McDowell Mountain Music Festival

STS9 on Giving Back to the Community and Why "Time Is Art"

Like many jam bands, Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9) leave no sound unturned, no rhythm unexplored, and no genre unappreciated. Everything from jazz fusion to hip hop beats to funkadelic licks to psychedelic twists gets represented on the Atlanta-based group's 11 album catalog (with another on the way) birthed from their own label, 1320 Records.

STS9 is headlining the first night of McDowell Mountain Music Fest this Friday, March 28. We called up drummer Zach Velmer and asked him details on the band's newest releases, the importance of community and social media and how the band likes to give back.

STS9 leans heavily on electronic music, citing influences such as Daft Punk. But unlike a lot of the group's contemporaries, they play actual instruments rather than pushing play on a laptop, lending to more improvisation and a full-bodied resonance. This is why the band's self-described label, as "post-rock dance music," is probably their most fitting categorization.

Currently, the band is rehearsing and prepping for their twelfth release, which is being produced by Florida hip hop producers, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, among others. Velmer says the band feels the new record is a culmination of where they're at musically.

"[It's] an amazing process, a little bit of a love/hate relationship, but it can be that sometimes," Velmer says. "We're in the midst of it all coming together beautifully ... I think we've done some new techniques just because as musicians you kind of grow as artists ... I definitely think it would just sound like a great workflow and the stride that just really trying to capture of what we do. I think we've really done it."

It's obvious from just a precursory ear prick community is a cornerstone of STS9's communiqué to their audience, which is part of the reason the band tends to play festivals more than indoor shows. Velmer explains festivals like MMMF are inspiring because it's not only about music, but also visual art, performance, food, clothes, jewelry and everything else festivals tend to have.

"[B]ringing all these people together in celebration of music and bringing all these people together to dance and have fun and let go," Velmer says. "We're honored each and every time we get an offer for a festival, when they want us to come play and be a part of something that's bigger than us with other hugely talented musicians."

These larger venues also give STS9 a great opportunity to give back, as partnering with non-profits is a big passion for the band. They've worked with organizations such as Conscious Alliance, who ran food drives at shows and the Make It Right Foundation, who helped build a new home for a family in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"We feel so blessed to have the opportunity to do what we do and in our community, locally and globally and we enjoy doing things for other people," Velmer explains. "People do stuff for us -- they come out to our concerts, and it's a really beautiful way to bring people together ... and a portion of that profit goes to something. It's providing the masses to kind of be a community ... You're going to go to a concert, you're going to go but a ticket and listen to this band, but a dollar or five dollars a ticket goes to something you might not believe in, but you're giving something back."

But it seems STS9 is a little more wary of online community. On their 2008 album, Peaceblaster, the band sampled a speech by University of Massachusetts communications professor Sut Jhally who said, "The current generation of kids are literally saturated with media. And when you're surrounded by an environment that way, you have to be shaped by it. That's how culture works, culture shapes identity. Culture shapes how we understand the world. So it's not just how we're surrounded by media, but we're surrounded by this commercialized media."

Velmer was quick to say he's not a psychologist and it was just his opinion, but he sees a lot of people wasting their time "on Facebook or looking at your friends pictures or their perception of themselves, which is how they view themselves, which is they're great all the time."

Velmer has never had a Facebook page, but doesn't see this as a point of pride. Instead, he just cited one of STS9's philosophies: time is art.

"Your time could be spent just creating, being creative or doing something special in the world," Velmer says. "It's very interesting ... I don't want to be perceived as opinionated on this matter, because I don't really know. I know how I live my life and I know how I try to perpetuate my particular time."

McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2014 takes place from Friday, March 28, to Sunday, March 30.

Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.

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Troy Farah is an independent journalist and documentary field producer. He has worked with VICE, Fusion, LA Weekly, Golf Digest, BNN, Tucson Weekly, and Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Troy Farah