A Collective Vision with STS9s David Murphy
the dream inspired by gears turning over, levers and levels, all the abstraction drawn into focus – The Sleep Touches Everyone, APS [A Public Space], vol. 4, by N. Twemlow
"A classic tale of two prolific bands that have never played together before..only to realize that after all the successes and blissful journeys they’ve had, they suddenly realize that, indeed, something has been missing in their lives. It is this summer tour that has finally brought new friends together to unite the subcultures, many of which countless fans have been moved to laughter and tears, altogether discovering the true meaning of unity and togetherness…always and forever. United we tan, divided we burn!" – Kris Myers on the Umphrey’s McGee/STS9 Summer ’08 Tour
With Peaceblaster, STS9’s first studio album since 2005’s Artifact, the quintet moves into its second decade with a group mind and vision handcrafted by a strong band of individuals. Whereas past efforts included vast sonic explorations, which pushed and challenged the listener, their latest release is a far closer approximation of the union between their exhilarating live performances and the art of songcraft. Indeed, the 15-song album is a consistently-engaging work which pulls the listener into its swirling web of intrigue without ever losing sight of what made the group initially so unique when they hit the music scene in the late 1990senergetic and exciting music for heads, tweakers, dancers, ravers, and rockers alike.
STS9, which is currently on a co-headlining tour with Umphrey’s McGee, also will venture into the film world in 2009, collaborating on a work titled ReGeneration. Here Jambands.com sits down with STS9 bassist David Murphy to investigate the dynamic work that went into creating the new studio album, their live shows, the state of the music business, and a fresh perspective on that age old battle to define the wonderfully complex yet endearing “Sector 9 sound.”
RR: Peaceblaster has a great overall flow, a consistently fluid progression, and the new album appears to be a strong movement forward for STS9.
DM: Thank you very much. I’m glad you’re enjoying it. We were really excited with the end result of the record. We’re happy that it’s finally out (laughs) as most bands are with records. Yeah, we could not be happier. We feel that this is definitely our best foot we’ve put forward yet as far as a studio record. We’re getting a little bit of that feedback. Good.
RR: There is an absence of flab on Peaceblaster, and the tone of the album is very focused, has a live feel to it, and doesn’t appear to be an overly-labored work that got bogged down in the details. How long did it take to construct the overall album?
DM: Well, you’re right. We really wanted thiswe were trying to trim back some of the fat that we have on previous records, and definitely went into it with an intention ofnot necessarily capturing what we do livebut trying to conjure up some more of that energy that the shows have in the way that we present the songs in the live format. That was definitely a big intention of ours going into this.
With that said, it ended up being ironic that it took us the shortest amount of time of any record we’ve done. We had been working on a record for a couple of years that was way more down tempo. About halfway through last year, while working on it, we felt that this is not the record we should be putting out right now. We went in and started a whole new record in October of last year, and pretty much locked ourselves in the studio, all the way through early April. We had been working on the record for about six months from start to finish. We were kind of shocked by this, but at the same time, it was really good for us to put a time restraint on ourselves, to really go in there to try to produce something that we’d be happy with that we didn’t end up watering down.
Sometimes, as an artist, the longer you give yourself, the more you can look too far into it, you can water it down, you can overanalyze what you’re trying to do, versus just going in there and really capturing things that feel good. “Hey, this feels good, let’s go with this.” We were really surprised by the effort we were able to put out in such a short amount of time. Not that we didn’t think that we could do it, it was just that _Artifact_we worked on that record for almost three years. We knew we didn’t want to do that, again. We also were proud of ourselves by how fast we were able to turn this record around.
RR: That’s impressive because my impression was that the work didn’t sound overly labored, there was a mature intensity to the piece, but at the same time, it didn’t sound rushed, and has a patient fluid motion. If it was produced over a six-month period, where were these elements coming from? There are numerous sections within each song, and nothing appears cut and spliced in from another source like “well, this sounds really cool, why don’t we mix this bit into that song.”
DM: Exactly. I think that’s where we went at it trying to capture some more of the live show. You’re exactly right. There is not near enough cutting and splicing on this as there has been with past things that we’ve done in the studio. I don’t think that that was intentional. Well, it wasn’t intentional as far as when we were putting the record together. As far as the songs, we knew we wanted songs that had fluidity to them. Everybody really wanted to play their instruments throughout the songs. We didn’t want to dwell on other things that we’ve doneit is that, too (laughs) sometimes the songs sound like a bunch of different parts crammed together. Not necessarily in a bad way like it was forced, but we were experimenting, or we were intentionally trying to do things to be different. Whereas with Peaceblaster, let’s really play our instruments on this, let the studio songs open up and breathe.
