STS9: From Wetlands to Camp Bisco, with a Glimpse at Artifacts Past and Future (Five Years On)
We look back to July 2007 for this conversation with STS9’s David Murphy
Photo by Matt Edlhuber
In the late 1990s, Sound Tribe Sector 9 began fusing electronic and jam music in the southeast around the same time the Disco Biscuits began blending the two styles throughout the northeast. The two groups shared the stage on several occasions, including a series of shows at New York’s seminal Wetlands and the early incarnations of the Disco Biscuits’ semi-annual festival, Camp Bisco. Since then, STS9 and the Disco Biscuits have spread their wings in different parts of the country, occasionally collaborating on side-projects like the Santa Cruz Hemp Allstars and Sucker Punch. Over the course of this summer, the two bands will share the stage on several occasions, culminating at Mariaville, NY’s Camp Bisco in August. STS9 will offer two performances at Camp Bisco, which runs from August 16-18, including a special Live PA set. Below, STS9 bassist David Murphy discusses his new studio album, playing Red Rocks and, of course, how his band found their way from Wetlands to Camp Bisco.
JH- First off, how did Re:Generation go? Has it changed your perspective on festivals since it’s something you can call your own?
DM: It’s one of the best places I’ve ever been to a festival. It’s just a beautiful piece of land. It’s on about 980 acres, right outside of Asheville and it’s just gorgeous. We did a couple of festivals out there in 2002 and 2003 and they just went really well. But the people who we threw them with, they didn’t really want to do it anymore, so it kind of died for a couple of years. And we’d been wanting to bring it back, so we finally dealt with some people who wanted to do it again and the people who owned the land were really excited about it. They put a lot of work into it out there; they built a new stage. It just couldn’t have been better, it couldn’t have been smoother. We’ve been to enough of them to know that there’s a lot that goes into it. A lot to get right and a lot to get wrong.
JH- I know you have played Horning’s before, which is the most beautiful and serene festival site I’ve been to. Was it better than Horning’s?
DM: I don’t know if I would say it was better, but it was definitely the East Coast version of Horning’s. I mean you’ve been there, that place is just amazing. This has got a similar sort of vibe. It’s got the lakes and a similar sort of homey feeling. With Horning’s and with Deerfield where we did Re:Gen, it’s just a really comfortable place to be for a few days. You’re out there and its just gorgeous. With Horning’s and with Deerfield, there’s other stuff to do. They have mountain biking trails up there and kayaks for the lake. There are other things to do besides the music. I think it’s fun for people when they’re outside.
JH- What was your personal highlight of Re:Generation?
DM: For me, my little brother performed out there with his solo project and with collective efforts from TK a hip-hop group. And seeing Telefone Tel-Aviv. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them. They performed on live instruments, and they’re a full-on electronic band. So to see them up there with live instruments and sort of pull off what they do that way was really exciting. Of course, our set. We’re a highlight, for us. We had a great time playing. And mainly just knowing that it was the first time we’d really done something like that, where we were the biggest band out there. Just seeing all the fans out there, you know, really being Sector 9 fans and just feeling that sort of love and warmth, it was really just special to play in that sort of environment.
JH- So you’ve been on both sides of the spectrum at festivals: playing in producing them. How do they compare? Is it a comparable or entirely different experience?
DM: Obviously early on, to get out there and play festivals is sort of a highlight I feel like, because you’re really able to break through in front of a lot of people and you get the camaraderie with other bands. You know, for us, after we had done for it a number of years, we started to get a little bit burned on the festivals. It seemed like for a couple of years there, everybody was doing the festivals. There were festivals all over the country and it was the same bands at every festival. Not that it was really like that, but that was sort of the feeling that we were getting. And I think it started to feel a little bit run of the mill. And then there are so many big festivals like Bonnaroo or Coachella. Wakarusa isn’t necessarily that big, but it’s a really sort of “get you in, get you out” kind of vibe. I feel like at Bonnaroo that there are so many bands and so many people that it’s hard to feel any sort of connection. It’s not corporate, but it is so big. It’s kind of like shopping at the mall. So I think we started to get a little turned off by it.
But doing this was definitely reinvigorating in a way for the festivals and for us. We had such a great time and it sort of reminds you how much fun they can be and why fans go to festivals and why people throw festivals. And especially coming from Bonnaroo and then going to do this, it definitely left a really good taste in our mouths. And this will be something we’ll be wanting to do every year, so it definitely was a good thing for us in the festival world. And I think any band probably has a little bit of a love-hate relationship with festivals. You love doing it because you don’t get a lot of chances to hang out with a lot of other artists during the touring season and once again, you have the opportunity to be around fans who may have never seen you before. It’s always a great opportunity. But at the same time, it’s a festival. You’re setting up, you have 30, 45 minutes to get ready and then you only play for an hour or an hour-and-a-half or whatever it may be.
