On stage, malignly tagged "livetronica" quintet Sound Tribe Sector 9 has been known for not only unfurling cyclical and cinematic musical passages but also erecting elaborate set pieces littered with projections, candles, floral arrangements and crystals. Yet only recently has the group felt the ambition to distill an equally evocative environmental experience on record.
Saddled early on as part of the horrifically named "glowstick-granola connection" -- initially known also as "fuzak" or "organica" to jam-band aficionados -- STS9 has retreated over time from some of the Mayan spiritualist rhetoric (also the source of STS9's moniker) that the dub-anchored group espoused early in its nearly eight-year arc since forming in Atlanta. It is that move toward insularity that has benefited the group -- transplanted to Santa Cruz, Calif., several years ago -- as well as this year's self-released Artifact, STS9's first "proper" full-length (as in intentional rather than improvisational compositions). Even as STS9 strove to tap its fount of influences through increasingly technological means, the group gained an unexpected credibility among renowned electronic producers, ultimately serving as raw material for others on Artifact: Perspectives, a remix album.
Despite what you might think of a group that dovetails polyrhythms as if channeling space-jazz icon Lonnie Liston Smith through atmospheric drum 'n' bass producer LTJ Bukem and throbbing tribal house draped in (pel)lucid melodies, a blinkeredness of sorts is in a way STS9's roots.
"Growing up in Stone Mountain, there's not a lot of outward searching you can do," admits guitarist Hunter Brown by phone from the group's practice space, a converted 700-square-foot chicken shack. "In Georgia, I was always in my headphones, in my bedrooms playing to some old record."
That thought echoes a comment logged way back in 2002 by bassist David Murphy: "In the suburbs, there's no one culture, but every culture, so bored kids can end up pulled into anything from the spectrum."
Now replace the word "suburbs" with "laptop and Internet world" to get a better idea of where STS9 has segued. Compulsively carting digital recording paraphernalia like some stoners do hacky sacks, the members of STS9 culled recordings from whatever spare moment they were afforded. Instead of an attempt to replicate a live show or calcify songs in unison, the members of STS9 spent the better part of 20 months individually collecting the snapshots they could transform into the stop-action vignettes of Artifacts. The resulting 20 tracks palpitate with converged acoustics under a digitally applied sheen, bringing to mind Boards of Canada, Telefon Tel Aviv and Groove Collective, far before Aquarium Rescue Unit or Phish.
Unlike that of stage performance, this process allowed the opportunity for the group to roll back and further indulge a freak fancy or two conceived in the years on the road with a number of seemingly disparate artists such as Woodstock-based producer Richard Devine, who admits gaining valuable insight from the remix process.
Musical immersion in Georgia at Yin Yang Café and other venues established the "dirty, nasty, uhhhhh" in STS9's live presence -- "Because you got outside and you were immediately sweating," jokes Brown. But California has contributed more of a diaphanous studio approach, allowing the group to nimbly alternate between furthering and countering themes, alludes percussionist Jeffree Lerner. The consuming digital culture has further allowed STS9 to juggle divergent musical conversations while evolving an aggregate aesthetic. Now a host of remixers -- including Machinedrum, Slicker, Ming + FS, Bill Laswell, ATLiens Collective Efforts and STS9 stagemates Sub-ID and Eliot Lipp, among others -- have further extrapolated STS9's periodic charts into a collection of balmy pinings and sweat-bead helixes.
Following a model successful for several U.K./European boutique labels, STS9 has shifted attention to showcasing the band as but one of many peers taking on and taking off on each other's styles of production, using digital means to create music as release as well as musical releases. While unlikely to avoid at least mild derision as long as "livetronica" is shackled to hippie-ish connotations, STS9 still seems to have charted longevity by incorporating open-ended technology and open-minded collaborations to establish a hub primarily focused on furthering the "sound" and, therefore, as a byproduct, expanding the "tribe."
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