Q&A: Jeffree Lerner of Sound Tribe Sector 9

Jeffree Lerner, the percussionist for Sound Tribe Sector 9, profiled in the September 6 edition of Westword, was the last member to join the band, and the most experienced going in, having previously served as a drum tech on extended tours by Colorado’s Leftover Salmon. In conversation, he comes across as arguably the most reflective member of the group, and the most serious. There are a few laughs here or there, but for the most part, he speaks about music in reverent tones.

Among the topics covered: Lerner’s bucolic Michigan upbringing; the birth of his love affair with drumming, and his interest in the instrument’s rich history; his entry into the band and philosphy about improvisation; his response to the dreaded how-do-you-like-being-called-a-jam-band question; his thoughts about aggressive tour schedules and especially memorable shows; personal reviews of each STS9 recording; and ruminations on charitable activities, a passion of his that he hopes will further solidify the bond between band and fan.

You can’t beat that.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you from originally?

Jeffree Lerner: I grew up in a place called Big Rapids, Michigan.

WW: Where is that near? And how would you describe it?

JL: Well, it’s very rural. I grew up near the Manistee National Forest, probably about ten miles from the nearest stoplight.

WW: That sounds pretty good, actually.

JL: It was. When I became an adult, I realized how fortunate I was to grow up in that kind of environment, with the woods and nature and all these bald eagles around. It gave me a really good foundation, and a lot of where the inspiration for my music comes from is nature and the natural world.

WW: And yet probably as a kid, you might have felt a bit trapped. Is that true?

JL: Not really. I just didn’t know any different, really. [Laughs.]

WW: So it wasn’t as if you were watching TV shows about the big city and feeling like you were missing out.

JL: No, the only show that made me feel like that was The Brady Bunch, but that’s because I’m an only child. (Laughs.)

WW: So you wanted to go from being an only child to having eight other kids around the house?

JL: (Laughs.) Sounds like fun, you know?

WW: Tell me about your parents. Do they have a music background?

JL: I think they have an appreciation for music, not necessarily as players. They’re music fans. Growing up in Michigan, there was a lot of the Motown influence when I was growing up, and lots of R&B records all around the house.

WW: Where there was one artist you remember really connecting with back then?

JL: As a kid, I think the first one was Earth, Wind & Fire, because my dad had all the albums. That seemed to be the one that resonated with me the most at that time. I was pretty young, though.

WW: When did you start playing music yourself?

JL: I started out early, playing music in school and pulling out pots and pans and stuff like that. But once I got into high school and discovered sports and stuff, I kind of set it aside, and then I picked it up again when I was in college.

WW: So during a period when a lot of people are starting to focus on music, you set it aside?

JL: Yeah, interestingly enough, it all happened like that. I don’t know the reason. And when it found me again in college, hanging with a group of kids who were friends, and we started a little band together and started playing out. That’s when it was revealed to me: This was my path.

WW: Do you remember what the band was called? And what kind of music did you play?

JL: It was called Soulflower, not that anybody would ever know who that was. And it was all improvisational stuff, doing some covers and just hanging out with my friends. It seemed to be the most creative and productive way that we could spend our time.

WW: So when you realized this was, as you said, your path, was there a moment of epiphany? Or did it slowly occur to you that when you were playing music with those guys, you were happier than when you were doing anything else?

JL: I think for me it just kind of unfolded, especially with the instruments that I play, being of such a traditional nature and the percussion world having such a history: congas and marimbas and stuff like that. So it kind of unfolded for me, and I spent a lot of time finding my own voice and understanding that music was so cultural and spoke to people’s experiences. And the unfolding happened because of the right teachers and the right people coming into my life and giving me the information that I needed to know, and sharing. It was a really organic process.

WW: It sounds as if the instruments you play became more meaningful the more you learned about their background. Is that true?

JL: Well, I think the meaning was always the same. But on a personal level, if you’re a guitar player today, and you pick up a guitar, there’s been so much done on a guitar that it’s a challenge to find your own voice and what you have to say through the instrument. And I think that from the beginning I was challenged like that just because of the cultural aspects to the music that I was studying.

