When STS9 relocated from Atlanta to Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2000, the band covered almost as much space geographically as it does musically in a concert.
"It's just a lifestyle thing; the weather, the scenery, the community, being close to the urban areas. It kind of gave everybody a little something to choose from," percussionist Jeffree Lerner said.
Short for Sound Tribe Sector 9, STS9 has been developing an intricate blend of instrumental rock and electronic music on stages around the country since 1998. The group will play Thursday, Feb. 28 in MontBleu Theatre.
"It's a lot of inspiration and passion," Lerner said. "We all have a deep love and appreciation for music with regard to culture and what it's done for our lives."
STS9 is Lerner and pals Hunter Brown (guitar), David Murphy (bass), David Phipps (keyboards) and Zach Velmer (drums). Each combines his live instruments with an array of electronic sampling to create an intertwining and far-reaching mosaic of sounds and sensations.
"As a DJ would pull records from a crate, we're pulling samples from our studio sessions," Lerner said. "So we're actually sampling ourselves and creating rhythmic textures and ambience through computer programs, and being able to play those things and treat it like an instrument."
This is not to say that the band is merely jamming over looped recordings, a misconception that Lerner was quick to clarify. Rather, he said, the band puts a wide array of recorded samples at its fingertips and employs each just as they would a note on an individual instrument.
"There's not much looping or sequencing going on," he said. "It's more actual triggering and using it like instruments."
Lerner described the balance that the band views between live instrumentation and electronic sampling and arranging.
"I and the band treat them as equals, treat them as instruments, treat them just like you're pulling the guitar out of the case, and try to use them that way," Lerner said. "We're not trying to take shortcuts or make things easier; it's just the music that we're feeling, creating. It's really the tools that are available to the culture. Throughout history, at any given point in musical history, there were instruments that weren't developed and some others that were, and the music reflects that. Now, these are the tools that we have to work with. We're not leaving any of the old behind, but bringing that with us."
In addition to studio samples of the band, STS9 uses vocal cuts sampled from other recordings or recorded live by guest artists. The band members have done limited vocal work themselves, but are working toward broadening that portion of their music, Lerner said, noting that they've had other priorities as an instrumental band.
That said, STS9 makes good use of the power of human speech even within its instrumental framework.
"We love vocals, vocals do amazing things for your band," Lerner said. "One track in particular, 'When the Dust Settles' off our last album, has just four words basically, 'all sound, all light.' It's really amazing what that human element, that voice, does to the track when I watch the crowd. Vocals are really powerful, man."
Improvisation is another key component of STS9's sonic arsenal. All of the band members improvise within a given framework in their live shows, Lerner said.
"There's structure to the songs, but within that there's also openness for growth and change, so songs evolve and change over time," he said. "It's like a debate. You go into a debate with subject matter; call that the structure of the song. But within that, you can pontificate on different aspects, take a left turn here or take your argument there. Sometimes improvisation comes from mistakes; a computer might crash out, or a string breaks. Within that, there's room for expression."
Whether fine-tuning their range of samples or perfecting the balance of improvisation within a song, STS9 remains committed to improving the experience of concert-goers.
"We're not the band that just goes out and noodles," Lerner said. "We're trying to make it a little more pinpoint, we're going after emotional response. Based on our experience, we're starting to realize what moves people. The flow of not only a song, but the show; the Shakespearean flow of the set; the peaks, the valleys, and how to really give a fan what they want and make them want to come back."