I feel like over the last ten years, we’ve gotten really good at doing that livewriting songs for the live environment that do that, but we had never really tried to do that for the studio, writing songs that were really fluid from beginning to end, and told a story. It made sense, (laughs) if you will, from start to finish. You didn’t get to the end of the song and say, “What song is this? What am I even listening to?” That was definitely a strong intention of ours, going into this. It was easy to do that, having done a few different studio records now, and having learned so much with Artifact, and a couple of the other things we’ve been doing. We worked on the movie ReGeneration in between Artifact and putting this record out, so a lot of the things we had learnedtricks of the tradein the studio was so much easier to apply to this record. Our maturity level and the growth that we’ve all obtained over the last few years in the studio finally paid off. I feel like it was able to show through in the music on Peaceblaster.
In the past, we were still amateurs working in the studio realm. Like most bands, you don’t get near enough time in the studio as you do in the live format. It is more of a challenge to go into the studio, and put out a record that comes across as a solid effort. That’s not what you do for your bread and butter, basically. (laughs) Bands like us don’t. We make our bread and butter on the road, and it’s a luxury to go into the studio, and put that out, and you kind of do that to keep your name relevant. I don’t think us or anybody else in this sort of genre of music that we are in, expect to go in and do a record and put it out that’s going to break us into the pop mold. (laughs) Maybe that happens one day, and that would be great, but that is never the intention.
The intention is to get better and better at the studio effort because as we get older, it is something that we love to be able to do. We find that that’s where the true honing and crafting of your art lies in that studio, lies when you’re not around people. You’ll push yourself a lot harder when you’re trying to please the other four people in your band versus trying to get a reaction out of the crowd. It made us step our game up, (laughs) for sure, as far as what we wanted to present, but then a lot of it just came easily. We were all on the same page going into this record; we knew what we wanted to get out it; we didn’t necessarily know how we were going to get there, or what the songs were going to sound like, but we all had a collective vision of where we wanted to get to, and I think that was the biggest factor in this record coming across as well as it did. Having all new songs on itwe geared those new songs towards “Hey, we want to take these songs and go play them live,” whereas Artifact had 20 songs on it, and I think we played 6 or 7 of them live, and this record has 15 tracks on it, and we’ll be playing 11 of them live. That was definitely part of our intention, also. It has worked out great. We’ve been playing some of the new stuff live, and the crowd reaction has been great. It has that energy of a live Sector 9 show. We couldn’t be more pleased with that result.
RR: And let’s be clearmy positive thoughts about your latest work are not meant as a negative comparative study of your past studio releases. STS9 began as a free-form improvisational group, stretched into a wider realm over time, before refining its process into more composed elements. Now, it seems that the band has combined those disparate elements into Peaceblaster. What’s interesting to me is that when I’ve seen the band live, there is a distinct, focused group mind at work on stage, and the band plays with its various parts as a collective whole. It appears that the band caught that personality trait in the studio for the first time on Peaceblaster. Was that philosophical approach discussed in the studio, especially when you talked about getting the live feel on the record?
DM: Not so literally, more sowe were going after an energy. What you speak of is very true about us, but it’s something we don’t really talk about amongst ourselves. Being out here on the road with Umphrey’s McGee, hanging out with the guys in the band, us stroking their backs, and them stroking ours, (laughs) stroking egosthey’ve brought that up a lot: “Wow, it’s so cool to watch you all move as one unit.” We know that we do that and we’re aware of that, but it isn’t something that we’ve ever focused on, or really ever talked about.
I think the best way of being able to describe it, yetand I think it is very, very true for the recordis that there are so many subtleties and nuances in our music that just happen naturally, and what we’ve learned to be able to do is that, instead of those being little nuances or little synchronistic moments where we all do something cool, we started to hone in on and accentuate those moments. Here’s a part of the song where everybody’s doing something different that is cool, or the music’s really moving right here, and every time we play this, we all seem to move together. How can we best accentuate that? How can we put emphasis on that to make it a cool part of the song, or a cool part of the show? It’s still one of those ambiguous things that I think is Sector 9 sound, but it’s something that we still really don’t put a lot of emphasis on as far as premeditated.
We knew what we wanted to do energetically with Peaceblaster, and we just sort of jumped into it. All of a sudden, a couple of months later, we realized, “Wow, there’s some really powerful stuff here, and it’s really good,” but it was kind of like what I was saying. Where can we go in and put the emphasis? Where are things happening that are going to be best realized by putting a lot of emotion in this one section of the song? I think being able to be in the studio and say, “O.K.how is this going to come across live?,” once we started to look at how these songs would come across live, and then where is that balance between the studio and the live realm of trying to put that energy into the studio record, but not make it sound forced, I think that’s where a lot of the fluidity came from on the record. Let’s don’t try to do something here just because we can do something unique because we’re in the studio, and it’ll be cool to us, but nobody else will ever get it. Let’s try to do something with this part that will make the song explode to another level, or let’s bring it down here. How is the crowd going to react to this? Looking at a studio record from that mentality really helped us, versus just saying, “Let’s write songs that are going to sound really good live,” or are going to rage really hard, which we’ve done in the past, trying to write songs for the live stage.
