For nearly two decades STS9 has fed listeners’ minds while becoming with each subsequent album and countless tourdates into jamtronica superstars.
With the creation of The Universe Inside the quintet may have put out its most important album – artistically and conceptually. Among the spacey atmospherics and danceable rhythms are lyrics and recorded content that reminds us of our interconnectivity, particularly at a time when the world needs a message of unity not division.
The album’s narrative ideas originated from two NASA Voyager spacecraft sent to the outer reaches of the solar system. Both contained Golden Records that included greetings in 59 languages. Rather than mention what divided us on this planet such as nations, wars and rivalries, they mentioned life, love, peace and birth.
The Universe Inside reflects that with thoughts of human identity and who we are, where we’re going, and our place in the vastness of the planetary system. As the album’s announcement explains, “We are one, made of stardust and the forces of nature that evolved over billions of years. Connected by the sun, moon and stars, we are the living, breathing conscience of the Universe. ”
After a seven-year break between studio releases the jamtronica act has grown artistically and boldly. Renewed creatively in 2014 with the addition of bassist Alana Rocklin, the members bolstered their live performances by treating crowds to a mix of longtime favorites, older songs that fell off the setlist and unrecorded tunes.
Unlike previous albums that took listeners on a sonic journey, The Universe Inside surprises them with the use of vocals on that could be described as pop numbers—“Out of This World,” “Get Loud” “World Go Round” “Give & Take” and “Worry No More”—especially when compared to the more classic-sounding material of “Totem” and “New Dawn New Day.”
Percussionist Jeffree Lerner and drummer Zach Velmer have discussed in recent interviews the group’s desire to be open to new musical directions even if they may surprise longtime fans:
Lerner: “…I don’t think there are any limitations. I think that we’re trying to be really open to where the music takes us…”
Velmer: “…We’re the artists, we want to push it.. we have to push ourselves. Our fans maybe want something, but that’s just what we do…we’re always going to push it as the artist – it’s inherent in us. The sound that’s coming out is through the inspiration from Alana or the ocean we were at that day. We’re going to push that sound, and push the envelope of our art.…”
During my time with Lerner, six years following our last conversation, we discuss STS9’s creative aesthetic, the band’s approach to making an album, how Rocklin has made the music and the art of making music exciting, music affecting consciousness and much more.
JPG: I’ve been following STS9 since 2000 but I haven’t been able to check out some of your recent shows so when I listened to The Universe Inside and heard the more upbeat songs with vocals like “Out of This World,” “Get Loud” and several others. I’m curious what fan reaction was because I was initially surprised. Was the band’s overall feeling, “We’re into this. We’ll just see what happens” ?
JL: First of all, the last thing you said is a really important thing. I think it goes without saying that we stand behind the music and the vision of the album as a story and how it unfolds and what’s being said, and it’s something we’re really proud of.
Good art entertains, great art challenges. Our fans are challenged by some of that stuff. Here’s the deal. Anybody who, maybe, had something to say listening to the studio album after they heard it live, I think it all clicks for them. The majority love the album from the get-go, totally appreciated the upbeat, totally appreciated that it’s much closer to what we do live than, maybe, any other album we’ve done… appreciated the vocal content and the message. Then, there were a few that weren’t sure.
These songs were designed so that when we go play ‘em live there are whole sections we can open up. The rigidity of the form on the album—not that its rigid but it’s always going to be the album—those songs change from night-to-night now; those whole sections of organized improvisation as well as bringing a track that was done in 2000 into a track that came out in 2016 and mashing ‘em up together and really making them a live piece.
I think everybody’s happy. It wasn’t necessarily dissent as it might be concern, and a lot of that was in the forum like, “I’m really not sure but I’m really curious to see what they do with ‘em live.” Once the tour was happening, we played these songs, everyone’s on board.
JPG: With past albums, I always saw the band taking me on a sonic instrumental journey. So, I was surprised when I heard vocals and then more surprised that there were a number of tracks with vocals, a lot going on here.
JL: A lot going on there, yeah. And I think some of those earlier albums were designed that way in the sense that you go back to the early 2000s we were on the road 250 days out of the year. When we got to the studio space we wanted to do something different. We wanted a different kind of expression. From being a musician who can play a rock song to an EDM song to an acoustic set there’s a lot of fulfillment we’re looking for. We want to express all those places and all those parts of ourselves. We’re not just one of those things.
Was that something you were able to bring in more when Alana Rocklin joined that wasn’t possible with David Murphy?
JL: No, it wasn’t that. It was really organic. When Alana joined the group we had…geez, I think we’re up to 170 songs now we can play live. Imagine someone joining the group whose familiar but…we had to rinse out all those songs. We had to go back and look at the parts and through that process of refining the music; we were honing skills on this album at the same time. It was all synergy. I feel like we’re making the music we want to make and performing the way we want to perform.
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