Two years ago STS9 were a band in transition. In the midst of recording their long-awaited follow up to 2009’s Ad Explorata, the group abruptly parted ways with founding bassist David Murphy, sowing confusion among their fans and creating questions about the status of their forthcoming album.
The whole debacle could have been a low point for the band, but instead it became a rebirth. Just a few months after Murphy’s exit, STS9 enlisted longtime friend Alana Rocklin to hold down the low end, sparking a live renaissance that found them diving into songs that hadn’t been played in years and reimagining classics that never left the rotation.
Their fans loved it.
While the lineup change ended up being a long-term boon, the band was still without a new album, though not without new ideas. After the dust settled, STS9’s five members—guitarist/keyboardist Hunter Brown, percussionist Jeffree Lerner, keyboardist David Phipps, drummer Zach Velmer and Rocklin—began the hard work of capturing their newfound excitement in the studio, a process that culminated in the release of The Universe Inside this past September.
“Obviously we’ve had an interesting last four years,” says Velmer. “We built a new studio and got a new bass player. A lot went into it. Collecting ideas, lots of pre-production and kind of figuring out our intention in putting out our first album in six years with a new bass player. We wanted to take a snapshot of where we are and where we’re going. It was pretty exciting to say the least, but it wasn’t like this record took six years. There was a whole process of us building this new repertoire and playing together. The record exudes fun, and that fun comes from us playing together.”
For much of their existence STS9 have primarily been known as an instrumental band, fusing modern-day electronica with rock, jazz, funk and hip-hop, all while throwing in some jam band sensibilities for good measure. It’s a unique style that has earned them a devoted set of fans, many of whom travel from city to city to bathe in their dazzling array of sound and light.
Since their 2005 album Artifact, STS9 have also incorporated lyrical elements into their music, often adding guest vocalists to the mix and blending vocal samples into their tracks. The band decided to expand upon this approach with The Universe Inside, bringing lyrics and singers to the forefront as a means of making the messages that have always been present in their music more explicit.
“I totally disagree with the idea that this is a new thing for us, and I think the other members of the band would probably say the same thing,” Velmer explains. “We have a message, we’ve had a message and, with this particular album, we have even more to say, especially considering our last four years and the state of the world today. A lot of these older tracks [with vocals] have been really successful for us. This is just a continuation and a pushing, artistically, of that.”
New Orleans will get a taste of STS9’s new material, and who knows what else from their vast catalog, when the band headlines Voodoo Fest’s South Course stage on Sunday, October 30. The hour long performance will be much briefer than most of the group’s shows, which usually include two sets and up to three hours’ worth of music (not unlike plenty of other acts with roots in the jam band scene).
“I like the hour set. Sometimes you get a longer set at a festival and it might not work, but with an hour set we get to really do what we do,” Velmer notes. “Maybe the set is just four or five songs, but we want to have a little bit for everybody. We want something special for the fans on tour who went to Voodoo, and we want to get new fans too.”
It won’t be STS9’s first stop in New Orleans, either. Not by a long shot. The band has played gigs around many of the city’s major festivals—Jazz Fest, Buku and, of course, Voodoo—in addition to near-annual appearances at places like the House of Blues or Joy Theater. They also put out a remix album in 2008 that raised enough money to build a house in the Lower Ninth Ward through the Make It Right Foundation.
“We’ve always had a strong connection to New Orleans because of the music, the vibe, the people, and that connection grew deeper because of the Katrina thing,” explains Velmer. “That wasn’t just STS9. It was the fans. It was other artists. We do all kinds of charity work, but it was cool to do something where we could directly see how we made a difference.”
“New Orleans is one of my all-time top three cities in North America,” Velmer adds. “I love the food, the culture and the people. I just feel a connection there.”