Q&A: Hunter Brown of Sound Tribe Sector 9

Guitarist Hunter Brown, who’s included in the September 6 Westword feature about Sound Tribe Sector 9, was a founding member of the band, and remains one of its most prominent creative forces. On this day, he seemed a bit difficult to draw out at first, but once he got onto a topic that he was passionate about, he proved to be downright loquacious.

The interview begins with a discussion of his Georgia boyhood, including his unusual connection to a certain former President; the first song he ever heard, when he was only days old; the group’s genesis and an early tour with an older musician who showed the young Tribe the ropes; the process of making the 2005 album Artifact, when the players took the sort of time they’d never have been given had they signed to a major label; the ins and outs of creating the soundtrack for a new independent film called All God’s Children Can Dance, from the makers of several other prominent recent indies; and a new website he’s developing as an aid to budding activists, be they STS9 fans or not.

This Hunter is a gatherer, too.

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

Hunter Brown: Originally from Atlanta, Georgia.

WW: How about your family. Do you have brothers and sisters? And what can you tell me about your folks?

HB: No brothers and sisters, and both of my parents are from Georgia, born and raised, still live in the same house I grew up in. Same old same old.

WW: What do they do for a living?

HB: My dad has done a lot of crazy stuff. He’s basically in security consulting. He started off as a bodyguard for the governor of Georgia back in the day, and my mom was a secretary. That’s how they met – through politics, I guess you could say.

WW: Which governor was it?

HB: Jimmy Carter.

WW: Jimmy Carter?

HB: Yeah, that’s how they met. And they pretty much do the same things. My mom does scheduling and secretary work and my dad still does security consulting.

WW: Were there ever any family barbecues where the former president and his family showed up?

HB: Never [laughs]. Not at all.

WW: How about music in the house. Were both of them musically oriented? Or fans, at least?

HB: Definitely big music fans. My dad was always listening to oldies and Motown and things like that. Beach Boys. And my mom was kind of on the same tip. They were also listening to bluegrass, Bill Monroe, all kinds of crazy people. And Pink Floyd. That was, like, the coolest record my dad had that I remembered.

WW: Which one? Dark Side of the Moon?

HB: Yeah.

WW: That’s the one everybody had.

HB: Exactly.

WW: What’s the first song or album you recall making a big impression on you.

HB: That’s a good question. I can’t really recall to tell you the truth. I hear that the first song I heard was “East Bound and Down” [by Jerry Reed]. I was born, and when we got into the cab to go home, “East Bound and Down” was playing, and he remembered that. He thought to himself, “Oh wow, this is the first song he’s ever heard.” I thought that was pretty cool.

WW: When did you start playing?

HB: When I was about thirteen. My best friend’s dad had a guitar and his brother had some drums, so we would be over there every day making as much noise as we could.

WW: I just spoke with David Murphy a few minutes ago, and he said the first time you met, by his recollection, was when you were playing tennis with his brother.

HB: Yep.

WW: Were you pretty athletic? And did music and sports fight over your attention for a while?

HB: I grew up playing baseball and basketball and football from pretty much the time I could walk. I was playing T-ball, doing that whole thing. And as soon as I picked up an instrument, that changed my whole life, and nothing else could hold my attention like it could. But it took a while to get out of everything and put all my attention toward that.

WW: When you were first playing, what were some of your early band experiences? Did you play in a lot of different styles? Or did you pretty much stick to one?

HB: I wasn’t in a lot of bands. I was in maybe one or two different little groups that never had a name. We would play every once in a while together and record together on a little four track machine, recording crazy, stupid stuff. But I pretty much stuck to my acoustic guitar – just me and my acoustic for the longest time. And the first real band I was in was the one where I met Zach, our drummer, and kind of joined their band.

WW: What was the name of that band?

HB: Ujama. We were only together for a couple of months. We never played any shows – or, not, actually, we did play one show, at DT’s in Athens. And Sector 9 opened up for that band – me and Zach the drummer and David, who you talked to today. I knew David from a long way back, and kind of brought him in. Like, “I used to play with this bass player every once in a while. Let’s see how it goes for fun.” And it started to take over more of our time than the other band did, so we ended up leaving the other band and pursued Sector 9.

