STS9 keyboardist David Phipps talked to JamBase about the Katrina survivor who inspired them to donate all proceeds from their new remix to charity, the difficulties of being a socially motivated dance band, the group's new documentary, and locally-grown keyboards.
"We were in New Orleans for some gigs, and we were delivering the last amount of food that was donated [by our] Sector 9 food drive through the Conscious Alliance food drive system." STS9 keyboardist David Phipps drops bombs like this often in conversation. He's telling the story of how the band decided to devote their considerable annual fundraising efforts for a variety of charities to just one organization this year, Brad Pitt's Make it Right foundation. And along the way, he casually mentions that the band is responsible for having generated multiple truckloads of food for food banks around the country.
He continues on, downplaying the band's role. "It was kind of a photo opportunity, to be honest, it's not like we're working in the back of every one of the trucks that's out there delivering the food. We had this awesome local driver who got us there in the van and gave us this amazing tour of the town...he was giving us history and pointing out things that we would have never seen. We asked him to drive through the ninth ward. We had been there not long after the hurricane. We got out of the van and not much had changed. But there was this one street that had my dream house--totally sustainable, green built, world-class architect designed, and right next to that were a couple of FEMA trailers. I didn't want to stare too much, it's like staring at a car wreck, but this guy came out and invited us into his FEMA trailer and showed us this 3-ring binder full of the business cards of the people who had visited and this videotape of his granddaughter's dance recital. We were very much at home and told him that we were considering [a contribution to] Make it Right."
For years, the band had been donating $1 from the sale of every ticket to a variety of charities. "We've always had kind of an activist stance from the very beginning of the band and that gradually...crystallized into a direct way of tying our concerts and activism through ticket sales," Phipps says. The money had traditionally been split evenly. One-third was designated for local Atlanta-area organizations like Mariposa's Art, an after school art and health program. The second third went to causes nationwide including funding a project to help the students of David's brother Allan Phipps, a high school teacher in South Florida, design and build a solar-powered car that competed in the Dell-Winston School Solar Race from Texas to New York. The remaining money went to a variety of international causes. Over the years, as the band's popularity had grown, the donations had grown, too, topping the $100,000 mark in 2008. "This year we kind of noticed that we were making some good dents in some things by splitting it up, but we wanted to see what if we put it all to one thing," David says.
So the band had been looking for a new cause for a while, but nothing had grabbed them until that chance encounter, a visit that occurred with some serendipity not because they were on tour but because they were delivering food to a food bank. But taking the plunge on a new charity and breaking their old ties wasn't something they did lightly. "It was a hard decision for me," Phipps says. "That was my brother's solar car, Mariposa's art ended up going bankrupt this year...it was a hard decision but I think we made the right one."
David goes on "We kind of decided [on our visit to New Orleans] that this was what we wanted to do. And the full price tag for building a house [through Make it Right] was around $150,000. We couldn't promise that we can make the connection and build this man's house, but we wanted to be a part of this effort. Here he was however many years later....and still had all kinds of hope." The band decided to find the funds to build a complete house, which meant that they would have find $50,000 more than they had already planned on raising. They threw in all of the proceeds from their VIP ticket sales, but they needed more. And so the Peaceblaster: The New Orleans Make it Right Remix was born.
They started out inviting friends of theirs in the DJ and hip-hop world to take on individual track and the project soon snowballed. By the time they released the remix album, available online as mp3s for $0.99 each or $9.99 for all 30 with all proceeds going to Make it Right, the band had more than 30 collaborators including the Glitch Mob, Pnuma Trio, and rapper Abstract Rude. To make room for everyone, the remix album stretched to a full 30 tracks, including no fewer than five different (and all excellent) versions of "Hidden Hand, Hidden Fist," the band's standout track from the original Peaceblaster album.
Fans of the original album will be pleasantly surprised by the remix. The production is top-notch throughout and the inclusion of multiple remixes of certain tracks lends itself to some outstanding experimentation. "These tracks really come across as a heartfelt, true donation of [the contributing artists'] time and talent. This wasn't something just thrown together. We're really excited," says Phipps.
One of the highlights for folks who like lyrics with their music will be the three different versions of "Hidden Hand" that are now new and improved with some stunning lyrics. The versions range from dark (Abstract Rude rhymes ominously that "It's not all over just cuz one man 'came the president/Not to be negative but you know how the rest of us is") to cautiously optimistic ("all we want to do is improve the situation that we got before we pass it to you," riffs GFE) to nearly transcendent, as in the Lowpro Lounge's effortless intro segue from JFK's Ich Bein ein Berliner speech to Obama's inaugural address to Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream. The 25 songs on the album not named "Hidden Hand, Hidden Fist" are every bit as good, and even though it clocks in at almost two and a half hours it stands up to repeated listening.
Phipps says that despite the band's strong ideals and progressive leanings and the forceful lyrics in the remix, they don't want to alienate fans. "We try to do it not in your face. We're not directly addressing the audience with a hard idea or statement," he professes. "We throw up a bunch of dots that are obviously creating a connect the dots picture but we leave it up to you to connect those dots and that way you're participating, learning, and not just being told something. If you wikipediad or googled 'Hidden Hand, Hidden Fist' or 'Metameme' you'd invariably come across an article that was talking about some historical or political or sociological idea. And maybe by connecting [those dots] yourself there's a true sense of learning something as opposed to [it] being delivered as lyrics in a song. The ideas that there's clues embedded in this makes it fun for us....and hopefully fun for the fans"
There's also a pragmatic aspect to the band's decision to keep politics and music somewhat distant. He recalls the band's early years: "We were very inspired by the the 13 moon calendar...and it was so identified with us [that] for a good five or six years of our career nobody ever talked about our music. It was always about Mayan numerology or something that was not necessarily what we were wanting to talk about when we wanted to talk about our band. It really kind of overshadowed our music....We've learned to be a little bit more restrained in our [politics] and we feel like it's more effective."
