Plan 9 for Inner Space

Sound Tribe Sector 9 finds new ways to improvise

By "the new album," Brown means Seasons 01, a live double-disc set released scarcely a month ago, collecting material recorded during the band's fall 2001 tour. The live tracks are linked by snippets of sound, created or recorded in the studio, or (as in the case of the "van mike") taped in the raw.

"By this point, about a half of what we do live is improvised on the spot," Brown says. "But after playing together so much, we've gotten to where we have the freedom to experiment with different types of conceptual improv. That's been really exciting, particularly over the last several months.

"Like, for example, our keyboard player's been doing a lot of study on tamado, a Chinese system that draws relations between certain sounds and the seasons. There are certain modes that relate themselves to days, and even to certain times of day. Once everybody gets that structure in their heads, we all work within that particular mode--and then we'll switch it up and change it, and move into another mode."

As is the case with comparable but diverse groups--Medeski Martin and Wood and the Pink Noise Saxophone Quartet come immediately to mind--STS9's free aesthetic, heard attentively, reveals a deep and sophisticated structure. It's that attention to form and composition that is, perhaps, the most rewarding aspect of STS9's improvisatory art.

"The last album before Seasons [2000's Offered Schematics Suggesting Peace] was really, I think, the most highly composed thing we've done so far. But we've been touring now for a couple of years solid, so we've got a lot of material that we haven't had the chance to record yet. That's the next studio project, I think. To get some of that material recorded. I still feel like we haven't really released our 'first' studio album yet; that sounds weird," he says, laughing. "And everybody says it, you know, 'Oh, the next one's gonna be huge.' But I really feel like we haven't been able to present what we're capable of doing in that setting quite yet."

For the moment, they'll have to wait a bit longer. A brief set of shows in Japan is coming up soon, and more dates loom in the States. That's a prospect that seems to delight Brown, at least, who loves traveling the country (and despite the recent move to the Bay, he's not become a snobbish urbanite: "It's off the hook in Ketchum, Idaho," Brown blurts excitedly at one point. "You better ask somebody about Ketchum!"). And, of course, the band's been recording as it travels--on the bus, in the rooms, at sound check: "It's amazing what you can do with a laptop and some software, man."

So for now, there's a little more roadwork to be done.

"But I love it," Brown reports. "The things we're getting to do now, it feels like we're able to better represent our lives in our music, which wasn't always the case. And it seems like people pick up on that; they resonate with it. We're seeing a lot of new people at the shows, but most of our old crowd keeps coming out, too. To look at Top 40 and all of that, I mean, the kind of stuff we do--or Medeski Martin and Wood, or a lot of other musicians--to look at what's popular and big today, you'd think nobody listens to the kind of music we play. But they do; there's a huge crowd of people listening to it, responding to it, turning each other on to it.

"And that's exactly as it should be," he continues. "If a band wants to be a boy band or whatever, that's cool, but none of that stuff lasts. You look at those bands, they have a pretty brief shelf life. Music--real music, good music--survives, even through periods of low visibility, you know?

"That's music," he concludes. "That gives me some hope."

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