But we’ve been really blessed I feel like with the festivals, just in the fact that so many people want us to do the late nights. Sometimes we love it and other times it’s not so fun, but at least for us, it’s a weekend to put on our real show, at a festival. It’s not like we’re playing one of the bigger stages where we would only be get an hour or an hour-and-a-half. For a band like us, we really need a full show to be able to present our art in the fullest, we fee like. So we’ve been lucky in that sense.
JH- You have a new studio album coming out soon. What were your goals with that project?
DM: We are a little more than half-way done with the studio record. We started with the studio record early last summer and right after we had gotten into starting to work on it, we were offered a soundtrack for an independent art film. It’s called All God’s Children Can Dance and it actually just premiered last month at the CineVegas film festival. So we kind of put our album on the back-burner and jumped into the soundtrack for this movie. We did original composition and music supervision. We ended up with like 12 or 13 original pieces of music in the film. And of course we did all the music supervision, which was picking the other music. Most of that was from bands or record labels we’re sort of involved with.
We put all that together and we worked on that up through January or February of this year, right before we started touring again. We really kind of put our album on the backburner for that. That is something that we have been wanting to do for a number of years so we jumped right into that. We had an amazing time doing it and we’re really pleased with the outcome. We went out for the movie premiere last month. So now we’re just trying to fight through the summer here so we can jump back into our record. We’re hoping to have that released in the spring of next year. That will definitely be happening, that will be coming out. That’s something we’re really excited about. It has kind of been hard, because we’ve written a lot of new songs for the record. Usually, in past experiences, we’ll go ahead and play that music live, like most bands in our genre have done for a number of years, like The Dead or Phish. For any of the bands who make their living off of touring, it’s hard to write new material and be able to hold onto it long enough for the record to come out. Mainly it’s because of your own desire to play that stuff because you’re so excited to have new material. So we’ve been really holding back; it’s been hard for us.
We’ve got some really, really good stuff but we want to be able to come out with the record and come out playing the new stuff, maybe more like a traditional rock band. It’s more about being able to have that experience for us, releasing a record and playing a lot of those new songs with a tour that follows it up. Obviously there will be a couple of things on the record that we do already play, but they will be more “studio” versions of them. We’re really excited about the record and just coming up with some unique ways to release it. I think that’s a big part of where we’re coming at with this new record, just taking a look at how much the music industry has changed, especially over the last three years.
It’s been three or four years since the real explosion of downloading music. We’re excited for that. For a while, most fans werenot bummed out about it, but when you see so many record stores closing, and you look at the top 40 charts and even those people aren’t selling that many records. People aren’t even selling a million records anymore. So that can be discouraging, but we’re trying to come out on the other side of that. We try to have fun with it, try to find unique ways to put a record out there. Still get it to a lot of people but to make it fun and make so the people actually want the packaging. So we’re excited about that. So for us, we’re just getting through the summer, doing a fall tour and then jumping back in pretty hardcore and finishing up by the end of the year.
JH- What should fans expect? Something similar to Artifact?
DM: It’s definitely going to be a lot more revved up than Artifact. Not that Artifact was down tempo. We went into Artifact to do a studio record that people would want to listen to at home. With all of the live shows of ours that are out therewe’ve got our download site where people can always have access to the live shows and that something that’s easy to go see. When we did Artifact, we wanted to reflect a different side of ourselves. But I feel like with this one, we’re definitely coming out of the gate swinging a little more. You know, it’s definitely going to be a little more in your face, if you will, kind of like the live concerts, just as far as the energy of the tracks. There’s going to be a concept there, a storyline if you will, to it. So we’ll see how it’s going to turn out. It’s going to be interesting. We’ve got a lot of new songs that we’re really excited about.
Artifact helped us to really delve into mutual songwriting. So we feel like this record is going to have a lot of really well written songs, which is what we’ve been focusing on. Not just writing things that are danceable or writing songs because they’re fun to listen to, but really delving into really good songwriting and looking back and really pulling from a lot of history of great music and great songwriters. The Beatles, Pink Floyd and David Axelrod and a bunch of the great producers of the 70’s and stuff. We’re pumped up about it. It can’t get here soon enough for us to start working on it again. And we try to work on it here and there in between flying out to all these festivals and stuff, but you know it’s hard. Like with any piece of art, it’s just something you want to delve into uninterrupted. But that’s not always easy to find when you’re a traveling musician.
JH- Is it difficult to come out with brand new material for a studio effort after such a successful production like Artifact? Did that album set the bar for you, or do you approach a studio project as its own entity?
