STS9: From Wetlands to Camp Bisco, with a Glimpse at Artifacts Past and Future (Five Years On)
JH- For the people who aren’t quite sure about your live PA sets, like the one you will be performing at Camp Bisco, what exactly does it entail?
DM: Um, well for us, live TV to me, and where its roots are and why we started doing this, there was definitely a point in the evolution of computer music where producers who were writing music in their house on their computers, wanted to present that live. In the mid-to-late 90’s, it wasn’t as easy to take things you had written on your own and transfer that into DJ format. You know, a lot of the technology that’s available now just wasn’t that accessible in the mid-to-late 90’s. So producers would, either by themselves or with someone else, take their computers up on stage and actually DJ the tracks but off of their computers. It’s really just as simple as that. Live PA for us is a culmination of some tracks that we actually do live now, but it’s because they came from writing them on a computer. But a lot of the music is stuff that we’ve produced that we don’t play live and we don’t know if it will ever even appear on a record, but its music that we fee like we should be sharing with our audience.
So that’s kind of where it started. It was like “Ok, let’s just get up on our computers and drop these tracks and see how it goes. We’ll be giving people new music that they haven’t heard yet from us.” That’s how it originally started for us. We were just saying “We’ve seen people do this. We’ve been to underground parties where this is going on. We can do this too,” you know? When people ask us to do stuff that for one reason or another the full band couldn’t do it or our gear might be on the East Coast and someone asks us to do something in California that we wanted to be a part of, we would go and do this as a live gig because its easier than flying in and doing the show. That’s kind of where it started from for us. Since we’ve started it, people have kind of been like “We’re confused, we don’t know what live PA means,” but over time, we’ve sort of refined it. We went out and did Sonic Bloom a couple of weekends ago and it was just me and Zack and Hunter from the group. But Hunter brought his guitar rig out and Zack had a little three piece drum kit, so we mix it up a lot.
Honestly, that was probably the best time that we’ve ever pulled it off, adding a little bit of that live instrumentation. I feel like at the end of the day, no matter what type of music you’re in, people enjoy that. People want to see something happening, besides you standing beside your computer. I know I do. When I saw Telefon Tel-Aviv at Re:Gen, they’re one of my favorite and they could stand beside their laptops and I would love it just as much, but to see them at a Rhodes and a bass and a guitar and a couple of synthesizers, it just makes it that much realer for you and you feel like you’re able to connect with a musician more, as the audience. So that’s kind of where we’ve taken it.
We were in New York recently and actually did the Live PA as the whole band, which was just us stripped down and focusing on those tracks more. The style of tracks which are more electronic heavy and dance heavy. It’s something that we really enjoy doing, but we probably won’t do anymore of these for the rest of the year after Camp Bisco. It’s not something that we ever want to create any confusion between what STS9 is and then these Live PA’s.
At the end of the day, the Live PA’s are fun for us and give us a way to be involved in concerts and events that we would normally have to say no to as a full band; we’re able to be a part of them. So we really enjoy them for that reason. The biggest reason I think, though, is that we are able to really share music with people that normally we wouldn’t go out there and play onstage live or normally we wouldn’t put on a record. Something we feel strongly about is finding new ways to share our art with people. But the one at Camp Bisco should be fun, because that’s going be all five of us. When it’s all five of us, that’s when it’s the best for us. We love doing it together.
JH- Are there instruments onstage for a Live PA set?
DM: Yes, there will be some instrumentation up there, absolutely. I imagine Zack will have his three piece kit and I would say that everybody will pull in some instruments that are normally in their live setup. Except for me. I use my computer and sort of the synth bass style, but I don’t pull my bass up with it. I think for me, a big part of it is that I’ve been pushing myself to get better on the synthesizer. So to stand up there and do a two hour show just on the synth without my bass there, my safety net if you will, pushes me to really get good quick. So I enjoy that side of it. But there will be a lot of little pieces of our live setup at Camp Bisco, which I think people really enjoy, like when we did it at New York. We can put on that full two hour show and feel really confident about it.
JH- Camp Bisco has been a staple of the East Coast electronic scene. Since you have played there before and know what the general vibe is like, can you point out any dichotomies between the East Coast electronic scene compared to other geographical areas such as the West and South (e.g. Sonic Bloom and Re:Generation)?
DM: I would say that honestly, the East Coast is more real and true to the roots of the electronic scene. Certainly when you’re talking about the new electronic scene and having more live instrumentation involved in it, kind of like what the Biscuits do, or whether that’s more of the Thievery Corporation vibe or the intense DJ vibe. I feel like it’s a little bit more true to its art form on the East Coast. I’m not really sure why that is, but compared to the West Coast, where, from what I’ve seen in the last few years, its a lot more based around the Burning Man vibe or scene.
