It Takes A Tribe: STS9

coverwebFrom instrumental music to activism, STS9 makes big things happen. A look back at the band’s decade in Santa Cruz and its latest surprising feats.
When members of STS9 (Sound Tribe Sector 9) shared a condemned house in Watsonville at the start of the millennium, the idea of raising money to build a home for anyone else was pretty unfathomable. “It was literally people living in sheds and shacks around this one house,” keyboardist David Phipps laughs. “Those were the last of our glory days living hand to mouth.” Since then, the band’s incandescent mesh of electronica-meets-jam band dexterity (self-described as “post-rock dance music”) has spread like a virus on the Internet and across international stages.

But there’s a whole lotta musicians out there who find success for sounding good. It’s whether or not they have anything to say that is another story.

Ironically, it’s as an instrumental ensemble—brimming with synthesizers and sans vocalist or lyrics—that STS9 has come to wield messages that exceed a primal need to dance. House parties in Georgia and then hot spots like Palookaville may have been the start, but these days the cutting-edge band at the forefront of the electronica scene finds itself building a home in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward for a family displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and sitting across the table from the late Howard Zinn in an upcoming documentary about activism versus apathy, ReGeneration (regeneration-themovie.com).

Cover_1Humanitarian work is no new thing for the quintet. Through the years there have been the band’s food drives and dollar-per-concert ticket donations to NPR, local afterschool music and art programs, Native American reservations in North Dakota, and a high school solar car team in Florida. But that was all just a warm up.

Now wrapping together their largest and longest endeavors yet—a $150,000 fundraising effort for that residence in New Orleans, and their major roles in the film and on the soundtrack to the probing ReGeneration—the guys are more outspoken than ever. On the heels of dropping the surprising Axe the Cables, a live acoustic album that axes any assumptions you might have of a band known to top electronica charts, STS9 sheds light on becoming savvy provocateurs at the helm of more than just music.

In the last decade, the tight collective has hopscotched from relaying complex, skittish beats on the global dance floor, to addressing complex, generational concerns on the global mic. Here’s how.

Equinox: Turning Points

Cover_2STS9 wasn’t supposed to be a Santa Cruz band. Like the clichéd story you hear over and over again, guitarist Hunter Brown came to town to crash with a friend and arrived with the intention of staying only for a little while. That was in the summer of 2000, when he’d packed his belongings and his two dogs to head out West from Athens, Ga., in a truck barely up for the arduous cross-country jaunt. “I had some problems right when we were crossing the Arizona/California border and I had to have the heat on all the way through the desert to keep my engine from overheating,” he recalls, smiling at the thought of the comical scene. “I have these memories of going through the desert with 200 degrees outside and the heat going full blast inside.”

At 22, Brown landed in Santa Cruz, liked it more than he’d expected, stayed, and set the trend for the rest of his band—a young five-piece then known as just Sector 9 (a reference to a renaissance era in the Mayan calendar). The group rounded out by Phipps, Zach Velmer on drums, David Murphy on bass, and Jeffree Lerner on percussion came out from Georgia and scattered around the Bay Area until finding a base in Santa Cruz.

Like Brown’s battered truck, they would take the heat and beat some hefty odds.

Plenty of naysayers said it couldn’t be done by a contemporary instrumental outfit, but the laptop-laden band (which came to be Sound Tribe Sector 9 due to the skateboard company Sector 9, and then finally just STS9) has ridden the upsurge of technology, iTunes, and its independent methodology. Locally, the band went from filling Palookaville to Moe’s Alley to the Catalyst to the Santa Cruz Civic. Recording out of its own studio on 41st and Soquel avenues, and releasing albums on the digital label it started, 1320 Records, STS9 created its own niche when it didn’t fit in elsewhere.

“I can’t tell you how many times our predecessors or people in the music business told us, ‘You need to do this or you need that,’” Velmer emphasizes the challenges the band faced early on when it vowed to stick to its anomalous formula. “When’s the last time an instrumental band played Red Rocks or the Greek Theatre that’s not a DJ?” he adds, noting some improbable achievements.

Now, 1320 has an enviable roster of more than 40 artists that includes Bassnectar, Karsh Kale, and Prefuse 73. Maestros of a rare hybrid of live performance and digital programming, STS9 has played the world and frequented Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Let’s put it this way: acts like Thievery Corporation, Big Boi of Outkast, and Mos Def are opening up for STS9 on its current tour.

Still, can you spot them in a lineup? Santa Cruz, it seems, is a hideout in addition to home. “I can go to Atlanta, Boulder, Chicago, and I’ll be at a restaurant and somebody will know me,” Velmer says, “but we live in Santa Cruz and nobody knows who the hell we are—it’s great!”

There’s more here than just living under the radar. According to Brown, the Bay Area and its long history of activism and progressivism has nurtured those same things in STS9. He says that operating out of Santa Cruz has “allowed us to flourish, whereas we felt stifled in Georgia and the South. There, some of our ideas might seem less doable. Just having the presumed support takes the pressure off for us and here we’re not hampered by social dogmas that maybe we’d face in another part of the country.”