WW: A lot of players are satisfied with trying to sound as much like their favorites on the instrument as they can. But for you, it sounds like you realized early on that you didn’t just want to imitate. You wanted to come up with something original to you.

JL: Exactly. And I think that’s where all original music comes from – musicians digging inside of themselves to find their voice. And a lot of times, you’ll find what has already been done, because that’s natural. That’s what humans do with instruments. You’ll find the same things that other musicians have found. But it seems to be much more rewarding, and give you a different sense of ownership of the music.

WW: Is finding your voice a process, not a destination? Do you feel like you’re still in the process of finding your own voice?

JL: Absolutely. I try to learn every day. I’ve definitely not arrived. (Laughs.) I’m taking on a lot of different stuff. I’m picking up the vibraphone right now, and two or three years ago, I picked up the tabla, which is a lifelong journey with that instrument. It’s endless, you know? It’s endless.

WW: Tell me how you first got together with the Sound Tribe guys. From having just spoken to Zach, it sounds like there was a core group together that you joined.

JL: Yeah, they were a band. We were introduced by a mutual friend they’d gone to high school with, and he’d become a good friend of mine over the past couple of years. He was like, “You have to meet these kids. They’re everything you talk about, about the kind of people you like to play with.” So we met, and there was just this chemistry. It was as much on a musical level as it was on a personal level. It was just a perfect match.

WW: In terms of the two levels you mentioned, the musical and the personal: Is it possible for only one of those things to connect and still have it work? Or do you really need both of them to make the chemistry come together?

JL: I wouldn’t say it wouldn’t work, but the chemistry definitely helps. It makes it more holistic, if you will. And I think it’s a testament to that fact that we’ve been together for ten years and we’re still growing and coming up with new stuff and keep challenging ourselves on that level. I don’t know, though. I’ve never been in a band where I didn’t have that. It might be an integral part of what I need in a group.

WW: How has the sound of the band evolved since you first got together? And how much of a role has technology played in that?

JL: I think it’s played a huge role. But then again, if technology wasn’t there, I think we would have evolved in the same way. But we chose to embrace the technology, so that’s definitely a part of it. When we started out, we were highly improvisational, didn’t necessarily write set lists – we just went out there and raged it for an hour and a half, two hours, three hours, whatever it was. And I think if anything could be said of our sound, I think it’s a matter of maturity and really dedicating ourselves to that sound and spending the time off the stage to develop that. Again, it’s not one of those things were we set out to be here. It was a really natural, organic unfolding of the music we love. As much as we play for fans, we’re playing for ourselves as well. It’s just a process of playing the music we love and are inspired by. It just kind of evolved and became this thing.

WW: If I’m following you correctly, was the music completely freeflowing early on, and over time, more structure has been applied to it? And if that’s right, does the music still feel as free now as it did when there were no boundaries at all?

JL: That’s a tough one, because it’s hard to generalize about all the music, because there are things that are definitely more structured, and there are things that are left more open. And I guess that’s where the maturity comes in – just being able to discern those moments. We treat a song like a conversation, where the song is the subject matter. We all listen to each other and we all respond, but if someone wants to go off on a tangent and is inspired to talk about something different, we’re open to that. And that’s kind of what happens in the music as well. If someone wants to take a turn and start talking about something else, we’ll all join in the conversation and move with it. Even if we were totally structured out, I wouldn’t feel limited with the freedom just because of the five of us, the way we were work together and listen to one another. So I don’t feel restricted at all. If we want to move that way, we’re able to.

WW: How much does trust in each other have to do with that kind of format working?

JL: Everything. Everything, for sure. Just to know that your brother’s got your back up there, and if you want to take a chance, they’re your safety net. Or if someone wants to go out there, someone else can be their tether and keep them from going too far. It’s a real relationship out there. We become one.

WW: Are there times when one or more of you needs to be reeled in and after the show you say, “Thanks, I was losing myself there”?

JL: Not too often, really. We’re really able to take it to the places we need to. And, you know, that trust is a big part of keeping it all together. So there’s not too much of it.