WW: How did the other two guys come aboard? How much of a gap was there?

HB: It was about eight months that we were together as a three piece before we found David Phipps, our keyboard player, who was in Atlanta. And then maybe another year before we met Jeffree, our percussion player.

WW: I spoke to Jeffree, and he didn’t mention anything about having played with Leftover Salmon, but one of the other guys mentioned it. Did he tour with them as a sideman?

HB: He was a crew member. He was Jeff Sipe’s drum tech, pretty much. That’s where he started. But he would sit in. Jeff would always invite him to sit in on percussion. He did everything. He did from packing the trailer to driving the bus to running the monitors to changing guitar strings. He was a crew member first and foremost.

WW: That was probably a huge advantage for you guys when you first started traveling, to have somebody who knew all of those different roles.

HB: Absolutely. We definitely called on Jeffree quite a bit to help us out in some of those times of not knowing what to do. Like the monitor guy doesn’t show up until an hour before the show and Jeffree’s up there trying to figure out how we’re going to have sound for the night, or any other issues that come up being a band.

WW: At what point did you decide you wanted to tour as heavily as you did? Was it something where you said, “This is the kind of band we’re going to be”? Or did it kind of sneak up on you, where suddenly you realized, “Hey, we just played 25 shows this month”?

HB: I think it was more the latter. Pretty much I think two or three weeks after we met David Phipps, our second show with him, we were a backup band for this guy named Gary Gazaway, whose stage name is El Buho. And we met El Buho in Florida through a mutual friend and played a couple of shows with him, and he ended up taking us on tour as his backup band for a couple of months. So we did that, and it was a huge, huge learning experience. El Buho was definitely the first person who took us out of our realm and threw us out on the road. We learned all of his songs, or some of this songs that we could play.

WW: What kind of music did he play?

HB: He called it acid jazz. We were like the El Buho Acid Jazz Experience. [Laughs.] It was cool. He was incredible – way out of my league, especially. But we learned so much. We didn’t play any of our own tunes, except maybe a couple a night that were kind of funny. But after we did that little tour with him, we followed up with our own shows in the clubs that he’d taken us through. So all of a sudden, we were on the road playing clubs. It was exciting for us. It was kind of one part, “This is what we want to do as a band,” but more, “This is what we want to do as a group of friends, together, and we can do it as being a band.” We were all so tight and had all the friends and family that we were hanging out with and creating together, hanging out with artists and painters and writers. We just wanted to figure out how to see the world and enjoy it a little bit. So we all pitched in on a van together and did our first West Coast tour, kind of on a whim. Had a couple of shows here and there that we kind of pieced together while we were on the road. So that was kind of the start. We just got thrown into the whole thing.

WW: How did those first West Coast shows go? Was there anybody there?

HB: Not really. [Laughs.] Not really at all. We had friends in California and some in Colorado – a couple of random places. And we’d have ten or fifteen people out – maybe. For the most part, it was a wash. But we didn’t care, because we were going to Yosemite and Sequoia – all these national parks we’d never been to before, and just seeing a part of the country we’d never been to, and just enjoying it. Playing the music was the main purpose that we were out there, and it’s what we really loved to do, but we weren’t worried that people weren’t coming to the shows.

WW: So it wasn’t like you were depressed after a show where there were only a dozen people. You were just thrilled that you were there.

HB: Exactly. We were just thrilled to be living life. It was just so exciting I can’t really put a word to it. Just the fact that we were doing what we wanted to do and it was happening, and we were making it happen ourselves. We went through so many vans and little buses. Just to do something like that, to take on an adventure like that, and the moments you have with your friends together out on the road, just learning these life lessons, I guess. That’s kind of a cliché way to put it, I guess, but just the things you learned out there with your friends trying to make something happen. It was exciting, and we just kept doing it and doing it. Just kept coming back to some of the places and met some really good people on the way and opened up for some great bands. It just started happening.

