Q&A: David Murphy of Sound Tribe Sector 9

Bassist David Murphy, who helped launch Sound Tribe Sector 9 (the focus of this piece in the September 6 Westword), is among the group’s funniest and most voluble members. He paints vivid portraits of the times, places and personalities at the heart of the STS9 story.

Murphy introduces readers to his younger brother Jay, an Atlanta musician who played a significant role in bringing the Tribe together. Later, he jaws about the mixture of jazz, alternative rock and hip-hop that influenced his musical tastes, and his early lack of knowledge about jam giants such as the Grateful Dead; the dynamic of the band, and how that results in its sound; the creative breakthrough symbolized by the 2005 album Artifact; and the different ways he measures the group’s success. In the end, he decides that headlining two nights at Red Rocks ain’t too shabby.

Hard to argue with that logic.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Let’s start off with the basics. Where are you from originally?

David Murphy: I’m from Atlanta, Georgia.

WW: And tell me about your family.

DM: I’ve got the typical atypical American family, I guess. Divorced parents, older sister, younger brother. Grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta. My family’s still there. My younger brother is a really good musician as well, does a lot of recording and producing for different engineers in Atlanta and Athens, and he’s got a couple of his own bands as well.

WW: What kind of music is he doing?

DM: Well, he plays drums for a hip-hop group called Collective Efforts, who we do a lot of work with, out of Atlanta. And he also has, I guess you’d call it a pop band, where he writes all the music, plays all the instruments, does all the singing, and then hires cats to play shows with him.

WW: And as a studio guy, I imagine he plays on an even wider variety of stuff.

DM: Correct. Anytime you’re working in the studio, and trying to work in the studio, you’re always working with different types of music. Which is good as a musician, to always be out there learning new stuff and understanding the whole spectrum of music.

WW: What’s his name?

DM: Jay.

WW: And did the two of you end up with such eclectic tastes in music because you heard a lot of different stuff growing up?

DM: I think that was the biggest reason. I actually met Hunter Brown, the guitarist in our band, because him and Jay played tennis together when they were about ten years old. So that’s when I met him originally. And 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. So we grew up together and did a lot of that musical exploration at an early age together.

WW: What was young Hunter like? Is he pretty much the way he is now? Or have there been changes along the way?

DM: Personality-wise I’d say pretty much the same. He’s always been one of the sweetest and most genuine guys I know. And he’s always been really passionate about art and music, from being young and us sort of exploring things at an early age, trying to find music that was outside of the mainstream. We were into Miles Davis into high school, and Pink Floyd, and being in the early ages of hip-hop. For me it was the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. A lot of stuff was really new and not really out in the mainstream for high schoolers as much as it is now. I’m not sure. But as far as Weather Report and some of the psychedelic punk jazz. Anything that was out there and obscure. That’s what we were looking for.

WW: Do you remember a Miles Davis album early on?

DM: For myself, I guess it’s kind of generic, but Kind of Blue was the first Miles that I heard.

WW: That’s a good first Miles to hear…

DM: Yeah. And probably the one that made the biggest impression was Bitches Brew, just for the sheer magnitude of it as an improv record, and the players on the record. That was the most influential. It was like, wow, here’s a whole other side of music that people are doing, that we weren’t really exposed to.

WW: There’s a lot more going on musically in that than something like – what would have been big in the late ‘80s – Bon Jovi, maybe…

DM: Exactly. And I love the early days of Jane’s Addiction and that whole alternative rock movement and stuff like that. But nothing was as out there as Bitches Brew and a lot of the Headhunters stuff, Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters. Those were bring influences on me early on. And the ARU [Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit], at that point, they were really coming up and getting a lot of attention, especially in the South. We had direct access to that. We’d see them play for three or four hundred people in these clubs in Atlanta, and being exposed to Jimmy Herring and Oteil and Kofi Burbridge and Jeff Sipe and that sort of caliber of musician. Being able to go and see that firsthand, and as we started to meet these guys and befriend these guys, it was a real inspiration to us as musicians. We definitely pay a lot of homage to Atlanta and the Southern traditions of the music, because we grew up around it. James Brown being from there, Herbie Hancock being from there. ARU and so many really good bands coming out of the area. So for us, it was a great place to come up in the scene.

WW: When did you and Hunter first start making your own music together?

DM: Yeah, in high school, my mom traveled a lot, so there’d be weeks on end where I would sort of have reign of the house. We’d sit around late night in the garage with our guitars, and never really learning covers – just sort of jamming together, if you will. So that was when it really started. I guess he was fifteen, sixteen years old. I’m a couple of years older. So that’s where it really started. And then when I got out of high school, I spent a couple of years just traveling around, and ended up back in Atlanta. Got back in touch with Hunter, and at the time, he was playing in another band with Zach, the drummer.

