Sound Tribe Sector 9 :: 12.31.04 :: The Tabernacle :: Atlanta, GA

Somewhere between 2:00 and 2:30 a.m., on New Year's Day (though still New Year's Eve to most), 2500 shiny, sweaty, mostly twenty-somethings wade out onto the streets of downtown Atlanta. Many have confetti and rose petals sticking to their greasy hair or caught in their dreadlocks, left over from the flower drop at midnight. Some are looking side to side with glassy, dilated eyes, wondering where their friends may be or which way they should walk to find their hotel. A few are on cell phones, wishing other friends around the country a Happy New Year and describing the happenings of the evening. Words like "sick" and "heady" are common. Everyone is smiling, including me. We all just finished ringing in 2005 with Sound Tribe Sector 9, a quintet hailing from the Atlanta area, and the next big thing in the jam-tronica scene.

Sound Tribe Sector 9 :: 12.31.04 :: By Robb Cohen
Except that's not entirely accurate. STS9 are the pioneers of the jam-tronica scene. What is jam-tronica? Simply put: electronic music played by a jamband. The members of STS9: bassist David Murphy, drummer Zach Velmer, guitarist Hunter Brown, keyboardist David Phipps, and percussionist Jeffree Lerner have as much passion for electronic instruments as they have for improvising on their more traditional ones. Murphy may start a song on his bass, but by the end very well may be playing low-end notes from his Apple G5, triggered by a midi keyboard. Similarly, Brown often switches back and forth from bouncy guitar melodies to pre-recorded hip-hop samples on his G5. While they are not the first band to use computers and electronics on stage (Tortoise, who opened up the New Year's show, has been incorporating technology on stage for fifteen years), they are clearly the most successful, even tip-toeing the mainstream after accepting Perry Farrell's invitation to headline the second stage at this year's Lollapalooza. Of course the tour was subsequently cancelled due to poor advance ticket sales, which caused mixed emotions among the band's fans — some were happy for the band's success while some didn't want to share their favorite band with so many people.

In between Murphy's sub-sonic bass tones and Brown's phase-guitar licks are Phipps and Lerner, masters of the sounds and textures that layer the music of STS9. If you find yourself looking around the stage, wondering, "Where is that noise coming from?" it's most likely one of these two. Phipps stands behind an impressive keyboard/computer arsenal, dropping occasional melodies on top of layers of cosmic pads, while Lerner, set up in the middle of it all but behind everyone else, funnels in conga and tabla rhythms, as well as ridiculously fast drum rolls that sweep from left to right in anticipation of the next big "drop."

Zach Velmer :: 12.31.04 :: By Robb Cohen
Which leads me to Velmer. Although the youngest member of STS9, drummer Zach Velmer is usually the first one you notice when watching them perform. Perched high on his drum riser on the right side of the stage, he faces his band members directly. Have you ever seen that toy monkey who bangs away on a drum set, arms flailing all over the place? That's what Velmer looks like. And man, can he play. Over the last few years everyone has stepped up, but early in their career, STS9 was an average jamband with an absolutely fucking insane drummer. The first time I saw them, I walked in and Velmer was playing with three drumsticks, one in his left hand for the snare and two in his right hand, attacking the hi-hat from the top and bottom (if you don't understand, think of eating sushi with chopsticks), creating a rhythm twice as fast. I'd never seen anything like it before.

The STS9 live show has changed a lot between then (October 2000) and now. Their songs used to be much longer, allowing for vast sections of improvisation. Now they are much more composed, complete with written transitions and vocal samples (none of them sing). Band members have room for slight variations on their specific parts, but their songs rarely reach the ten-minute mark (although this is the recent trend, New Year's Eve was an exception, which I'll get to). This speaks of their growth not just as musicians but as professional players.

Sound Tribe Sector 9 :: 12.31.04 :: By Robb Cohen
Equally as impressive is their visual onslaught. Saxton Waller is behind the light board, creating displays similar to elaborate floral bouquets. He has even gone as far as coordinating specific colors with specific keys the band is playing in, a practice commonly found in color and sound healing. The band used to play in front of a huge screen on which they projected geometric fractals and images of space, but they took that away in 2001 because it was distracting them on stage. Almost all of their stages have a crystal garden front and center (I'm talking massive crystals), and they often include huge flowers at the side, or sometimes placed between the players on the stage. STS9 brings a very spiritual and loving vibe, which the audience gladly receives and sends back to them as they perform.