They’ve been melodramatically dubbed “cosmic Mayan warriors” too many times over, and now terms like “electro activists” get thrown around. What drives the members of STS9 to work outside the concert stage to dabble in things a bit more daring? What makes them stray from the usual path taken in an industry drowning in useless images and mindless banter?

“Those years of living together and being young dreamers, we always knew we’d go far together but we didn’t know where that would be,” remembers Phipps, who also mans the band’s secondary website peaceblaster.com (a sort of news outlet and socio-political liner notes to the music). “We just had visions of being a band that did right. Seeing contemporaries that we looked up to one by one kind of fall due to overdoses or the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle taking its toll—we were almost all vegan, nobody drank for several years, and we wanted to be the band that made it because we’re conscious.” He adds, “Now we’re a little more relaxed these days—I’ll eat a hamburger once in awhile—but that’s where we came from and we still stick to that.”

South of Here: New Orleans

Cover_3Boats teetering through front windows of houses, entire homes on top of cars upside-down, streets of just driveways with lots swept vacant, kids’ toys hanging in trees. New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was trampled into a surreal, Dali-esque scene that mimicked a war zone. And it stayed that way too long after the storm. Seeing it firsthand had a visceral effect on STS9.

“We were there, we were feeling it, we were smelling it,” Brown says. “They found two dead bodies the first time we were there in a neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward.”

Days after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, STS9 held a benefit concert at the Catalyst that raised $20,000 and thousands of pounds of food. But that wasn’t the end of it. Since most of the members grew up in the South, and the band played in New Orleans so often, STS9 gravitated toward the wreckage many times after the disaster.

“Every musician has a big romantic notion about that city for so many reasons,” Phipps says. “And then to tour the destruction itself and see over a three-year span how little was being done … We wanted to tap into this community that we’re part of and all pitch in to help.”

They made human connections in post-Katrina New Orleans that would be life changing.

Brown recounts one particularly emotional encounter when the band stopped at a NOLA gas station and wandered into the surrounding community: “One guy just freaked out and said to us, ‘This isn’t a show! This isn’t a game, this is our lives!’ We had to tell him how much we sympathized and that we wanted to see what we could do, and that we weren’t just tourists. It took a minute for him to calm down and get into a communicative space. It was really powerful and it put me in my place. From their eyes, unless we were down there working, picking shit up off the ground or building something then and there, we were tourists.”

In 2008 the band met Robert Green, a grandfather living out of a FEMA trailer who became a face for New Orleans, having been on CNN as a local who refuses to abandon his neighborhood or his hope. “The important thing was his spirit,” the guitarist notes. “He’s this man who just lost everything. He goes out of his front door and literally everything is destroyed or dilapidated, but he’s there in good spirits and he’s going to rebuild it. He inspired us to figure out what we could do to help that particular situation.”

When the group stumbled upon homes erected by the nonprofit Make It Right (makeitrightnola.org), it found its answer. Building green, affordable houses in the area hit hardest when the levee broke, the Lower Ninth Ward, Make It Right was founded by Brad Pitt to resurrect the neighborhood and keep it in the hands of residents. Instead of fundraising for a patchwork of causes in a year, as it had always done, STS9 made a pact to concentrate on one goal: funneling all of its charity work in that period of time toward raising $150,000 for a new Make It Right home.

“We knew what it was like to split [money] amongst a bunch of different organizations and we’d seen amazing results,” Velmer says. “But like anything it evolved, and at this point we wanted to flip the script and see what could happen if we donated to one organization. It was a really cool decision.”

Having just released Peaceblaster, in October of 2008 STS9 began working on a remix album whose full proceeds would go toward Make It Right. Starting with about 10 artists the band had in mind, the lineup quickly turned into 30 acts psyched to contribute to the album for free. The Glitch Mob, Eliot Lipp, and Bluetech are some of the folks who jumped at the chance. Word about the project spread and in June of 2009 the band released Peaceblaster: The New Orleans Make It Right Remixes through 1320 and iTunes. Sales of the benefit CD, special shows, and a portion of tour ticket sales finally added up to hit the $150,000 mark this April. It surprised everyone.

“We signed up for a whole house but, honestly, we didn’t get much attention from [Make It Right],” Phipps says. “Even as we were sending them tens of thousands of dollars, I don’t think anyone believed that we would follow through.”

Today, STS9 holds the blueprints to several options for a Make It Right home. Once a family is chosen, the band will help decide which design works best and move forward with construction.

Phipps admits the collective is pretty much in awe. The new challenge, he says, lies in brainstorming for bigger and better: “What do you do after you build a house? We’re trying to figure out how to top that or, even better, how to get individuals engaged. Instead of on the surface the five of us taking credit for 30,000 people’s action, can we inspire 30,000 people to take action on their own?”

Beyond Right Now: ‘ReGeneration’

Cover_4STS9 talks. A lot. The bandmates talk in the bus, in the studio, and during breaks, incessantly going over news headlines and working themselves up over whatever issues are at hand. (Note: the transcript from my chats with the guys poured out of the printer in no less than 30 pages.) It’s that feverish attention to current events and those ensuing conversations that, according to Phipps, keep them walking the walk to get others thinking. It’s also what led to the soon-to-be-released documentary ReGeneration.