WW: During those early days, did your folks think you were insane? Or were they supportive of you?

HB: They were supportive, but not really sure what we were doing. Supportive in a way that they couldn’t make me do anything. My dad was always the one who was saying, “You’ve got to go back to college. You’ve got to go to school. You’ve got to get your degree,” and all of that. And to a certain extent, he still says that sometimes. [Laughs.] But they trusted us. They knew how important it was. My grandma, actually, my mom’s mom: She was the one who said, “You’re so happy doing this. You love it. Take a chance and do it, and if it doesn’t work out, find something else to do. But at least try it and see what happens.” She was a major force for me to have the confidence to do what I really felt like I needed to do.

WW: That’s good advice for all of us.

HB: Yeah.

WW: When did you decide to record your first album? What was the impetus?

HB: We were playing so many shows, and the first one, Interplanetary Escape Vehicle, was kind of a demo of sorts. Something that we could get more shows out of. We wanted to play live, and we really couldn’t afford to be in the studio at all back then. It was before the whole digital revolution, where you can have Pro Tools and your laptop and everything like that. We practiced for a long time, trying to get this group of sounds down and record them, so we could start sending them out to promoters and club owners and things like that, so we could continue doing what we wanted to do. We knew that the CD was the next thing we needed to do to continue playing shows out there. And that grew into a love of being in the studio and looking on albums as an art piece themselves, to show what we’ve done. Not just, “Here are some songs. Let’s record them for posterity.” It was, “We want to do this art project, because this is the only time we can create like this, within this medium. Stuff that we can’t do live.” We wanted to take that chance to explore this other side of ourselves, and it’s grown into a whole other love for us.

WW: In talking to your bandmates, I think every one of them made a big distinction between the albums that came before Artifact and Artifact itself. Did it feel for you that Artifact represented something very different from what came before it?

HB: For sure. It definitely did. I think it was the first album that we had any idea we kind of wanted to do before we went into it. It was the first album we had the opportunity to kind of put it down and pick it up when we wanted to. Because all the albums before that were controlled by budget and when we could be in the studio and how much that cost. But by that time, we had a little bit of gear at home, so we could take our time with what we wanted to do. So that changed everything for us, for sure.

WW: What was the longest span recording an album before then, and how long did you take recording Artifact?

HB: The longest span before that was maybe two years, and with Artifact, I think we took about four years. I think it came out to be four years for Artifact all in all.

WW: So you recorded bits and pieces over a four year span?

HB: Yeah. There was about two years of solid dedication to the record itself, but a lot of the stuff we used on the album, a lot of the skeleton tracks that we used, came from stuff we’d done a couple of years prior. Things that had been sitting, and stuff that we really liked, but that we’d never been able to finish or figure out the way we wanted to present them live. But we didn’t want to forget about them all together. I think that will be true of any album we do. We have so much material. We all play, we all produce our own tracks. So we’ve got a pool of music we’re constantly pulling out. Like, “Let’s do this,” or “Let’s pull this out now,” or “Let’s try this idea,” or something like that. So it always keeps it interesting, because you’re always reaching back for stuff you’ve done while at the same time looking forward.

WW: Are there things you set aside and then return to a year or two later and your enthusiasm isn’t where you need it to be? Or is most of the stuff you set aside because you like it still sound good when you come back to it?

HB: It depends on the track, and a lot of times things will surprise us. Something that we really loved a couple of years ago doesn’t make sense to us anymore, and something that maybe didn’t make sense at the time we love now. It just took us a minute to come around to it. It’s almost like a longevity test. It’s not something we plan to do, but we don’t rush to do anything necessarily. We just take our time, and let it happen when it’s supposed to happen. We’re not trying to capitalize on any new style or any new fad in music. We make what we want to make, and when it comes time to finish it, that’s what we’re going to do. So it’s good. It allows us to be really free when we create, but without the pressure of having to finish that right away, or having to produce something that we need right now. We’re constantly doing what we feel like doing artistically, and what works now works now, and what will work in two years will work in two years, and what’s just crap, we can just throw away, and no one has to know about it [laughs].

