Vibes and Stuff: An Interview with David Murphy of Sound Tribe Sector 9
by john eischeid
Before a recent gig at B.B. King's in New York, David Murphy, Sound Tribe Sector Nine's bassist, sat down to talk about the band's new album, its recent remix project with Good Looking Records, stealing their keyboard player, and how drum-and-bass, jazz and trash metal really aren't that different. The band just finished a spring tour and is on the roster for Lollapalooza this summer. Tentatively, in early 2005, they will also release a new studio album, which will likely both embrace and depart from the band's live performances and show a post-Modern, post-hip-hop approach to making music that challenges the notion of genre.
So what was it like doing a remix for LTJ Bukem's label?
It was really cool, because we were on the other side of our journey through the Good Looking sound, because we had been really into them back and when we were really starting to play drum-and-bass and then a lot of the Cookin' stuff and the more down-tempo and mid-tempo stuff that they have and their British stuff. And so, kinda coming out on the other side of that and finally being able to meet with him and play with him and do a show with him. Our sound had kind of congealed into it's own thing a little bit. But then, to be able to remix songs, like the "Solitudo" track that we did was actually a Marcel track. And I had listened, and I had liked the track. And we were all familiar with it, so you know it was really neat. It was an honor to take the inspiration from what we like about Good Looking, take some of the sounds from that song, but, for the most part, we built the song from nothing. You know, they didn't send us any drums, no bass, nothing. They sent us like twenty-five WAV files. We...[I laugh] Literally -- you know. And like the random sound effects that were in the song. And then we took the actual song itself and tweaked it.
So, it was a collaborative effort.
Totally. The drums and the bass and all the guitar, we did all that ourselves.
Oh, so you put live tracks back over...
Yeah. We did all live. We did the drums, the bass and the guitar. And then a lot of the keys, but a lot of the key parts is what they did send us: a lot of the sound effects and then the delayed-out key sounds, and the horn stabs and whatnot.
Then that was a lot different than your live work, obviously.
But working together as a band, what did you have to do differently in making a remix than you do in a show?
Well. Everything. Because we approach the remix like producing a song for an album. We kinda looked at the sounds that were there, kinda picked a vibe that we wanted to go for. We knew the drum beat that was in the original song, well, it was cool, it was very generic, you know, drum program sound. We wanted a more live soul groove. Not necessarily housey, not necessarily break beat. Somewhere in the middle.
Did you do any improv while you were coming up with it? Just kind of start playing and riffing off something?
Everybody kind of did that individually, because we tracked individually over the course of about six or seven months. We did the drums, as one vibe, and then we did a few different vibes, and then we actually ended up just cutting it up and making a few different loops out of the drum beats, and placing them in there. Same with the bass. I recorded -- there's actually about four different movements in the song, and I would just work on each part, recording a bunch of different tracks until I would get the vibe that I would want.
So that's like a good primer, I guess -- for lack of a better word -- for your new studio album that's coming out.
Correct. Correct. A lot of the same producing techniques that went into the remix are going into our new album. As far as taking a live band, recording them, and then cutting that up, destroying it into samples, you know, and putting it back together.
Well, the last album you did before this was live, so you didn't have to go through this process.
The double live, double disk [entitled Seasons 01]. Correct. Yeah, it was live.
So basically, have you have been out of the studio that whole time?
No. It's been a year, this month, that we've been working on this album, and for the most part, it's been in the home studio. All of our drums were done in a real studio for this album, but, once again, they've been compressed and chopped. Because we all produce music, that we do program drums, that we program all the instruments that we can't play. And so, working together, it's a real privilege, because a lot of the people that produce electronic music, that's what they're really searching for, you're searching for that classic quality, analog sound -- the real bass, the real drums -- and then you wanna destroy it and make it into the beat that you want, you know. And that's what we're able to really do, is to have our drummer play whatever beat we really want and get the drum sound. Get the bass, the guitar, the keys, the percussion. It's really enabled us to -- not really have an edge on electronic music -- but to have an edge on the sounds that we're able to use, because we can't play all of the instruments, so we have a mess of keyboards, synthesizers...
Has any of that studio work, like all that chopping up and stuff, has that had any impact on your approach to playing live?
Yeah. Big time.
Um. The biggest way is that it has really opened up each of the musicians into really listening, to listen a lot better on stage, to what is really going on, so it's sort of a refinement, if you will. So at the same time, its really pushed the level of -- once again -- we've always been working towards having a perfect balance between the organic musicanship and the organic things that people are used to in going to see a band with the all of the electronic elements, how to keep a crowd moving and how to present your sound in something that's really audible and pleasant to listen to. Even for myself -- for even some of my favorite bands -- even though I may love their album, I don't really. . . Stereolab's a perfect example. I don't know if you've heard of them.