Instead, we were trying to put ourselves in the crowd more than we ever have before. We really benefited from it a lot, just in being able to learn and be further into how the fans really react to our music, what are music is really doing. It’s like what you said. You’re exactly right. We started as a three-piece free-form thing, and now, 11 years later, it’s very much composed, structured music, but we’ve gone back to really loving that openness, also, of music. We’ve finally found a way to put all of those elements into it for a complete thought. Versus it being “that’s a really cool moment, and that’s a really cool moment”having a bunch of cool moments, but they are not necessarily relating to each other. Now, we’re starting to be able to figure out how to make all of those moments relate to each other to either put together a good concert, or with Peaceblaster, put together a good record by really finishing and completing our thoughts, artistically.
RR: I noticed that you are able to step out of that framework, David, and do it as an individual musician. I reviewed the Umphrey’s Fillmore shows back in February, and exactly five months ago today [February 16], you sat in with them on the second of a three-night run on “Triple Wide.” It was amazing how you came on stage and propelled them to another level on that songit also worked within the Umphrey’s framework. Are you noticing that, as well, where you are able to slip into someone else’s musical conversation, and tweak their sound?
DM: Yeah, well, I appreciate you saying so, that means a lot. Every time those guys ask me to sit in, or the Biscuits, it’s such an honor. We all respect each other so much, musically, and really enjoy what everybody does musically with their bands. To be able to sit in with Umphrey’s, that was great and those Fillmore shows were great. I distinctly remember that show because we haven’t played the Fillmore in a few years, and I jonesed desperately to go play back in that room. (laughter)
I remember right before I went on and played with Umphrey’s, Brendan Bayliss said, “It’s in the key of Awesome [being in the key of A]. I think you’ll enjoy itit’s got a little bit of a Sector 9 vibe.” I remember as soon as they went into the beat and the groove and everything, I thought, “Totallythis is right up my alley.” When I walked on, it was easy for me to apply kind of the Sector 9 bass movement to that particular track. When I sit in with the Biscuits, or the New Deal, I think it is kind of the same thing. For whatever reason, Sector 9 is heavily driven by bass and drums. The more I’ve been able to hone in on what that is that I bring to Sector 9, the more I’ve been able to throw that in and out of other people’s music. I’m not really sure quite what it isbut people definitely come upI sat in with the Biscuits at ROTHBURY, and people were coming up to me throughout the weekend saying, “I love how you add that Sector 9 sound to their music.” I’m sure if anybody in the band sat in with anybody else, it adds that element.
I think that is really becausewe were allI know for myself, I was a hack (laughs) when I started with Sector 9. I had only been playing the bass for probably two or three years, after swapping with guitar. I was such a rookie and an amateur. I really had no idea of what I was doing. We all learned about how to really become proficient on our instruments as a band together. It’s just naturally inherent in the way that we all play, I think. The way that we play is that Sector 9 sound. Even if you take any one of us out, and put us somewhere else, it comes across so strongly in our playing.
There are some musicians that I know that are so proficient in so many different styles of music, that they are able to adapt when they sit in with other people, and it sounds really natural. To where, I feel like if I go sit in with somebody, (laughs) I’m bringing the Sector 9 sound to that unit because that’s the style of music that I learned how to play and that I’m proficient in, versus being able to really nail a walking jazz bass line, or nail a blues riff. Of course we can all do that, but that’s just not how we hear music after years and years of working under a certain format, if you will.
It’s been greatthe last year or so, I’ve been getting out and sitting in with more people, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. You learn so much. You get used to playing with the same people all the time, and you do fall into patterns and rutsnot that they’re necessarily badbut it is good to be thrown outside of your element into something else where you have to be quick on your toes, you have to think quick, you have to really be listening again to music, and you don’t rely on that comfort zone. Playing with Kris [Myers, UM drummer]he’s just ridiculous; playing with him is one of the funnest things ever, as a bass player with that caliber of a drummer. You learn so much, and I have to be on top of my game. I can’t fall back in that comfort zone that I can with Zack [Velmer, STS9 drummer] because I know what he’s going to do next, I know how his fills sound, and I know what he’s going to do next based off what he’s doing now. When you’re thrown into a whole other mix, you have to put yourself in the moment, be really open, and listen a lot. I think that’s why musicians out there do thiswe do this to be constantly challenged, and pushed to be able to play at a better level than we are now.
RR: To be able to play different types of music, as well. I thought it was funny when I came across these items: Peaceblaster debuted at #2 on the iTunes Electronic’ chart, and then when you go on allmusic.com, the site lists STS9 as Rap’. I always just saw STS9, and like many bands that play in a unique way, as sort of a genre onto themselves, and that’s that. However, there are fans that are looking for a definition, and these labels are provided for them. Does that amuse you that the labels are out there, but you’re not really thinking that way?