A lot of the festivals we’re doing on the West Coast, especially west of the Rockies, seem to be more geared toward theseI call them “Burning Man pre-parties” or “Burning Man warm-ups.” But it is, it’s a lot of the musical artists and performing artists that do go to Burning Man and there are a lot of elements that they pulled out of Burning Man that they put into these festivals. It’s not bad in any way, but there’s definitely a huge difference between the stuff that happens on the East Coast and the stuff that happens on the West Coast. You know, Sonic Bloom was absolutely that. It had the Burning Man contingency of Colorado. I notice that we’ve done a couple things up in Seattle, with a lot of the artists and whatnot that have become Burning Man staples. But I feel like when you’re on the East Coast, it’s a lot harder-edged. It’s where the electronic scene comes from and it’s definitely more at its roots. There’s definitely a big dichotomy. It’s a noticeable difference. I’m not sure which one I really prefer more, but it is interesting to see. My sister was taking me to electronic dance clubs when I was 15 and 16 years old in Atlanta. I’ve been around the scene since the early-90’s, so I’ve always embraced that.
Over the last few years, to have really started to bring that element into STS9 and to bring other artists around, it’s really been amazing to see how well the jamband scene has embraced that. Now, it’s crazy. It’s like Sonic Bloom for me. The Glitch Mob and all these guys are hanging out with the guys from String Cheese and I love it, because ultimately, I think that’s how art should be. And if you’re a true artist, you really don’t label things. One should never not see the validity in something because it’s not their scene or because it has this sort of label, because in the end of the day, good art is good art and it should be appreciated for that. So I loved seeing sort of the fusion, if you will, that’s happening. But at the same time, it’s funny to me a little bit. Not necessarily funny, but it just shows you that the fans love good music and they always have. They don’t really care what the bands call it or what journalists call it. They want to see good music. And that’s what I’ve always loved and really embraced about the jamband scene, which is something which we started playing as STS9, was really new for me.
You know, I’d never been to a Phish concert. I’d never been to see any of these bands before. I mean, I knew about Widespread because I grew up in Athens. But it was new for me to jump into that and when I did, I fell in love with because of the scene. That was where, I was like “Wow, these people are dedicated to good music and they will travel the world to see it.” And that was very inspiring, because coming from the electronic scene, or coming from a more underground rock scene, there’s not that. There’s not a lot of love for the live element of that music. I mean people see it, but it’s completely different. So I’m loving it. And I know a lot of the artists are, too. Even like Telefon and bunch of different electronic artists we’ve done shows with. And I’m sure the Disco Biscuits have the same experience, because they bring in a lot of acts who aren’t from the jamband scene to do shows with them. Because when you’re an artist, you’re not looking to have the hipsters at your show. You’re looking for people who are going to be there and be involved in your music. So I think that over the last two or three years, we’ve seen such a huge explosion of the merging of the jamband and electronic scene. Once again, it comes back to the fact that this is where the fans are that appreciate the music and if you’re an artist, that’s who you want to be playing in front of. So we embrace it fully and I think that’s the thing that does remain the same from the East to the West Coast; that vibe.
JH- It seems like there has been a natural progression towards music with a more electronic edge.
DM: Absolutely. It’s The Biscuits and it’s us. We grew up loving that sort of stuff, loving hard-edged vibed music, but we also have an appreciation of good quality music, which is kind of what the jamband scene has always provided for the music world, you know? Real heart-felt music. I’m just curious what’s going to be next. You’ve got some of the most cutting-edge electronic artists in the world hanging out with some of the most cutting-edge live jambands in the world. So I’m really excited about it. And then you have so many young bands being inspired by that movement.
They’ve come up seeing it or they’re seeing it now happening, so when they’re putting their bands together, they’re pulling from that inspiration. No longer are bands like us and probably like The Biscuits having to figure that out as they go along. We had to slowly sort of add those elements into our music because we didn’t want to shock our fanbase. Well nowadays, bands can start by doing this. They can just start by having a computer, a bunch of synths and a shredding guitar player all on the same stage. And there’s been a foundation laid for them to kind of start fresh from that. Which is exciting for me, because I feel like in ten years there’s going to be some incredible music that has come out of this sort of explosion, just like always has happened. You know, Phish and the Dead do what they did and then take it to a completely different level as far as the musicianship of it. So once again, it’s an exciting time for everybody who is able to really see that shift happening. It’s a good time for music right now.
