Q&A: Zach Velmer of Sound Tribe Sector 9

Drummer Zach Velmer of Sound Tribe Sector 9, which gets the profile treatment in Westword’s September 6 issue, is an lively guy. He talks in the early portions of the interview below about how school instructors recommended that he take up drumming as a way to channel all of the energy rippling through his body at every moment of every day when he was a kid. And as he acknowledges, not much has changed.

Subject matter? Velmer opines about how the players decided early on to go where the music took them, rather than pointing it in a specific direction; his dislike of being referred to as a jam band, and of labels in general; STS9’s control-freak tendencies, which helped motivate the group to create its own record label, website, merchandising apparatus and so on; descriptions of the act’s albums, with particular emphasis on 2006’s Artifact: Perspectives, which features remixes of original Tribal noises; the balance he’d like to strike between releasing a blizzard of new material and doling it out in a way that won’t overwhelm audiences; and his excitement about the act’s latest visit to Colorado.

Sound Tribe is welcome any time.

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

Zach Velmer: I’m originally from Atlanta, Georgia.

WW: Tell me a little bit about your parents and your family…

ZV: Funny you should ask. My parents are actually out here. They’re actually out here from Atlanta this week. They flew into San Francisco this Saturday and they did their whole thing, and I was at Lollapalooza this weekend, and now I’m hanging out with them. My parents are still together, and that’s pretty much the deal. I grew up in Atlanta in a pretty solid, cool home.

WW: Do you have brothers and sisters?

ZV: I have one brother. Older.

WW: Are any of them musicians?

ZV: No, they’re not. Nope.

WW: So how did the music gene wind up in you?

ZV: I’m not sure, actually. I was pretty active when I was younger, and when I was in elementary school, I took this one test, and I scored really high on eye-hand coordination. And going into middle school, they asked if I wanted to play drums, because of this test, this standardized test that I took. And I really didn’t want to play in the school band, but I wanted to play on a drum set. So I convinced and swindled and got my pop to get me a drum kit and from that moment, in the fifth grade, I just started playing. It was just something I picked up and started doing, and I’m still doing it today.

WW: It’s interesting that it wasn’t an internal drive that got you started. I guess that’s an argument in favor of the U.S. education system.

ZV: Well, I was always into music. I was definitely into music from being born. Just into music, with my parents playing music around the house, what they were listening to. You know, just rock and roll, Led Zeppelin and all that stuff. So I was definitely into music, but I was into sports, and I was so active. I was like, okay, whatever. And then my brother’s friend, he actually played drums, and I was playing drums on his stuff. But there wasn’t an integration until it was like, okay, this is very active for me, at the age I was at. So it occupied a really cool space for me, because I was able to still be active while playing the drums. I’m using all four limbs, so there was a lot happening.

WW: It sounds like you had energy to burn back then. Is that still the case?

ZV: (Laughs.) Oh yeah. I still do. All my friends today still say, “God, I bet you were a handful when you were a kid.”

WW: So for you it was an outlet, and it sounds like it was a relief for the people around you, because it gave you something to do.

ZV: Yeah, and I had a focus, and I wanted to get better. And I had the support of my family. You have to really give it to them, that they supported having a drummer in the house. My dad didn’t come from much, and neither did my mom, but I had a dream, and they were definitely supportive of me following that dream. So I was incredibly blessed. And that’s where STS9 started, was out of my parents basement, playing every chance we could get, every chance that my parents would let us play, as late as they would let us play. That’s definitely where it came from, at that point.

WW: Did you know all of the other members before you started playing? And how old was everybody at that point?

