Zach Velmer: Sonically Indefinable

Go on. Try to pigeonhole the music of Sound Tribe Sector 9. They’d love to see what you come up with after listening to their latest album Artifact. It’s not funk, house, hip-hop, electronica, drum ’n’ bass, and jazz. And then, it most certainly is all of those things, and more. Lush piano chords lead to acoustic guitar folkisms, then a distinctively crystalline electric guitar tone, some ethereal vocals, and then everything turns on a dime into outer-space synths and sound effects that defy all logic.

There is no name for this, and when you ask drummer Zach Velmer to give it a shot, he sighs, “We don’t want to put a label on it, because it is what it is. It’s just like, this is what we do. It’s so interesting, I’ve never read an article where somebody was interviewing Thom Yorke from Radiohead, or Britney Spears, or Justin Timberlake, and was like, ’So what do you call your type of music?’ I don’t get it.

“We’re musicians,” he continues. “My record, CD, and MP3 collection is so diverse. From Yusef Lateef to Bob James, then to Jay-Z or all this stuff. At this day and age, with the hip-hop guys and how they’ve sampled music, that’s what we did with Artifact — we played our instruments, played them and played them and played them, and then we kind of sampled ourselves and made the album. If we labeled it now, what if we wanted to change? From day one, when we started, it was very free-form, very jazzy, open-ended, structures built around form, and some stuff was form built around structures. With Artifact, the structures, they’re not A-B-A-B-bridge-A-B-A-B. It’s nothing like that. It’s A-B-C-D-E-F-G-outro. It’s more movements of music.”

And anyone who has seen the Stone Mountain, Georgia quintet — which also includes bassist David Murphy, guitarist Hunter Brown, keyboardist David Phipps, and percussionist Jeffree Lerner — do this stuff live knows that the music is all about movement. The fans are moving, and the band is definitely moving. The amazing thing is, STS9 truly moves together as a band; the improvisational ebbs and flows are felt through all five members.

Where off earth did that come from? “It was never a concept,” the 26-year-old drummer emphasizes. “It was never a gimmick. We started in Stone Mountain, and then we lived in Atlanta for two or three years. We made friends with some of the hip-hop guys, and started going to this club called the Yin Yang Café. And we got hooked up with these people who were in the same scene, but these cats were older. Forest Robinson, [who] was playing with Janet Jackson, [was there]. Lauryn Hill’s bass player was there. Heavy, heavy cats. Some of these bands were pick-up bands, doing acid jazz, stuff that would blow your mind — these players were ridiculous. The music was very free, very jazz, and very avant-garde. There was a lot going on, and it was kind of like their release. Like, they were on Janet Jackson’s tour, and Janet would be like, ’Do this,’ and that’s what they would do. But at the Yin Yang Café they got to blow off steam.

“So we were like, ’Wow, look at these musicians. Do we want to just become the best musicians that we can?’ And more and more, we realized we wanted to be five people moving as one, rather than five people sitting on stage, where everybody gets to solo all over the place. We were improving in the same way that the other guys were, just having fun with the changes, but we were locking and moving together. And from there our compositions started getting better and better, more flowing.”

For Artifact the flowing started happening around 2002, in the midst of a lot of live giggage (the band averages 180 gigs a year; in 1999 they logged 263), and the sounds came from every possible source imaginable. Each bandmember has a Pro Tools rig, ready to record whatever guitar squawk, cymbal choke, or car crash they want, wherever they are.

“A lot of times,” Velmer explains of the writing process, “I program my beats and then learn them. Sometimes I use an MPC pad for my laptop computer to make a beat, or Hunter will write beats and I’ll learn [those]. It’s a band, but it’s more like we’re a group of artists just doing art. It’s like a newspaper: there’s a person doing this editorial, and this person took this picture, and this person did this other editorial, and it all goes together to make the newspaper. That’s kind of how we do it. It’s not necessarily one person always takes the picture, metaphorically, if that makes sense. In the album credits, I’m playing all the live drums. Some of the sequenced stuff, Hunter sequenced. It’s a very interesting dynamic.”

This monstrous mosaic of sounds is truly evident when Velmer discusses the 7:02 soundscape “Tokyo.” “For ’Tokyo’ we had everything condensed,” he says. “The drums were grouped as a two-track when we were working on it, and when we finally went in to do the mix-down, we were on a Control 24 Pro Tools rig … 102 channels. That was a beat of mine that I played in L.A. I have a Bearing Edge all-wood-hoop kit, and I tuned the 20" x 18" bass drum really loose — it was like a cannon. I played this beat, and David Phipps went back into this file and found that beat. And the loop that’s in there, he took that from a sample that Hunter had, and David made it into this other thing. And it kept evolving. We added and added to it, recorded guitar, [added] the Rabbi sample, and it kept evolving to where it’s at now. We worked many, many months on that.”

The result of the Pro Tools toil is, well, indefinable. You’ll have to check out Artifact for yourself to figure it out, or better yet, catch STS9 live and bring a bandage for when your chin hits the floor.