Plan 9 for Inner Space

Sound Tribe Sector 9 finds new ways to improvise

When Hunter Brown was a kid back in Georgia, he used to listen to records in his room and try to play along on the guitar.

It's a necessary rite of passage for all players--male or female, genre irrelevant--but where other kids his age might have been working out to contemporary pop, or retro AOR stuff, or (if they were really ambitious) the intricacies of old warhorses like "Wish You Were Here" and that song about the stairway to we're not going to mention where, Brown's heroes were slightly heavier.

"John McLaughlin," he says firmly. "John McLaughlin was my favorite guitar player of all time. When I was in middle school, I used to try to play along with Bitches Brew every day, just trying to keep up with him."

One could cite less admirable inspirations. And Brown's thematic connection to McLaughlin is most fitting as well: After his stint in Miles Davis' early-1970s fusion outfits, McLaughlin founded the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a band often tagged as playing rock music when it actually wasn't playing anything of the sort. The intricacy of Mahavishnu's music, coupled with the powerhouse ensemble performances of its many members, put its roots closer to jazz; but the paucity of descriptive terms for what Mahavishnu was playing often colored the way the commonwealth received its music.

Sound Tribe Sector 9, the musical collective of which Hunter Brown is a founding member, is in similar danger of being rejected by people who think they don't care for all that neo-hippie, Deadhead-revivalist improv-wanker foolishness--but that's not the fault of the band or the music. Partly it's the fault of the standard hidebound thinking that keeps people from hearing new things even when the sounds are right there for the taking. But mostly it's the fault of several of the key players in the improv music scene itself--which, for all its nattering on about group strengths and ensemble playing, in practice often degenerates into rotation soloing, star turns and the ego-tripping that invariably results from such artifice. (A related solipsism is often the Achilles' heel of rave culture, which has so lovingly embraced the improv scene--vapid self-absorption mistaken for group consciousness.)

So hear the descriptive terms just right: Sound Tribe Sector 9 is an ensemble, the way Miles' fusion bands and Mahavishnu were ensembles. And furthermore, in the simplest terms, they're a hell of a bunch of musicians.

Formed in Atlanta, in the afterglow of the mid-1990s "jam band" scene--the same one that spawned Col. Bruce Hampton's Aquarium Rescue Unit--Sound Tribe Sector 9 quickly established themselves as something of an anomaly. Stylistically informed by the jam/groove methodology, STS9 displayed elements of the scene's psychedelia but were far more in touch with the possibilities of dub and sample-and-loop technology than many of their contemporaries. Lineally, they bore closer ties to fusion and electronic jazz than to the psychedelic scene.

Their live performances--the venue in which a jam band invariably lives or dies--were similarly eclectic. In concert, STS9 shied away from swapping solos over repeated chord progressions, instead opting for a sustained, drone-like multipart effect that swelled and receded throughout the performance; keyboards, drums, guitar, bass and digital samples provided the soundscape. Two early releases, Interplanetary Escape Vehicle and Live, pointed the way. Subsequent part-live, part-studio recordings furthered their development.

At which point, the members agreed it was time for a change of venue.

"I don't want to suggest that I don't like Atlanta," Brown offers. "And I'm certainly not saying I'll never move back there. It was absolutely the right place for us to be in the beginning. That was where we all met, it was where we started playing...I mean, obviously we were in the right place. But in a way, it had started to feel like we weren't getting what we needed there. We'd been touring and recording, and we'd come in off the road and immediately I'd want to go back to some cool place that I'd just seen for the first time. And despite the fact that Atlanta is full of crucial characters, amazing musicians who are doing amazing things, it felt like we needed to be somewhere else for a while."

In the spring of 2000 STS9 pulled up stakes, and the band--Brown, David Phipps, Jeffree Lerner, Zach Velmer and David Murphy--set down in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz, California.

"I can't even describe how the change in location has affected us," Brown continues. "It's more subconscious than anything else, but it's allowed us to do some different things as well. It's opened up a space inside of us, I think."

Asked to elaborate on how that space manifests itself in the music, Brown tells a story that illustrates a large part of STS9's creative method.

"We had this van sitting in the driveway of the house, and our house is right across the road from an old auto yard that was getting torn down. So we put this microphone on top of the van to record some of the ambient sounds from the neighborhood, and somewhere on the recording there's this incredible noise--it's this machine that was chewing up the ground over at the auto yard, this absolutely rhythmic, huge sound. And we took that sound and used it on the new album as a connecting sequence between songs. It's a field recording, so it really sounds alive, but it's a machine at the same time--kind of an organic-mechanic sound."

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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