ZV: Me and Hunter were acquaintances. At the time, I was a junior in high school, and at the time, I was playing with kids from all different high schools. Not necessarily playing with this band or that band, but just playing with a whole bunch of different people. And this one guitar player said, “Hey, there’s this one kid, Hunter Brown, who’s amazing, and we should play with.” So we played, and started this little thing, and then Hunter said, “I’ve got this bass player we should play with.” So it was me, Hunter and David, we started playing, and the other thing just kind of faded away. The focus and the drive that David and me and Hunter had about where the music was going, it was more of what we wanted. We were kind of setting a standard for ourselves as we were practicing. We had goals, goals of trying to play more and write more. Very simple. But I was 17. I believe Hunter was 18 and David was 21.

WW: It sounds like for some of the other musicians in the scene, it was just a fun thing to do, but for the three of you, it developed into something more.

ZV: Yes, there was that. But I think if these other musicians, if there was the true connection that the three of us played together, I think that had a lot to do with it as well. There was this connection that the three of us possessed that I don’t think we felt when we played with other musicians. And I think that’s why it stuck. And as well, with what you just said, to reiterate, there was a drive there. Where David was at in his life. And I was still in high school, but I was kind of over the high school thing, I was over the school thing. My senior year in high school, I went to college instead of going to high school. You were able to go and it counted as high school credits as well as it counted for college. So I was going to high school for like three periods a day: a weight training, a calculus and a Latin 4. And then I would go to college Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then we would practice. We were able to practice more. And me and Hunter actually went to the same college, we went to Georgia State, and it got to where we were playing so much… My teachers, even at college, they were like, “Well, you’re missing too many classes. You can’t only come on Tuesday and miss Thursday because you’re going on tour for the weekend.” So we just decided, this is what we’re going to do.

WW: You mentioned earlier connection the three of you felt. Is there any way to quantify what you guys felt. Or is the cool thing about it that you can’t really say what the connection is. You just feel that it’s there.

ZV: How can you quantify it? We all came from different backgrounds. And we’re all really different. So I think the beauty of it is, through that, and through everybody’s experiences, you just have to honor that. It’s kind of like if you meet a girl, can you really quantify why you fell in love with this person or that person? It’s just such an interesting dynamic. It just happens. That’s what I believe, anyway. Shit just happens like that. I’ve never really tried to quantify it.

WW: When you first started playing together, did you have a vision of what kind of music you’d wind up making?

ZV: We never tried to put it in a box. I like metaphors, so when you meet a girl, you’re not trying to say, “Okay, well, this is the girl I’m going to marry.” Arranged marriages don’t happen much anymore. So I don’t think it was an arranged marriage in the way that it was like, “We’re going to put this in a box and this is what we’re going to be.” We were more captivated on the connection, and the music we were creating spontaneously. And then, furthermore, taking that and applying that to structure and form. So there was never really a concept. We played music for the sake of playing music. And I think through our experiences in life from the past, from books that we were reading, from music that we were listening to, to shows we were seeing and experiencing life in general, that so had an influence on what we did musically. And it still does to this day. We still try to incorporate those principles of just what we’re inspired by at the time. And that music comes through us, it comes out.

WW: I notice a couple of references to girls. I imagine that was motivating factor, too.

ZV: No! (Laughs.) No, the reason it’s a reference to girls, I think, is that this is the longest relationship I’ve ever been in with, and it’s with four men! It’s been going for ten years! So that’s just the funny thing.

WW: You mention that you don’t like to put your music in the box, but it seems that the rest of the world loves to put music in a box, and the one that yours is usually put in is labeled “Jam” on the outside. Does that label mean anything to you? Or would you rather there be no label on the box at all?

ZV: Jam to me is what I put with my peanut butter. (Laughs.) I don’t know. I don’t necessarily label music, but I’m also in the music industry or whatever. Shit, I don’t even know how to answer that question. I really don’t. I really feel that in the music industry, and with people writing music and creating music, it’s not as cut and dried as it used to be. It wasn’t, this is rock and roll, and this is this. I think some bands are trying to recreate rock and roll, and that already happened, you know? I think we just make music, and it’s hard to put a label on it. I really do. We’re jam, but… I don’t know. I’m done. I don’t know what to say about it. It’s such an anomaly for me.