WW: What was the name of it?

DM: That’s a good question. [Laughs.] Ujama, I think. Although maybe that’s another band. I get so confused these days, with so many bands out there. But it was a real small thing. I think they’d played a couple of pool parties or something. And when I connected back with Hunter, I had actually been traveling around the South, playing with a couple of different bands and trying to pursue that thing. And I had kind of become a little, I guess, jaded on the whole thing.

WW: Was it not as fun as you’d hoped it would be?

DM: It was fun, but the light at the end of the tunnel seemed so far away. You know, what it took to actually get a band together, and then to get a band that would all get along enough to go out and really pursue gigs. To find enough other people who were as passionate as you were. That’s probably a lot of other musicians’ problem: To find people who really just wanted to pursue this music and this lifestyle full on. Because that’s what you have to do. It takes 110 percent of your effort to be a successful band, because the odds are against you in that way. So many people want to do it, but there’s only so much room out there, I guess. So anyway, when I got back to Atlanta, Hunter was like, “You should come out and we’ll jam with this drummer,” and I’m like, “I don’t really know if I want to do the band thing any longer.” I was thinking about trying to find a job and pay bills and stuff like this.

WW: Had you thought about what kind of job?

DM: At the time I was installing cranes at paper mills. Mainly doing welding work. And then I went over and started brewing beers with some guys out of Atlanta called Sweetwater. They do Bonnaroo and the Jam Cruises and all that kind of stuff. They’ve become pretty popular, too. So that’s what I was doing at the time. But Hunter talked me into coming over with Zach, and we did that thing, and I’m not saying it was instantaneous, but definitely from the first time we played, it was like, “This is cool. We should keep doing this.”

WW: Were you playing bass at that point, or guitar?

DM: I was playing bass. I guess I started playing bass when I was eighteen. I started playing guitar when I was eleven years old. I always piddled around with it, and then in high school, I got more serious about it, and then switched over to the bass because growing up, we knew a lot of guitar players. You’d sit around on the weekends and there’d be four or five people sitting around playing acoustic guitar, which was great. But at some point, I thought, if I’m going to get serious about this, I should probably pick up an instrument that not everybody and their brother plays. Something that is a little different.

WW: And there’s a lot of different kinds of music that’s come out of Atlanta, but the bottom is pretty important in almost all of it.

DM: Absolutely. And you know, once I delved into it, I really started to understand that funk-soul background of music from the South. And it really sent me off the deep end of really diving into the bass guitar. I spent years sitting around not doing anything but working a job and then coming home and playing the bass all night. So yeah, I was playing bass at that point and we got together, and I’d say a month after jamming with each other, we were like, this is what we should do. We should pursue playing music together. At that point, it was just the three of us.

WW: Was the name already there at this point? Or did that come later?

DM: The name came a little later. Probably not much later. Probably about six or seven months later. We probably had it before we even had our first gig, which was about eight or nine months after we started playing together.

WW: So you guys woodshedded for quite a while.

DM: We did. We used to rehearse in Zach’s parents' basement, in the burbs of Atlanta. At that point, Zach was still in high school, so we were just playing to have fun. I don’t think at that point we thought a three-piece instrumental band could really go out and play shows. But one thing led to another and we had some people offer us a couple of gigs at just some small pubs and breweries in Atlanta. And then we started traveling down there to Florida. We had befriended this guy who owned a club down there on the beach at Pensacola, Florida. Because that was kind of our real start. We did a couple of these and people responded to our music. And we thought, wow, that’s cool. Maybe this could be some sort of Medeski thing. Maybe there is room for an instrumental band in the world.

WW: A Medeski thing?

DM: Oh yeah. At this point, it was ’97, and we were, and still are, big Medeski, Martin & Wood fans. And they were a big inspiring thing for us musically, but in a bigger sense, they were confirmation that you could get out there in the scene and tour as an instrumental group. Because when we started to really be called a jam band and started being exposed to this jam band scene that existed out there, everything we saw, we loved the music, but we hated the singers. I don’t know whether it was the fact that we didn’t like what they were singing or that some of these bands, it seemed like they started having singers because they thought that they needed to…

WW: That they were really more interested in the music, but felt like it would be accepted if they didn’t tack this singer on top?

DM: Exactly. Their music was amazing, but they’d just sing over at these random moments to cover up their insecurities about thinking they could go out there and be an instrumental band. I won’t name any names, but there’s a lot of them in the jam band scene. The scene has revolved more around the music, and not around people singing.