Oh, yeah, the music. When these guys aren't dropping off truckloads of food or organizing 30 friends to do a charity album or funding solar-powered race cars, they're also making some of the most original music around, and they're relentless in their drive to push the edges. Writing songs can take years for the band, as each song may go through 20 or 30 iterations before they're finally happy with it. Every member of the band plays two instruments, a laptop and something more traditional, and the computers are fully integrated into every step of the process. "Most of our music, we'll have laptops and software and we'll start a song idea. It gets imported into the studio computer. Maybe the drums will be replaced by real drums, the bassline will be replaced by the bass player. And we'll come back and [decide] we liked the original drums better, take the live drums out. And then a week later the the live drums are back in and the bassline is being recorded," David explains.
But after years of being known for the technicality of their music and their unique computer-driven sound, the band might be ready to pull the old switcheroo on fans. "We've gone...I don't want to say as far we can, but we've really gone headfirst into that whole methodology of creating music and being able to bring something that's bigger than your own instrument to the stage and pull it off--the laptop and the guitar. But now the pendulum's swinging. We find ourselves playing acoustic guitar and a real piano and trying to write some really beautiful progressions and melodies that are just really strong [and] timeless as far as technology. The next round of Sector 9 might be completely different."
While the band is moving towards a more acoustic sound in some ways, it's beefing up the high-tech production behind the studio work. The band has made improvements including the ability to mix 192 tracks simultaneously, to its recording studio, where the original Peaceblaster was recorded. "We've really kind of made some leaps and bounds. We've graduated from 'yeah, we have a home studio' to 'we actually have a recording studio here.' We're getting more confident....and we've learned so much that [we've shrunk] the time that it takes. We think we might have another 5 or 6 song EP coming out in the fall. We've never followed up a huge studio album with another release just about a year later....I hope [fans will be surprised by the next EP]."
With the electronic focus fading from their live audio, it only makes sense that they'll move into the light shows that have arguably done as much to attract and keep fans as the music itself. To that end, this summer's tour will feature a heightened role for the three huge LED displays that the band first experimented with last year. Phipps gets especially excited when he talks about the lighting changes. "The LED thing is going to be awesome this whole summer!" He exclaims. "We brought in two really premiere video artists...we sent 10, 15 tracks to both guys to create original video content based on the borderline conspiracy big brother vibe that was underlying in Peaceblaster. Our lighting designer, Saxton, is very much of the [Chris] Kuroda school and was moving towards more and more and more and more moving lights. We wanted to do a video element for a while and just kind of pushed him over the edge. [We don't want] to succumb to what people think we should be. It would be really easy to just be that other techno-jamband with the Phish light show and call it a day but I think we can do better than that."
The band's not just experimenting with video on stage, it's even putting the finishing touches on a new documentary called ReGeneration. What started as aseries of interviews with everyone from Howard Zinn to Noam Chomsky to Talib Kwali has morphed, like all the band's projects, into something more. "We wanted to put out to the 11 year old kid who's wondering 'what am I going to do with my life' as an example that hey, we're artists that have made it living our dream, you don't have to live under the thumb of any institution. It grew as we added more and more commentators and participants and interviews, it really turned into a motion picture on the role of media, advertising, parenting, environment, on how that shapes the apathy of an individual. It really came to be a call to action against apathy. You can make a difference and you're making a difference regardless, so what kind of difference can you make? This is a great follow up statement to Peaceblaster and Make it Right and the vibe that was set by those projects....It's a good hour and 20 minutes of visual assault," David says energetically.
Phipps gets equally excited about some other new instruments. "I got into modular synthesizers. [It relates to] the buy local, sustainable vibe, as well as just the quality. I would rather buy something handmade in Northern California than another plastic piece of shit Chinese keyboard. So all of my gear efforts have gone away from plastic shit into this boutique stuff."
And just like that, he's talking about sustainability again. Asked about the sustainability of next week's uber-green Rothbury, for which the band will be one of the main late-night attractions on both Friday and Saturday, Phipps says "Rothbury was a huge inspiration [last year], [it was] a relief to see that a festival could take that direction and really take it at its core. So much more can be done, [but] we're off to a good start....if you can have 100,000 people going home from a festival and they can know that an effort is being made and they can take that home and be inspired by it, it's at least a start."
Pressed about whether the band will start asking other venues and festivals it performs at to follow Rothbury's lead, Phipps admits that he hasn't thought of that, if only because until recently the band wasn't in a position to make that kind of demand. "I haven't gotten used to our newfound fame...we've been doing this for 11 years and all of a sudden we're headlining a bunch of festivals. Usually we're playing at 2 [pm]."
Their new popularity is taking the band by surprise in other ways, too. Many fans know that the band is headlining a mini-festival of its own in Atlanta in August, pairing up with Lotus, Ghostland Observatory and labelmates Dubconscious for a day-long audiovisual treat. What fans might not know is that this festival is something of an apology to fans. "We got rained out of our last concert in Atlanta and had quite an angry audience on our hands. We were sitting in our tour bus and they announced that the show was cancelled and the bus was being rocked by people leaving the venue. We were kind of cracking up to ourselves, like 'this is some Guns 'n Roses shit right here.'"