The rhythm guitarist and bassist discuss mating electronica with rock, and how to make soulful music with machines—without becoming ruled by them.
If there’s virtuosity in sound design and groove, then Sound Tribe Sector 9 surely ranks among the masters. Thanks to two decades at the forefront of electronic rock, the group stands out for its ability to push technology to the limit without losing its musical soul. The band’s bilingual musical fluency is on full display on their latest album, The Universe Inside.
Cofounder Hunter Brown’s guitar work slips from booty-shaking funk to ethereal textures that sometimes blur into synth territory—to the point where you’re not sure if you’re hearing him or keyboardist David Phipps. Meanwhile, the rhythm section—Jeffree Lerner (percussion),Zach Velmer (drums), and the band’s newest member, Alana Rocklin (bass)—provide the pulse with a deft, and often light, touch.
“That feel is what STS9 created,” says Rocklin, a versatile veteran of the Chicago music scene and longtime friend of the band who replaced original bassist David Murphy in 2014. “No one was really doing that before them.”
Adds Brown, “The guiding light in everything we do is, ‘What’s that gonna feel like when we play live?’ Does it feel too mechanized? Or is it allowing us space to feel it —and to go somewhere new if we get inspired to onstage?”
The idea that electronic music is meant to be performed—and not just produced—permeates The Universe Inside’s 13 songs. Starting with the ambient guitar figure kicking off the opener “Supercluster,” the songs flow through multi-dimensional arrangements that reveal something new on each listen. On one pass, you might focus on the ear-candy vocal melodies of songs like “Out of This World,” “Get Loud,” and “World Go Round.”
On the next, you may be drawn to the danceable, dynamic grooves and subtle sonic brushstrokes. The same can be said for the instrumentals or more sample-driven songs like “Light Years,” “Totem,” “Elsewhere,” and others. The Universe Inside is a world in which both experimentation and entertainment co-exist quite happily.
But finding the sweet spot between the head and the heart is a craft unto itself. We caught up with Brown and Rocklin as they prepared to take The Universe Inside out of the studio and onto the stage. They discussed the challenges of mastering musical machines without becoming ruled by them.
You guys are unusual in the way you blend traditional guitar, bass, and drums with electronic music. Was that always your intention?
Hunter Brown: Our approach evolved naturally, like any other band. We all have a lot of interests, and we’re just trying to express those interests. When we first started [in 1997], it was really open-ended—lots of improvisation, lots of experimentation. I think the electronic records and music we were listening to, those ideas just started seeping through into our regular jam sessions. Then when the production gear started getting more affordable and widespread, we started messing with them in our practices as idea tools.
Improvisation isn’t a word you hear with electronic music that often because you’re playing with a click or to loops. How do you make that work?
Brown: Anything goes. If you’re trying to improvise with electronics—they don’t naturally go together. So, we’ve set things up so that when we’re improvising, we can use the electronic elements or abandon them at any moment. We might be playing to a sequence or a modular loop, and it’s just like we’re listening to another player in the band. We’re truly not locked into anything. We have control over it in a way that allows us to keep things interesting and musical, and lets us do what we really feel like doing in that moment. If the click isn’t working, we can just abandon it and play with the instruments. But if it’s really working, we can let it keep going—maybe play a bit less ourselves and build on the electronic elements.
Chemistry is everything to Sound Tribe Sector 9, a band who favors group rhythm over individual soloing. The Universe Inside is the band’s 11th studio album, but the first written with bassist Alana Rocklin, who joined in 2014, replacing original bassist David Murphy.
Does that apply in the studio, too?
Alana Rocklin: There’s a song on the album, “Elsewhere,” that’s actually an improv—us making it up on the spot and having no idea what was about to come out. It may be a 15- to 20-minute jam, and [the recording] is the first part of it.
Alana, this is your first album with STS9. How did you come to join the band?
