They may be one of the spacier, more experimental, and more mystically inclined bands on the improv-rock circuit, but Santa Cruz instrumental quintet STS9 also have their feet planted firmly in consensual reality.
On their tenth album, Ad Explorata, released earlier this month on the group's own 1320 label, STS9 blends vintage analog electronics with a conspiratorial back story perfectly suited for a classic "X-Files" episode or a Thomas Pynchon novel. There's an Alice in Wonderland element to it, too, insofar as their adventure began the day keyboardist David Phipps's young daughter, Aya, began spinning the dial of a shortwave radio in the band's studio. An atmospheric tour de force, Ad Explorata offers delicate interstellar transmissions, impish premonitions, and the occasional skull-cracking beats.
As the band prepped for a Denver New Year's Eve run (and subsequent tour) that kicks off with the first acoustic STS9 show to date, we spoke to David Phipps (bringing up the rear in this photo) about how the band, with the help of its audience, does what it can to make the world a better place in which to explore the eternal mysteries of music, magic, and Mayan prophecies.
HeadCount: How did STS9 decide to make doing good works such a large part of its identity?
David Phipps: We felt like we’re really lucky. We get to be artists and people support our music. We've been given a one-in-a-million kind of life, and we’ve always felt that since musicians have a platform for social activism, it's the artist's responsibility to use it for the greater good.
When did your philanthropic activism begin?
Phipps: The first official philanthropy we did was several years ago through Conscious Alliance. Fans would donate food at a show and get a free limited-edition poster. But there was never a collective decision to donate profits to charities; we just figured out ways to bring charity into what we were doing already. All of our charity relies on the direct participation of the fan base. We donate a dollar out of each ticket we sell; so in a way, it’s not even our money being donated. We're collecting and converting our fans' money to those goals. As we worked with Conscious Alliance and this dollar-a-ticket thing, we began focusing on a variety of different charities for two or three years. Last year, though, we decided to put it all toward one thing — the most significant thing we could make happen. We settled on trying to build a house in a year with the Make It Right Foundation.
How does the band decide which causes to support?
Phipps: It's collective. One of the things we supported was my brother, Allan Phipps. He teaches at South Plantation High School in South Florida, where he started a solar race-car team with his students called the Solar Knights. They compete nationally and actually won the championship last year on wheels we bought for their car, which featured STS9 logos. So that's been near and dear to me. And Santa Cruz, where we live, actually went bankrupt last year. So we worked with Mariposa's Art, which organizes after-school art and music programs for at-risk youth. It’s very close to home. We can see the results of our work while also seeing what happens when nobody does anything. My brother’s race team budget consists entirely of outside donations now. The school system doesn't support it.
Have you decided where you'll concentrate your support in 2010?
Phipps: Not yet. Our goal for Make It Right is to donate $150,000 to build an entire house. We just broke $100,000 in early December, and we’re really proud of that, so we’re going to stick with it until we reach our goal. We did a remix project for Peaceblaster, and we'll probably do another one for Ad Explorata. But the dollar-per-ticket we get from our fan base provides most of the money we donate.
How has the band dealt with health care over the years. What are your thoughts on the issue as a working musician?
Phipps: We’re pretty much on our own. Not all of our members are in the full health-care system, with doctor visits and everything else. I have a family, so I am, but it’s one of the biggest wastes of money in my life. What’s out there right now doesn’t really meet my needs or align with my views on preventive care. So I think I'm right in line with everybody else who believes it’s a crazy situation that needs to be addressed, and I'm looking forward to seeing what I can move into with my family over the next year. I lived in Japan for eight years and they have socialized medicine. So an ambulance, CAT scans, and three days in a hospital after a bike wreck cost about $320. You can’t even look at an ambulance for that money in this country.
I heard you were doing something different with your street team to market Ad Explorata.
Phipps: Our manager runs the street team and marketing, and we use a company called Cornerstone. From what I’ve heard, it's really cool. The grassroots street team sends out promotional materials and report back with pictures of them hanging posters or placing CDs and flyers, and it's all collected on the website. It’s a way of getting in the thick of promoting the album as a fan, and it seems to work well. We try to stay up to date with what we do — we’re on Twitter now. It’s easy to be nimble and adapt when we’re our own bosses and not following some corporate marketing plan.
