Photo credit: Taylor Wallace.

STS9 Bring Their New Groove to New Orleans

2014 was a year of transition for STS9. After parting ways with founding bassist David Murphy at the beginning of the year, the the group–at least from the outside–appeared to be in disarray. Diehard fans of the electronically-infused jam band wondered if things would ever be the same.

Of course, things already hadn’t been the same for some time. While STS9 built its original following with a combination of jazz-inspired improvisational wizardry, modern technology and layered compositions, the group had moved away from that sound in favor of a more rigid, EDM-inspired approach.

Rather than spelling death knell for the group, Murphy’s departure gave STS9 the opportunity to look inward and make some much-needed changes. Those diehard fans soon found that their early fears were unfounded, as the band enlisted longtime friend and collaborator Alana Rocklin to hold down the low end. Rocklin’s jazz foundation added a new versatility to the bass department, while her personal love of STS9’s music brought a fan’s perspective into the band itself. A few months into their first tour with the new lineup, the five-piece was already silencing the haters with top-notch performances that harkened back to their early sound while also keeping one foot forward into the future.

This is where STS9 finds itself today, as the group gears up for it’s second New Orleans show of 2015. The band will return to the Joy Theater on Thursday, November 19, just eight months after they played the same venue as part of a Buku Fest after show. I caught up with Rocklin to talk about their upcoming concert, the band’s new groove, what the future holds and more.

STS9 were in New Orleans earlier this year and the band has performed here on numerous occasions over the years. Is this city a special place for you to play?

Of course because New Orleans is the birthplace of so much music, especially jazz. My background is in jazz, so I love New Orleans. Every time I’ve been there, it’s been special. It’s a special place for all musicians.

Last time STS9 was here, y’all debuted Meters cover. It seem like it was a one off thing. Can we expect any treats like that this time around?

You never know, that’s the fun of it. We’re always trying to think of fun things to do in different cities. Of course, The Meters is quite obvious for New Orleans. But we’ll see, we’ve got all kinds of tricks up our sleeve.

It’s been a year and a half now since you became a member of STS9. I think the consensus amongst the fans is that the band has been reinvigorated by your presence, and that they’re sounding as good as they ever have these days. What happened when you joined? What did you immediately bring to the table?

I think the first thing is that we’ve been friends for about 14 years. Our history as friends is the first and foremost thing. It means we’re able to connect on a personal level. We’ve played music together for years, so we had that already. When I came out to Santa Cruz, we just got down to it. We must have played like 50 songs that I learned. We just connected from the get-go and we’ve been developing that since I’ve been in the band.   

I think that we’ve been able to take a step back and look at the music in a different light. We’ve been able to go back and work on songs that we maybe hadn’t worked on in a while. It’s brought a lot of good energy for all of us and it’s been a lot of fun for all of us. We’re all having a blast.

There have been some big bust outs this tour, particularly “HB Walks to School” and some others. What’s been behind the decision to dust off these old songs?

The catalog is so vast, and there are so many songs that we’ve just wanted to play that they hadn’t gotten the chance to work on for whatever reason. So it’s been really fun to look at what the fans want to hear and then research these old songs in order to find a way to put them into our current context.

With “HB Walks,” that was something that fans, obviously, really wanted to hear. It’s one of their first songs ever. So we decided to put it in a modular context. We do lots of modular improvisation during our sets–our keyboard player David Phipps is a modular wizard–and we’ve really been enjoying these modular improvisations. We thought that it would be cool to do an “HB Walks” that was kind of modular and that brought the song to where STS9 is right now. That was the impetus for that, and it was really really fun. It was so fun to bust that out because we knew people would be really excited.

Sometimes we’ll do the bust outs, but it will only be a piece of the song. Then we’ll work on it some more and we might, eventually, get to the whole thing. A lot of the songs that we’ve done like that have been really successful and really fun. We busted out this song called “Potamus,” which is a really old song that they hadn’t played in 12 years or something, and now that’s found its way into our regular rotation. We play it all the time, and it’s the same with our song “Poseidon.” That was one that also, for whatever reason, just hadn’t been played in a while. We all got excited about trying to do a new arrangement of it, and ever since then we’ve been playing it more and more because it’s really fun. It’s exciting for us to be able to do that.

We’re always thinking about what our fans want, the things that they want to hear that maybe we’ve overlooked. That’s something that I take a lot of pride in, just researching all of the old songs and researching different versions then bringing it back to the band and saying, “hey, I think this is something that would be fun to do.” We’ve been enjoying it and having a great time.

I always suspected that you were instrumental in that, but I wasn’t sure.

Wakarusa_Contest_Header_Phil Clarkin

Wakarusa 2014. Photo credit: Phil Clarkin.

It’s a group thing. We all try to come up with the idea, and then I sort of go back and find different versions. I’ll say, “oh this is something that we could do.” So it’s something that is partly due to me being here. When I walked in, the first time we ever got together, the guys were like, “let’s try to play ‘Poseidon.’ It’s been a long time since we’ve done that.” So then I went back and found a version and then we made a new arrangement of it. It really is coming from all of us. We all want to play these old songs. It’s really cool.

It’s been a long time since STS9 released a studio album, and I know a lot of new songs have popped into the rotation. Is there a new record on the horizon?

We are so excited. We’ve been working on this record and we’ve been playing these new songs, but a majority of the songs on the new record have not been played. We don’t have an exact date, but we’re hard at work on it. It’s really close. We just want to take our time and make it as amazing as we know it’s going to be. But we are really excited about it.

It’s going to be mostly stuff that you haven’t heard. There’s a couple that we’ve played live, but a lot of the news songs we’ve been playing are songs that, while they’re new, are not going to be on the new album.  

Where else do you see STS9 going in the future?

We’ve been doing so many fun things out on the road lately. We’ve got a livestream now that we’re doing every night. It’s a really high quality stream for fans that can’t come to the shows. It’s free, we’re really excited about that. We have this new hotline that fans can call into. That’s been really fun, we’ve been talking to our fans every day. We also have this “Drip” thing that came out this tour, so everyone can access the shows quicker and easier. We’re just having a blast out here. Literally we wake up every day, we start rehearsing, and we play our instruments all day until we walk on the stage. Then we have a set break and we come back and finish the show. We are just constantly rehearsing to make it exciting and fun for fans every night. We’re so stoked that everyone is having as much fun as we are.

Do you have any time off to check out New Orleans while you’re in town?

Ah man, I wish! We had some time when we were last here in March. We had my birthday in New Orleans. It was really fun, I had a little party. So yeah, we got to see some of New Orleans last time but this it’s going to be real quick.

STS9 will take the stage at the Joy Theater tomorrow (Nov. 18). The show will begin at 8pm with an opening set from Modern Measure. Tickets are available here.