WW: In my conversation with Zach a few minutes ago, the word “jam” came up, and he became pretty exercised about it. He didn’t like the fact that you guys have to answer that question about whether you are or aren’t in that category…

JL: Here’s my take on that. When we talk about the “jam band community,” I feel like we’re talking much less about the bands than we are about the fans. You can’t describe our band as a jam band and also describe a bluegrass band as a jam band.

WW: And yet people do all the time.

JL: Yeah, people do it all the time. But really what it’s about is a community of people out there in our country and abroad that support live music. I feel like that identity has more to do with them than it does to us. And the bands those kids go to see become jam bands, not necessarily of the music they’re playing but because of the community.

WW: Do you feel a close kinship with that community? Or do you just feel lucky that the community happens to connect with what you guys do?

JL: That’s a good question. There’s definitely a kinship, because if they weren’t out there supporting what we’re doing, I wouldn’t be out there doing what I’m doing. There’s an integral connection there. But music is music. People are out there expressing themselves, and just because somebody doesn’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not valid and that someone else can’t enjoy it. But it’s more to do with the mission that we’re on, and when those two worlds overlap, that’s great, it’s beautiful. And at the same time, if it didn’t, I don’t necessarily know that we’d be catering our music to that. I think it’s just one of those things that has happened naturally in the sense of the ideals of live music and that culture.

WW: You mentioned the word “mission.” How would you describe the mission you’re on? Is it as simple as just being as creative as you can? Or is there something more to it than that?

JL: I think the number one thing is just integrity in art. We try to bring our best show and put as much work from home to make those shows such. It’s just a product of the work we put into it.

WW: You don’t want to take any night for granted, thinking that if you just show up and put in the time, everything will be fine. You want to have that focus every single show…

JL: Absolutely. We don’t take anything for granted at this point.

WW: You guys have been around for ten years, and yet some people are only now finding out about you. Is that frustrating to you? Or perfectly fine?

JL: I think it’s perfectly fine and natural. And just as a band, too, we keep growing and changing and evolving, and I think that’s really natural and healthy, you know? There’s lots of stories of bands that blow up and have one great album and one great video on MTV, and then you never hear about them anymore. But we were never really interested in that sort of success. We’re in it for the long haul. So I think it’s unfolding just fine, you know?

WW: As a band, you didn’t seem in a rush to record early on. Was that purposeful. Did you want to get to really know each other before you spent a lot of time in the studio?

JL: I just think there were opportunities for us to get out and play. When you’re on the road 300 and some days of the year, there’s not much chance to do an album. I think that’s just where we were at. We were touring our asses off, and playing 200 and some shows a year. That seemed to be where we needed to put our energy for those couple of years. Go out and spread our wings and then come into the studio after that. So it wasn’t really intentional. I just think it mostly had to do with the opportunities that were there for us.

WW: Was there a show from those early years that you look upon as being a really formative kind of show?

JL: There were lots of them. There was one in particular at a place called Round Mountain in North Carolina. It might have been the first festival that we threw on our own. It was a Day Out of Time celebration in the Mayan calendar. It was on a good friend’s piece of land, and great people, and a great vibe for the weekend. That was right when I joined the band, so it was really kind of an important thing for me, that particular show. But all of them in their own way. It’s just been an amazing experience for us – to leave the house and share the music with people across the country, and in different countries. It’s exciting stuff.

WW: Is there a show you look back on and think, that one didn’t work, or that one was a disaster? Or even when things don’t go as you expect, do you feel you can still learn something from them?

JL: Definitely. And it’s amazing how different sometimes the fans’ perspective is from the musicians. You can be up there sometimes and feel like you’re just in the mud, and you can’t get your feet out of the mud – everything’s sticky and it’s a hard set and you’re challenged in a lot of ways. And then you come off and someone’s like, “Man, that was so amazing!” So it’s really a matter of perspective and where your head’s at. There are definitely shows that are more challenging. Not necessarily one that sticks out more than another, but I know that there are those times where you may have been hired, or you may have traveled 400 miles to get there, or you may be late. There are a million different challenges that can pop up during the day, and I think it’s the responsibility of the artist to get beyond that. And it’s pretty easy in that sense. Once you step on that stage and there are anywhere from fifty people to 10,000 people in front of you. That really puts you in the moment. You have everybody’s attention. It’s easy to get out of those moments just because of the raw energy sitting there in front of you.

