Last December, STS9 quietly delivered their seventh album, Ad Explorata. Other than a website announcement accompanied by a pretty wild press release (which we'll get to), there was very little hoopla or publicity surrounding it. Most outside the band's fervent fan base don't even know it exists. That's partly because the Northern California quintet never intended to make this album.
|STS9 by Paul Addotta|
"We weren't really planning on releasing a record this year, aside from the [Peaceblaster] remix record" says guitarist Hunter Brown. But after a summer of hard touring the band did what they always do when they get off the road: they hung out in the studio. "We had like three or four songs that we just felt like recording on our off time, and it just kind of ballooned into this bigger thing, where we just couldn't sleep or eat and some things happened which really inspired us."
Much of the inspiration for Ad Explorata was included in an unorthodox press release (which you can read in full here). The story goes that keyboardist David Phipps' young daughter was messing around with a shortwave radio when she landed on a women's voice repeating numbers. Intrigued, the band searched for more voices and found one other, which they actually sampled on the song "Central." STS9 came to believe the numbers might actually be coded messages used to communicate with spies. From there the band enlisted the help of a "crypto-hacker" and eventually found themselves inside an abandoned bunker at a military base near Big Sur, California, where they discovered passports, documents, a picture of two men standing over a map of the Middle East (which became the cover of the first single "Atlas"), and a couple of patches, including one of a strange symbol which they used in the album art. After more research, the band learned that the piece of cloth was a 'black ops' military patch from a secret unit that used satellite transmissions to gather intelligence from other countries during the Cold War. It's rumored that the team also received signals from life in outer space. This unit's motto was, "Ad Explorata (Forward into the Unexplored)." And that is how STS9 came to name the album.
Sounds like a made-for-TV spy movie or maybe an upcoming episode of "Lost." When I say this to drummer Zach Velmer and Hunter Brown over the phone and ask them if the story is sincere and meant to be taken literally, they sort of downplay the whole thing, but Brown confirms, "Yeah, it did play out that way."
|Ad Explorata cover art|
After reading about bunkers, spies and communicating with aliens, I was armed with explosive questions; but neither Brown nor Velmer took the bait. It wasn't for lack of trying, but there would be no elaborating on the story laid out in the press release.
"I can't tell you how many questions we've gotten about this" says Brown with a slight hint of annoyance. "And [what's written in the album announcement] is kind of what we want to say at this point about that. It's something that we're still kind of reflecting on; it all happened so quickly and was a part of the creation of this record. It's not something we want to beat to death, or let become the only focus of this record."
Those familiar with STS9's early years might recall the band's association with the Mayan calendar and crystals. You don't have to look very hard to connect the dots behind Ad Explorata's inspiration. But as much as some may want to read about "STS9's crazy new obsession" and as much as I may have showed up looking to write that story, it's just not the case. Instead, what I found was a healthy, thriving band that's not afraid to embrace change. The five members of STS9 (which has never experienced a lineup change) still love what they do and who they are doing it with.
As we discuss some of the New Age tendencies the band has entertained during their career, I ask how they deal with skeptics, of which there are many. "I think skepticism is healthy, crucial and essential," says Brown. "We're our own skeptics."
|STS9 by C. Taylor Crothers|
"For years and years people have wanted to put STS9 in a box," adds Velmer, "but we're just STS9. I've been doing this since I was 17; I just turned 31 years old."
The Mayan calendar, cryptic numbers, giant crystals, the healing properties of music, charity work, New Orleans, carbon neutral tour buses, they're all just points of interest for the band; none of it defines them, it just colors the backdrop. While fans and press might get caught up in the static, the only thing that defines STS9 is the music, and when I speak with Velmer and Brown from their recently rebuilt studio in Santa Cruz, that's really all they want to talk about.
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