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Sound Tribe Sector 9 explores hippie fans and hypnotic beats 

Wednesday, Feb 10 2010
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Sound Tribe Sector 9 bassist David Murphy has a noticeably folksy Georgia accent. The inflection evokes the group members' formative years in the Atlanta suburbs, where they toured for years before relocating to Santa Cruz in 2000. The instrumental quintet just can't shake its perceived "jam band" associations and all the dreaded hair, patchouli, hemp clothing, and smelly baggage that comes with it. As a result, discerning electronic music audiences have largely ignored the computer-enhanced postrock ensemble.

But techno snobs are missing a group whose live sound is closer to Radiohead or Chemical Brothers than Umphrey's McGee. STS9's new self-produced and -released album, Ad Explorata, blends progressive rock and primal funk styles with spacious ambient motifs and programmed beats. There isn't a wanky banjo solo in sight. In fact, STS9 is perhaps the most non-jam band of the live jam circuit. What the group is, however, is successful. All five members live solely on the group's earnings, with additional monies donated to various charitable organizations. In the last year alone, they raised $100,000 toward building a new house for a Katrina-displaced resident in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

Still, skeptical listeners wonder: Is this a jam band? And what's with those fans? "There's a lot of people who haven't checked us out because they've pigeonholed us into a category already," Murphy says. "We take it with a grain of salt. Every artist deals with that to a certain degree." He points out that in the past few years, the band has toured with such diverse acts as Ghostland Observatory and Prefuse 73.

The group also runs a label and digital download store, where it sells music by respected electronic producers the Glitch Mob, Eskmo, Lazer Sword, and the Flying Skulls, to name a few. "Those are the artists that we like personally and have become friends with," Murphy says. DJs or electronic artists often open STS9's solo shows, including its Feb. 13 appearance at Oakland's Fox Theater, which will feature a giant LED video screen and roving lights that rival any 1990s Orbital or Underworld performances.

Despite the commitment to electronic aesthetics, though, the jam fan issue lingers. Murphy is mostly unconcerned by the connection. "We've tried to embrace the audience," he admits. "We love playing music, and we want to do it for people who enjoy our stuff." Jam-band fans have propelled STS9 from playing 500-person clubs to multiple-date runs at venues like the Warfield and even headlining Colorado's enormous Red Rocks amphitheater. "After being in a band for 13 years, you end up with a pretty wide variety of people coming to the shows," he says.

Likewise, the jam band community has expanded considerably, drawing in Burners, ravers, college kids, and professionals along with hippies and Deadheads. According to Murphy and sites like Jambase, festivals focus less on larger national acts like Phish and opt instead for eclectic regional favorites like New Orleans funk outfit Galactic; hip-hop improv-jazz trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood; or reggae rock band Rebelution. Countless string bands and bluegrass and Americana artists — jam music's core sound — also top the concert bills.

As its audience broadens, though, STS9 has gained more respect in electronic circles, despite some dabbling with New Age mysticism in its early years. The band used to perform with large crystals onstage, and the Sector 9 in its name refers to the Mayan calendar. So maybe the hippie–jam band tag is appropriate. "At this point, it's like, 'Call us what you will,'" Murphy says. "We've got people coming to our shows, we're selling records, we're here to stay."

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Tomas A. Palermo

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