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Published: 2005/04/05
by Mike Greenhaus

Sound Tribe Sector 9: From Crystals to Computers

At first, it seemed odd for a band as forward thinking as Sound Tribe Sector 9 to title its newest album Artifact. Yet, despite its flair for computers and electronic beats, STS9 is a union of traditionalists, spiritually rooted in the Mayan calendar and musically grounded in organic rock. Embracing the studio as an instrument itself, the members of Sound Tribe Sector 9 have recently turned in a carefully layered, and tightly produced, collection, which mixes of rock, jam and electronica for a studio manifestation of its "livetronica." And, as Sound Tribe continues to recreate its studio setting onstage, the group has helped to establish a unique bridge, adjoining the hippie-rock and club music communities. Below STS9 percussionist Jeffree Lerner talks about his latest recording sessions, the group's invisible lead singer and why computers are the new crystals.

MG- Sound Tribe spent almost two years creating Artifact. Can you talk about the songwriting process which laid the foundation for this new album?

JL- We started the process about twenty months ago. We basically all produce as well as create music, so a lot of the ideas came about at home on our free time. Originally a lot of the ideas were individual but, in the end, they are all really co-compositions. Everyone brings ideas to the table about every song. Basically, we went to LA and rented a studio for a month. We actually lived at this house, which doubled as a studio. We recorded a bunch of the album's raw instrumental foundation tracks. Then we went back and layered them with computer tracks and additional instruments.

MG- Twenty months is a long time to spend on a single-disc album.

JL- We were touring hard. And the reason why it took so long is that it is all so produced and engineered. We learned an incredible amount about the tools that are available to us and were actually honing those skills as we were recording as well. It was a huge learning experience for us.

MG- While you were recording Artifact did you work any of your new songs into Sound Tribe’s live set?

JL- No, actually we didn't want to. We wanted it to be fresh new music so we kept it under our belts a little. A couple of tracks we played live for a few months. "Native End" appeared and then disappeared. We played it live and then put it aside to give it some more attention. "Today" was also part of our live repertoire for a while. But, for the most part, the material was written in the studio or with the intention of being on the album. So, really, it's just a timing thing.

MG- Several tracks on Artifact feature rather complex computer arrangements. While recording, did you ever discuss a song’s potential live arrangement?

JL- I think we usually worry about that later. We were strictly creating music that sounds good to us as musicians and producers. How we perform a song live is a second thought. We are not going to diminish the recording just so we can play it live.

MG- Given this carefully arranged approach, how much room is there for improvisation in a live setting?

JL- Well, we changed the arrangements around slightly. We extended some parts and shortened some parts for the live show. The end of "Something" we left kind of open ended so that we could kind of improv around the song—-add three or four minutes. But, a good portion of the songs are faithful to the studio arrangements. There might be eight bars added just for the length of the song, but live we try to stick to the arrangements to maintain the integrity of the song. But there is also room for improv in there if we feel it. It's real open-ended thing with us. There is structure but we can diverge from it anytime we want.

MG- Recently, Sound Tribe has been experimenting with vocal samples. If fact, it almost sounds like STS9 is performing with an invisible lead vocalist.

JL- It's something we are testing out. We'd like to move towards that as producers and musicians. We don't know if it will necessarily be in Sector 9 or turn into a different entity itself. It's something you'll be seeing for the next few months for sure. It's a different type of expression.

MG- Would this side-project use a different moniker?

JL- I think that's something safe to say. I wouldn't call it a side project—-it's more of an extension. It wouldn't necessarily be different musicians, though we'd add a vocalist. We'd still be a band, just performing different styles of music.

MG- Since the beginning, STS9 has collaborated with visual artists, as well as musicians. What was your initial intention in mixing the worlds of art and music?

JL- Looking at different cultures in society and seeing the different forums for art. There are lots of forums for live music, but there's not too many forums for live painting. We kind of wanted to open up the stage as a platform for any type of art. We've had people typing on a manual typewriter behind us. We have had everything from people reciting poetry to offering flower arrangements. Basically, we want to maintain the stage as an opportunity to showcase different forms of art, as well as interpreting music. "Sound Tribe" refers to a collective of artists and musicians. They are all part of the family.

MG- I’ve heard your rehearsal space at times resembles an art studio.

JL- Exactly. We do a lot of our own posters and artwork and designs for merchandise. Hunter Brown is a big visual artist. We all experiment with different little forms of art—-like I take photography. There is always an element of that mixed in.

MG- Before joining Sound Tribe Sector 9, you played in a variety of bands. Were these group’s more rooted in rock or electronica?

JL- It was more rock. That is what existed at the time. I was actually an employee of Leftover Salmon. I was their monitor engineer and stage tech for a while and played with Jeff Sipe everytime I could. It's part of our evolution. But we always have been interested in electronic music—-DJ Logic and Brian Eno. It's always been part of our interests. But, as the technology became more familiar to us, we were able to incorporate it into our set.

MG- When did Sound Tribe first begin to employ computers onstage?

JL- About three years ago. Hunter Brown was the first. He was bringing in different sequences and produced sounds that couldn't be recreated in a live setting. But now everyone except Zack [Velmer] has one. But Zack has a sampler up there. So everyone has an electronic element to balance their traditional instrument.

MG- What is the forecast for Sound Tribe’s summer?

JL- We are going to be putting out a remix of Artifact by a bunch of different artists. We will also definitely be hitting the festival circuit—-we have plans for Bonnaroo and Wakurusa already. We also plan to go to Japan again later this summer and we are starting to work on a new studio album. We are hoping to have it out in the next twelve months or so. A lot of it will be self-produced, but there is some talk about bringing in different producers. For the Winter Music Conference we are going to pull some new things and I am sure that will carry over to the tour.

MG- Speaking of the Winter Music Conference, can you tell our readers a little bit about this annual gathering?

JL- It's the JazzFest of the electronic music scene and DJ world. All the computer companies and all the software companies are going to be there. It's like a big convention. It's also a way for artists to highlight what they do. Smaller clubs also host private parties and all sorts of electronic acts perform.

MG- Artifact was released on your own label. Do you also plan to issue albums by other artists?

JL- I am sure that will be part of the future of it, but we don't have any plans for that right now. We want to get our system locked in—-our distribution, our ways of sharing music—- before we bring that to other artists. But it's definitely part of the intention for sure.

MG- This winter, Sound Tribe took an eclectic mix of artists on the road, ranging from the Brazilian Girls to members of the Flecktones.

JL- Futureman's project is pretty cool. He actually asked us to sit in with him—- which is pretty neat. His project is very tribal—-it's tribal sounds through electronic beats. It's really interesting. That's the kind of stuff we kind of like bringing on the road right now.

MG- For many years, the press focused on STS9’s interest in the Mayan calendar. But, recently, the band has shied away from publicly discussing your beliefs. Do you think the media misinterpreted STS9’s views?

JL- It is one of those things we were all into, and I guess still are, but it turned into more of a personal thing than a group thing we are all pushing. If not for any reason besides that it has been sort of misconstrued by the press. It leads to this cultish vibe and that's not really what is going on. We are really just artists interested in creating this music. But, like anyone in the world, we are interested in the cultures which came before us: Mayan, Egyptian or Indian. Art History and our elders—-that's all it really was, but I think it got made into something else it really wasn't. Computers are the next crystals—-in fact computers are crystals.

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