STS9 turn 20 next year, and the jammy electronic stalwarts are still going as strong as ever. The Santa Cruz/Atlanta outfit are road warriors at this point, constantly traveling the country for sold out gigs and making regular appearances at festivals everywhere. Despite their constant work, however, they haven’t released a full-length record since 2009’s Ad Explorata. That changes on September 2nd with the release of their new LP, The Universe Inside.
Due on their own 1320 Records, The Universe Inside sees the band return with a message. They were inspired by the twin Golden Records included on the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes, on which were the sounds that defined what it meant to be human. As such, The Universe Inside “is an album about human identity and the magical truth of who we are, where we’re going, and our place in the Universe,” as a press release puts it.
To convey that message, STS9 invited more vocalists than ever into the studio. They also recorded with new bassist Alana Rocklin, who joined the band in 2014, for the very first time. In all, the record marks a new dawn for the long-standing outfit, even as they enter their third decade together.
To provide some insight into the album, guitarist/sequencer Hunter Brown, keyboardist/synth player David Phipps, and drummer Zach Velmer answered a few questions for Consequence of Sound. They touched on the long gap between LPs, working with Rocklin in the studio, and where they see themselves in modern electronic music. Check out the Q&A below.
The Universe Inside is essentially your first album in about 7 years. That’s the longest gap between any releases in your entire catalog — why did you decide to wait so long to go back to the studio, and what sparked you to return for this one?
Hunter Brown (guitar/sequences): We took our time knowing we had a story to tell. We grew up on concept albums from the greats like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis and Outkast. We wanted to pay homage to them and how those records were made. We wanted to improve our song writing and production and still capture the magic of us improvising together in the studio. We studied everyone from Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien to Blue Note, Prince, Organized Noize and Tom Petty, obsessed with how classic records come together. We were also lucky to have learned and watched over the shoulders of some great musicians and producers during this time – shout out to Don Was, Kenny “Barto”, Brad Bowden, Maureen Murphy, Betty Idol.
David Phipps(keyboards/synths): This is indeed our first album released in some time, but we never left the studio since Ad Explorata. Studio life is every day; sometimes I feel it’s even more rigorous than being on the road! We have scored music for film, done sound design for the Grateful Dead, written and shelved songs to fill several more albums, and really dug into our sound fidelity as a whole. Learning about quality audio equipment, whether analog outboard gear or modular synthesizers, has informed our ears and crafted a new sound we are really proud of.
Zach Velmer (drums): Well this album isn’t the only thing we have recorded. We have been recording the last several years and are in a great place to have releases for a couple of years. The Universe Inside is just our first release of the songs that make sense together. We have been working in the studio constantly in those seven years on various projects from a movie score to helping other artist like The Grateful Dead preparing for there fare the well tour. We actually built a studio so that we could record up to the standards we wanted. Furthermore we have been honing our craft and writing and produced. We also had a member change and we had to get acquainted with just playing music with her. We also had a pretty extensive show schedule so needless to say we have been incredibly busy and feel incredibly productive…
This also marks the first time you’ve recorded with Alana Rocklin. What was it like for her to join in studio after playing with the band for almost two years, and what were her contributions like?
HB: Alana brings a lot of energy and experience to the music. Her sound and her playing inspired us to write and produce this album in a new way. She brought so much clarity and musicality to the low end, it made us work hard on our pocket and the overall feel of the songs. Her playing created more space in the music and inspired us to push the sound of the album in ways we might not have otherwise.
DP: Alana brings a wealth of experience, both in musicality and professional studio recording technique. Playing with Alana has pushed me to become the pianist I always wanted to be. It would be amiss not to mention Brad Bowden, her husband, who was with us in the studio for the long haul. Together, they were a team that brought our studio into tremendous focus.
ZV: Playing with Alana live and in the studio has been just a game changer for us. Her musical knowledge and musical vocabulary has been super inspiring and really fun. The collaboration process both live and the studio has been next level and is only growing and getting deeper as you can imagine. We can’t wait to keep sharing our creative endeavors with our fans.
Because of the considerable gap in releases, there are likely some fans out there who first encountered STS9 as a live band and may not be as familiar with your recorded output. What would you tell them as they approach this LP and what should they expect?