WW: It sounds like one of the most pleasurable parts of the band for you is that you can go in any direction you want without anyone saying, “We can’t do this because we’re this kind of band.”

ZV: Exactly. But I think there are a lot of people out there who can say that, with the way music has gone. For example, Perry Farrell. He was in Jane’s Addiction, and then he was in Porno for Pyros, and then he wanted to do this DJ thing, and now he’s doing this satellite party thing. So he’s Perry Farrell, but what kind of music is he? Björk. Who is Björk? Björk does this and Björk does that. And Rahzel, does Rahzel do this? Do people ever ask what type of music Björk’s music is? 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. Like, Radiohead is not pop. They’re not pop. They had a song that was on the radio that was pop: “Creep.” But an interview with Radiohead, they’re not going to be asked, “What do you think of the label that people put on you?” Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, all these people. Like, is Justin Timberlake R&B, hip-hop? What is he? Do they have interviews with him where it’s like, “Justin, they’ve put you in a box. How do you feel about the label they put on the music that you do?” It has nothing to do with that. It’s more about the art, and about where he’s coming from. What’s so interesting to me is why do we even have a label. Why is that “jam” on the outside of it?

WW: I would argue that each of these artists you mentioned got some of these same questions before they’d established themselves in a huge way. And even though you guys have been around for ten years, there are still people who are being introduced to you.

ZV: That’s true.

WW: Do you look forward to that day when the question I asked no longer even occurs to people?

ZV: Yes, I do. I really do. I really do look toward that day. It is what it is. And it’s not this, it’s not that. It’s what we do.

WW: How would you describe your music – or is there even a way you could describe it, because it goes in so many different directions.

ZV: I don’t know if I’m the best person to ask to describe my music – our music. The best way to describe our music is that it reflects our experiences up to this day – and our music will continually evolve from our experience to that day, and then to that day, and to that day. I think that’s the best way to describe it. An artist who’s writing lyrics, who’s writing an emotional piece – where that emotion comes from is directly from their inspiration. And I feel an artist is not saying, “I want to be a rock star and I want to write a song about this.” I think the true artist, in my opinion – if it’s for art, rather than for a business or money or whatever, if it’s art for the sake of art, it’s a reflection of your experience. And I think that’s what our music is. Our music is a direct reflection of all of our experiences and inspiration to this day.

WW: So you don’t approach music as something you conceive in advance, but that you’re open to all sorts of experiences, and you just let it happen…

ZV: One hundred percent. As well as not being so freeform with that. As being able to capture those moments and be able to reflect on them and add structure and form to them.

WW: You mentioned structure and form earlier. How does that help an audience when you take experience and then put a structure to it?

ZV: I think it makes it relevant for them. They’re able to recognize it.

WW: Makes it more accessible? Gives them a way in?

ZV: As well as for us. It gives us a launch pad.

WW: How did the other two members come aboard?

ZV: The way the other two members came aboard was pretty similar to the way the three of us found each other. The three of us were playing a benefit down at Georgia Tech, and it’s a string of events of how everything came together. But there was a keyboard player there, and people were telling us, “There’s this keyboard player here, and you should play with him.” So we invited him up onstage and he came in a song before we even invited him, because he was just feeling the music. And we had an experience that was very similar to the experience with the three of us. And we pursued it, and had him come over to our practice space and we played with him, and it just perpetuated into something undeniable – like, this is where this is going. And it was the same situation with the percussion player. We were in Asheville, and another string of events, we were hearing, “There’s this guy, he’s amazing, he should play with you guys.” So he came out, and every time we would come back to Asheville, he would come and play with us. And then we were in Athens, and we called him and were like, “Hey, would you like to come and play with us?” And that’s the way those events happened, and it was just a no-brainer. It just happened. We weren’t looking for it, and it was beautiful. When you least expect things, when you’re open to things, they’ll just happen.