Rather than fall back on old favorites, STS9 welcomed 2005 with two long sets of mostly new music, including six tracks from the upcoming album, ARTiFACT, and several collaborations with IDM wizard Richard Devine. As the band walked on stage, Murphy invited everyone to "enjoy the show" before they launched into "Nautilus," a down-tempo number that teeters more on the jamband side of STS9. That was followed by "Squares & Cubes," a track that has been nicely reworked since its inception on Offered Schematics Suggesting Peace, STS9's 2000 release. Although it has a drum 'n' bass feel, it is still very jam-friendly compared to the real drum 'n' bass that came later in the set. "Reemergence" followed, a debut from ARTiFACT featuring jazzy piano and guitar interplay. "Open E" allowed the band to stretch out into darker territory and really rock it for a few minutes. "Crystal Instrument" began with a cool hip-hop, electronic drum beat before speeding up somewhat awkwardly into a section reminiscent of Pat Metheny. This was the lowlight of the set, followed immediately by the highlight, the one-two punch of "Movements" > "For My Peeps."

STS9 :: 12.31.04 :: By Robb Cohen
The "Movements" part started with the familiar climbing bassline over a laid back trip-hop beat, and after a few minutes, broke down and transitioned into "For My Peeps," the real drum 'n' bass. When I say "real" I mean "authentic," where the whole band sounds like a dj, not just Velmer and Murphy. The basslines are more like sonic vibrations, with the emphasis on tone rather than note value, while Velmer's ninja-fast snare rhythms accentuate the swells and pads from the guitar and keys. They broke it down and built it up a few times, before ending with a sample stating "Reflection: Eternal," which truly brought the heat.

After the barrage of "For My Peeps" they cooled it back with another ARTiFACT track, "Better Day," a perfect example of STS9's ability to compose gorgeously layered chord progressions under Brown's lush guitar melodies. The set ended with "What is Love?", a crowd-pleasing house track in which Brown dropped a major-key melody about halfway through that seemed to taunt the audience into believing this was as good as it gets. It wasn't. Set I was great; Set II was nothing short of spectacular.

Sound Tribe Sector 9 :: 12.31.04 :: By Robb Cohen
At setbreak, Josh from Telefon Tel Aviv spun a 30 minute dj set that included tracks from NWA, Biggie, and O.D.B. Very fun set, nice to walk around and say "Hi" to the various crews representing.

After the setbreak, STS9 came out swinging for the New Year's set. Six people walked on stage this time instead of five, the sixth being Richard Devine, who made about 2500 new fans over the weekend. For the first fifteen minutes of this set, Devine led the band through purely-electronic tribal dance breaks. Somewhere in the middle of this a countdown was sampled, and from the ceiling rained rose petals and confetti. A lot of people, myself included, did not catch the quick countdown. STS9 has a history of downplaying the "New Year's" aspect of New Year's Eve, perhaps because of their interest in the Mayan calendar, or perhaps because everything that you can do has been done before by a couple other bands on past New Year's. Regardless, it was just after midnight, and after brief hugs and kisses, it was time to get down to business.

Sound Tribe Sector 9 :: 12.31.04 :: By Robb Cohen
The theory is that you spend the entire year according to what you did on New Year's Eve, and about ten minutes after midnight, STS9 dropped a pair of ARTiFACT tracks that paint a very bright picture for 2005. The first--which proved to be the high point of the weekend--was "Peoples." It began with a nasty groove centered around a slick synth lick, which was highlighted beautifully by the addition of a female vocal sample. Woven into the fabric of "Peoples" were several oddly but brilliantly timed breakdowns that are like nothing this band has done before, but what made this so incredible was its impeccable setlist placement. Keep in mind that they had just dumped roses everywhere, so the place smelled like a rose. Saxton's synchronicity on the lights with the changes in the song provided for what appeared to be a giant flower on stage that would change colors and patterns as the song progressed. So now The Tabernacle looked, smelled, and sounded like flowers, and it was 12:20 a.m. on January 1st, 2005. Oh, and did I mention the female vocal sample? The vibe of this song was so hot that people were just screaming. And it is a relatively slower song. About ten minutes into this musical bouquet they began another ARTiFACT track, "Possibilities," which also featured an amazing female vocal sample, a mountainous backbeat, and extremely tight, unpredictable breakdowns. The piano and guitar parts were calm, jazzy, and subtle. In other words, very classy. Very classy indeed.