DP: Our goal was to write and produce songs that would not only translate live, whether in a theater or at a massive festival, but lend themselves to the live improvisation we are known for as well. Hopefully our fans will be receptive to both the polished album versions, and the potential for what may happen on tour.
ZV: To be honest we really just had a blast and a lot of fun writing and recording this album. We wanted to reach new fans and keep true to what we have always done on our albums which is really enjoy the creative process of working in the studio together because it is such a different art form than live. We wanted our core fans to really be able to hear each individual band member. We wanted the overall sound to captivate you– the fidelity and sound quality surpass any of our previous studio albums. We wanted the album to be a “album” not just a collection of songs but a concept in itself and tha’s why it took longer than expected (making sure everything was just right .. dotting our i’s crossing our t’s) … We want everyone to just enjoy the album as much as we had creating, writing, recording it.
The Universe Inside uses more lyrics and sampled words than perhaps any other album you’ve ever released. From where did the decision to include so many more vocals come from? How did writing lyrics work in your group?
HB: There was never a decision about lyrics during the recording process but by the time the rough sketch of the album came together it was clear the lyrics expressed something meaningful to us and the story of the album. And to echo some of what David said, it was really important to us to write and record the music ourselves and use samples only where we really wanted to. Sampling is awesome but as a band we want to create the music we record. We want to speak from our own experience and try to give something new to the world. We sampled the intro to “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone because it’s one of our favorite lyrics of all time and it perfectly described how we were feeling when Alana joined the band. We’d all been through so much together, we didn’t know what was going to happen. At that moment, Nina was the only voice that could truly convey how we felt, what we were trying to say.
DP: We have actually used vocals in much our music, all the way back to our album Artifact. Even at that time, there was a small outcry about vocals, but now songs like “Music Us” and “Somesing” are considered classics. It’s important to me for everyone to know that these aren’t vocal “samples”, except “New Dawn New Day”. These are lyrics coming from us, recorded in a studio by people close to us, and painstakingly worked into the songs. Hunter wrote most of the lyrics, and I feel he really reached for some core beliefs and motifs of STS9’s music and outlook. We are One. You don’t have to worry. Say it loud. Just want to live with nothing to hide. It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day. We can make the world go round. These are things we talk about and get excited about when we’re together; it felt totally natural to add them to the music.
ZV: We had a lot more to say this album than previous ones. As you mention, we have always used vocals in our music and in The Universe Inside we had a lot of fun collaborating with the different vocalist and the writing process. Most of the writing was either a collaboration with the vocalist or Hunter wrote the lyrics inspired by our life experience.
Your take on electronic music — jammy as it can often get — can be looked at as a forebearer to the modern “EDM” scene. What’s your take on the EDM music and culture of today, and how do you think The Universe Inside plays in — or possibly against — that?
DP: It’s true that we had the pleasure to host many of today’s top EDM acts “before it was a thing”. I suppose you could call us the forbearer, or maybe we were forbearing a sound that the music culture in North America was warming to. I think that maybe since then, what is now called EDM has taken a different trajectory than the sound we claim as STS9. We’ve held steadfast to mastering our instruments, and perfecting our live craft. We hope to honor the legacy of live musicians that precede us, while still pushing into the future of music. The Universe Inside is a reflection of our passion for our craft.
ZV: Thank you that’s a huge compliment we have been doing this for a long time and everyone from Diplo, Bassnectar, Pretty Lights, etc has opened up for us or have released tracks on 1320 Records or collaborated with on music. We feel like we have been playing our asses off musically and we are so excited to share this new album. We are a band playing live, creating live, in front of people. We have fun playing music together and feeding off the crowd and engaging in the continuous magical moments together. We use lots of electronics and have fun pushing the boundaries of music continuously. As a band and artists we will continuously push ourselves musically and artistically and can’t wait to keep creating and sharing. My personal take on the EDM scene right now honestly is that it is completely homogenized. To me some authenticity has been lost. Sure there is some real artist out there pushing it musically but it’s a lot of the same out there right now in my opinion. I’m not too excited about some of the music that is out right now. The Universe Inside is its own thing, its STS9. We poured our hearts and souls in this album and we can’t wait to share with the masses!