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Published: 2017/12/27
by Sam D'Arcangelo

STS9: 20 Years Together and Still Looking Forward

Making music for 20 years is something that any band should be proud of, and jamtronica pioneers STS9 are no different. In the two decades since their formation, the group has played hundreds of shows, appeared at dozens of festivals, and put out seven full-length albums (plus more than a fews EPs, remixes and live recordings). It’s a rich history they’ve been celebrating throughout 2017, particularly during three career-spanning shows at Red Rocks that included an acoustic “Axe the Cables” set and a full live rendition of their now-classic 2005 album Artifact.

With their 21st year now on the horizon, it’s interesting to consider the ways that music has caught up with STS9 since 1997. The quintet’s fusion of danceable electronica and cerebral improvisation was a novel approach at the time, yet these days it feels like danceable electronica has come to dominate nearly every musical form—from hip-hop and indie rock to mainstream pop. STS9 may not have had much of an influence on those worlds, but the band certainly had a hand in precipitating the EDM explosion of the 2010s. After all, juggernauts like Bassnectar, Pretty Lights and Big Gigantic found some of their first audiences as Sector 9’s opening act.

In any case, STS9 plans to cap off a celebratory year with a celebratory series of shows in California. It’s a bit of a departure from their traditional regimen of ending the year in either Atlanta or Denver, though one that makes perfect sense considering they The Golden State home. I caught up with drummer Zach Velmer to find out what’s in store for that New Year’s run and what the band has planned for 2018.

2017 was a big year for STS9, especially since it was your 20th anniversary as a band. Are there moments that stand out above the others as you look back on STS9’s first two decades?

Oh my god, yeah. It’s just been such a cool life. There’s the creation process and what we’ve been able to accomplish, but to be honest, there’s too many to list. Off the cuff, I’d say the amount of times we’ve played Red Rocks, traveling all over the world to play music, connecting with different artists and playing with our heroes, doing all kinds of recording sessions, the creation process that has gotten the band to where it’s at. What’s been really cool about our career is that we feel the best is still yet to come. We enjoy what we do and we create daily. It’s been a fun, fun journey and it’s not over. So that’s pretty cool!

It’s been over a year since the release of your latest album, The Universe Inside. Now that you’ve been playing a lot of those songs regularly, can you tell me about the ways that some of them have taken on a life of their own as live pieces?

Absolutely. We’ve done mash-ups, we’ve extended them. So yes, those songs have grown exponentially and it’s been a lot of fun. There’s been a kind of symbiotic thing going on where can let them breathe a little in a live setting. Now some of the songs, to be perfectly honest, are just good songs and have stayed the way they are. But I can count those on like two fingers. Most of them have blossomed into these new ideas with new inspirations.

When something like that happens, what is the process? Is there a band discussion before you go on stage? Do you all decide you’re going to take this one or that one further that night?

It happens in so many different ways, but a lot of it comes up when we’re rehearsing the song and getting ready to go on the road. Maybe when we were playing it we had this idea, and then that idea will go somewhere cool and then someone will say “well let’s do this here” and it becomes this really cool back and forth. Then maybe we’ll have this concrete idea of what we’ll do, but then later it will be like, “well what if we did this to it?” So these ideas keep growing new leaves or new flowers. It’s never like, “now it’s done.” Then even later we’ll say, “Well if we did this then we could go into this other song” or maybe we could do a modular kind of thing out it that can transpose into another idea. You know how when you roll a snowball, it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger? That’s sort of how it goes. It’s always open for changes and you never know what you’ll get. So we might decide to do this one version that we were doing in 2016, or maybe we’ll do the version of it from the Fillmore in 2017 that we liked. We could say, “Oh we were on fire with this one during the summer tour, so let’s build on that.”

You know, not only did we release The Universe Inside in 2016, but in 2017 we also released three singles, which was very exciting as well. We released “Rise Above, Get Loud,” which kind of remix that we did of “Get Loud” from The Universe Inside record. We released “Real & Imagined,” which had this sort of lost Artifact vibe since we were doing the Artifact record in its entirety at Red Rocks. And then we released another track we had been working on called “Enceladus,” which we’ve expanded and put into mash ups and done all this other stuff with.

Well you just touched on two things that I’d like to ask you about. First, there’s the Artifact show at Red Rocks earlier this year. That record is truly fan favorite, so what was it like to dive back in and explore that music you guys wrote so many years ago?

