STS9 proves you don’t need words to make a statement
Noam Chomsky is down with electronica. OK, so you might not see the revered scholar waving a glow stick at a Sound Tribe Sector 9 show anytime soon, but you will see him collaborating with our hometown boys in an upcoming documentary. That’s because STS9 walks the walk. Virtually all sound and no talk, the local 5-piece-gone-big, infamous for elaborate orchestrations of instrumental jam band rock with tech-savvy electronica, is all about getting the word out and giving back.
With their latest album, Peaceblaster, chock full of socio-political concerns by means other than lyrics, and a film called Regeneration in the works, the band continues to emphasize that there’s much more to the music than moving and shaking. Fêted by many a Phishhead just as much as gyrating club goers, fans have been tapping into STS9’s energized improv for a decade, and the band’s been tapping into the residual resources from that popularity. At the helm of the modern jam-tronica scene, STS9 has funneled ticket proceeds to causes both local and national with each tour, from Santa Cruz not-for-profit Mariposa’s Art to NPR’s “Democracy Now.” Kicking off its current tour at the Catalyst, the quintet is bringing fresh tracks like “Shock Doctrine” and “Hidden Hand, Hidden Fist” to stir up discussion in the minds of the masses. Keyboard and laptop maestro David Phipps tells GThow STS9 is taking media into its own hands.
You’re an instrumental and electronic band. How do you convey messages without lyrics?
When people come to our concerts, even though we’re not espousing things over the microphone through the lyrics, there’s some kind of acknowledgment that we’re all feeling the same kind of hope or atrocities around the world. And by coming together and communicating between, over or after the music, that’s our place in the whole scheme of things; it’s not to gather people and try to feed the answer, but to gather people and let the answer come from the people. I think it’s too egotistical to think that any musician has any better idea of what’s going on than anybody else.
Your website, Peaceblaster.com , has a lot of blogging and makes up for the lack of lyrical content in your music. What’s the story that you want to get across with this album?
Good question. We try to keep a mystique to it. We want it to be a sense of discovery for people to create their own opinions and interpretations of what we throw out for discussion. We try not to be too preachy but give access to information that might not otherwise be out there. Peaceblaster.com is kind of like the liner notes for the album. We intentionally tried to make this exclamatory, incendiary outburst of sound … and kind of feed it with this social, political tinge.
Opening up the album are the songs “Peaceblaster ’68” and then “Peaceblaster ’08.” What’s the significance?
The song titles are the most pointed clues or statements that we have in the whole thing. You can look up each one on Google and find something interesting to read about. “Peaceblaster ’68” to “’08” is to give a small clue. If we talk about the Civil Rights movement and what happened in ’68 and where we are and what’s happening in ’08—How far have we come? What have we accomplished? What have we not accomplished? That’s the question. There’s no answer from us, that’s for the listener to find out.
So the song titles are statements. But do they have a direct relationship to the music itself?
I can’t claim such brilliance. A lot of times our song titles are decided at the 11th hour when we’re going to press the CD. In all cases, I can’t say that the songs were built around the title as much as the titles were given to the music.
On a lighter note, what compelled you guys to supply background vocals for the first time?
We’ve never done that and we were in this really fun studio in Santa Cruz, comfortable in our hometown, and there was awesome gear around us. It was like, Why not? To be honest it was a huge learning and purging of a lot of stuff for the band. It’s a lot easier to tell someone to rerecord their piano than to tell someone to rerecord their vocals if they’re not good enough. It was never talked about for so long, it surprised us how precious that whole thing is—the voice. It was so uncertain that it was exciting. And what more could you need as an artist than more excitement?
Was it daunting?
For sure! We’re not good singers.
Please talk about the STS9 documentary ‘Regeneration,’ which is set for release next year.
It’s about everything from apathy and today’s youth culture, to consumerism, to the anti-war movement. In it there’s Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Talib Kweli, and us. We just keep snowballing the amount of participants. Once you have Noam Chomsky speaking on a topic, it’s a lot easier to get other people to speak on that topic.
What spawned the film?
The director that did our live concert DVD and our guitar player had this idea of making a movie. It started out about inspiration, like if you were going to tell an 11-year-old kid what to hope for as he’s finishing his childhood, what would that be? And we’re people that live outside of the mold, don’t have 9-5 jobs, and actually sustain as artists to live our dream. From that it turned into the question, Why do kids think that they can’t do that? What factors and obstacles are put before them? We had to go into the barrage of media the youth is exposed to that undoubtedly shapes your outlook of the world coming up in this internet and media age, the factors of parenting in this day—with both parents working and the daycare system—and it goes on and on.
With your music, website and film, it’s like you’re creating your own independent news outlet.
We’re always wanting to do something new and more. It has to do with not being satisfied with what we are as a band. It would be easy 10 years into it, with 100 songs or more, to play five nights in a row and not need it to be anything more. But that’s totally unacceptable to us and boring. We always need to be doing something new, whether it’s a new website or a new theme with the music that’s coming out. Part of us wants to pull back from the socio-political nature of things and do some other kind of theme. Not that this isn’t important, but we’re always looking to do the next thing.
Any last words to Santa Cruz?
Just that I so love being here. I get to travel around the whole country and parts of the world, and there’s no place I’d rather come back to, to have a family and raise my daughter.
STS9 performs at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 22 at The Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25. For more information call 423-1338.