5 Guys & Laptops

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

Sound Tribe Sector 9 is rapidly becoming one of America’s most popular touring acts, despite virtually no radio play, no appearances on MTV or VH1 and no major-label recording deal.  So why the popularity?  Possibly because of the band’s unique approach to instrumentation – laptop computers sit alongside traditional instruments such as guitars and drums.  Or maybe it’s STS9’s mesmerizing mix of musical styles, described by Entertainment Weekly magazine as “synthy, extended dance tunes soaked up in a communal, jam-bandish atmosphere.”  You can find out what all the fuss is about for yourself on Saturday at the Catalyst club in Santa Cruz, STS9’s adopted home town.

STS9 formed in 1998 in Athens, GA, and was originally a funk jam band, playing in clubs in the Atlanta area.  In an attempt to add more sound to the band, the members began experimenting with an old computer running sequencing software.  “This sticker-covered college PC became an instrument on our stage,” said keyboard player David Phipps.  “The logical question was, ‘How can we make this computer smaller and get one that doesn’t crash in the middle of shows?’”

The band found its answer in the purchase of an Apple PowerBook laptop computer.  Soon, each member of the band had a laptop, loaded up with musical samples that could be played live on stage.  “[The laptops] have really become live instruments for us, a way to do new things and improvise in ways we never thought possible before,” said Phipps.  The band also uses digital technology to capture new samples to use in live shows, not only instrumental sounds but also environmental sounds including a crowd speaking in tongues at a church revival meeting.

The combination of computer technology and live instruments helps STS9 to produce unique soundscapes live.  Rather than playing solos as in many other groups in the loose genre of jam bands, the members of the band try to complement each other’s playing.  “We’re having a conversation with our instruments,” said Phipps, “and in a conversation, there are no soliloquies.  We really try to reinforce each other, encourage each other to keep going and keep talking.  We finish each other’s musical statements.”

STS9 has self-released a total of six albums, including two live recordings.  The band’s most recent recording, 2005’s “ARTiFACT,” is available in two versions, the original release and an album of remixes by guest producers.  “A lot of it came from just the relationships with artists that we’ve met over the last five or six years,” said percussionist Jefree Lerner of the band’s decision to dual-release the album.  “We learned a lot about our music just from other people’s perspectives.”

Sound Tribe Sector 9 is a band that is all about development.  Already the group has around 40 new musical ideas recorded and waiting to be developed into new songs.  “We’ve got this ambient acoustic piano and guitar feel and we’ve got a pretty slammin’ hip-hop soul feel that’s waiting for some vocalists or MCs to do their thing on,” said Phipps.  “We’re also developing the idea of returning to the roots of our natural instrumentation as a five-piece band.  The fans have been waiting for that raw energy.”

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, February 16, 2006

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