STS9 thrives on friction. This may be surprising coming from five musicians who think of themselves as a collective as much as a band. But consider the title of the California-based outfit's long-awaited fourth album: Peaceblaster. The two words rub against each other to create an image that is simultaneously utopian and violent, fraught with the very contradiction that permeates America circa now.
"America is this beautiful, incredible place, but it has a dark underbelly," bassist David Murphy says. "And even on Peaceblaster's most ethereal songs, there's a darkness that reflects what's going on in society-it ain't all bad, but it ain't all good."
"Music measures the temperature of the people," adds guitarist Hunter Brown. "Consumerism and the corporate media have taken us all down the path of cynicism, apathy, and nihilism. If the message on the new record is anything, it's to blast that shit."
Armed with a batch of song ideas and fueled by the tension of the times, the band (which in addition to Brown and Murphy, features percussionist Jeffree Lerner, keyboardist David Phipps, and Zach Velmer on drums) took a break from their masochistic touring schedule and holed up in their recording studio, determined to make the strongest album of their career. "The last few records, it felt like we were learning on the job," says Murphy. "But the new record is the job."
The result is a tour-de-force of gut-punching rhythms and textured, shimmering tones. The songs don't seem to have been written so much as plucked from the sky. It's as if the beats and melodies have always existed, just waiting for STS9 to channel them. That isn't to say the recording process was easy. When this much passion and idealism is driving an album, arguments are inevitable. "Sure, we had little disagreements," Brown says. "Bringing new ideas into the light of day is difficult-for musicians, politicians, everybody."
"We're five people with different tastes and styles," says Murphy. "But ultimately we let the songs tell us what to do."
The songs may have been talking, but according to Murphy, Hunter Brown is the guy who made sure the band was listening. "He's always challenging us to take things further, make things better," Murphy says. "We knew we wanted to put out a great one, and Peaceblaster is beyond anything we've ever done."
Brown says simply, "The pot has been boiling for a long time. Now we've got a really good stew."
STS9 already has a tremendous fan base, but the new album is perhaps more accessible than the band's previous efforts. Peaceblaster is, of course, dense with the Eno-esque layering of live and electronic instruments that STS9 is known for-the chords and samples swirling atop the pulsing bass and drums. But between the beats there is a distinctly human element absent from past records. Brown, Murphy, and Lerner even sing occasionally, adding voices to the sonic stew for the first time. Still the band understands that their sound is somewhat esoteric. "Our feeling is that this record could be for everybody," Murphy says. "But then again, probably not."
With Peaceblaster they've honed their studio chops, but STS9 made their bones on the live stage. Consistently ranking in Pollstar's Top 50 American touring acts, they've played all the major festivals-from Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo to Fuji Rock and Coachella-and they've headlined amphitheatre shows before tens of thousands. Along the way they've shared the stage with James Brown, Jurassic 5, Tortoise, RJD2, Digable Planets, De La Soul, Perry Farrell, Prefuse 73, Saul Williams, and hundreds more.
The torrid roadwork continues with an itinerary that takes the band from legendary venues like Red Rocks and Berkeley's Greek Theatre to stops on the festival circuit, where they'll join acts as diverse as Snoop Dogg and The Flaming Lips. This diversity works to shatter the boundaries of genre and scene. Touring has taught STS9 that distinctions between musical styles are mostly artificial anyway.
For Brown, meeting fellow musicians and sharing audiences is a reminder that "There is incredible music coming out these days. People feel alive. They feel that their lives matter, that their choices matter. This leads to great art."
Art exists to show us the world in a new way. It's a fiction that shines light on the truth. And because tension is an impetus for creativity, the best art is often produced in the most trying times. As Brown says, "From Bob Marley to Bob Dylan, the music we like has always spoken to the struggle."
"The music of the sixties and seventies reflected the politics of the era," Murphy says. "America's back in that place right now."
STS9 aims to capitalize on the current climate by pushing toward innovation-musically and socially. Their live shows are fun, surely. But the band works to create an environment where folks can stop and think about how all of our lives might be made better. "When people get together and share ideas," Brown says, "they come up with something bigger than themselves as individuals."
To build on this community, STS9 has developed peaceblaster.com, an informational website where fans will find copies of the Bill of Rights, speeches by Dwight Eisenhower and Martin Luther King, and links to alternative media outlets. As with the live show, the site encourages independent thought. It's a space where people are free to stand up for the right to their own opinions, whatever they may be. The only agenda here is education. "Our role as artists isn't to preach," Murphy says, "but to present information for people to engage."
Sometimes engagement means putting money in the hands that can make a difference. Through benefit concerts, per ticket charity fees, and other special events, STS9 has donated generously to over a dozen organizations, including Rock Against Cancer, the Yellow Ribbon Fund, Global Education Fund, and the Make It Right Foundation in New Orleans. They've also supported such independent media sources as Democracy Now!and the Haiti Information Project.
Ultimately, STS9 knows that they are just a band, playing songs. No more, no less. But they also understand music's power as a cultural force. They know that friction can be a catalyst for change. And even though they can't literally blast peace into our consciousness, they can carve out a musical space where new ideas might take hold. "We're just trying to get inspired and to get people inspired," Brown says. "That's what music is: a never-ending conversation between strangers. We need this conversation to help us understand the world and our place in it."