Rocklin: I met STS9 in 2001 when Sub-ID—the band I have with my husband Brad Bowden—opened for them in Chicago. We instantly loved each other’s music and formed a friendship. We opened shows over the years and were always in contact. When we had music, we would send it along. At some point, Hunter said, “You should let us put your record out,” and we were the first artists on the band’s 1320 Records label. It was a natural progression that, when they needed a new bass player, I was the person they thought of.
While there’s plenty of variety on the record, the overall vibe is upbeat and happy, which isn’t always the case with electronica...
Brown: That’s kind of our intention, if there’s such a thing. We have a message. We think music is an important part of life and we’re trying to get certain ideas about it out within the music itself. The challenge is, “How do I create what I’m feeling without sounding campy or trite?” Playing guitar—a traditional instrument that people have been listening to for so long—I want to find something that truthfully reflects what I’m feeling. It’s always a challenge to get what’s in your head and what you’re feeling out into the world. But it’s really fun. I would say it’s more fun than difficult.
Speaking of fun, the album sounds like a band having a good time. Even with the electronics, it sounds “played,” not programmed.
Rocklin: From the beginning, our intent was for listeners to be able to “see” us playing—because it’s easy in electronic music to get away from that. We actually started the record over because we really wanted to capture that.
Brown: That’s definitely true! It’s something we thought about a lot. It’s been a challenge in the past to capture that, but that’s what we went for. As primarily a rhythm guitarist, I’m always trying to find that pocket where I’m really adding and stretching the time.
Rocklin: That’s one of the things that drew me to the band from the get-go—like, “How is this even happening?” There’s this electronica thing going on and there’s the band and you don’t feel that repetitive nature with them—it’s a very unique thing. It’s something I’ve tried to honor and even accentuate.
Hunter Brown’s No. 1 guitar is a 2012 Fender Jazzmaster ’65 vintage reissue that he outfitted with a Rothstein Dual Dial-A-Tap coil-switching system, a Mastery Bridge, and Curtis Novak humbuckers.
Photo courtesy of STS9
How did you master the ability to play with a click without being confined by it?
Brown: We look at it as like a hi-hat. I meet a lot of musicians who are so against that—who think it would be just impossible. And I understand that completely. At the beginning, it did seem restrictive. But it’s like when you practice with a metronome and you finally get it where you’re hovering around the time and can push it and pull it where you want. You’re really playing with it, not playing to it. Now it’s something we have a lot of fun with. We’re not trying to force our instruments to this thing—we’re trying to find a balance with both. Zack is amazing at keeping that time more musical. He and Alana just do an amazing job at keeping us to that click.
Rocklin: My practice regimen has always been to play to a metronome. It’s the only way to get your time really solid even when you’re not playing with a click. And there are times in STS9 when there is no click. It goes in and out. As a listener, even at a show, you shouldn’t know when that’s happening.
I got this from my teacher, Rodney Whitaker, who’s one of my biggest influences and inspirations. He would always think of the click as being on 2 and 4. So the strong beat you're feeling is 2 and 4. Not that I don’t practice straight 8ths with the click—because as a bass player you want to be able to do that as well—but what really flipped my time around and made my groove really come together is when I started practicing everything with the click on 2 and 4.
How do you do that without just gravitating to the click as the “1”?
Rocklin: You have to account for it. So, if you’re at 60 bpm, you have to allow for the fact that the clicks are only on 2 and 4. Every student I’ve ever had, that’s the first thing we do. I’m gonna put the click on the 2 and the 4: Can you play your major scales to that? If you can’t, that’s where we’re starting. I think that’s where the truth is [laughs].
How do STS9’s songs and arrangements some together?
Rocklin: It’s just like a lot of bands: We all write in a room together, but songs can start in different ways. For example, with “New Dawn, New Day,” which was the first song we wrote together, Hunter had a Nina Simone vocal sample he always wanted to do something with. He got it to where he liked it, and we started writing chords, and then we all jammed on it to come up with the arrangement, the parts, the bass line, and everything else. “Out of This World” has gone though many incarnations. When I joined the band, they had many of the basic ideas for that song, so it was really a matter of me writing a bass line to it. I would keep writing [my part] and they we would jam on it as a group and then we recorded the song.
