STS9: Happily Unmoored

By: Dennis Cook

new live acoustic album
Axe The Cables is a smart, impactful title, full of action but open to multiple interpretations, which is only fitting given Sound Tribe Sector 9‘s propensity for openness and freedom of expression. Released on July 29th on the band’s own 1320 Records, comprises an acoustic performance from last December where the live-electronic unit stripped down sonically to play music in front of an audience much the same way it’s originally created in their homes. Taken down to ringing acoustic guitar strings, bright piano chords and feathery, warm bass and empathetic percussion, STS9’s music, as compositions and layered, often utterly lovely, strongly emotional work, shines in a whole new light. While this may be old hat for its creators, the pieces on Axe The Cables showcases what a strong, original instrumental group this is, and how just when one thinks they have them figured out they toss in a wonderful curve or three.

Besides the acoustic release, STS9 also recently composed their second film score for the documentary ReGENERATION, which features leading intellectuals, social activists and cultural figures like Noam Chomsky, Tali Kweli and Howard Zinn. Never ones to be idle, STS9 also recently finished raising $150,000 to build a home with the Make it Right Foundation in New Orleans. And Sound Tribe embarks on a massive summer tour starting on August 11th in New York City with an acoustic “Axe The Cables” performance at the Blender Theater on August 11 followed by a plugged in evening on August 12th at the Roseland Ballroom with special guests Lotus, The Album Leaf and John Hughes (see full tour dates here).

We snagged percussionist and electronic manipulator Jeffree Lerner to pick his brain about the acoustic shows, the band’s continuing efforts to raise social consciousness and more.

JamBase: There’s a rising subtlety to Sound Tribe these days, where you can do the big energy stuff where everyone is tripping out and dancing but you’re also taking time for your band’s equivalent of ballads, getting down to softer material, and that’s often where the real meat of band’s surfaces.

Jeffree Lerner: It kind of reaveals the truth, if you will, when you strip down all the layers and take away all the bells & whistles and get to the core of what’s going on. As much we do appease our fans, I think it’s just representing the diversity of the band as individuals. I think it speaks to our individual interests in music. We love all kinds of music. We’re inspired by all kinds of music. We love to play all kinds of music and really don’t want to limit ourselves to just being an electronic band. And I don’t think that would serve us best anyway because we have all these different facets that we fortunately have an opportunity to express.

JamBase: That leads pretty naturally to talking about Axe The Cables, which has the potential for deep fans to be a favorite, if not the favorite, in the STS9 canon. I’ve been listening to this group for years and this recording/performance allowed me to see into the bones and inner workings of music I thought I knew pretty well.

Jeffree Lerner by Casey Flanigan
Jeffree Lerner: It might be new to the audience but it’s how we’ve made music all these years. I think [David] Murphy even mentions it during the set when he talks about wanting to invite people into our studio to see how we create. And the songs didn’t need electronics to do what they needed to do. We’ve always written music like that with our core instruments and then expanded it. So underneath each and every electronics song is that core of musical instruments.

So, you craft music the way most people do – at a piano or with an acoustic guitar. Was it exciting for the band to expose that fact to sunlight?

It was really exciting for us! Normally, we have a big production with a lot of gear and a semi full of stuff. So, it’s nice for us to prove to ourselves as well that we can play music and move people without having to have semis worth of stuff. That’s not a bad thing but it was an experiment we needed to get out.

And it continues to be interesting because STS9 plans to keep doing “Axe The Cables” acoustic shows on future tours.

Absolutely. And some of those songs are going to grow and become part of the big rock show as well. I think these two sides have always been talking to each other and we finally found a way to express it.

One of the things that came to mind listening to Axe The Cables was how Sound Tribe sometimes gets short-shrift from critics because you work in the electronic realm. Maybe exposing this acoustic side of the band will help balance out the view of STS9’s musicianship.

I think so as well, and there’s also likely a new way into the band for people who’ve never listened to us before. That’s gonna be an interesting path for those people to follow if they start with the acoustic album. It’s interesting because everybody wants to label and put things in categories but that’s something we’ve never felt comfortable with outside of just calling it “music.”