WW: When it came time for you to record, you used your own label and put out your own music. Was that something you did because you wanted to have complete control all the way through? Or because you feared that a big record company might not understand what you wanted to do and might try to force you in a direction you didn’t want to go?

ZV: I think you hit the nail on the head on all those points. I think we’re some control freaks, most definitely. (Laughs.) I think we always want control of something we created and think very highly of – this thing that’s STS9. It’s kind of our baby that we’ve nurtured, and we’ve had some experience, and looking at what some other people did, and learning from their mistakes. Record companies approaching us and saying, “We don’t necessarily know how to deal with you. We don’t know what to do with you, but we’re really open to trying. If we can market you this way or that way…” And a lot of those things were kind of turnoffs. And we saw these other bands signing record deals because it was kind of the hot thing to do. They’re signing six album deals with these companies, but it wound up being really detrimental to their career. And where we were coming from was, we didn’t want to make a mistake, and we didn’t want to get into something we didn’t know how to get out of, and we didn’t want to do something that would be detrimental to this entity, STS9, that we’d created. We definitely made some mistakes and we learned from them, and where we’re at now… in the way that the record industry has gotten to, we’re able to do this by ourselves. And that’s a blessing. I think if it was fifteen or twenty years ago, I don’t think the way the record industry was then compared to now, with the Internet and all of these things, our music wouldn’t be as accessible. So I think with technology and the way the record companies have gone, we’re incredibly blessed to be able to do it ourselves.

WW: You anticipated one of my questions, which was: Given what’s happened with the record industry, does that tell you that you guys made the right decision?

ZV: I feel that it does, yeah. It’s a no-brainer. We one hundred percent have made the right decision. Number one, we are our publishing company. We own all of the rights to our music. And through other projects we’ve done – we’ve been a part of movies, DVDs, sports DVDs, original music supervision as well as original music composition for movies, and us owning our own publishing is amazing. People are like, “You guys own your own publishing?” And we’re like, “Yeah.” And they go, “Wow.” Not many people own their own publishing in that way. So I think it was a crucial decision that we made.

WW: Let’s touch briefly if we could on each of your main albums. Tell me what your impressions of Interplanetary Escape Vehicle.

ZV: Well, Interplanetary Escape Vehicle, that was a hope to get gigs. (Laughs.) Honestly, that’s all that was. We did that in three days, and we knocked that out. The goal was to have a representation that we could give to promoters and talent buyers at these small venues where we could potentially play, and when we were there, we could make a little extra money by selling a CD so that somebody could remember who we were.

WW: So it was almost like a calling card.

ZV: Exactly! And a record company wanted to pick it up, because it was moving really well. So we signed a two album deal with this really small company out of Atlanta, a really good guy, and perpetuated some stuff, and he helped pay for the next album we did, which was Offered Schematics Suggesting Peace. And before that, we did a live album – something else to create revenue and get something a little fresher out there. We don’t even do that one anymore, but it was called The Live Brown Album, because it was on brown recycled paper. It was trying to get something fresh to the fans. It wasn’t distributed through our company or anything like that. We were able to sell them at shows, so it was a limited edition kind of thing. And then we did Offered Schematics, which was really, as a band, our first album, because even Interplanetary didn’t have Jeffree on it. So Offered Schematics was our first foray into the studio as a band and recording brand new stuff for an album. And we decided we wanted to do it in analog on two inch tape, and that was a whole other experience of using that technology at that time – looping tape, cutting tape, really experimental stuff in the studio. That was our first attempt. Our next album was Seasons 01, which was a double live album. And that time, we listened to a lot of shows, so that we weren’t putting together just one live show. We’d take a song from Portland and then a song from Birmingham, and we wanted to see how it could be an album that would be seamless and still creative, rather than just doing a typical live album. And then the next album was Live at Home. We were going to put out a Seasons 02, but all of us had been writing so much. We’d been creating, and a lot of those songs had been put into a live environment, and there were a lot of leftover songs we’d been producing individually. I remember being in Tennessee, and we were talking about doing Seasons and going back and listening to all this live stuff, and we thought, we’ve already done that. Why don’t all these tracks that we didn’t get to us, why don’t we put out those tracks as an album. People would love it. It would be something different for the fans. And that’s how that was spawned. It was another one of those things where it was a limited release. We decided we’d only do a limited release, and we didn’t distribute it or another. And the next album after that was Artifact, and I think everyone in the band would say the say thing: In some ways, that’s STS9’s first album.

