music / Columns

Jam Central Station: STS9

December 15, 2018 | Posted by Jeff Modzelewski

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Over the past two decades, there’s been a dramatic rise in the popularity of various types of electronic music. While most people previously thought of electronic music primarily as “rave” or “club” music, a handful of bands have had success taking this sound out on the road. Some of these artists are DJ’s while some rely heavily on samples and pre-recorded material. Some artists, however, are able to weave together the “electronic” component of their music with “live” music. In these instances, computers turn into instruments and are played in a very similar way that a guitar or a drum kit is played. One of the bands that have been most successful in creating this type of “livetronica” sound is Sound Tribe Sector 9.

STS9 got their start in the musical hotbed outside of Atlanta. They were close enough to Athens to be influenced by the music coming out of that college town while also far enough away that they weren’t part of that music scene. While some members of STS9 had known each other for a while, the whole band came together in the late 90’s. They bonded over a variety of shared beliefs and common philosophies, with a strong influence from the Mayan culture and calendar. The band’s original name, Sector 9, is a direct reference to the Mayan calendar, and the band has continued to study and explore that culture.

The band, which has maintained their independent nature since the beginning, released their first album on their own label in 1999. Interplanetary Escape Vehicle didn’t make any real waves, although their energetic live performances began getting attention. They released two more albums in quick succession on Landslide Records. Their second album, the live Sector 9 – The Brown Album was the last album they released under the name Sector 9. A copyright issue forced the band to change their name, so they added “Sound Tribe.” They released Offered Schematics Suggesting Peace in 2000. They also began to build relationships with artists in the “jamtronica” scene. Most notably, they were asked to play the annual Disco Biscuits festival, Camp Bisco, in 1999. They followed that up with performances at High Sierra, Gathering of the Vibes, and Austin City Limits. These early festival performances helped expose the band to a wider audience.

The band relocated to Santa Cruz, California in 2000, and quickly began to develop a local following. The band’s early performances were highly improvisational, often veering significantly from the original song structure. Songs would change from show to show, and would often develop into performances that were completely unrecognizable from the song they started out as. The band wasn’t the only part of their live performances, either. From their early days, the band enlisted others as part of their “Sound Tribe.” Their shows didn’t just consist of music, but things such as the stage setup and the light show became an integral part of the show. The band also often has live painters creating interpretive art pieces based on their performances. All of these elements helped STS9 stand out in a crowded California music scene.

2002 saw another live release from the band. Sessions 01 helped keep the band in front of fans. They relentlessly toured the country, playing headlining shows at clubs along with sets at festivals like Coachella and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. A major break came for the band in 2003 when they played their first late-night set at Bonnaroo. Their performances continued to impress, and the band differed from most other “jam bands” in that their improvisations weren’t centered on one member soloing. Instead, the band moved as a unit through a song, and often let small variations in the music build into major changes. This type of organic improvisation assured that every show was different and that no audience member felt that they were getting the same performance twice.

The band continued to tour and perform to modest club crowds. Their stock rose substantially, however, with the release of 2005’s Artifact. This was the band’s first studio album that came close to capturing their live performance sound. The band themselves have said that this was the first album where they felt comfortable in the studio, and the results speak for themselves. Within the next two years, they moved from playing clubs and side stages at festivals to playing theatres (and occasionally amphitheatres) and being the top-drawing late night festival act.

They played festivals across the U.S., in Europe, and in Japan. They even were listed as headliners for smaller U.S. festival, and played some of the biggest stages at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Coachella. The success of Artifact caused the band to move away from performances that were almost completely improvisational to a more structured live sound, but that didn’t diminish the energy that they brought to the stage. They played their first show at Red Rocks Ampitheatre in 2006, and played two sold-out nights at the venue in 2008. Despite no radio support and the fact that they released their albums independently, STS9 had become a major touring and act and festival commodity.

In 2008, the band released Peaceblaster, an album that highlighted the “friction” between the band members different styles that they are able to mold into a coherent sound. The album is a more accessible version of previous works, relying slightly more on typical instrumentation and less on computerized samples and loops. This doesn’t mean that STS9 had unplugged their laptops, however. Quite the contrary. The band continued to upgrade their equipment and find new ways to generate sounds for their music. With each software and computer update, STS9 has found a way to weave new music together, mixing live performance and technology.

In 2009, the band surprised fans by announcing the release of Ad Explorata a mere 2 months before it came out. Fans were surprised that a new album would be released so close to the band’s very successful Peaceblaster album, but they were pleased with the results. Only about half of the material had been previously road tested, but the old and new songs fit together well. The band celebrated with their first ever all-acoustic set, and a full schedule of headlining and festival shows. The band and the fans enjoyed the all-acoustic set so much that they released the recording as an album (dubbed Ax The Cables) and have brought back the acoustic format for special shows in subsequent years. In 2011, the band released When The Dust Settles, a 5 song EP of new material.

Over the subsequent years the band continued to maintain their popularity, playing theaters around the country, headlining Red Rocks, and typically getting top billing at festivals. With the band continuing in their success, it was a shock when, in early 2014, bassist David Murphy announced he was leaving the band. Murphy was one of the primary songwriters and inspirations for the group, so losing him was a significant blow. The band cancelled dates that winter, but quickly recruited Alana Rocklin for the band. They returned to the road in March 2014 and didn’t appear to have lost a step. They continued with their typical touring schedule and summer festival dates.

