite music in the world. I’m really directly influenced by a lot of albums, and those are two for sure that I used to sit up and play to all the time.
GS: Okay, and now how about the whole DJ/electronica scene when did you start to become aware of that, and there’s so many different genres there, do you make the distinctions or see them as one amorphous group?
HB: Well when I first started listening to it, I guess it was 9th grade, I was dating this girl and she used to go to raves and everything so she used take me with her, and that really first turned me on to that whole thing. So at first it was like “wow”, I couldn’t put my finger on anything. But no, I never really delineated, and now there’s all kinds of delineations but they’re really getting blurred and each genre has its subgenre, which has its subgenre, and its really amazing the universalizing of music.
GS: Yeah. Okay, let’s talk about your gear a little bit. What kind of guitar do you play?
HB: I play a Modulus these days.
GS: That’s a high-tech company, how did you get up with them?
HB: Well yeah, for real, that’s what I’m asking Our bass player Dave Murphy well, Oteil Burbridge, he originally turned us, we’re huge fans of what he’s always done that’s actually why David started playing the bass, was his work with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. And Modulus was always like this epic guitar he had, and somehow he befriended someone over there and he had a bass and started inquiring how to get it fixed through them and this guy started coming out to our shows and gave him a deal, and then they started making hollowbody guitars a year ago and then immediately I was knocking on their door saying hey, hey and so we got an endorsement with them and I couldn’t be happier.
GS: So you play a hollowbody?
HB: It’s a semi-hollowbody. I used to have a Gretsch hollow, full hollow, and it was a little too wild for us. Then I went to a Gibson AS-50 and that ended up it was as old as I was and ended up breaking and was unfixable because they used to use epoxy on the necks and you can’t reset the necks once they’ve cracked, you have to break the whole guitar. So yeah, then Modulus really hooked me up.
GS: Does yours have any customized electronics?
HB: Not right now no, it’s pretty straight forward, which is how I like it mostly. I don’t use many effects and the effects I do use are pretty natural.
GS: Do you have a pedalboard of stuff or a rack or what have you got there?
HB: I go through an EQ and I have a pedalboard, and I’m moving into getting a rack setup I know what I want, it’s just a monetary issue.
GS: SureWhat kind of stuff do you have in your pedalboard?
HB: I’ve got a phaser, an octave pedal, a delay, a dual drive pedal where I can go from one level of gain to another a wah, and this other pedal that’s like, my secret stash pedal, it does all kinds of crazy stuff
GS: Aha, the secret stash pedal, okay.
HB: I wanna mention too, this band, one of the early bands that really turned us on that we were lucky enough to be influenced by We lived in Atlanta and when we first got together as a band we used to always go to this club called Yin-Yang, which was like the hip-hop club in Atlanta. And they would have live jazz and live bands that would come in and play, that were just they were “the cats”. Y’know, like you would hear about these bands that were huge and stuff in their city “these are the cats” that really play and we used to go see them. And there was this band called Treea de Luna that we ended up befriending and sitting in with, and once we got our thing going a little more they ended up opening for us a few times. Their drummer used to play for Janet Jackson and TLC, and stuff like that and they had a band that did live drum and bass, and live house and R&B. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Donnie, he used to sit in with them and is becoming like the next Stevie Wonder according to some people. So that was a huge influence on us.
GS: Okay And now last summer you guys did that Tzolkin show at Justice League where you and Phipps (STS9’s keyboardist) both had computers you were using a lot. Some people were joking that it looked like you guys were instant messaging each other up there what kind of stuff were you guys doing there?
HB: We were triggering and manipulating sequences and samples that we’ve created. I was running a program that has a simulated mixer on it with virtual instruments, like a sampler
GS: What kind of software is that?
HB: I was using Reason it’s become really popular, its pretty amazing software, its made by Propeller Head. So yeah, we’ve been working on that for a couple years now, running the live sequences and stuff and that’s what we’re still doing, I don’t know if you noticed I have a laptop
GS: Yeah, I saw you had the laptop up there at the Fillmore that you were using…
HB: That’s become a big part of my artistic expression at home, and it’s something I can bring with the guitar, because I’ve always been interested in so many instruments
GS: Okay, and now how has your creative process evolved over the years from when you guys were just getting going in Georgia to now, where you’re a full national touring unit?
HB: Y’know, we had it more together back then I think (chuckles) We used to just practice every day, when we were back in Georgia and we’d have a show every weekend or something like that before we met El Bujo. And then these days, it’s like really holistic where we’ll set up two-week or three-week long practices where we all live in different places now, so we’re trying to get together. We’ve all kinda separated for a little bit not separated, but just because of our personal lives, different people have girlfriends in different places that are doing things, and so we’ve kinda kept it open like that. It’s really helpful because we like to bring What originally made this band so special for us was all the individual lives that came into it and made it what it was. It was the individualism that really made the unit so tight, because there was all these different things coming in that made it so unique but that blended so well.
GS: The whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
HB: Yeah, exactly So, that’s what we originally started as and then as we grew we were around each other every day and got off tour and lived together and so it kinda started to stagnate in a sense of y’know, we got off tour, we’re living together, I’d wake up, I’d see Zach or I’d see Murphy, we wouldn’t feel like practicing, y’know what I mean, we’d just feel like doing something completely different. These days we’ve got our stuff together, where we can at our last house we had a practice space where our crew stayed and everything, everyone would come out for three weeks and hone in on practicing every day and everyone comes with either material we’ve written on our instruments or computers and sequencers and stuff like that, little drum machines and stuff, and just bring anything we can. And once we get together it’s a real improv, open thing where a lot of our best live material comes out of I think. It’s really cool, because we’re drawing from a lot of different creative inspirations. Someone can bring a song and we can learn it to the tee, or we can just make up a song on the spot, or just bring little parts and work it out. It’s really wide open and that’s how we like it, that’s what really works for us.