WW: That’s interesting, given how many albums came before it. Do you feel that it was the most ambitious album you set out to make?

ZV: It was. It was the most ambitious. There was an intention. We were focused. No matter how long it took to make the album, we still had an underlying focus of what this album was going to represent for us and where we wanted it to go and all those things. I think the other albums, I don’t know if you’d even want to call them albums. They were just pieces of art we were getting out there to be able to express ourselves and let people at least get a taste of what we were doing. But I think Artifact was definitely our first stab at really recording and doing that. That’s our real first album.

WW: Were those earlier albums more of a conduit to your live shows?

ZV: Exactly. With Live at Home, I definitely think that. We had been traveling so much, and it was kind of a pun. Like, do you want to say, “Live [rhymes with “hive”] at Home” or do you want to say “Live [rhymes with “give”] at Home.” [Laughs.] Because we had been gone so much and I think through the inspiration of being gone, it was refreshing to give people something they weren’t expecting. Like, “Whoa, what is this?” And that album did amazing. That album paid for Artifact.

WW: You obviously played the Artifact material live – but did you look upon the album as being something that could stand separately from what you did live?

ZV: Yes. Well put. It was an album. It was like, “This is what we did, and it’s something different.” And we wanted to create the album and expound live on what those songs were.

WW: Artifact was followed by Artifact: Perspectives. What was fun for you about that project?

ZV: That was just a dream – a dream that came true. We had made connections with so many people over the last seven years of playing music. From dreams of meeting to Richard Devine to Mr. Lif to all these artists – some of these amazing artists who were actually on the album. We made these connections, and these people were so excited and enthralled about the band, and they were like, “If you ever do anything, we want to be a part of it.” And this was our opportunity to kind of harness all of that, not just talk about it but doing something with it. Richard Devine, Karsh Kale, Genetic, Eliot Lipp, John Hughes from Hefty: People we’d looked up to giving us a perspective, their take on our music. That was just amazing.

WW: Was there a track that was the most surprising for you?

ZV: The Richard Devine we were amazed by that. If you’re familiar with his music, and where he comes from, he’s just an amazing musician, an amazing producer, an amazing sound sculptor, and what he produces is just crazy. And through him choosing through all of the tracks, and melding everything together, and through him expressing to us, “I’ve never done anything like this,” I think that was awesome for us. He made this beautiful piece of music, and he was stoked on it, because it was through us he got that inspiration.

WW: I understand you’re working on new material. Is it specifically for another album? And if so, how would you describe it?

ZV: Yes, we are working on another album. Honestly, we’re working on, like, five albums. We have a lot of music right now. I just mentioned before, we were working on a movie, and we were working on original compositions as well as music supervision, and we got the opportunity to do that while we were working on the album that was supposed to come out. And we decided to take the opportunity to do this. So a lot of this stuff we were working on, we’re not sure what we’re doing with it yet. And the stuff we wrote last summer for this movie, some of it didn’t get used, some of it didn’t get used, some if it had the drums taken out or whatever, so we had a lot of music that no one has ever heard. We were just writing constantly for this movie…

WW: We’re talking about All God’s Children Can Dance, right?

ZV: You’re correct. So we have all this music that we’ve expounded on and worked on to another music, and then we have other music that’s come to the table through the experience of that. So we’ve been recording, writing, playing a lot of music.