It was so exciting, from where we are now, to go back in a see how timeless it is. Honestly, there’s a lot of Artifact songs in our repertoire right now because we went back in it. And it’s not that we’ve revamped them, but we have definitely jolted some new life into them. We had so much fun doing it at Red Rocks that we really wanted do it again. So we did do it again while we were in Knoxville. We were in the South and it was kind of a surprise thing. We were doing two night so we felt like we wanted to do it again since it was so fun. It’s so cool to play a record in its entirety like that and think “wow, it really does make sense.” (Laughs). The flow of it even makes sense in a show environment. It’s not just for your or in the car. It can be presented this way. It was great to experience that and let our fans experience that. They were pretty stoked too.

You also mentioned the singles you released over the course of this year. Can we expect some more singles in 2018? Is a full follow up to The Universe Inside in the works?

We have a lot of cool things in the pipeline right now. We’ve got some new singles, we have a piece of music we’re going to share. We have a lot. A lot of music. Like I said before, the best is yet to come. We’re releasing more and more music. I don’t see us slowing down with that any time soon. We have a studio in Santa Cruz and we’re there almost every day. Whether it’s rehearsals for a particular show or tour, or looking at new music we’ve recorded and figuring out how we want to release it, or if we’re looking at old stuff that isn’t on a record and has never been released. We’re look at stuff like that too. You should see our dry erase board. It’s pretty packed. (Laughs). But you know, we would also like to do some writing sessions with other people. We want to work with our contemporaries, other artists and have fun doing that as well.

The band is gearing up to close out 2017 with a run of shows in California, including three nights in San Francisco for New Year’s Eve. It’s been awhile since y’all celebrated New Year’s on what is nwo your home turf. What brings you back this year and do you have any surprises in store for the fans?

We were just super excited to play close to home. Our families can come, and it’s sunny California. We were just excited to do something different because we’ve been going back and forth between Atlanta and Denver, doing this sort of flip flop every year. So wanted to switch it up and do California. The Bay Area and the West Coast has been very vocal, and they want more STS9 out here. So we listened, and we want to be out here too. It was a perfect of things to make it all happen.

And absolutely, man. New Year’s is always a spectacle. It’s a retrospective of the year, but you’re also looking forward. We have some cool things planned. It’s always such a fun party. That’s what people can expect. A fun evening and STS9 at its finest.

I know you guys have a bit of a mountain tour planned for early in 2018. Is there anything else you can tell us about?

We’ve got a ton of stuff. There’s a ton of festivals. We’re doing Okeechobee, and there’s actually like five or six festivals right now that I don’t know that I’m allowed to say. We have a cool festival summer and some other treats for two-nighters and other experiences in different parts of the country that we’re stoked about as well.

You guys do your acoustic “Axe the Cables” shows from time to time, and they’re always a big treat for the fans. Are there any plans to revive that in 2018?

I’m sure that we will. But as of right now, I think the reason they’re so special is that we don’t do them all the time. I think another thing that’s important is that it’s done in a correct way and a special way so that people really do feel that. Like I said, we’re close to getting all of our plans locked in for the year, so we’ll so how it falls. So hopefully yes, but there’s nothing exactly on the books as of now. It needs to kind of manifest itself.

20 years is something special. Do you have any advice for young bands that are looking to attain that kind of longevity?

Just have fun and stay authentic. I think that would be my advice. Have fun, be yourself and be as authentic as you can to your art. That’s all that you can really do, and when you’re authentic to your art that’s what shows. So many people try to grasp onto different trends or different this or different that. When we write music or play music, it’s more about what comes to us. It’s not like, “oh we need to write a song that or like this.” We write music that comes from the heart and that we feel comes from the heart. It seems like it’s been working, so we’re pretty blessed to be doing what we’ve been doing.

Finally, is there anything you’d like to mention before we go?

I’m really stoked about the releases and the artwork. There was a gallery that we did during the Red Rocks run that was a really cool thing. It was kind of a 20 year thing with some of our art. We’d like to do more stuff like that shows that we do more than music. There’s so much art that comes out from our albums and stuff, and it’s all a process. We don’t just go to some artist and say, “hey create this.” There’s always a whole lot of intention behind it, so there’s more of that to come. But like I said, there’s more music. It’s exciting.

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