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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Photo of STS9 Acoustic Set | 12.29.09 from digital.1320records.com
I don't think we've ever really felt like this as a band. There's just something different. It's something new.
It's right before New Year's Eve and the band is busting with excitement as they rehearse for their first acoustic live set ever, (which was very well received by fans and is available for download here). For a band known for their use of electronics, synthesizers and computer generated sounds, going acoustic is a very big deal. "I don't think we've ever really felt like this as a band" says Brown. "There's just something different. It's something new."
But, sometimes something new just looks and feels new when in fact it's actually quite old.
"I feel like for the first time in a long time we're not looking ahead so much as we're looking back and kind of taking some of the elements that we may have started with and left behind," continues Brown. "That's partly me playing a lot of acoustic guitar. That's all I've really wanted to do for the last couple years on my off time, and I think that's just naturally seeping into what we do."
|Zach Velmer - STS9 by Casey Flanigan|
Pausing to think about all that's happened in the past couple years, Brown continues, "We've scored a movie and a documentary and done all these musical projects kind of away from STS9 that a lot of our fans haven't heard. With a lot of this acoustic music that we're playing and a lot of the music we're doing now, some of the inspiration is coming from that."
Since arriving on the scene in the late '90s, STS9 has been many things to many people. Initially an instrumental jam band with winding improvisations, soon the band was thought of as a drum & bass act, then a live electronica outfit, then a laptop band, then soon afterwards a quintet focused on compositions and soundscapes that mix funk, jazz, down-tempo, hip hop and psychedelic rock. The band has been quoted as describing their music as "post-rock dance music" and that might be as close as one will ever get to pinning down their sound.
After close to 15 years of constantly pushing to find new ways of expression, STS9 is finally taking a deep breath. As we enter a new decade, they're taking stock. Like a painter who's been collecting colors and learning new techniques, STS9 is slowing down and looking at all the buckets of paint and thinking about new ways of combining them. Perhaps for the first time ever, the band isn't as concerned with breaking new ground as they are with mastering what they already know.
"We feel like we're creatively coming full circle while at the same time going back a little bit to where we kind of started with each other when we first became a band," says Brown, "how we used to play together, how we used to write music."
"I think it's going back to playing more guitar, more piano; playing less synthesizers, less of the sampled elements," adds Velmer. "Not that we're not gonna continue to do that, it's just the pendulum is always swinging back and forth and it's just kind of starting to swing back the other way a little bit."
This idea of coming full circle has created a renaissance of sorts for the band that's not only found in their music but perhaps most profoundly in their relationships. Any band that lives on tour buses and in airports as STS9 does is bound to stress their friendships. Such cramped arrangements can crush a band or turn a passion into a job, where one learns to play nice long enough to get through each show and get their paycheck. This is not how STS9 operate.
|STS9 by C. Taylor Crothers|
"We feel blessed to be able to keep doing this, just creating and having fun," says Velmer. "We've been through [hard times] but we've always come through better for it on the other end. We're true friends - we stick through it all - and it comes back in our art. We're able to get through those times and express some kind of feelings that are often hard to express through instrumental music."
Where most bands can't wait to get away from one another after a tour, STS9 still really enjoy just hanging out.
"It's coming back to the days when we used to go camping all the time together," reflects Brown, "and we would just have these parties and sessions where it was just for the sake of doing it and just because it felt good. There was no kind of intention behind it."
Many have tried to write STS9 off and the band has found great joy in proving critics wrong. Embraced by hippies and jam fans as much as they are hip hop heads and the dance crowd, STS9 play the big stages at festivals ranging from Bonnaroo, Rothbury and High Sierra to Coachella and Lollapalooza. With music that shows few boundaries and fans that flock from every genre, it appears there's no wall STS9 can't climb.
"We've been around since 1997. We're not the new thing. We will never be the new thing again. We just really enjoy each other's company. We enjoy each other's art," says Velmer with pride. "We go on hikes together. Like Hunter said, it's coming back together for some amazing reason. It's very relative to a soul mate or finding your wife. It's like the five of us found each other and we just get to do this, and it's fucking fun and we enjoy it."
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