They had the audience in the palms of their hands, so what did they do but drop the old school "Tap In" on the hometown crowd. The energy in the place was already cranked up to eleven, and the frenzied build-up in the middle sent it through the roof. The show at this point became a celebration of all STS9 has accomplished, and well deserved at that. With friends and family in the audience, it was almost as if they were saying, "remember when we used to play this song in 1998 in front of a handful of people? Here's how we always envisioned it!" A reworked version of "Native End" followed, which served as a great breather before another STS9 staple -- the housey, four-on-the-floor "Grow." Brown stepped up with some new melodies and found his way into a nice rhythmic pattern with percussionist Lerner. "Mischief of a Sleepwalker" brought more drum 'n' bass, which is always welcome. This version was a little dirtier and more rumbling than usual, which was very appropriate. The low end shook my pants--which is always a good sign--and the stereo, electronic drum breakdown sent tweaks and small noises all around the room before they nailed the re-entrance. The marathon set came to a close with "Tokyo," which began with a melody that always reminds me of the "Stonehenge" scene from Spinal Tap, but ends with the most in-your-face hip-hop beat STS9 has to offer. They said, "Thanks," and left the stage.

Sound Tribe Sector 9 :: 12.31.04 :: By Robb Cohen
You know it's going to be a good encore when Murphy says "We're just gonna kind of hang out up here a little bit and see what happens." What happened was practically a short third set, beginning with another epic fifteen-minute improvisation with Richard Devine leading the way. This was the hottest of the three he shared that night. To me, it sounded like a snake. The bass was shaking the place; again, more of a sonic vibration than a bassline. Richard left the stage and a couple MC's walked on for yet another collaboration. This was "Havona Ascent," featuring Collective Efforts. Some people liked the MC's, some didn't. They started a little shaky but found the groove quickly and represented well. The band seemed to enjoy it, and it's nice to see them do some live hip-hop since their music is so deeply rooted there. The final song of the night was "Breathe In," and it was the best version the band has ever played - absolute, pure emotion. The music invited you to unleash yourself, let it all out, cleanse your soul, however you feel comfortable putting it. I found it breathtaking (no pun intended), and many found it tear-jerking.

Like other successful jambands, STS9's audience is extremely loyal, often seeing multiple shows on any given tour. Their fanbase is comprised of mostly middle/upper class young liberals. Some look like hippies, some look like lawyers. The band's website,, contains a message board called the "Communication Lowdown," where fans create nicknames for themselves and talk about all kinds of topics ranging from setlists, show reviews, current events, organic recipes, political debates, or their own poetry. Then, when the shows happen, they all meet, often for the first time. I experienced this firsthand in Atlanta. Also, STS9 teams up with a non-profit organization called Conscious Alliance to collect canned food at every show. Ten cans will get you a free poster, and they encourage you to buy organic.

Sound Tribe Sector 9 celebrated the beginning of 2005 in their hometown, in front of a sold out crowd of family and loyal fans from all over the globe. Most of the music had a hip-hop feel, mixed in with some IDM electro beats, house, and a little drum 'n' bass, but really, that only begins to scratch the surface. Staying consistent with Saxton's floral-esque light show and the roses all over the venue, STS9 let their music open itself up like a blooming flower, and kept it there for everyone to admire and appreciate before moving on to the next song/display. Their new self-produced album, ARTiFACT, comes out on their own 1320 label this February, with a national tour to follow. Catch them while you can; this tribe is expanding daily, leaving a trail of rose petals in their wake.


Set I:
Nautilus, Squares and Cubes, Reemergence ^, Open E, Crystal Instrument, Movements > For My Peeps, Better Day, What is Love?

Set II:
Tribal Jam *> Countdown* > Alien Funk*, Peoples, Possibilities^, Tap In, Native End, Grow, Mischief of a Sleepwalker, Tokyo

Improv*, Havona Ascent**, Breathe In

* w/ Richard Devine
^ debut
** w/ Collective Efforts

Chris Newton
JamBase | Georgia
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[Published on: 1/6/05]

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