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 war-horses 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."

Sound Tribe Sector 9: Improv music without that hippie wanker stench.
Sound Tribe Sector 9: Improv music without that hippie wanker stench.

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 itself as something of an anomaly. Stylistically informed by the jam/groove methodology, STS9 displayed elements of the scene's psychedelia but was far more in touch with the possibilities of dub and sample-and-loop technology than many of its contemporaries. Lineally, the group bore closer ties to fusion and electronic jazz than to the psychedelic scene.

Its 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, dronelike 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."

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