WW: You guys seem like an unlikely group to be labeled as a jam band, and they do, too. We were talking earlier about Miles Davis, and when I heard them the first time, his music was the first thing I thought of: Bitches Brew or In a Silent Way or On the Corner. I thought, they’re a jam band, too? That seemed strange to me…

DM: That’s true. And I hope you don’t take any offense from this, but a large part of that comes from the media, journalism and people feeling like they needed to put this sort of obscure style of music into a group, a kind of music. And to me, the jam band label, that reflects the fans more than it reflects the bands. The jam band fans are the ones that are still out there paying for concert tickets and really avidly still going to concerts and still supporting that art form in America. If you look at pop music and all the 50 Cents of the world, all these big acts, they really don’t pull that many people to their concerts.

WW: They often don’t even tour that much.

DM: Right. Or do they even tour. So that fan base, and those millions of people in America and around the world, they’re not really concerned with seeing those people in concert. And the jam band world, and why there’s so many genres of music within the jam band scene, is because those fans like going to see all those bands. The same fan may love going to see us as they may love seeing a bluegrass band. And I think that’s great. As a music lover, I feel the same way. I’ll go to see a lot of different styles of music. So I think the jam band thing was something that enabled people to say, here are this group of bands that a lot of these people like, so we’ll call it the jam band scene – whatever that may be. So it was really ironic for us… Well, maybe not in the early days, because like you say, we were way more improv, fly by the seat of your pants freeform jazz. So I guess it did fit into that scene pretty well. But now, the music has evolved so much over the years that we’ve got a lot of fans who’ve grown with us. We have fans in the jam band scene who love us, and we probably have a lot of them who don’t enjoy us at all, because we are a lot bit more edgy and techy and electronicy than probably a lot of the acts in the scene.

WW: In the early days, if you had been handed Artifact and been told, “This is what you’re going to sound like in eight years,” would you have been totally shocked by that? Has it gone in a direction you didn’t expect?

DM: I think it’s gone in the direction we wanted it to, but we never thought we could get there. I think if somebody had played Artifact eight years before, I probably would have been like, “Are you shitting me? We actually made something?” And not in a bad way. Where I came from musically, I never listened to the Grateful Dead. I never went to a concert like that. I never saw Phish until way after we’d become a band. So that whole sort of scene was foreign to me. I grew up more on the Jane’s Addiction, Helmet, Tool, A Tribe Called Quest. So I grew up in more of a pop scene, but definitely in an alternative metal and rap scene. As far as playing the music, I played in a lot of punk bands, playing either guitar or bass. So I was used to the real traditional, straight-forward songwriting form. So when we started playing, I loved it, because it was different from anything I’d ever listened to or played before, and that’s why I had a real passionate affection for playing in STS9. But I think we all got to the point where we thought, it’s cool that we can go and play a three-and-a-half-hour show where we only played five songs -- but we all have a real desire to actually write songs. So we went from being an instrumental band, and mainly an improvisational band, for the first two, three, four years, and then made the leap of saying, ‘We’re actually going to put some energy into putting a record out like Artifact,’ which is way more songwritten material. It’s not necessarily a leap of faith, but you’re not sure how it’s going to come across to the fans or how you’re going to be able to write the songs. There’s not a lot of great songwriters out there in my opinion. A lot of people can write songs, and there’s a lot of formulas that have been set out there for you. But where we wanted to go with Artifact was to put together a new way of writing songs. That was our stab at it, the first time where we really felt we were songwriting. And it’s definitely a freshman effort, and with how much we learned, working on that next studio record right now, you learn a lot. Now we’re in an exciting place.

WW: You were talking earlier about how fortunate it was that all of you guys found each other because you all had the same sort of ambition and drive and goals. Is it just as important that you reached the stage where you wanted to transition from freeform improvisation to more song-based writing at the same time? If you’d reached that stage at a different time, would that have been a problem?

DM: I guess that’s a yes and no question. I think one of the biggest strengths we have between the five of us, both personally and artistically, is a really genuine open-mindedness with each other. And I think that’s what it takes to be in a successful band. You have to be able to really hear someone else’s position and opinion and where they’re coming from creatively. Because at the end of the day, you’re five different artists coming together to create this one piece of art, and you can’t expect that everybody’s going to be in the same place at the same time. But to answer your question, yes on the part that we did all come into that at the same time. That desire of we really want to focus on writing some well thought-out, well laid-out music. We felt like the days of winging it would only take us so far. So we definitely all get there together, but then how we would approach that and apply so many of the different formulas that are out there to really pursue good songwriting, I think everybody was coming from a different place. But I think that’s always been our biggest strength – that we can each come in with our own opinion and put them out there on the table and find the common denominator. Find the thing that we all agree on, start from there and work our way outward. Versus me coming in and being like, “I want to song-write this way,” and Hunter being, “No, I want to do it that way,” and sort of head-butting on issues. It’s easier to focus on differences creatively than it is to find that common denominator and work from there. So we’ve always got to hold that as our strength. Find the point where we all relate and work from there. Because we all allow each other to do music together.