I know Stereolab.
I love all of their albums, and I went and saw them live and it was just horrible. It was just like this guy playing guitar and it was so loud and this distortion guitar and these things that weren't really on the album. It's like I was looking to see a recreation of the album, but I was looking for that representation of that really crisp, clear sound. And you know...
Yeah. That's hard to get in a live show.
Yeah. It's hard to get out of a live band. And so, we've really been pushing ourselves, and been pushing our crew and been pushing our sound guy to present themselves in a way that is audibly pleasurable, to work on really clean sound. Being able to work in the studio we've had the ability to go in and a lot of the electronic sounds that we use, we've been able to really master them and kind of perfect them and bring them back onto the stage with new sorts of approaches. It's definitely helped our song writing, in just the ability to present a piece of music better as a band.
Ya'll are living apart while you're working on this new album, right?
How did that have an impact? Did it have any impact on the musical compositions? Obviously, it had an impact on the process.
Just musically -- in terms of the musical content and what you're producing -- do you think working separately had an impact on what ideas you had?
Yes. I think it did to a large degree.
Were you more focused on the sound itself?
One, you know, our guitar player, who does a lot a samples and producing and what not, he has been really into this just kind down tempo hip hop, just instrumental hip hop, you know what I mean, just this straight ahead drum beat and really minimalistic sounds going on. It's something that is just so fun to listen to.
And then there's other people who are just really into things that are really attention grabbing, and it changes every sixteen bars, you know what I mean, and it's constant soundscapes that are like a video game.
And so it's been really good because we all have to come to a middle ground. We all have to come to that place where we're like, "Okay, that's the perfect amount of groove and ride. And that's the perfect amount of things changing that keeps it interesting."
Well, do you keep each other abreast of what you're listening to?
Yeah, definitely, because in the end, we're all best friends. We definitely talk a lot. We share music.
Yeah. So you know where everyone else in the band is coming from and what their influences are.
Yep. And at the same time, we also go through listening to things kind of together, if you will. Not fully, but me and the guitar player, we live together. We listen to a ton of hip hop. It's just what we listen to. And a while ago, it was drum and bass.
When you're making the studio album, do you feel separated from your audience? I know that...
Well, yeah. It's ironic because you try to, we all try to think about our crowd. Like, what would they think of this? Are they gonna dig this? And then sometimes it's like you don't really care what they think. But I think the majority of our vibe relating to our fan base has been a bit of excitement. We're trying to challenge ourselves to challenge them, to really push through to make something that we know that they'll love, but at the same time will branch out through the way that the audience experiences our music right now. That's the one thing that we've never done is to put out a studio album that we would want to push to some sort of heavy music crowd, for lack of a better word. You know what I mean. But just to really get out there. I really want to kick around with a backpack full of disks to kick out to people I meet. Because it's not any sort of trying to hide from what we do, but just feeling like, I know if people come see my show, I'm proud of that, and I invite people all day long. But with an album, there's always been a learning curve. It's always been a growth process with us. And this one, it feels good. It feels like when we're going on stage. It's like, "Okay, I know what we do and I am confident in it and what we produced or what we do produce."
So playing live all this time has definitely given you a lot more confidence in the way you approach a studio album.
Yes. For sure. And the one fact that at least knowing that we do have that fan base.
Yeah, you know. [laughing]
You know what you've done right. . .
You know what you've done, at least they'll buy it. Even if they hate it, you know that they'll tell you. [smiles] They'll be writing about it on our website.
What about the other way around. Has making a studio album changed the way that you play some of these upcoming songs live?
You said something earlier, just talking about the song, but I'm talking about your approach to the song.
Yes. You know, we started as just three guys just wanting to play music, and we were not so concerned with having songs or having a certain arrangement or structure to the material, you know.
Yeah, that's clear.
Because at that time we were really just into the groove, the Bitches Brew Miles Davis, the Herbie Hancock Headhunters vibe, you know that structured groove, but not really. It's all free form. You're listening to each other. You're playing off what everybody else is doing, to where over the years it's evolved. And the reflection of the studio album is us just wanting to really present the music, you know, to still have those elements of improv, but to know when those elements are necessary and knowing when the structure, letting the piece of art speak for itself and letting the piece of art having its statement, and let it say what it wants to say. And then there's times when you want to have the imagination outside, looking at the piece of art. For the most part, you want to know that that's an oil painting. [gestures at an imaginary painting] And that's a photograph, but at least I know what I am looking at. I want to give people more of that. More a grasp of what they are dealing with. And then try to take them off on these wild tangents where they can get totally lost, and then you can bring them back.