DM: Well, you know(laughs) The label thingme personally, I try to let it bother me less and less over the years. It’s kind of what you were just saying. I really feel likewith a lot of bands in the jamband scene, if you willSTS9 has our own sound. We are unique to ourselves, and we don’t fall under any one label. We are heavily electronic, we are heavily rock, we are heavily jamband at timesno question (laughs), as far as the jamming aspects, or whatever that is that people relate to with thatand hip-hop, absolutely. We rely heavily on that 95 BPM, (laughs) driving, kind of hip-hop beat, but it’s never hip-hop, (laughs) you know, over the top of that beat.
It gets frustrating sometimesI think more so from the realm that we’re not really accepted by any of those labels. I noticed with the jamband scene forever, we’ve always been called a jamband, we’ve always been in that genre, but there’s so many people inside the jamband scene who turn their nose up at us because we’re not jamband enough. It is the same with other areas, whether that be rock, or hip-hop, people turn their nose up at us and say, “You’re not hip-hop enough,” or “You’re not jamband enough,” or “You’re not electronic enough.” We hear that from different people who are really staunch lovers of their one style of music. I think at the end of the day that doesn’t really bother us because more and more people keep coming to see us, and enjoy our music.
We know on the fan levelfans love music. I’m a fan of music. (laughs) I love all music. I would never judge something based on its label, but it does get frustrating at times to really try to convey what you’re doing to people when there are so many mixed messages, so many people who have so many preconceived notions about you before they’ve ever seen you. I know that’s probably how it is for most bands. Just being out here with Umphrey’s, we’ve had fans come up to us and say, “Dude, I was totally hating on this tour the whole time, before I came to the tour, because I thought Umphrey’s was one thing, but I came out here and had a great time, but I’ve never seen Umphey’s.” I say, “Exactly. That’s exactly the point.”
People hear what their buddies say, they read some message boards, yada yada yada, and the next thing is that they think they’re experts on this band who they’ve never even gone and given the time of day. I know that we get that a lot. So many times I’ve had people come up to me who say, “Wow, I had no idea. I finally came and saw you, and I had no ideaI thought it was something so different.” And I say, “Well, yeah (laughs)because you have to come see us first.” There’s that whole side of it that I think has always existed, I imagine, and probably always will. If anything, in this day and age, with so much fast media, and so much access to everything so quickly, hopefully, some of that will die away.
Music is in a great place right now because it is really open with record companies falling off the way that they aremusicians, artists, and managers are taking the power back into our own hands. We just need to get out there and target our core fan base, and target the people who love us. Forget trying to go convince the world that every next band is the next greatest thing. I think we’ve seen twenty years of that through the late 80s, up until the early turn of the century. There was so much overkill, and so much music built from hype, but not built on any substance. Bands coming out that people were trying to blow up, but these people have never hardly played live. There’s no core audience there to support them.
I don’t care how big you are, or how big somebody makes you to lookif you don’t have that core following behind you, you’ll never have longevity here. Radiohead’s a great example of that because they were able to make all the changes and shifts that they made as a band, but they focused on having that core audience first. They had their fan base. (laughs) They had their corehowever many people you want to say it is400,000 people who would follow them through anything that they did. I feel like, in this day and age, you have to have that before you can really try to go out there and say, “I’m going to make a career out of playing music.” You really have to spend some time working hard to gain that true, loyal following behind you. There are people that are going to support you no matter what because they’ve resonated with your music.
RR: With Peaceblaster, that loyalty from long-time fans continues to pay off. I think STS9 has evolved in a natural way, and the band appears to transcend labels. Enjoy the music for what it is. The record also doesn’t betray the live sound that has been presented on stage throughout your career. Would you agree with that assessment?
DM: I would absolutely agree with that. It makes me feel good to see you, you know, to feel other people seeing that from the record because that’s really our goal here. We just want to be making music. That’s really been our goalto rise above the politics, if you will, of music. It feels good to be there, and it feels good to have a fan base that will allow us to do it. Absolutely. And I feel like we’ve seen that. People are getting out there, and buying _Peaceblaster_hopefully, they’ll continue toand I feel like they’re enjoying it, and we really hope that they do. We go in and do these studio records to try to give our fans good music to listen to when they’re away from the live show. It feels good. We’re really excited about the new record.
RR: Fantastic. I’ll probably hit a show on the West Coast.
DM: Are you coming out to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley? We’re really looking forward to those shows, and we’re looking forward to finishing up this tour with Umphrey’s. We’re having a great time out here, so far. Everybody’s playing great, the fans are loving it, so we couldn’t be having a better time.
_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com