By Dave Herrera
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Sound Tribe Sector 9 isn't a group that embraces conventional wisdom. The act has built an expanding audience by specializing in instrumentals — a format most popularizers reject out of hand. Moreover, STS9 appeals to fans of improvisational music played on traditional gear (guitar, bass, keys, drums) even though its music has grown increasingly structured and frequently utilizes computer-driven electronics. In the face of such idiosyncrasies, even the bandmembers have difficulty describing their sound.
"When somebody comes up and says, 'What kind of music do you play?,' you might want to be able to just say, 'Oh, we play rock.' But it's not like that," concedes bassist David Murphy. "We kind of play our own style of music. There's not a lot of other stuff out there to be able to compare it to."
As a result, the Tribe remains an under-the-radar phenomenon that's gathered fans through word of mouth, not splashy videos or geysers of hype. This approach means the financial rewards typically enjoyed by a collective capable of headlining amphitheaters have been relatively slow in coming. Still, keyboardist David Phipps feels that moving at a deliberate pace is preferable to starting out fast only to prematurely run out of gas. "What Behind the Music episode has ever ended good?" he asks. "We've yet to see many people really succeed in the old paradigm and come out with the artistic integrity or the rewards for their efforts intact when it's all said and done. We're just careful, because we want this to last as long as it can."
STS9 has lasted longer than many observers realize. The outfit was founded in the Atlanta area in 1997, but its ancestry dates back to the late '80s, when guitarist Hunter Brown was ten years old and more obsessed with sports than music. "As soon as I picked up an instrument, that changed my whole life, and nothing else could hold my attention," Brown says. "But it took a while to get out of everything" — including tennis, which he was playing with Murphy's younger brother, Jay, when he met his future bandmate.
"Then, a couple of years later, kind of during the early years of high school, me and Hunter and Jay started hanging out and playing guitar together," Murphy notes. "So we grew up together and did a lot of that musical exploration at an early age."
After high school, Murphy traveled with assorted bands in the hope of making music his career, only to wind up disenchanted. So he returned to Atlanta and reconnected with Brown, who was playing with drummer Zach Velmer in a high-school band whose name, Ujama, pretty much describes its music. Before long, Brown had the itch to woodshed with his old pal again. "Hunter said, 'I've got this bass player we should play with,'" Velmer remembers. "We started playing, and the other thing just kind of faded away."
For its initial gigs, STS9 was a trio — but that changed during a benefit show at Georgia Tech. A pal had introduced keyboardist Phipps to the three Tribesmen, who'd arranged for him to join them at a certain point in the set. Phipps, however, couldn't wait for his cue. "I kind of bum-rushed the stage," Phipps admits with a laugh. Shortly thereafter, Phipps was added permanently, and the four were hired to serve as a backing band for trumpeter Gary Gazaway, aka El Buho, for a tour of Florida and thereabouts. "He was incredible. Way out of my league, especially," Brown claims. "But we learned so much." The education continued when STS9 hit the highway sans Gazaway with the idea of becoming what Murphy calls "some sort of Medeski thing" — a reference to Medeski, Martin & Wood, a jazzy three-piece often embraced by music lovers more into Phish than Miles Davis. Brown says that everyone enjoyed themselves during an impromptu jaunt to the West Coast, but if fifteen people showed up to see them perform, they counted themselves fortunate.
They were even luckier to hook up with percussionist Jeffree Lerner, the final STS9 member to come aboard. For one thing, he was a kindred spirit. "There was just this chemistry," Lerner recalls. "It was as much on a musical level as it was on a personal level." As a bonus, Lerner had considerably more road experience than his new cohorts, having served as a drum tech for Leftover Salmon. "He was our guide through those early years," Phipps attests. "Most of us weren't even old enough to rent a van or a car. It was just kind of trial by fire."
Over the next several years, STS9 became ubiquitous on what's known as the jam-band circuit. The quintet wound up being stamped with the jam brand, and that clearly irritates Velmer, who dislikes descriptors in general. "Do people ever ask what type of music Björk's music is?" he wants to know. "Do they ever want to label what type of music Radiohead is? I guess that's what's so interesting to me — why people even label us 'jam.'"
Phipps offers a more nuanced take. "What's called the jam-band scene, I feel, are people who are into a lot of different kinds of music and actively go out and see music and support music from closer than the armchair. Because if you listen to us and then, say, Yonder Mountain, where one's a bluegrass band and one has computers on stage, there's really not much in common. So I think it's more people who like to see musicians performing live, taking chances and hopefully doing something that they haven't heard on any of the studio albums or collections of live recordings."
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