That's another question I had, though. I know that you're interested in some other forms of graphic art, and I was wondering if any of that informs your music at all, in some more direct or abstract terms.
It's funny because our guitar player is literally having a conversation behind that wall [points] with this guy Oliver, who lives here in New York, who's a painter, about some stuff for the album.
Oh. Cool. [I knew they were close, but not telepathic.]
Yes. A lot of our friends are graphic artists, but a lot of them are visual artists via sculptures, or paintings, or oil paintings. And like Oliver, it's multi-media art pieces and that's been a huge inspiration for us. But it always has been from the realm of trying to see and just watching art, you know, just evolve together. Seeing our friends do other mediums of art and watching them progress with us and using that as inspiration, you know. Like with him, he's been sending us -- the whole time we've been working on the album -- he's been sending us paintings that he's thinking about using for our CD art and whatnot. So it's this kind of thing where you're able to really feed off of each other as artists. And it was really exciting musically, because I listen to a lot of music, but at the same time when you're working on your album, you don't want to engulf yourself by being inspired by other musicians too much, or at least I don't. Just for the filter into my own music, the judge of my own music. I want it really open. Sometimes it's a lot easier to go outside of your own medium of art to pull that inspiration.
This is an interesting venue for you, I thought.
Yeah. [laughs] But you know, we've played around a lot.
What kind of music, what kind of vibe, do you think is going to get people excited here tonight?
You know, it's interesting. On a night like tonight, you know, when we do. . . This is kind of like playing the House of Blues in Chicago, because they have a bit of a built-in crowd. People are in vacation in Chicago, and they're like, "House of Blues." They want to go see music, and it's the trophy brand name. You're going to buy Coca-Cola going into the store. So here's one of the things I said about B.B. King's, "You know, they have a bit of a built-in crowd, which I think would be good for us. It brings the element of a music fan, who would come see one of our shows, but at the same time, we do have our built in crowd that very much follows the jam band scene and is very much into the jam band scene. They're kinda not discriminatory to where we play. They'll be there wherever we play, you know."
There's an element, you know, New York. We really write our shows for New York, and it kind of doesn't matter that. . .
Well, like last week we played with Bukem. We played in the Labyrinth. You know there was us, and like DJ Dara was out, and some big electronic cats, like Bad Company, the hip hop producers, they were there, and so we definitely wrote our show more towards the heavier electronic stuff that we do. I'm not trying to impress you, I'm just trying to set more of a vibe, because Bukem was coming up after us and we were just trying to keep with the flow of the music that was going on. And a night like tonight, same sort of thing, but a little different, you know. Our set's written more towards, you know, there's a couple . . . there's a Bob James cover. You know who Bob James is? He's the most sampled artist maybe out there. I mean, especially in the hip hop world. Some of just the classic breaks that you will always hear for all of time come off of his records. Nas uses him all the time. A lot of the key the keyboard licks in Nas, all of Nas's tracks, are Bob James licks. We're doing a couple of his covers tonight, a couple of this songs.
'Nautilus' is one of them. That I know we're definitely playing. And that's just sort of a reflection, you know, of playing in a town like New York. You know, a lot of older fans and whatnot. A lot of people know that song because it's a popular classic. There's a couple things like that tonight that are more just for us. Just paying homage to jazz and just to the whole movement of where today's music has come from.
And then mixing it with how our spin on it is.
Have you heard of the New Deal?
Yeah, I saw them play one time and they covered, in the same show, Grand Master Flash and the Who.
It is hard, you know, but DJ Shadow, what I love about DJ Shadow is just how he can take those rock breaks, you know. I riff off of a lot of shit, you know. A lot of their shit was just rock drum breaks.
Yeah, and they'd go back and forth.
Yeah. So, that's what we're kinda like New York, in the bigger cities, we're trying to reflect a lot of our knowledge of the music industry.
Yeah. That's what you do if people are going to catch on to it.
Yeah. New York, they listen to music here.
You can do things like that and they know. They recognize it. We played in Detroit with Bukem a few weeks ago, we played 'Nautilus' because he has some Bob James samples in some of his Cookin' stuff. And so we played, and he was freaking out and MC Conrad actually rhymed over it, part of the Bob James track that we covered. [Impersonating] 'No way, you're fucking playing 'Nautilus'! Fucking Bob James!'
What formal training have you received?
None. Completely self-taught.
Is that across the board?
No, our keyboard player, both of his parents are music missionaries in Japan actually, in church.