WW: Is it nice not to have a record label breathing down your neck, telling you, “You need to have this done by X-date”?

HB: Absolutely. We met with some record labels and were just scared off from them. We took a couple of meetings and they’d start reworking all our game plan from the get-go. “You need to do this and you need to do this.” And we would interject: “We think we’re going to need this much time for the album.” And people would say stuff like, “I’ve made 26 albums. I think I need a thing or two about making albums. It shouldn’t take you that long at all.” Just trying to dictate to us what it takes to do what we do, and I don’t think art is a formula to be figured out or to be ridden. It’s something that has to come about naturally and organically – at least for us, at least for the art that we want to make. The art we make together just seems to be a slower process. We’re control freaks. We don’t want anyone telling us what we’ve got to do, or what we should do. We’re confident in what we’re doing, and don’t really like to think about any outside capitalistic pressures. We’re not putting any of that stuff on our art form. And we make it impossible for them to do anything. We don’t have lyrics, we’re not on the radio. We’re just kind of out on the fringes doing what we want to do.

WW: With the way the record industry has struggled lately, I imagine not having a six-album deal with somebody right now is a relief to you at this point.

HB: It is, absolutely. We’ve had friends who suffered pretty badly from situations like that. And we were lucky enough… Well, I wouldn’t say that’s luck. But we’ve seen some really bad things happen to people. We took those as hard lessons. We didn’t want to put ourselves in the same situation. We’ve just kind of ridden out this new paradigm that’s emerging and just kind of waited to see what we wanted to do within it while maintaining our vision. Not that we have a ton of labels knocking on our door, either. People don’t know what to do with us. But we take that with a grain of salt.

WW: If a label came to you, would you almost be shocked if they did? Because they’d be the first ones to think they knew how to market you guys?

HB: Maybe. [Laughs.] One that would take some kind of chance. There are a couple of labels that we’d done to be on, that we’d love to work with. But there’s a balance there. For the most part, that’s not really where we’re at. We’re not really that kind of group.

WW: You mentioned that you’ve been doing a lot of recording lately, and one project I wanted to ask you about is the score for All God’s Children Can Dance. Can you tell me a little bit about how you were drawn into that project?

HB: We’ve had a couple of opportunities to get into that world a little bit. We got offered a couple of commercial spots, you might say – to make music for commercials…

WW: For what products?

HB: One was Adidas and the other was Sprint. They got us into this company, Anonymous Content. They contacted us about doing things. They brought us both of those projects. It was a way to show them what we were into and how we would approach a project like that. So after doing a couple of things, that went to director’s reels – they have a team of directors who come up with their demo reels… It was for that. But not too long after that, we started getting scripts in the mail. And one came and we ended up bidding for it, which is basically you turn in a bunch of songs that fit the mood of the script, and we got it. And that started the whole process off. That’s pretty much what we’ve been doing for the last year, working on that. We sent in our music. It basically started off as a music supervision role. Like, you say Marvin Gaye is going to work with this, so send us whatever Marvin Gaye song you think will work for it. It was like everything you can think of, put it into the mix, even our own songs. So we did that: maybe 200 or 300 songs that could be worked down into this thing so far. And that broke down to a hundred, which broke down to forty, which broke down to twenty, which changed to thirty. And we worked on that for about a year, and mostly it ended up being our own music. We ended up scoring over half of it. It was a huge learning experience for us, something we’ve always wanted to do as artists. We love movies, and obviously we love music, and it seemed like a natural progression for us, to get into something like that. Especially with a company like Anonymous Content, who have done movies we really like. They’ve done Babel and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and stuff like that. So it was something we were really into. It took a long time. It was definitely a huge learning lesson.

WW: Had any of your music been used in music or TV before?

HB: We’d been on CSI: Miami and a couple of things like that before, where they’d just bought tracks from us. But nothing that we’d scored.

WW: Were you familiar with the author, Haruki Murakami? Did you know his work before you read the script?

HB: I hadn’t at all. I’d heard the name. His name sounded halfway familiar, but I hadn’t read anything by him.

