Challengers of the Unknown 

Sound Tribe Sector 9's mystical instrumentals are stories waiting to be told.

Much like his band's music, Jeffree Lerner tends to avoid specifics. As the percussionist of Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9), he and the Santa Cruz-via-Georgia group excavate electronica with a wide lens. Fueled by wanderlust, its work is not only instrumental, but also heavily improvised. Each song is malleable: A mood might be identifiable but characters and setting certainly aren't. Everything is ready for change.

In the same freewheeling spirit, Lerner discusses STS9 and its output in vague, open-ended fashion. For example, when asked to nail down the primary factors that have allowed the five-piece to keep its popularity steady over a decade since its inception, he responded, "A lot of it is the writing and arrangement, and dedicating ourselves to getting better on our instruments. Even though we have been doing this for as long as we have, all of us feel there is room to grow on our instruments. Personal experiences in life are reflected in that as well."

Lerner is far more adept at drawing comparisons to better understand STS9's approach. Speaking with the Miami New Times last December, he said his outfit's aversion to vocals allowed it to look "for a different reaction, different interpretations, like painting without a caption." Now, analyzing the idea of improv, he uses a simile to emphasize the freedom of revamping established arrangements. "The best way to describe it is [like] having a house: You have the walls and things that aren't going to move, but you can redecorate any way you want." Admitting his enjoyment of comparisons, he added with a chuckle, "You've got to use them when there are no lyrics to go from."Working with such expansive architecture, STS9 exists to challenge the unknown. Its musicians chase their weirdest whims, frequently in full view of an audience. Listeners, in turn, can use the lack of detail in the gray, spaced-out vastness to map out their own stories and connections.

With its sprawling playing style, STS9 is, not surprisingly, frequently cited as a jam band. The group has shown little fondness toward the descriptor, but it does make sense: Improvisation is a major facet of its dynamic, it pulls in shades of funk and psychedelia, and it frequently preserves many shows' soundboard recordings for sale later. On a cultural level, the men behind STS9 are big into social and environmental activism — the sort of thing often associated with the left-leaning set that would dig a jam band.

After years of receiving the tag, Lerner has found a rejuvenated take on it. "I'm not so confused anymore because I have a different way of looking at it," he said. "You can describe a bluegrass band or Medeski Martin & Wood [or] a vocal band [as a jam band]. It's really not about the music, it's about the fans. It's about the community out there supporting live music."

STS9 thrives in a live setting, employing massive light shows and a sizable LED screen displaying fluctuating patterns. Working with a myriad of instruments, laptops, and wires, the group attempts to channel crowds in sounds. "The energy is a real give-and-take with our fans," he said. "We have the way we play our songs, but within that is room for expression of the day and environment. [The fans] are influencing us."

Before hitting the stage, the members typically spend an hour talking about where they feel like taking their music that night. Using the average setlist for a week, they repeatedly tweak their songs and revisit the best pieces that emerged before. "We go with a plan but those plans might change," Lerner said. "We treat it like a conversation: If something that changes the subject matter comes up, we go with that."

Ad Explorata, STS9's December release from 1320 Records, also teeter-totters, shuffling between radiance and gloom. "It represents a wider spectrum — a balance between both sides of the story, [from] the laid-back to the edgier tracks," the percussionist said.

Perhaps most compelling about the album is the story attached to its creation. The account published on the group's homepage in October as "The Genesis of Ad Explorata" involves decoding numbers heard on shortwave radio transmissions, tracking down and entering a forgotten bunker in Big Sur, and unearthing an aged metal container featuring knickknacks like passports and a military intelligence file about brainwashing. The cryptic insignia on a patch found in the box led them to the existence of a secret organization whose motto was "Ad Explorata, Forward into the Unexplored."

Posted below the Tomb Raider-style tale are reactions that range from impressed ("one of the coolest and most inspiring ideas behind an album i have ever heard") to incredulous ("do you really expect us to swallow this BS"). Lerner and company still stick to it. "That was our experience and how we wanted to share the album," he said. "I will neither confirm nor deny."Lerner's favorite part of the alleged quest was how it adds "hidden meaning" to STS9's mythos. "It's a breadcrumb trail to have our fans search deeper into the things that mean a lot to us. ... "It's up to the individual to take the journey."

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