With writer and director Phillip Montgomery and producer Matt DeRoss, the same team that filmed STS9’s Live as Time Changes DVD in 2005, STS9 helped spawn the idea for the movie, scored its original soundtrack, and stars throughout it. It was a five-year process that influenced the concepts for the band’s last three albums. Song titles like “Shock Doctrine,” “ReGeneration,” and “Peaceblaster ’68” directly reflect the concerns in the movie.

Made by the production company that did Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Babel, and narrated by Oscar-nominated Ryan Gosling, the 80-minute film is no casual matter. Currently awaiting a distribution deal, it premiered this May at the Seattle International Film Festival to sold-out crowds and rave reviews, winning the festival’s 2010 Youth Jury Award for “Best FutureWave Feature.” The jury statement says that ReGeneration won “for its ability to stimulate thought for a variety of audiences, provide a sense of awareness, and inspire action in today’s apathetic society.”

As part of the executive production team, Brown says the purpose was to tackle questions relating to the media, parenting, wars, and today’s disconnected lifestyles. “It’s about how our generation can overcome apathy and cynicism to put more energy into activism,” he reveals. “By taking a look at history, like the Civil Rights Movement to the end of the war in Vietnam, what lessons can we learn that we can bring into this day and age? How can we answer some of these questions that feel so daunting to this generation?”

ReGeneration weaves compiled interviews with eminent figures in and out of three plot lines: the film follows STS9 representing the underdog artistic community, a graduating high school class, and a young couple raising a new family in Minnesota. Their hopes, fears, frustrations and enthusiasm are put under the microscope, as well as an examination of what factors keep the modern generation from being proactive.

The mosaic of footage includes scenes of STS9 members addressing these themes in locales like their studio in town, Davenport, Capitola, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Boston, New York, Japan and Canada. The band’s music—including new songs previously unreleased—complements the shifting emotions of the documentary.

After emails devising the movie idea were initially swapped in 2005 and filming was set in motion a year later, Montgomery, DeRoss, and Brown started getting in touch with authors, professors, musicians, artists and respected thinkers they wanted to feature. With a snowball effect, the film-in-gestation piqued interest in some well-known names. Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, Andrew Bacevich, Talib Kweli, Deepa Kumar, Mos Def and a slew of others make appearances.

There were a lot of memorable meetings while making ReGeneration. Brown cites his time with Chomsky as “the biggest rockstar moment I’ve ever had. I’ve met a lot of people I grew up loving musically, from Perry Farrell to James Brown, but I’ve never been so awestruck as I was with Chomsky. … I was such a fanboy.”

It was Chomsky who took a liking to the film concept so much, he passed on the word to another formidable figure—a pal named Howard Zinn. “We got in touch with Noam Chomsky and he got back to us within hours,” Brown recalls. “He said, ‘You know what, I think my friend Howard Zinn would like this. What do you think if I shot this over to him?’ We were like, ‘We’ve already been in touch with him 10 times, please do that!’ He did, and Howard called us the next day.”

Cover_5In 2008, Brown and Lerner found themselves in a small empty classroom at Boston University, nervously awaiting the entrance of the famed historian who passed away this January. “When he came in it was kind of a whimsical entrance and he felt so light from what I thought,” Brown describes Zinn. “I thought he was gonna be this heavy figure, but he came in with this light and carefree [attitude]. He felt like a real elder or a granddad, someone you respected and trusted. Everyone’s eyes just lit up. He was very gracious and kind and sweet, and he was patient with our questioning.”

The documentary captures Zinn talking about the relevance of history for modern youth. Brown emphasizes that the “biggest thing with everyone we interviewed was that we wanted to direct the answers toward young people—kids and high schoolers. What would you tell a 15-year-old who thinks that history doesn’t matter or thinks that it’s all dead old white men?” (In the film Zinn states, “A loss of history is a matter of life or death for a lot of people around the world.”)

ReGeneration is anticipated to hit Santa Cruz this winter, and Phipps hopes it will get viewers asking questions for themselves. “We don’t want it to come across preachy or like this is STS9’s message,” he says. “These are just things we think about every day.” Scratching the ensemble’s itch to provoke audiences in new ways, the members agree that both the documentary and the Make It Right home in New Orleans have been unexpected career highlights. “These are tangible things that we can see, and they’re nothing to do with music,” Brown adds, “but music is such a powerful cultural force that we can use it toward bigger issues.”

After more than 10 years together, the spirited guitarist says that STS9 feels more inspired and energized than ever. “We’re like BP,” he jokes, “we keep finding new wells to tap no matter how dangerous and far off they are.”

For more information on STS9, check out sts9.com. Other associated websites include 1320records.com, regeneration-themovie.com, and makeitrightnola.org.

Cover image and photo 2 courtesy of STS9/1320 Records. Additional photos by Keana Parker.

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