DM: That’s a great question and thanks for the compliment on Artifact there. I think that, for us, everything leading up to Artifact was coming at it completely clean slate and jumping into it by trying to do something totally different than you’ve done before. I think with this new record, it will be sort of the first part of what you said there, pulling from a lot of our experiences, both good and bad, from our previous records. When we’re hanging out talking about the new record, we did pull a lot from Artifact, as far as analogies of how we presented and what we liked about it and what didn’t necessarily come across the way we that we had wanted it to.
I think maybe Artifact was too much to digest for people, looking back. There was a lot of songs. It was almost 74 minutes worth of music. Everything we could get on the CD, we put on. And not that we regret that. That was a part of our growth and really learning how to put together a good studio record. I think with this one, we’ll be pulling some of that from Artifact, just in the way that we feel like it was a nice balance of tracks. This one will definitely be more concise and a little bit more targeted. But as far as the music, we’re definitely coming at that side of with a clean slate. I think in the presentation, we’re pulling a lot from the way we presented Artifact, all the way from the way the flow of the album went to the packaging and whatnot. With this one, we’re looking to be a little bit more concise.
Artifact was almost a long-winded version of a story that you could have told a little bit shorter and with a little bit more impact. But mainly, we’re more pulling from things we’re really inspired by, about good songwriting. With Artifact, I felt like we were really stepping out there. We were learning songwriting, to be honest with you. Where we were at with songwritingwe had been a live band, up to that point and we took a lot of time to say “Ok, we really need to learn how to write songs.” That may sound a little weird, but you listen to Pink Floyd or The Beatles, I’ll use them as an example because they’re a couple of my favorite songwriters ever, but there’s a reason that there’s a formula for great songs and great songwriting. There’s something you hear and in the way it comes across, that’s just perfect. It can never really be too clichnd it can never be done enough, if you will, if it’s done in the right way. Being instrumental, there is always a certain side of that that will never translate fully, so a lot of it is us riveting up to work with that and mold that into our own sort of sound, like we’ve done with most of our stuff over our career. Taking it and turning it around for how it’s going to work for us.
JH- Do you find that your emphasis on songwriting on your studio work has infiltrated your live performance? Does song structure effect the amount you improvise onstage?
DM: Yeah, absolutely. I think a little bit of both. Over the last few years, with a lot of the new songs we’ve brought to the stage, there is a lot more songwriting taking place. But as always, with the type of band we are, you find those places to have those extended jam or you find those places where you can sort of step out or reach out there, every night live with them. You know, this record is going to be a balance of a little bit of both of that. With Artifact, there wasn’t really a lot of that. They were pretty much just straightforward songs. There wasn’t really a lot of extended anything with that, except for the length of the record.
With this one, we’re focusing a lot more on the parts themselves, but we’re looking to add some of the elements of the live stage. There’s one song in particular that we’re working on for the new recordI can’t believe we’re talking so much about this new record, but that’s fineyou know, what I love about Pink Floyd is that verse-chorus-verse-chorus element in their songs, but then there would be a part in every song that just took you out there, you know? It was unexpected in a way and it was out of the norm of the way that people were writing traditional rock songs. And it is more of that 70’s songwriting style, like the Steve Miller Band, where it’s verse-chorus-verse-chorus and then it steps out into this jam if you will, this uncharted territory and then it will bring you back by the end of the song to remind you where you came from.
So I think that we’re looking at more of that style of approach to the record. We’ve got a couple of songs that sort of hold those elements. You’ll be listening to a song and be like “Ok, cool, I kind of know where this is going,” and then all of a sudden it takes you a left turn and takes you out somewhere. It’s not always necessarily an extended jam in the traditional way of Phish or the Grateful Dead or something like that, but it takes you out there and it reaches and it gives the listener something they can connect with if they have seen that before or if they enjoy that side of music.
Once again, it’s going to be a fine balance of that. As we’ve matured and grown as a band, we’ve realized our strength in that. When you go to do a studio album and when you’re going to do a live show, they should never be too far away from each other. There’s a lot to say for having that balance of both in anything that you do. With the live shows, it’s good to be able to have a certain amount of songwriting involved with what you’re doing up there on stage. I know a lot of people do, but in this genre particularly, it’s easy to overlook really good songwriting for giving the fans something that they really enjoy at the concert, which is a lot of the jamming and interacting with the crowd at the show and letting the music happen as you go along. For us, it has been about trying to ensure and find and present that in both elements so we can further define our sound as a band. That’s something we’ve really been focusing on at this point. It’s really just to take that maturity level to the next step as far as our sound as band, and trying to define our sound as a band and really trying to signify that as ours, which is never any easy thing to do, for any artist. When you’re always pulling so much inspiration from bands that exist now and things that have happened in the past and where you know you want to be in the future, it’s a constant challenge and a constant growing process.