On this album, we recorded a lot of vocalists. We wrote the lyrics and had them sing, and sometimes would mess with [the vocal], move it around, make an “instrument” from it. It varies from tune to tune, but at some point, it has to come into “the band moment,” where we’re all just writing to it. I think that’s what ties it all together.
Some of the guitar parts are very straight up, but others seem to be built through your use of echo and other effects. Do your write parts and then design sounds for them? Or are you using effects as a catalyst for ideas?
Brown: It depends. If I’m playing my acoustic at home, I like to start writing from that natural guitar sound and work on ideas from there. But when I’m playing my electric, the ideas absolutely come from the sound itself. I’ll dial in a sound on my pedalboard or I’ll just be experimenting and hit on something. And then, literally, things just happen. On the interlude on the album, “Light Years,” the guitar part that starts it came from finding this patch on a couple of different pedals. It just kinda told me what it wanted to do—there was really no creativity involved [laughs]. You’re like, “Oh that’s a great sound,” and you hit one note and it just takes you where it wants to go.
How did each of your playing styles—and approaches to tone—evolve?
Brown: I grew up on hip-hop into jazz into psychedelic and electronic music. There’s a single voice that brings all those things together and I think that’s what we’re trying to do as a band … or not trying to do, I guess. That’s where we’re at.
As for my guitar influences, there are so many. John McLaughlin, who used to play with Miles Davis and Mahavishnu Orchestra, has been a guiding light for so long. For this album, especially, I went back to Paul Jackson Jr. and David Williams and all the old Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye kind of stuff. And Chic—Nile
Rodgers, I’m a huge fan. Wah Wah Watson, who used to play with Herbie Hancock and Headhunters—all those old Headhunter records are definitely huge influences. More recently, Kurt Rosenwinkel. I’m a huge fan of his. John Scofield has always been up there. But I grew up in Georgia, so all the James Brown stuff is just ingrained in us; it comes out in everything we do.
Rocklin: I started playing when I was 8, started playing upright when I was 10, so the upright bass is a big part of my sound and how I approach the instrument. I think that carries over into my electric bass sound.
And, of course, all the years I’ve had as a
freelance bassist playing with different people and in different contexts, whether it’s jazz, Americana, rock, or country. It really gives you a lot of experience towards getting to a sound that you hear in your head. So with STS9, I knew going in what I was going for.
Both the guitar and bass parts run the gamut from traditional to effects-laden to almost synth-like. Did you rely on computers for those effects?
Brown: I try to achieve all my guitar sounds through my amp and pedalboard. That was a challenge, but was also fun because there’s so much you can do today with the pedals and programming. On the intro to the album, “Supercluster,” I’m using a POG harmonizer and then a DigiTech Whammy, and I’ve got those set so that every note I play is a chord, and it’s all going through my pedalboard. I’m using all stompboxes. I’ve got the Crocodile switcher, Origin Cali76 compressor—which is like a take on the old UA 1176s, then the Fulltone Full-Drive, Wampler Dual Fusion, then some of the Strymon stuff—the Timeline, blueSky, and Mobius, then an Eventide H9, and a wah. First in the chain, I’m using a Pete Cornish input buffer, which is a sweet little piece.
But also, it’s about the mics and the recording gear. I read up a lot on the old Michael Jackson records. That was the first stuff that really crushed me as a kid. I wanted to know how all that was recorded by Bruce Swedien and Quincy Jones—about all the mics and the gear they used. I use a Royer R-121 and Shure SM7 and sometimes a Sennheiser MD 421 on my cab. That’s going through a Retro compressor, a Burl Mothership [analog to digital converter], an Empirical Labs Fatso compressor, and a Dangerous Music BAX EQ. That signal chain’s amazing, but everything else is just coming through my pedalboard.
Hunter, what is your main guitar?