WW: I keep reading things about how his work is unadaptable to the screen. Was that the impression that you got? Or when you read the script, did it feel like a movie that would work?

HB: You know, first and foremost, we could identify with the story. It wasn’t a shoot-‘em-up, bang-‘em-up, crazy Hollywood action movie. It was something with emotion, and some uneasiness, and some things that are kind of hard to talk about. We were interested in that aspect of that, and it went along with the music we were making at the time, which was more acoustic – something we don’t really do live. I don’t think people would be able to watch the movie and know that it was us that was playing. So it definitely allowed us to show another side of what we’re into, something that we wanted to do. It wasn’t like we thought this was the greatest end-all, be-all movie I’ve ever read and we have to do this. It was more, this is something that makes sense at the time and could be really cool, and that could hopefully help us to keep doing this kind of thing. So we wanted to get our feet wet, so to say. We had to retool our studio, really rise to the occasion to score a movie at home, in our own studio. It was amazing. And we were lucky. It was a really low budget, and the people we worked with, the director and everybody, were really nice, really supportive. And we made it happen.

WW: It’s my understanding that when you’re scoring a movie, you’ll have to write and perform a piece of music down to the second. Like, you might have to put together something that had to be exactly 42 seconds long. Is that right?

HB: Absolutely. We got cuts every day, or not every day – from the very get-go, we were starting to get cuts. As soon as they had something, they would send it to us. Kind of at the beginning, at this time last year, we were trying to get the vibe of the movie, the vibe of the cinematography, what kind of emotions are they going after, and how can we subtly touch on those emotions. And once it got down to the final cut, we were literally scoring to twenty second segues and things like that. Something we never had to do before, and it was really challenging, but really freeing at the same time. Any inspiration like that for us, we were really into it. We were kind of starving for a new inspiration, just musically speaking. And so it was a great opportunity for us to be put under pressure to create something that had to fit something else that we had no part of. We never had to do anything like that. We always just created really freely, and that worked as long as we felt it. But we had someone else telling us, “We like this, but could you take this part out of it,” or “Could you tone it down in this section.” And it really opened our eyes to how others perceive our music and how that works within a visual setting.

WW: You mentioned the word “freeing” earlier. And that might seem surprising for a band that started out doing half-hour long songs. How was it freeing for you?

HB: Just in the sense that you had something where you weren’t necessarily pulling it out of the ether. You’re not just sitting around with your acoustic or sitting around with your band improv-ing. This was more, this is a visual thing where you can draw your inspiration from – this actual visual thing that’s happening. In that structure, it allowed us some kind of freedom we’d never really experienced. Like, here’s an exact thing to be inspired by, instead of here’s the whole world, and whatever your mind feels at the moment. Here’s an exact moment in time or life situation that you have to react to sonically. And that’s freeing in a reverse-psychology kind of way.

WW: I’m sure over the years that you were frequently told that your music feels cinematic. Is that something you aspired to long before you had the chance to score a movie – to create visuals for your listeners?

HB: I think that’s something subconsciously happened to us. We’ve always been inspired by art and traveling and seeing things, so that element was always there for us. We’ve always loved movies, so it was something we’ve always wanted to do for sure.

WW: Does the movie have distribution? Does it have a release date at this point?

HB: It doesn’t. They’re talking about it with some people. It was featured at the CineVegas Festival a couple of months ago, and our director won best cinematography, so that was huge. We were really stoked for him on that. It’s going around to some other world festivals as we speak and they’re talking to other people for distribution. But it won’t be a major film that you’ll see at theaters around the country. It’s more of an art movie.

WW: Have you had any other offers on subsequent films at this point? Or are you looking around for other opportunities?

HB: We’ve been given a few scripts that we’re in the process of checking out. But having just finished that, I think we want to jump back into our own thing at this point. Unless something really jumps out at us, we’ll be concentrating on our next album for however long that takes. But if something comes up, we would definitely go for it, for sure.

WW: I’ve heard you’ve got a wealth of material for the next album, and one of the challenges is winnowing that down and figuring out what fits together. Is that right?