The new STS9 lineup spent 2014 and 2015 touring, and their live performances worked to reassure fans that they were still the band that they loved. They explored new directions and took chances, including multiple 3 set shows and adding some “Axe The Cables” sets to different environments. In 2016, 7 years after the release of Ad Explorata the band released The Universe Inside. This album continued to build on the new themes that they had introduced with the addition of Rocklin. By this time all concern about the future of the band had dissipated, and they had returned to their spot as one of the top-billed jamtronica bands. Over the past few years they’ve continued to tour regularly and bring fans the same excitement and energy that they’ve been putting out for twenty years.

It takes a lot of work for a band with a long history like STS9’s to recover from losing a key member. The quick turnaround of the band and the way Rocklin has fit into their very intricate musical universe has been extremely impressive. While it can be relatively easy for a bluegrass band (no offense YMSB) to incorporate new pieces due to the fact that bluegrass musicians all speak a very similar musical language, that’s not the case for bands like STS9, and the building of the band took many years of intense, focused effort. The fact that Rocklin was able to move into the band so seamlessly is a testament to her talent and to the band’s flexibility. The change seems to have re-energized the group, and it’s exciting to think about where they might go in the future.

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Smoky Run Music Festival coming to Ohio
The Smoky Run Music Festival will hold their inaugural event in Butler, OH from June 28-30. The lineup is extremely solid and will be headlined by Gov’t Mule, Trampled by Turtles, and Railroad Earth. Other bands on the bill include Deer Tick, Son Volt, The Travelin’ McCoury’s & Jeff Austin Band doing a Grateful Ball set, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Rumpke Mountain Boys, and plenty of others. Looks to be another excellent festival coming to Ohio!

High Sierra announces lineup
The High Sierra Festival will once again take place in Quincy, CA over July 4th weekend. This year’s festival will include Greensky Bluegrass, Jim James, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Galactic, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, ALO, Marcus King Band, and plenty of other great acts.

jcsevents

Holidaze
December 12-16
Puerto Morelos, MX
The Disco Biscuits, STS9, Umphrey’s McGee, Lotus, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Ghost Light

Winter Wondergrass Vermont
December 14-16
Stratton, VT
Railroad Earth, Infamous Stringdusters, Keller & The Keels, Fruition, Billy Strings, Kitchen Dwellers, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Rumpke Mountain Boys

Tropical Throe.down
January 10-14
Runaway Bay, Jamaica
moe., The New Mastersounds, Big Something

Jam in the Sand
January 15-19
Runaway Bay, Jamaica
Dark Star Orchestra, The Wailers, Green Leaf Rustlers

International Incident
January 25-28
Runaway Bay, Jamaica
The String Cheese Incident, Keller Williams

Panic en la Playa Ocho
January 25-29
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds Riviera Maya
February 15-17
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Phish in Riviera Maya
February 21-23
Riviera Maya, Mexico

Winter Wondergrass Colorado
February 22-24
Steamboat Springs, CO
Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Fruition, Billy Strings, The California Honeydrops, Della Mae with Bonnie Paine, Jeff Austin Band, The Shook Twins

Suwannee Spring Reunion
March 21-24
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL
Steep Canyon Rangers, Billy Strings, Peter Rowan, Donna the Buffalo, Larry Keel Experience, John Stickley Trio

Winter Wondergrass California
March 29-31
Squaw Valley, CA
Greensky Bluegrass, Trampled by Turtles, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush Band, ALO, Fruition, Billy Strings, Jeff Austin Band, The Travelin’ McCoury’s

Bender Jamboree
April 11-14
Plaza Hotel & Casino
Las Vegas, NV
Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams, Billy Strings

Sweetwater 420 Festival
April 19-21
Centennial Olympic Park
Atlanta, GA
Widespread Panic, The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Rebelution, Moon Taxi, The Claypool Lennon Delirium, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass, Turkuaz

Domefest
May 16-18
Marvin’s Mountaintop
Masontown, WV
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong (x5), Aqueous, Litz, Mungion, Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers

DelFest
May 23-26
Cumberland, MD
The Del McCoury Band, The String Cheese Incident, The Travelin’ McCourys, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Marcus King Band, Billy Strings

Summer Camp Music Festival
May 23-26
Three Sisters Park
Chillicothe, IL

Dark Star Jubilee
May 24-26
Legend Valley
Thornville, OH
3 nights of Dark Star Orchestra, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Leftover Salmon, Billy Strings, Dumpstaphunk, The Lil’ Smokies, Donna the Buffalo, The Nth Power

Camp Greensky
June 6-8
Wellston, MI

Keller in the Caverns
June 21-23
Pelham, TN
2 Keller Williams performances as well as Pettygrass, More Than A Little, and a Grateful Gospel Brunch

Electric Forest
June 27-30
Double JJ Ranch & Resort
Rothbury, MI
3 nights of The String Cheese Incident, Bassnectar, Lettuce, The Floozies, TAUK, Spafford, Twiddle, Ghost Light, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, The Nth Power, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades

Smoky Run Music Festival
June 28-30
Butler, OH
Gov’t Mule, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, Deer Tick, Son Volt, The Travelin’ McCoury’s & Jeff Austin Band present Grateful Ball, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Rumpke Mountain Boys

moe.down
July 4-6
Snow Ridge Ski Resort
Turin, NY

High Sierra
July 4-7
Quincy, CA
Greensky Bluegrass, Jim James, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Galactic, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, ALO, Marcus King Band

FloydFest 19 “Journey Home”
July 24-28
Floyd, VA
Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band, The String Cheese Incident, Brandi Carlile Tyler Childers, Margo Price, Fantastic Negrito, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grace featuring Love Cannon

Lockn’ Festival
August 22-25
Arrington, VA

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Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll be back next week with more jam. Until then, check me out on Facebook and Twitter for up to the minute concert announcements. Until next week, Jam On!