JH- To what do you attribute the success of STS9 and the Biscuits lately?
DM: Well, one is that we’ve been able to stay together for this long. To do it, to constantly find new inspiration. I think with a lot of bands, that’s the hardest thing to do. It’s like a marriage that way. People look at couples who have been married for like 25 years and they’re like “Oh my god, how did you do it?” And they’re like “Well, we always stuck together and we always grew together. And whether that was in the same direction or not really didn’t matter. We were growing and we were recognizing what was happening and we allowed that change to happen.” And I think that’s a big part of it. When you put four or five people together to create art together, it’s hard to do it for this long.
The Biscuits have been doing it for what, twelve years? Thirteen years? We’ve been doing it now for ten years. I think it’s a big testament to your commitment to your being and to your art, if you can last that long. But I think a big part of it is just an openness to change. I know all the guys and love all the guys in The Biscuits and I can’t really speak for them from this particular side of it, but I know for us, it’s been that we have always genuinely held an openness for change in our music. And we’ve always known that’s it art; so to stay the same, we really wouldn’t have any longevity. The fans want to see you constantly pushing the envelope. You can write a bunch of great songs and they’ll love hearing those songs for a couple of years but at some point, they want to know that you’re putting into it what they put into it, which is a love for it. They want more. The faster pace the world gets and the faster people get their quick fixes through technology and all those sort of things, they also want that in their music. So I think that’s been the key for us, always mixing it up.
Every New Year’s, we come out with at least full set of new music for the fans that we can play throughout the year. You know, I hope that’s what it is. It’s a sign of the times, I think. I notice that a lot of our fans are people with little brothers and sisters who would see us as we were coming up, at local frat parties or pubs or 500 person clubs or whatever. They’ve grown up and while they still love music, what they’ve passed along to their siblings. We play our New Year’s shows and more than half the room is still in high school. It’s great, because for me, I would rather play for those kids. Because that’s when I was most passionate about music, from about fifteen until I was twenty-three or twenty-four years old, as far as seeing and being a big advocate of seeing live music. It’s more accessible to them and it’s new, it’s fresh, it’s invigorating. So that’s been a large part of our success and I imagine, with the Biscuits too, it’s that. As you start to come into your own, you’ve done enough work and you’ve been able to stay together and stay constantly out there in the music scene, that the work you put in spreading your name has really paid off. It spread to the younger generations, so it has become more accessible. You’re that much more accessible.
You got a lot of people going to shows now who never had a chance to see Phish or the Grateful Dead or aren’t really into Widespread. Whatever the reason is, they’re seeking that new band out there. There’s a large part of the fanbase who are always searching for that new sound. I have friends who are constantly telling me, “This band is playing Moe’s Alley. You have to go see them. This is the band that’s coming up. This is the band that’s going to be, in ten years, where y’all are.” And so you have a real advocacy for that in this fanbase, which you don’t in a lot of other scenes. In a lot of other scenes, people are justthey don’t know about it until it gets big enough for them to hear about it from some other mainstream source, you know? Um, so that holds a lot of weight. That’s how we’ve gotten to the point we’ve gotten to.
And I’m sure it’s the same for the Biscuits. You’ve got people out there advocating your music and running out there and yelling it from mountain tops. So many times, I have people coming up to me saying: “Oh, this is my first show. My friends have been telling me about you for four or five but I’ve never come to see you. I’ve just never given you a chance.” And then eventually they do and they love it. The thing was for me with Phish, when I finally went and saw them, it was like “Holy shit, these guys are fuckin’ sick!” While I can maybe either fully love the music or not fully love the music, you couldn’t go to a live show and watch it and not be like “Those guys are incredible. They are so good playing together.” That’s what the Biscuits and a handful of other bands out there have. When you finally break down your perception of what you think it is and just go and appreciate it for the music, most people end up loving it. There is a real musicianship to it and there is a real uniqueness to it. Its something that isn’t being done out there.
JH- Briefly, do you remember when you opened for the Biscuits at the Wetlands on April 30, 1999.
DM: I do remember that show. That was a great a place. Our best show ever was also there and was also with the Biscuits; they were playing upstairs and we were playing downstairs. So I remember we set up down there in that little lounge area and everybody was just rolling lots of weed and smoking out and doing God knows what else down there. It didn’t get any better than that. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t grow up in the Northeast, so that wasn’t an experience we were able to have a lot. But every memory we have from the Wetlands is a fond one. Because of that, that was really sort of our welcoming into that scene. The group of people that worked there and that went to that club constantly and supported those bands, we made great friends doing that. It’s funny, my memories of that are first walking in, looking at another band and being like “Oh, there’s a Northeast version of y’all.”