HB: Absolutely. That’s the challenge. We’ve actually got so much material – we started our own label, 1320, and we’ve got a set up to release through that. And we’ve gone through quite a few structural changes in the past year, just getting 1320 reorganized and trying to finish some of that other side project material for that. So within the entire sphere of what we’re creating, we’ve got a lot of material we’re excited to jump back into and finish and let people hear. But I think it’s one side trying to figure out what goes on the album, but also how to structure some other albums around these other sounds that we have. We have one project that’s just pretty much all acoustic, kind of more a mellow acoustic vibe, but with that STS9 vibe about it. And others are more strictly electronic, and others have vocals, and we have this other project that’s kind of an old-school dark funk thing. It all feeds into what STS9 does, but we kind of got inspiration from Artifact. We’ve taken some of these ideas and wanted to create an album around some of these feelings, and not just have one album that showcases each feeling. We want this album to be this and another album to be that. So we’re trying to figure out the best way to do that… We have different names for things, where some things might be an “STS9 Presents” kind of project. It’ll be us playing on it, but it won’t be entirely STS9.

WW: And that’s something you can do now that you have your own label…

HB: Exactly, and we’ve had these albums in the works for some time. One of the things that makes STS9 work is that we’re all into different things, and we can bring those different parts of music that we enjoy individually into the collective, and we all have some idea of how we want to express that together. As we grow and as the label grows, as everything comes to fruition, we find ourselves wanting to make larger statements on particular sounds. And I think that’s something we’re going to try and take our time and do in the next two years.

WW: I understand you also have a blog site project you’re working on called Can you tell me a little bit about that.

HB: Yeah. It’s not out yet, but it’s very close, and it’s something we started collecting for a couple of years ago. It’s basically to highlight media issues, ways to participate in democracy, things that a lot of people care about, and things that we especially care about. We’ve been pooling our resources from different websites and different organizations that we find our information from into one coherent website, that someone on the STS9 website can link to, and maybe find some stuff that would take them a whole lot longer to find if they were doing it on their own. It would just be a site where we would collect things about alternative energy and, like I said, media issues and tools for democracy, headlines we find intriguing. It’s not going to be like a blog, per say, in the sense that it’s going to change every day, or every couple of days. It’ll be more of a collection of resources that one could go and use to try to participate. Some places you can find who owns what in the country. The top one hundred organizations: What do they own, from radio stations to newspapers, to how do you contact your congressman or your senator. How do you find out who’s lobbying who for how much. Those kinds of things… A political activism resource based on our perspective, you might say.

WW: From talking about these kinds of things over the years and raising money for causes, do you have a sense that the audience out there is getting more active? We sometimes hear about people complaining about apathy. Does it seem like that’s no longer the case?

HB: I think it’s becoming less and less the case. Within the music community especially, I think the events that have occurred in this century so far have really made a lot of our generation with a lot of questions in general. Why is our world in this state, good or bad, that it’s in? And what can we do as a new American generation to confront these issues and hopefully make the world a better place? I see a lot of people asking questions and wanting to know, even if it’s just for themselves, so they can make their own decisions. And I see people getting together and organizing together to really promote social change and hold these corporations responsible for the pillaging and plundering they do around the world that in turn affects everyone in America. It’s exciting, and I hope we get away from this more materialistic culture to something where we’re more active in the world. I’m happy about it.

WW: Do you plan to address some of these things explicitly in your own music? Or do you feel it’s better to draw people together with the music and then share these things with them in a less overt way?

HB: I think the latter happens just naturally, because we’re primarily an instrumental band. So those issues don’t necessarily come out as clearly as they might with a rap group or something like that. So I think it is more like, this is something that we’re into as a band, and kind of what we draw our inspiration from. I think just from that, it’ll find its way into the music, but not so overtly, like you say.

WW: During the Civil Rights era, for example, there are some great songs like Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite, where it references things in the title, but if you just heard them, you might not necessarily know this is what it’s addressing…

HB: Exactly. I just listened to that album two days ago, front to back. It’s kind of funny. But, you know, we’re not Bob Dylan, but we love where he’s coming from.

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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