The Weekly Interview: STS9’s Hunter Brown

After playing the last Vegoose in 2007, STS9 returns to play the city’s new music festival, Life Is Beautiful.

STS9 played three Vegoose after-dark shows, as well as one set at the festival itself, and now you’re playing our newest big event, Life is Beautiful. Are music festivals a good excuse for STS9 to come to Las Vegas? I think it is! Any excuse to get the Vegas is a good excuse, and this is our best one lately.

Do you have any strategies for playing festivals where you’re only playing, say, 45 minutes? That would seem a challenge for a band that might normally play only a dozen songs over two and a half hours. It is a little challenging, [especially] prior to the show, just figuring out what we want to do with that time. But once we get there, it’s fun in its own way … fitting what we do inside of that tiny time space helps us in a different, creative way. We pick from a different batch of songs to do that, and we’ve been figuring out different ways to have fun with that [shorter] set, but still spread out musically. Sometimes we’ll plan to play 10 songs, or we’ll play five or seven because we forgot what time it was!

Do you remember STS9’s first couple gigs at [the former] Legends Lounge in 1999 and 2000? For sure! A couple of them were kind of legendary in our small fanbase at the time, and for us personally. They were really good shows, for us being so far from home and in Vegas, in this different vision of Vegas than we had. I remember playing with all the slot machines on the bar. It was a different vibe, but we had some great shows there.

We had to cancel a Legends show, which we caught a lot of sh*t for at the time. We were in Oregon, and our bus broke down; it was just impossible to get there. That’s one of the few times that’s ever happened to us. We owe Vegas one!

You guys generally come here every year or two. What do you make of your collective experiences with playing our city? No one ever seems to be just from Vegas. Every time we go, it’s almost always a festival environment because people are visiting from everywhere. [In the] South, you get a certain kind of vibe, it’s a little rowdy and people are more outwardly in their expression, but when you go to Vegas, it’s more of a mix of the country. And there’s the excitement and the lights and atmosphere and all that is our collective understanding of Vegas running through your veins when you’re getting ready [to play].

I saw you guys at the Hollywood Palladium in March, and your show seems more visually striking and complicated than ever. Has technology evolved to the extent where you can do more with less, or has success enabled you to develop a more ambitious and expensive show? I think it’s a mix of both, but for us, it’s a way for us to express a different inspiration, different ideas that maybe we would talk or sing about if we weren’t primarily an instrumental band. It allows us to be a little more direct with our imagery. We’ve been using screens and projection and LED and video for years, and we even went away from it for awhile because we couldn’t figure out how to do what we wanted to do. With the technology of today, it’s allowed us to be more specific, and it allows band members to collaborate with friends doing that sort of art, and come up with a story, so to speak, and an intention behind what we’re doing, so it’s not just screensaver madness. It’s part of something we’re allowed to do because we’ve been touring for this long and working toward our entire career.

How much of the visual and lighting set-up is strategized or dreamed up by the band, and how much of those ideas come from technicians and your lighting guy and anyone else that’s not a band performer? Saxton Waller, our light engineer, has been one of my best friends since first grade, and he’s been our light guy our entire career. We’ve always looked at him as a sixth member of the band; we want the lights and the music to be one expression, not “here’s a band and a light show.” This is a performance of the show, and [the music and lights] connect in way that’s meaningful.

We have a couple of friends who do the technical work. We all get together for a few days in Santa Cruz or Los Angeles, we talk about it and work it out, and they program all night—we make music, we have fun—and while they’re working and coming up with ideas, we say, “We like this, we don’t like this.” It’s a true collaboration, because they’re showing us things we could never imagine. Everyone has their own perspective and brings their own ideas to the table. It’s a genuine part of what we’re trying to do as a band.

And with all that visual programming, does that limit how much music the band can improvise? That’s what so cool, [Waller] can roll with anything we do on stage. The production is a mix of LED, video and lights, and he can go back and forth between those. And we’ve gotten to a point now where we can remix the video that’s synced on the fly, and he can take the stuff that seems more rigid and be completely open with it. We’re halfway through the original idea and where we want to be, but we’re excited where we are now.

Even though most of the so-called EDM surge has to do with more pop-based dance music, and your take on electronic music is mixed with rock and other genres, has there been any evidence that the new dance music fans have also sought out STS9? The only thing I can say is that I meet people that have told that to me, that come to us through different channels. They get here somehow. That can be through the more dance-pop stuff, the EDM stuff, or even some of the indie stuff. I met a kid in Alabama not too long ago, and he got to us through Deerhunter. That was our starting point; we both love Deerhunter, and he was at an STS9 show. That’s the best to me. At my core, I’m a music geek myself. I’m constantly listening and buying, and so that’s exciting to me that we’re in that [electronic dance music] world and can be a part of it.

Do you seek out performing at festivals like EDC and Ultra Music Festival, which are more DJ-based? We’ve done all of those. We did Ultra and EDC ... we did Winter Music Conference back in the day. We’ve always been under the radar, involved with those things, but usually we weren’t able to do what we really do. We’d do DJ sets or what we call “live PA” sets, and we don’t really do that anymore. But we’re still getting approached by those festivals, and some of those things we’re probably gonna do next year, in that vein. We love that music; we grew up on dance music, too. It makes sense us, but some people are like, “Y’all playing what?” Other people are like, “What, you’re not playing here, or there?” It depends on your perspective. We love it all. We play it all. We’ll go where we can.

One of the reasons I was excited to see you guys in March is that you had Tycho opening, who I’d seen in September of 2012 and really dug. What other live electronic acts are you currently digging? That’s a tough one! There’s so much I’m listening to and loving right now … honestly, what Daft Punk did with their new record, that was so cool in so many ways. We just all looked at each other and smiled and said, wow, Daft Punk went backwards in the best possible way. I don’t know how that relates to us, but it did … we’ve been such huge fans of theirs. In fact, the first time we saw them was at Vegoose! That was amazing.

I just got the new Darkside record. What Nicolas Jaar is doing, the guitar stuff, I love that stuff. Music is in a good place right now, and has been for awhile.

It’s been a couple of years since your last studio effort. Are you closer to releasing a new album, or any form of recorded material? Absolutely. We’re actually day in and day out trying to finish and capitalize on this inspiration that we have now. We’re shooting for the beginning of the year sometime, but we’ll see. We’re not trying to call it yet, but we’re close. We’ve got a bunch of tracks we’ve been working on for awhile. Almost half of them we’re playing live, a little more half that we haven’t that no one hasn’t heard yet.

So, will we be hearing one of those new songs at LIB? It’s possible!

STS9 Sunday, October 27, 6:30-7:30 p.m., Life Is Beautiful Festival's Ambassador Stage

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