Brown: My main guitar is a 2012 Fender Jazzmaster ’65 vintage reissue. And I’ve got a Rothstein Dual Dial-A-Tap coil-switching system in it, a Mastery Bridge, and Curtis Novak humbuckers. I took the Jazzmaster body that I wanted and tore it apart and put something new together. I love it. It’s my No. 1 right now. Especially with the Rothstein Dial-A-Tap, it’s great having access to both the humbuckers and the single-coil sound with that Fender warm round vibe. I also have a Stratocaster with Lace Sensor pickups and a Blackmore mod that I use a lot, a Gibson ES-335, and a Santa Cruz acoustic that’s my main acoustic at home.
Alana, you mentioned playing upright and bass in more traditional contexts. But what about the more technical parts of your sound?
Alana Rocklin has been playing bass since age 8. Her tonal recipe includes Lakland basses, built-in MIDI systems,
and Aguilar pedals. Photo courtesy of STS9
Rocklin: It happened over a long, long time. In, Sub-ID, one of the things Brad and I were developing was MIDI bass—to really delve into how I could make my bass a MIDI controller instead of playing a synth bass with a keyboard. We started that in the early 2000s. So that particular side of what I do in STS9 has been developing since then.
I’ve played Lakland basses since 1999, and that’s a huge part of my sound. My main Lakland bass is modded with a new system called FretTrax. It has MIDI triggers in all the frets. I’ve had several incarnations of MIDI basses.
Did you use that to play all the synth bass as well as standard bass?
Rocklin: Some of the synth bass on the album is me, some of it is Fipps on an old [Yamaha] CS-60 keyboard. But live, I need to cover some of those synth bass sounds. There are times when Fipps is playing CS and I’m playing synth bass as well.
With music that’s so focused on groove and timing, is MIDI latency an issue on the bass?
Rocklin: With FretTrax, there’s no latency; you actually have the opposite problem. When the string hits the fret, it triggers. So, there are a whole bunch of settings with millisecond delays so that the note triggers when you hit it with your right hand. But it’s much easier to deal with delaying the note by a few milliseconds that having to deal with the latency problem. Also, on a standard MIDI system, thicker strings increase latency. With this, the low B string will trigger just as fast as the G string. Victor Wooten turned me on to it. He had the first one, I believe. Not very many of us have them.
Hunter, are you also using MIDI?
Brown: All our keyboardist’s synths are synced with my rig, so I can send him MIDI information that goes through the synths. We can do all kinds of crazy stuff like that. I can send him just timing info but also MIDI notes that can go through his rig. I can start a sequence or trigger a MIDI clip, but it’s coming from his synths. I use an external controller. I’ve tried some of the guitar trigger stuff, but I’m not there at the moment. I like my guitar being my guitar, and the MIDI being itself.
What kinds of amps are you using?
Brown: Both in the studio and live, I’m basically using a Fender Twin Reverb that’s built within a Dual Showman head. My buddy Jerry Carillo was my guitar tech for a while. He has a shop in New Jersey, and helped put them together. We took an old Dual Showman and put the guts of a Twin in there. I wanted it to sound like a boutique Twin. I’ve also got a Fuchs 100-watt. So those were the main amps, as well as another old Fender Twin that I have. I’ve got a Fractal Axe-Fx II but I don’t use it for recording; I use it to write and record demos, then redo the parts with my rig.
Rocklin: I’ve been an Aguilar endorser for years and used their stuff pre-STS9. I also like to use a lot of different instruments. I sometimes like to use my upright and fretless. I’m using a 2x12 cabinet right now—which is kinda crazy but it works great. I’m triggering an Access Virus TI Snow [synth]. Before [the signal] hits the Virus, I go through a JHS Colour Box [preamp]. For the album, I used the bass direct into the Colour Box. My pedalboard is nothing crazy: it has a volume pedal and just about every pedal Aguilar makes. I love them, especially the Octamizer octave pedal. But I’m not a big pedal person, to be honest, and that’s kinda why I put all my eggs in the MIDI basket.
How hard is it to reproduce all those sounds onstage?