Let’s take what our culture is calling a “jam band.” Obviously, we’re not talking the kind of music that’s being played because you can have a bluegrass band to a band like us to Disco Biscuits to Medeski Martin & Wood to solo Keller Williams. Those things don’t have much in common musically but what they do have in common is music fans willing support bands and live music and that culture in general.

And a community of musicians that’s likewise open-minded. You talk to any of the musicians you’ve named and they’re all curious and never locked into one thing.

STS9 by Dave Vann
Why should you have to decide what kind of music you play? This is art [laughs]. I’m sure painters back in the day hated being locked in a box and labeled and expressionist or whatever. I’m sure they sketched and worked with charcoal and did other things, too. It’s really just the interface between the musicians and the fans. How does a fan express what they’ve heard to a buddy after he comes to a show? How does he express that without the other person being able to see and hear it? It’s an interesting phenomenon.

Do you think it helps to have your own label to put out whatever you come up with and not have it second guessed by suits?

It allows us freedom, and by design. That’s why we created the label to share our art, whatever we create. I think we’ve always been able to look after this aspect ourselves. It’s nobody’s fault but money is the bottom line in this industry, and of course, we have to get paid. We have lives and families, but that’s not why we create, which is for pure expression. We’ve always tried to keep it pure.

That’s easier without someone looking over your shoulder telling you to follow this or that trend.

There are people who give us that advice, and sometimes it makes sense, but it’s not the core of it for us. We can’t be that naïve to think we can cut ourselves off from the world. We have to keep pace with what’s going on. I don’t know that I’d use the word ‘independence’ because truly it’s really an interdependency. Artists sitting alone in a room might make the most amazing art but if it can’t relate or holds no purpose in society or culture it’s not as effective. It’s really a balance.

One of the things I appreciate about Sound Tribe is how you put your ideals into action. Shit, you guys got a whole house built in New Orleans. Was it a trip to raise all the money and know a new home would come out of it?

Jeffree Lerner by Remixes Album
It was a total trip! We didn’t if it would take five years or two or six months. We’re all really pleased it happened as quickly as it did. We just opened the door; our fans did it. There’s a sense of pride in our organization for being able to do such a thing, but the reality is we didn’t do it. Everybody who walked through the door to see us play music instantly became part of something larger than just entertainment, along with the artists who donated their studio time and tracks to the remixes album.

Great things are possible with everybody chipping in some to a much bigger total. But there’s also more subdued consciousness raising going on in STS9, stuff that’s more subtle than shouting at people but effective in its own way. We joked around about that when we first started, saying we should get up on stage and just say what we believe in and consider important. Probably 2 out 10 people in the room would have pulled out a dollar. I think that in essence is the key to making a difference culturally and making some change. Given the opportunity, most people want to do the right thing, but things in our culture make that hard to do. If you want solar panels for energy they’re more expensive. One random example is I have a cousin who after she graduated high school in Detroit moved to New Orleans to help out, but within the New Orleans community there’s thousands of young people who aren’t helping and collecting [money] from our government. It’s an interesting paradox because they’re not incentivised to make a difference. It’s complicated. We brainstorm a lot about how to work with the audience to make the world a better place. It’s an important part of what we do.

However, the way you communicate these ideas increasingly through years is more through osmosis than direct statements. If one digs deeper into the Peaceblaster website there’s plenty of worthwhile, purposeful tangents to be had, but you’re not leading anyone to these tangents by the hand. This stuff has deeper implications behind it but it’s also sounds that you can shake your ass to.

You can experience on any level you want. I remember having to read books in my high school English class and man, I didn’t to read them or do a report on them. Now, I find myself 20 years down the road and I pick up On The Road by Jack Keroac. Reading it of my own volition makes a huge difference.

So, we’re not going to force anyone to do anything but the trail of breadcrumbs is there if you want to follow it down the line. It’s there in the song titles, in the Peaceblaster website, etc. We’re just finding ways to create opportunities for that [kind of depth]. I don’t want someone to come to a show and be bummed out because they feel they have to do something and really they just want to enjoy it. It’s such a diverse crowd with such diverse intentions. Some just want to dance, some people want community, some people want to part of something larger than themselves, and all those possibilities are there.

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