WW: When you look back at the early recordings and compare it to the more song-based recording of Artifact, does the dynamic between you guys seem completely different? Or is it similar, but it’s sort of shifted a little bit?

DM: I’d say it’s similar, but it’s sort of shifted a little bit. In the past few years, we’ve sort of honed in on this question of what is STS9’s sound. We have some things that inherent in everything we do, and whether that’s improv, whether that’s songwriting, whether that’s the show or an album, there seems to be an inherent theme behind our music. We’ve looked at honing in on that over the past few years, but it’s still something that’s pretty ambiguous for us.

WW: How would you describe the theme? And would everybody in the band describe the same way, or differently?

DM: I think everybody would describe the theme a little bit differently. But I don’t know what that theme is. Ironically or not, that’s been a hard thing for us over the years, with really being able to either promote ourselves or label ourselves. Anytime anyone wants to write anything about us, it’s like well, we come in thinking of the music, and it’s been hard for us, because we are so many different things. So the theme is, we play all these different styles of music, we love all these different styles of music, and somehow we’ve been able to make it seem as if it’s always come from the same place sonically. Our funk stuff and our darker, more melodic stuff – there are elements of both. We never get so dark and so melodic that there isn’t still a little bit of funk in there, and vice versa. We never just are playing happy go lucky funk songs, either. Musically, we’re always in that mode in between a minor and a major. We never really go too far minor or too far major. We like to teeter back and forth a little bit, and I think that adds to some of the depth and the mystery to our music. And for us outside of our music, the other things we create, whether that’s our art work or the social things we believe in and get into, some of them are really heavy things that you don’t necessarily want to deal with, like the war stuff, and sometimes it’s just about helping other people. So there’s a little bit of light and a little bit of dark, and we’ve always ridden that line between the two.

WW: It sounds like you find the gray areas more interesting than spending all your time in either just the black or just the white.

DM: Absolutely. And sometimes that’s a source of frustration. 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. But at the end of the day, I don’t just want to say, “I’m in a rock band,” like the million other rock bands out there.

WW: In the long run, it’s better that the answer is more difficult, because it makes it more interesting to play every day.

DM: Yeah. And think of a band like Pink Floyd. Nobody ever says, “Pink Floyd’s a rock band.” They’re just Pink Floyd. Or Radiohead. They’re just Radiohead. How would you describe a band like that? You really don’t have to. You just say “Radiohead” and people know exactly what you’re talking about. In no way am I trying to put us in that caliber of musicians, but I do think that’s more where we stand today. 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, or to be able to use that analogy.

WW: You mentioned the new recordings you’re doing, and I’ve heard that they’re similarly eclectic – a lot of different varieties.

DM: I would say “yes,” but unlike Artifact, it’s definitely a little bit more pointed. Like I said, Artifact was definitely our freshman attempt at what we felt was a real studio album. It was probably our fourth or fifth studio record, but we felt like it was really our first real attempt at it. We always looked at the rest of them like they were demos. But with the new recordings we’ve been doing, I feel like it’s way more concise. There’s way more of a theme coming across there, and I think we feel a lot of freedom now. Artifact was a lot to bite off and chew. There’s a lot of music on there, it went through all kinds of different styles of music, from real up-tempo to more melodic, down-tempo type stuff. So I think this next batch of recordings and records are definitely going to be more cohesive as one piece of studio work. There’s definitely a theme flowing through each of the songs, and it’s probably a little more revved up – well, probably a lot more revved up than Artifact. Not quite as much as the live shows, but something that’s a little edgier. Definitely trying to come out and get in people’s face a little bit more, I would say.

WW: What kind of reaction did you get from fans to Artifact? And did you find that some people who might not have been able to grasp it right away came around after a while?

DM: It’s funny, because we all joke about it: We’ve all gotten more compliments on Artifact the last year than we did the first year and a half it was out.

WW: So at first you’d hear, “Oh, it’s interesting,” but after a while, they became more genuinely enthusiastic?