Brown: We’ve been doing this for so long and yet that part of it actually gets harder [laughs]! I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we have a better sense of what we want. I just used to go for it with whatever we had. There’s an epic quality about that, too, but working on this album and the songs we’ve written together, we wanted it to sound a certain way. We spent a lot of time with our gear, technically trying to figure out the best way to stay true to the process and the instruments we used on the album.
Still, to be able to recreate the sound night after night, you have to let go of some of the aspirations for perfection. I find myself having to do a lot of toe-tapping on my board or do slight adjustments to get back to where I want to be. So, I’ve set the board up with a basic five to 10 sounds and then I tweak those sounds as I’m going. But I enjoy it. I know players who have people change their setting for them offstage—and I understand that—but it’s fun for me to have everything right there at my feet, to access, dial it in, and constantly be working on my sound while we’re playing.
Hunter, your funky rhythm parts have a feel that I think a lot of players find difficult to master. Any advice for nailing that groove?
Brown: Funk guitar is deceptively easy. You can learn the riffs really quickly. But to get the feel and that timing, it just takes passion and love for that music. Growing up on James Brown, hearing Jimmy Nolen and those guys, it’s just ingrained in you. In the first jams I played with friends, that’s what I was trying to do, to get that feel. I really didn’t care about what I was playing, but rhythmically, I could get that pop, that feel. It’s about playing it over and over and being in love with it. You’re not gonna fool people who really love funk music. It’s gotta have all that life experience within the rhythm. It’s not a technique so much as it is a lifestyle.
One thing that comes across on the album is a sense of dynamics within the grooves: Not every hit has the same intensity. Is that conscious? Are you just feeling it? Is that something you had to work on?
Brown: I think it’s all three. You’ve got to really let go of everything you’re thinking about and just sink into the music and into the groove as hard and as completely as you can, and just give over to that. Give your body over to the groove, as funny as that sounds [laughs]. To let that happen while listening—to be more aware of what the other musicians are doing instead of what you’re doing. And that can be the hardest thing. Sometimes it’s easier to just say, “I’m gonna attack! I’m gonna learn this inside and out and I’m just gonna execute it.” There’s a lot of safety in that, but to really play this music and do what we’re trying to do, you have to let go of some of that stuff. We might do that at home, but when we get to the stage, when we get together, we try to let go of all of that and let the music take over.
How did you master all this technology?
Brown: I’ve always been obsessed with learning. I’ve always devoured all the magazines—I’m a huge fan of Premier Guitar. Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to know how people were doing it, why they were doing it. So, I just took that on myself. If I find something I’m interested in, I devour it until it becomes part of me. I do a lot of studying online, and watch videos, do online courses for guitar and gear. It’s just something I’m hungry for. I feel like I’m always trying to play catch-up to my peers and my friends.
There aren’t a ton of solos on the album in the traditional sense, but ones that are there seem to flow through the grooves very naturally. How do you approach them?
Rocklin: The band’s approach isn’t so much to think as soloists, but to write new melodies as we’re going. That suits me well, because even when I’m playing straight-ahead jazz and soloing in that context, I don’t want to sound like a bass player; I always try to think like a horn player. So, while the groove is No. 1, I go less for the rhythmic solo than the melody. That comes from playing standards. Whenever I learned the bass part, I always learn the melody and let it inform what I’m saying as I go through the choruses of a solo.
Brown: I try to avoid solos as much as possible [laughs]. It’s something I love so much, but something I don’t have a lot of confidence in. I improvise my solos and think of every song as a blank piece of paper. On the album, I spent a lot of time working on them after everybody left the studio. I lock the door and turn my amps up, just go for it and try to break some new ground without being embarrassed in front of my friends [laughs]. It’s tough, because it’s got to come from this natural place. I want it to feel a certain way, and when I try to press for the solos I hear in my head, I’m not there. I’m constantly trying to figure out how to navigate that thing.
Sound Tribe Sector 9 plays “Light Years” from The Universe Inside during a New Year’s Eve show in Denver. Hear Hunter Brown and Alana Rocklin lay down melodic and synthesized rhythm and bass around the 1:52 mark.