WW: Is the differing reactions between yourself and the fans a lesson to you – that maybe the music has a life of its own and it’s not dependent upon what mood you’re in or what you had for breakfast that day?

JL: Maybe not so much that, but when you’re up there expressing yourself, you have the idea of what you’d like to express, but you also have the influences of the day. And whether your country’s in a war or a disaster happened or something great happened, there’s all these different influences and things that can affect the music. And sometimes we pull from energy that we might not think is the most ideal to pull from onstage, even that has its place. Even that expression has its place. So I think it has a lot to do with the expectations of the artist. So yeah, it has been a teaching tool – to really free yourself up from what you think you’re supposed to be doing up there, and just be free up there. Do your job, do your art, and it ends up all right.

WW: Let’s touch on the main albums. Was Offered Schematics the first one you were on?

JL: Correct.

WW: Tell me about your memories of recording that.

JL: Well, I remember we wanted to do it all analog to two inch tape, and we did a lot of prep work before we went in there. It was right before the turn of the millennium, all that hype going on, and me and Zach went to Costa Rica right before we recorded the album, and had an amazing time there. We had a lot of great inspiration, and we had a really neat studio in Athens that we went to. And that was my first experience in the studio with the boys. It was a real open, creative thing. We had some songs we knew we were going to record, we made up songs in the studio that have become hits for us now. We had this overall great learning experience. At the time, we were really proud of the album.

WW: What were a couple of the songs that came to life in the studio?

JL: I believe “Kamuy” was one of them. I actually can’t remember now what we had written when we went in there. I’d say it was about half and half.

WW: Was there a difference in quality between the ones that had been written beforehand and the ones that came to life in the studio? Or afterward, was there no way of telling which was which?

JL: Once we’re done, that was the goal, for sure – to have that congruency. But even more so, after we went out and played those songs for months and months and months. Added new parts here. Just because it’s on an album a certain way doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to play it like that.

WW: That’s one of those age-old debates bands have: Should we got out and play the songs just like the recorded versions? Or should we use them as a jumping-off point? It sounds like you feel like the latter works best for you guys.

JL: Yeah, because they’re two totally different environments. When you’re in the studio, you can say, “Hey, stop, I want to do that again.” And when you’re on the stage, that’s all you’ve got. You make a mistake, you’ve got to leave it behind and keep going. So inherently there are different aspects to those creative ways, and they should come through in the music.

WW: You mentioned making a mistake and having to leave it behind. That calls to mind a description I’ve heard about relief pitchers in baseball having to have short memories – that if they get shelled one game, they need to be able to go back out the next day without thinking about what happened the day before, and feel confident that they’re going to get the job done. Is that similar for a band like yours? You need to be able to forget the bad stuff and go on, feeling confident you’ll win the day?

JL: That’s part of it. You don’t necessarily forget it, but somehow transmute it into learning and experience and wisdom. I’m not into the whole forgetting it thing just because there’s lessons to be learned there, and growth to occur. So we embrace those mistakes and try to learn from them and grow from them as well.

WW: Tell me about Seasons 01.

JL: That’s just a collection of some of our favorite live stuff over 2001. A lot of improvs, a lot of classic songs, some of the best recordings live. Trying to realize those differences we spoke about between live performances and studio work. Again, just trying to represent that spectrum to our fans and trying to let people know what we’re all about. Because we are pretty diverse. We have our live show, but then there’s hundreds and hundreds of songs that are yet to be released and have their place. It’s a pretty amazing experience. There’s a lot to come from us. It does feel like a beginning for us.

WW: Live at Home was put together in a completely different way.

JL: There’s the studio work, which is the five person collaboration in the studio, and there’s the live, which is the five person collaboration on the stage. And then Live at Home was kind of an insight into us as individual producers. As well as writing songs for the group and rehearsing together, in our spare time all five of us are producing songs on our own. Some of those songs make the stage and some of them don’t, and we were just at a point in our producing careers where it was time to come out a little bit. It was like, okay, everybody pick three of their favorite tracks and bring them to the table, and then we all worked on them together, collaborated on them, and made an album out of that kind of stuff.