WW: It sounds like one of the challenges for us isn’t coming up with music, but how best to put together the music you already have.

ZV: Exactly. I don’t want to say it’s a dilemma, but why it takes so long for us, I think, is there is so much music – and there’s a lot of music that comes from each of us, and existing music that we’ve expounded on. So there’s all this music and we’re trying to figure out the best way to express it to someone. That’s the hard part, so someone’s not overwhelmed by it. How can we release it in a way so people aren’t flooded – so they’re not like, “Oh my God, there’s seven new STS9 albums.”

WW: I just interviewed Ryan Adams a couple of weeks ago, and he’s working on a six-CD box set of unreleased stuff, and his point of view is that you shouldn’t worry about flooding people with too much stuff. I think the way he put it was, there’s not a problem with too much art in the world. There’s probably a problem with not enough.

ZV: Well put. I agree.

WW: But from your point of view, you want people to absorb the music piece by piece, rather than just dumping it out there all at once?

ZV: Well, I don’t know what my perspective is on it. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. I don’t think we know. I think there’s validity in both sides of it. I think there’s validity in what you just spoke about – that there’s not enough art in the world. But there’s a lot of art in the world that doesn’t get recognized as well. I don’t want to say that’s a worry, but we acknowledge that. We acknowledge that there are some amazing musicians out there who don’t even get acknowledged. I agree with the idea that there’s not enough art in the world, but I think there can be a strategic way to present it in a way so that people aren’t necessarily overwhelmed, and it doesn’t get overlooked. Where people are able to digest it and actually be able to appreciate it. I do agree with both sides of it, but it’s just perspective. That’s where we’re at right now. We’re trying to figure out what’s right for us. That might be really great for Ryan Adams, but for us, and our fan base, it might not be. So we’re trying to figure out what that is.

WW: Obviously, Colorado has been a huge market for you guys. Do you have any guess as to why? Or do you just appreciate that it is?

ZV: We’ve talked about that, and I think we have some theories, some hypotheses. But necessarily why, I’m not quite sure. One of the reasons is because of its central location. It’s in the middle of the country. So when we do play our shows now – not seven years ago, because we were still building a following, of course – but to this point, it’s a central location where we’re able to do creative things and people from all over the country are able to congregate there. It’s a two hour flight from everywhere, whether you’re on the West Coast or you’re on the East Coast. So geographically, I think that’s got something to do with it. Next, I think with the amount of time and the love and how promoters have been creative and wanted to really build the band there. That’s done something amazing. We’ve done really creative marketing and shows and done things there. And where a lot of other promoters are willing to do a show and willing to go on the line about that – but to try to build something that’s on the next level, it’s definitely rare. People do that, but for us to do five nights at the Boulder Theater. Or to do two nights at Red Rocks and play the Ogden before it. What we’re doing is creating an event. When we play Madison, Wisconsin, we play at the Barrymore Theater and that’s the show. People come to the show. But when you’re coming to Colorado, you’re coming for three shows, and you’re coming for an experience. There are after-parties being thrown, there’s this whole experience. It’s kind of like a New Year’s thing, but it’s not, and it’s happening in Colorado. And I think if we can get more support, and in our realm get more creative in doing things like that in other places, I think other states and other towns could maybe reach the magnitude of Colorado. But other than that, those are hypotheses and theories. I have no idea why we’re so huge in Colorado. And we’re so appreciative of it. It’s amazing. And the excitement around it. We were just in Chicago at Lollapalooza, and there were kids who came from Iowa, who came from Minnesota, who came from Wisconsin for that weekend, because we played the House of Blues and we played Lollapalooza – and it was an event, because there were a whole bunch of other bands that people wanted to see. So it was a great thing for people to come all over the country to see us there. And all of those people who came are also coming to Colorado. And that’s a trip for me. They were like, “We’ll see you in Colorado.” And it’s like, “Wow.” That’s amazing. It’s a pretty neat thing.

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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