Have your thoughts about file sharing evolved since your open letter on the band's online forum, the Lowdown, a few years ago?
Phipps: Most definitely. I was a young, naïve, freaking-out parent-to-be when I wrote that. My viewpoint changed even a short month after that. For the most part, I ran the website and the Lowdown from the early days of the band. And the Lowdown especially, back in the day, was a couple of hundred people including personal friends. When I wrote that letter I was addressing what I perceived as a close circle of fans of the band and obviously was naïve in thinking that would stay in the forum. Our band is incredibly successful in the live concert arena. And whether the music is shared legally or illegally, it ultimately does help our organization bring more people in to buy concert tickets. I gave up on the idea that an album should sell however many thousand copies as a measurement of success as long as more people come out to concerts. Every time we go to a city we sell out more venues than we did before, and we play in better slots on festival line-ups all the time, so our band is still moving forward. We’re not being cheated in our careers. A lot of artists need to take that perspective. It’s part of the music industry's changing landscape. I still take a lot of pride in spending a lot of time making music, and I don’t value that music as worth zero. I don’t value it as something that should be priced at free.
"The Genesis of Ad Explorata," which came with my review copy, tells a long and nearly unbelievable story about how the band's interest in shortwave-radio numbers stations led to a friendly cryptographer sending you off to find a military bunker in the Big Sur backwoods. You found some mysterious documents, pictures, a knife, and a patch containing the mysterious symbol featured on the album cover. It turned out that the symbol was associated with a black ops unit that gathered intelligence via satellites during the Cold War and that their motto was "Ad Explorata, Forward Into the Unexplored." Is that all true?
Phipps: It’s incredibly true.
How did it influence the album?
Medeski Martin and Wood were really big when we were coming up. They were in their funky acoustic paradigm, before it got too avant garde, and I almost went that direction. Then I got a Juno 106, went full overboard into synthesizers, and never turned back. Over the last year and a half or so I've really gotten into modular synthesizers, where each function has its own module – like the Keith Emerson wall of patch cables. I've been collecting vintage gear and reconstructed synthesizers made by young engineers who draw from that era's schematics and rebuild the equipment in this boutiquey niche. You have to hurry up to get in line to wait eight months for it to be finished. It's super fun and rewarding. A lot of the sound on Ad Ex came from that. The vintage gear seeded a lot of our creativity over the summer. At the same time we were researching some of the clues we had gotten from our Big Sur expedition. And [guitarist] Hunter [Brown] is on a lot of different conspiracy websites. He's probably tagged by the FBI for what he reads online. That was kind of the vibe throughout the creation of this album. It went really fast compared to anything we’ve done before.
Since finishing the album, however, we’ve been getting ready for the Axe the Cables acoustic show, and we haven’t plugged anything in for power for the last month and a half and I've just been playing piano. We’ve never done an acoustic show, but after we decided to we started rehearsing and a lot of our old songs sounded really good just on piano and acoustic guitar, with Zach [Velmer] playing drums with brushes. It’s a very peaceful, mature sound, and super fun for us to play. We already had a small batch of slow, cinematic songs we wrote for the soundtrack to a totally bizarre little indie film called All God's Children Can Dance. So we’ll be debuting more new acoustic songs than live versions of Ad Explorata songs. It’s the first night of our three-night Denver run in a nice opera house. It’s probably not going to be the last acoustic show we do, and it's very inspiring.
Who’s the fellow on the cover of Ad Explorata?
Phipps: I'm not sure if I'm allowed to tell the whole story. Hunter took the picture in Tokyo. He was walking down the street and felt ice hitting him in the head. He turned around and saw this guy in a taxi cab. No, I really can’t tell this story.
Has STS9 nailed down plans for December 2012 yet?
Phipps: No comment as of yet, but we are planning toward 2012. We feel that even the story that came out of Ad Explorata is just the season premiere of something that will run through 2012. I can’t say anything more than that. We’re very mysterious these days.