WW: What were the ones you brought forward on that disc?

JL: I wish I had a copy of the disc in front of me… It’s interesting, but once you work on an album and put it out, you don’t really go back to it that much. Just as an artist, you’re always moving forward, and by the time an album comes out, it’s usually a year after you’ve written the song. You’re two or three steps away from that. But they were just products of experimentation at home with new sounds and just being a percussion player, it’s not necessarily expected of me to write songs. Those things are usually based more around the bass guitar or the keyboards. So it was just a chance for me to discover another part of myself: untapped potential and another growth experience. Those kinds of things evolve over time. You spend time and dedicate some intention to it and they grow. And once your other buddies get hold of them and they have some ideas about arrangement, it’s just a great process.

WW: That takes us to Artifact. Did you guys approach that in a different ways from anything you’d recorded previously?

JL: I think so. We took what we learned from other albums and really applied it. There was a lot of preproduction before going into the studio, of knowing exactly what we wanted to do: knew the tracks, knew the name of the album, had a concept and really tried to put all the engines toward that. So that was a really great experience as well. And the next one is going to be just as different.

WW: I understand that you guys have worked on all kinds of different material over the past few years, and one of the challenges will be finding the right shape for it.

JL: Yeah, that’s where we’re at right now, for sure. Trying to figure out what’s going to work best with what and just make the best album that we can. We have some undeniable tracks to put on there, but it’s just how can we do that the best way and develop the whole concept of the album and what we want to say beyond the music with the art and the words and stuff like that.

WW: Is that your guess as to how it’s going to come together – the tracks that in some way say, “You can’t leave us off”?

JL: What do you mean by that?

WW: The tracks that speak to you so directly that you feel like you have to share them with people.

JL: Correct. Yeah. And then it’s just a matter of timing as well. Not putting out too much stuff that’s been out there and been played for a year and a half. Trying to keep it so it’s actually new music as well.

WW: I understand that you’re involved in a lot of the band’s charity activities. Is that right?

JL: Yeah.

WW: What are some of the causes you’ve worked for and been involved in personally?

JL: Well, I think in a general sense, the main focus is to raise awareness about things. There are a lot of things that we as individuals are concerned about, but we don’t necessarily want to bring those to the stage and preach them. The music is definitely influenced outside of ourselves, and by events, but at the same time, there’s part of us that wants the music to remain pure. We’d like to think that we’d be making the same music whether it was a time of war or a time of peace. That integrity of the art. But there are a lot of things we’re concerned about and care about. And in our own lives, there have been people who’ve opened up their own lives and shared with us, and it’s really changed our lives. From teachers to elders to even our parents sharing with others. And we are very fortunate to have an audience in this world, and we feel a responsibility on that. So we try to focus on something local, something regional, and something planetary as far as bringing awareness. We’ve been working with an after-school arts program here in Santa Cruz called the Mariposa’s Art project, which teaches kids music and art, and that’s something that’s really important to us. To think of kids growing up today in a school system that doesn’t have an art program or doesn’t have a music program is really kind of scary to us. When we got so much from that as kids, ourselves. Just finding the things that are important to us and that we care about and extending some energy, and it’s been amazing, the feedback. We did benefits for Hurricane Katrina, our friends have a program in Africa that are building houses and bringing water and teaching sustainable farmer in a village in Africa. And our name, Sound Tribe, really comes from a collective of artists and musicians. We’re just the lucky five who get to be on stage, but there’s a lot behind it. And most of these causes besides the Katrina thing have been close friends of ourselves who are out there doing the same kind of work that we are. The Africa project, these kids, we’ve known them forever, and we just wanted to bring some attention to that. So it’s just stuff we care about and stuff we have some influence over – that we can bring awareness to people and try to bring some change.

WW: Do you guys feel like representatives of an entire community as much as individual bandmembers?

JL: Yeah. And it would be hard not to feel that way, seeing as our fans give us the time and space to be able to do this art. It’s just a responsibility we feel to give back, because so much has been given to us.

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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