GS: Switching gears for a moment to another topic that I often write about, those big huge crystals you have on stage where do you guys get those from and whose idea is that?
HB: Well we’ve always been into crystals I guess, and individually we were always bringing our little stones around our own little places and it turned into everyone was bringing them and we could make mandalas, y’know, art out of it, and really create a space on stage. And then we started meeting people that own galleries or are actual dealers or diggers and we’ve gone and mined crystals ourselves in Arkansas. So some of the big ones come from us, and most of the big ones you’ve seen recently have come from a friend of ours, Casey, who runs a gallery and actually helps run a mine down in San Diego. He’s really into the metaphysical properties of what they can do and what their initial intention was I guess And we look at it as kind of rescuing a lot of these stones from the mines that already exist. I feel ideally we wouldn’t have to excavate anything and part of it is like mad respect for the energy that they hold and the experience they’ve gone through to be created and become what they are. And so we’re trying to just put them into the right hands I don’t know, not that we’re the right hands we think, but we are I guess, y’know?
GS: Kind of giving them something more compelling to do than just sitting around.
HB: Yeah, well instead of, cuz y’know, a lot of these mines, you find out that the biggest pieces that are coming out of them are sold to the government or to
GS: The government?
HB: Yeah, the biggest piece that came out of Arkansas last year or the year before was sold to the government. They make all kinda stuff, a lot of the lenses they make for satellites and different stuff like that are made out of quartz crystals, so we’re kind of taking em back. (chuckle)
GS: Do you guys take those on tour?
HB: Yeah we take em on tour – well it changes all the time, we always have stones on tour, but some shows are different than others. We have friends in different areas of the country, so we have a guy in New York who always brings a lot of herkimers, because Herkimer, NY is where all herkimers come from. So, it changes depending on where we are. There’s a friend of ours in Santa Rosa who has a lot of amazing pieces he brings when we’re in San Francisco.
GS: Okay, and now how far ahead of time do you guys plot your strategy as far as touring and band plans?
HB: We try to do it as soon as possible it gets better all the time. We’re becoming more comfortable with what we want and knowing what we want, and not being so scared of thinking what we want. Because a lot of people will tell you once you get into it you can’t do this, you can’t do that. But we’re kind of trying to just really be true to the art, and be true to ourselves first and not the business in the sense of keeping the art pure. And having said that, we’re not going to do a [traditional] “tour” this fall, we’re going to go around to a lot of major cities and a couple of other places as well, and mostly practice take about 10 days more of practice then we tour. We’re doing about 20 or 30 shows, and about 40 or 50 days of practicing. So that’s something we’ve been really trying to do for a couple years now and are really excited about. We’re more excited then we’ve ever been I guess, and we just really need time to hone in on some of the new ideas that we have, and we just haven’t had any of that time, it’s all kind of just flown by over the last four years.
GS: Okay, let’s talk a little bit about the Mayan calendar. As most of your fans know, it’s part of the band’s vibe, the name coming from the 9th baktun, when the Mayan civilization was at its peak, and you were at Jose Arguelles’ recent lecture here in The City. Had you ever seen him before, or what was your impression of his presentation?
HB: I’d never seen him live in person, but I’ve got videotapes from different conferences he’s done up in Mt. Hood and stuff because we’ve been in contact and we’ve worked and done some charity stuff with the Planet Art Network (PAN) up in Portlandwith them and with this gallery as well in Portland. So we’ve done different stuff with those guys, and it’s been a mutual thing, they’ve given us countless free things to give out like calendars, and telektonons, and dreamspells, and books and stuff like that. And we’re trying to just do our small part in passing it on, being a conduit for his information And a lot of people come to us and are like, “what is this, and this and this”, and it’s like y’know, I’m still trying to figure it out as well (chuckle). So, I tell people about Tortuga.com (Arguelle’s website, and home of the Foundation for the Law of Time) and anything that Jose is doing.
But seeing him for the first time, I really felt the severity of the situation I guess. And to really hear what he was holding, for me, seeing it He’s a historian, and he knows and has taken the time and the effort and has put the energy into really finding out what our history is, and what our most recent history means, and far-past history as well. And I think he really nailed it on the head At least as far as the calendar is concerned, it’s a really easy, simple method to my eyes to at least try to change some of the cycles we’ve created for ourselves. Because I know so many people who aren’t happy, y’know what I mean, and there’s gotta be some kind of change. And the most obvious one seems to be what delineates and not controls, but what the parameters of what we put our day to day lives in, the hours and the dates should at least be natural, should at least pertain to something that is happening to us naturally, which is the moon cycle. And one thing I always try to clear up is that it’s not necessarily a Mayan calendar, it’s a 13-moon calendar.
GS: Right, a lot of indigenous peoples around the world use those cycles.
HB: Oh yeah, people in the Andes still use it, they’ve always used it, people here still use it, I use it. There’s also a man from the states in the 20s or 30s he had a really big movement going on to change it, but when the war happened it kind of overshadowed what he had done, but he was trying to change it to the 13-moon calendar So it’s something that’s been around
GS: Was that Nicholas Roerich? (link to http://www.roerich.org)
HB: Yeah, that’s exactly who it was.
GS: Yeah, I’ve heard Jose talk about him Okay, so what is the future looking like for the band are you just kind of looking at the rest of this year or
HB: Well the future for us hopefully is just growth and evolution We don’t really have any goals, um
GS: Kind of just surrender to the flow?
HB: In a sense, yeah in a responsible sense, yeah. (chuckles). We wanna just keep what we got going on and, just keep delivering the music that we feel and just being that conduit for that music.