His mom teaches piano. His dad's a choir teacher, so he's had a lot of formal training on the piano, classical and jazz. He's studied it. Had a jazz teacher at fourth grade.
Yeah. that's a pretty diverse background.
Yeah. And he studied with his mom for years. And the drummer has . . . the drummer's been playing since he was ten, so he's been taking lessons from different jazz guys in Atlanta. There's some incredible drummers in Atlanta.
Yeah. The way he -- that's why I was asking -- the way he plays. He can't do that without some school in technique.
Yeah. I mean what really helped to break us through, when we were younger and we were living in Georgia, we kind of busted out on the jazz scene in Atlanta, going and hanging out at a lot of the different jazz clubs where the players were. The bass player for Janet Jackson, and her drummer, they had jazz band. And that was the first time I'd ever seen somebody play live drum and bass. And they were a three piece, keys, bass guitar, and they were playing drum and bass. And I was like...
Oh. When was that?
And ah, even a little bit, you know, probably before it really took off here in New York, you know, or even about the same time. I know for while there, there was a big explosion in the city and the jazz players, kicked into the drum and bass vibe, you know. That's really what turned us on. It was that. Because if you're studying jazz, you know, and the line between jazz and thrash metal to drum and bass is really, really thin. If you can play trash metal, you can play really fast, straight ahead punk jazz. You're playing a drum and bass beat. It's about control.
Like Morbid Angel, I don't know if you've heard of them. It's just this crazy double bass.
Yaup. But that was a big push. And then we started getting into experimenting with different snare drums and electronics and samplers.
Now, but it was really just us two. You know, me and the guitar player, we grew up together. And kind of taught each other how to play guitar. And then, maybe when we were like nineteen or twenty, I decided to play the bass, because everybody played the guitar.
Ya'll all go back pretty far don't you.
We do. I mean, when Zach and I started, the drummer, Zach, was in high school still. He was this Senior in high school. And the guitar player, I can say I've known him since we were like twelve. And I'm a few years older that them, so we go back a good ways. The keyboard player we met, we'd been touring for about a year, as a three piece, when we met him, and he was on-board immediately. And the percussionist came along a little bit later.
Was adding them on, then, was that part of a plan, to kind of like push your sound?
Were you just like, "Hey, this is something we could do."
Actually, the plan was really not to have keyboards. At the time, we were actually looking for a horn section. And, um, just so happens, we just met this kid, and just the vibe, you know, almost like immediately best friends. He played in the band -- we were in a festival and he was playing the band before us, and we were just like, "He's bad." He was just bad, and all he was playing was just like piano, and we were just like, "You need to just leave that up there." He left if up there and we played together. It's funny because we were at a wedding, about a month ago, a good friend of mine got married. And there was a kid there who used to play in that band, and he was like, "Ya'll stole my keyboard player!" [Laughs and grins.] Yes, we did. So, you know the keyboard player was just a fluke thing, sort of an immediate no-brainer. With Jeffrey, you know, with the percussionist, like it was the same sort of thing. With Zach and all of his flair, we didn't really think we needed another drummer. Uh, with Jeffrey, he brought a different element. He brought just this kind of vibe.
A different texture.
And he's a bit older than all of us, but even in the sense of his musicianship, you know, he kind of brings -- like you say -- this texture. He brings this kind of ethereal vibe that congeals things together, where sometimes it's a good thing he's back there. If I can't hear one of his instruments, I'm like, "Oh, my god." He fills so much space. So it was interesting because he toured with us. He did like two tours with us before we even asked him to be in the band, you know. He one day just showed up on our doorstep, and he was like "I want to play with ya'll. I want to be in the band." We took off from there. Even with him, you know, the band, we never really set out to be a certain number of people or a certain type of instrumentation. You know, if like some singer, or a couple MCs walked in one day and it was like, "Man," they would probably be in the band. Or anything else for that matter.
So you are open to like adding on vocals and stuff like that, because that's something that you haven't done in the past.
No, it's not. We've had friends of ours, or people that we met, sit in with us, but nothing on any sort of a consistent level, you know. We think about it, but it's a tough one for us.
Well, when you have a singer incorporated, automatically with language, there's that sense of narrative, and with all the improv that you do, it would be very hard to get that narrative to come through.
Yeah. And we feel like honestly that would be the biggest thing that would eliminate some of our crowd, some of our fan base, because it would add an element of structure that I don't even think we're comfortable with. We think we have structure to our music, but I don't think we really realize until we have a singer on stage the kind of free-formedness of the music, because singers are very . . . they have that, they rely on that, you know, "At thirty-two there's gonna be a chorus." And it don't come, and we're like, "No, one more time." And that's the beauty you know, when you play together for seven years.