I’m sure the Biscuits were the same way, like “Oh, there’s a southern version of us.” It was kind of like “Hey, let’s pull our dicks out and see whose is biggest.” There was kind of that awkwardness for the first year, I feel like. You know, until I was actually able to be like “Ok, I see what’s going on here. Now it’s great. Now I can talk on the phone with Brownie and see pictures of his kids and stuff.” And that’s where you want it to be. I have such a great relationship with those guys and I love it. And now they’ve got one of our boys, they’ve got a southern boy playing drums for them. They’re like “We only hire crew from the South now. Those boys know how to work hard.” And I was like “Now you’re getting it!” So its fun now. And one of the biggest reasons that we’re doing Camp Bisco this year is that we’ve matured enough to put aside our own weirdness.
When you’re a young band, you’re doing everything to not be labeled, to not be like the Biscuits or to not be like Phish. But at this point, both of us are in positions where we have our own identity. Anyone who has seen us knows that we really don’t sound alike. Of course, there are a lot of similarities in the music and that’s great. That’s something that should be celebrated. So now it’s a great thing. We’re stoked to do Camp Bisco. When they offered it to us this year, Brownie was like, “We’re going to put in an offer for you to come to Camp Bisco and I know y’all are probably going to say no.” And we were like “Actually, we’ll probably say yes. We want to do this.” It took a number of years, but now we feel like we have our own identity and so do a bunch of other bands on the scene, so we feel like we can go and do whatever we want at this point, we could go play wherever we want to and they’re in the same position.
Because you put in the time and the work to develop your own sound and your own style and people respect you for that. So you can always branch out, you don’t really have to worry about labels, what people say as much. Not that you never really need to worry, but when you’re a young band coming up, you’re not really sure how everything works yet. You’re figuring it out one day at a time. So I’m really excited to go up there and do that. And they’ve got a great line-up this year. As happened with us with Re:Generation, to see that success that the Biscuits have had with Camp Bisco is incredible. Not only from the size of the festival, but just being able put on such a well rounded festival is amazing.
JH- So from opening for the Biscuits at the Wetlands in ’99 to headlining two nights of Red Rocks this summer. In retrospect, how does that feel?
DM: It’s a bit amazing. We as band recently have been talking about that sort of stuff. None of us ever really thought we could get this far, mainly as an instrumental band. We’d seen Medeski Martin & Wood, for example, who, in my opinion, is one of, if not the greatest instrumental sort of group like that, ever. And they always hit their walls of how big can they be as an instrumental act. So I think that especially growing up and them being in their prime, put realistic expectations on our group, as far as the success that we would be able to receive. Of course, not without having hopes and dreams of being able to have it bigger, but we had a realistic viewpoint on what we could really do with it. So to have exceeded those expectations by a mile is special to us. It really boils back down to the fans and to somewhat, we hope, to a lot of hard work that we’ve put into our music.
To be able to do two nights at Red Rocks as an instrumental group, there really is no better confirmation that we’ve done something right. It’s been a long journey and we still have areas where we still don’t do that good, necessarily. I know the Biscuits have the same sort of thing. We’ll always have those smaller markets and stuff. It’s incredible, though. We never thought that we would get this far. And now that we’re here, we’re seeing that we still have so far to go until we’re really playing the music that we know we’re capable of. It’s great just to know that there really are that many people who can really love this style of music. That’s one of things that is exciting for me. The more the electronic stuff sort of bleeds into it, I feel like that it opens itself up for a way bigger audience than there has been in the past for bands like us. It’s an exciting time. Red Rocks two nights is definitely amazing. The experience of seeing a show out there is special. I’ve never seen a show there, but this will be the sixth or seventh time we’ve played there. We opened up for Trey out there, we opened up for String Cheese one year out there, so we’ve had the opportunity to play out there.
And of course, our headlining gig last year. But it’s just a magical place to play music. I haven’t been to The Gorge yet but it [Red Rocks] is a natural amphitheatre, and you really can’t, as a musician, there’s no better place to do it than a natural setting like that. And it just sounds so good. At Red Rocks, you can get that energy that you can get at an indoor venue and usually, it’s really hard to do that in an outdoor environment, because there is so much space. But Red Rocks is a place that all of a sudden, you can forget that you’re outside. But then you look up and you’re like “Oh, there’s the moon.” You turn around and you’re like “There’s downtown Denver.” So we’re really blessed to have had the success that we’ve had.