DM: Exactly. It wasn’t like people didn’t like the record when it first came out, but like I said, there was a lot to bite off and chew up without having any reference to it. Because a lot of the stuff on Artifact when we put the record out, we hadn’t played a lot of that stuff live. They were some new styles of songwriting that I’d like to think haven’t been done before, and I know some of it hadn’t because of being involved in the process of doing it. Because some of it was probably not how you should do it, but it ended up coming out pretty cool. But it was so new to people, even to some of our fans, that they weren’t sure really what to think about it. But over the years of playing a lot of those songs, and our fans, they’ve come to know and love those songs, and so when they go back and listen to Artifact, they’re able to digest it a little bit better. And some of the stuff that we don’t do live, or they haven’t heard a lot, they’re able to digest it easier. People have warmed up to it, and it seems like it hits them all of a sudden. Like, “Damn, I listen to this record all the time.” I’ve had people come up to me and say, “I put Artifact back in, and now I don’t take it out of my stereo.” We got a lot of that, definitely last year. Which is good. And I think we’ve gotten a lot more success the last couple of years, which is good. Any time you’ve got a lot more people coming into your scene, you’ll have a lot more people listening to Artifact for the first time.

WW: To what do you attribute the boost from the last couple of years? Was it the groundwork you put into it before? Or something else?

DM: I think a lot of it was the eight years we put into it when we playing for 500 and fewer people a night. We had a couple of places where we could do more. Playing the Fillmore out here in San Francisco and all that sort of stuff since 2002. But as a whole, to see the fan base grow across the country. I think a lot of it is just we spend a lot of time in buses and vans beating the streets down. Just playing everywhere, any time we could. So I think a lot of has finally come around to paying off. But we’d like to think the biggest part is that our music has gotten a lot better over the past couple of years. We’ve spent a lot of time and have been paying a lot of attention ever since we started Artifact to just the drive to get better. We feel like we’re good as a band, but the difference between a good band and a great band – there’s a huge gap between those two, because it takes a lot of dedication. It’s not necessarily easy, but a lot of people can get to the level that we’re at now, which is to get out there, play with some guys you love, and make a bunch of fans. You can do that. But to really take that to the next level, to make yourself a staple of music, you have to put in that dedication. It has to be your life. It has to be everything you eat and breathe to really write great music like a Pink Floyd or a Bob Dylan or a Miles Davis. That is what he did: He dedicated his life to that. And it sort of takes that. The last couple of years, we’ve gotten serious about that. We want to be a band that’s a staple out there in the music scene, definitely in America and hopefully in the world.

WW: You guys have been around for ten years, but in some ways, it sounds as if you’re still introducing yourself to people. Does that frustrate you at all? Or do you feel like without that ten years of work, you wouldn’t be here, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

DM: I think that depends on the day that you wake up. [Laughs.] Some days you wake up and you think, “Damn, I can’t buy a piece of press.” And other times, you’ll have days where you step back and think, I can’t believe we do this. Red Rocks is one of those experiences. We’re this instrumental band, a bunch of kids who grew up in Atlanta with no real formal music training, and now we’re playing two nights at one of the premier venues in the country. It’s like, wow, you’ve got to be kidding me. Like I say, it’s both. At times you’re frustrated, but other times you’re able to really see your success. That’s probably the biggest part of our drive right now. But that’s good. It keeps you humble. You should never think, especially as an artist, that you’ve gotten to where you strive to get to. At least for us. I don’t think we’ll ever get to where we think we’re capable of. Which is a good thing. It’s always been the driving force behind us. We know we’ve got a long way to go to get as good as we know we can be. But looking back on all the stuff we’ve gone through, we’ve got to say that we’ve been successful in the music industry, just by the fact that this is the only job I have. Most of my friends who are musicians still have to have some sort of other job to do what they need to do to pay their bills and live in this society. So we’re blessed in that. And mainly we’re blessed that we have each other, and each one of us is dedicated to doing this. Because that’s really what it takes – to make it live or to make it die. It just takes one person to say, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” So you definitely wake up every day and it humbles you. I give thanks for the people I’m surrounded with. But as for our success in the last couple of years, it has a lot to do with Eric Pirritt, who we brought on a couple of years ago as our fulltime manager. He’s in Boulder, up the road from y’all. He’s been a big reason – him and his assistant, Sarah Finger – for having the success that we have. He’s somebody who genuinely loves our music, and he’s out there yelling it and screaming it to the world. That’s been great for us, because that’s been a hard thing for us to do – to self-promote ourselves. Maybe as individuals, we’re not all that humble [laughs], but as a group, we’re pretty humble overall. We’re not really here to shout about our band our ourselves, so we hired somebody who’s good at that.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts