In times of political unrest, it's fitting for a band to release songs with lyrics like, "You don't have to worry no more… Get loud! … We'll make it another day…We can make the world go round…It's a new dawn, it's a new day." What is surprising, though, is that these lyrics come from the latest STS9 album, The Universe Inside. The Atlanta-born band is mainly known for its funk-tronic jam sessions, not so much its lyrics.
"'Get Loud' is not a fluke," Alana Rocklin, STS9's newest member, who joined after founding bass player David Murphy left the band in 2014, tells Billboard. "It's not a dance track. It's not fluff. It's something that was intended to make people think." She continues, "The whole basis for the new album is that, 'We all come from the same place. We are all made of stardust.' We are all part of one another. That's what The Universe Inside is all about."
The album, which debuted on at No. 2 on the Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart this September, has an ethereal "Space Oddity" meets "All You Need Is Love" vibe, which is a noted departure from the classic jam band sound they developed and mastered over the past two decades. "Jam band, EDM band, none of that matters," Hunter Brown, the band's guitarist, says. "We just try to be ourselves and embrace everybody."
For seemingly the first time, most of the songs on the new album have lyrics. "Since [the 2005 album] Artifact, we've had vocals. We've been stepping it up a bit since then but we don't notice the percentage," says Brown.
Billboard spoke with Rocklin and Brown about the new album and how its message -- both musical and lyrical -- corresponds to what's going on in our country now.
How did you guys react to the results of the election?
Brown: We were absolutely shocked and stunned and worried for our friends and family.
Rocklin: We were actually in DC. We had a couple days off, and for some reason we thought it would be interesting to watch there. I don't think we expected it to go this way though...
Brown: We just hope that something positive comes out of whatever is going on right now. As scary as it is, there's a conversation happening and hopefully we can grow from it. I'm not convinced that we can, to be honest. When you parse what Trump said on the campaign trail, how could it not go bad? The people he's surrounding himself with, what he's saying about the EPA and the environment, it's daunting.
How do you encourage others to respond to what's going on?
Brown: Protest -- non-violent protest. That will always be the way to gain the moral high ground to win others to your side. That's how King did it with Civil Rights; that's how Gandhi did it; that's always the call. I'm glad that people feel like it's the answer right now.
Can you talk about the documentary you were involved in and scored, Re:Generation, about the Occupy Movement and social activism in America? Do you find it ironic that most of what the film was about is even more relevant today?
Brown: The impetus for the film and for the band was from what we experienced growing up in Atlanta and the history around Stone Mountain. We had a lot of questions that we couldn't answer and didn't know how to answer. We audaciously wrote to people we really respected, authors and writers, and we started getting responses. The driving factor was our curiosity. Wanting to answer our own questions and wanting to feel like we could do something to bring awareness to the need for change.
And now, we're talking about David Duke again, we're talking about the KKK, I can't even believe it. It hurts. Jeff [Lerner, the band's percussionist] said this morning, 'Maybe it's better that this stuff is in the light. Maybe it's better that it's not all hidden, we see what needs to be changed, we see the conversation.' Maybe we can do that now, but we have a lot of work to do.
Do you find it surprising that so few musicians have spoken out since the election?
Brown: I think that when there's so much to say, it's hard to feel like your voice is adding to anything. When everyone is saying something, it's a cacophony. There's nothing to grab onto and maybe you want people to find out on their own because there's a deeper resonation when you find out for yourself.
Rocklin: I've been careful about what I've said on Facebook. I think it's OK to say that I felt Hillary was the most qualified candidate and that's why I voted for her. That doesn't mean that I think somebody is bad if they voted for Trump. But if you speak up, you may be shutting out the other side. I believe in this notion that we are all one being, and we can never look at people in this country as not that. But even if you just say, 'Hey, let's come together' then you may automatically be saying that you're anti-Trump. I also think that when people come out to a show, they just want to enjoy themselves and get away from the constant banter. I really respect the fact that maybe someone wants to come to a concert and hear our music and they don't want to hear my opinion about the election.
Have you said anything at your show?
Brown and Rocklin: No.
Brown: The entire show is the statement. From the samples that go into the music to the song titles, it's all our message. The music is the platform we're most interested in and most effective on, and to step outside of that doesn't always come naturally. We've really put all of our thoughts and feelings into our message and our story and we don't want to taint that. We play this album knowing what the conversation is out there. We have a strategy and we're not taking it lightly.
Rocklin: We try to inspire people at the show with our music. So to talk about what we're trying to do would take away from their own discovery.
Brown: I feel lucky to be an artist during these times. We're trying to find the most potent and powerful way to say things. And that's not always 'man on the mic.' There are other ways to make deep connections with people, and that's with art -- with real art. Culture changes the world, and we believe that. If we can grow this healthy sustainable culture, we'll continue to be a great world and nation.
There are a lot more lyrics and vocals on this album compared to your previous studio albums. Is that because you have more to say right now?
Brown: All these lyrics were just pouring out over the last few years in everything we wrote. It came from a place of wanting to be more and wanting to say something more and not to be so ambiguous about it. Sometimes that ambiguity works in our favor and other times it doesn't at all.
Rocklin: [The song] "Get Loud" is not a fluke. It's not a dance track. It's not fluff. It's something that was intended to make people think. It's that notion of trying to use phrases or moments in music to get people to really think about what they're hearing: Why are you here? What are you doing? Oh, get loud? Ok I see where they're coming from.'
Is there a word to describe your sound? A word that you actually like?
Brown: Jam band, EDM band, none of that matters. What did you call Herbie Hancock? What did you call Miles Davis? We are not comparing ourselves to those guys -- at all! But it's hard to define it, so we try to just be ourselves and embrace everybody.
Rocklin: We come from the Run-DMC nation. It's genre-less. It's hard to define for someone else. No one was playing with beats and instruments and drums to loops live, in real time before STS9. STS9 was the catalyst.
Brown: We write our own rules and we do what we love to do and there are surprises here and potential for magic there. Our sound is all about how we feel -- you're gonna see raw human love and creative emotion onstage at every one of our shows, and that's what it sounds like.
Ok, maybe we'll try to come up with a new word.
Yes, please do!
The stardustronica five-piece just wrapped its fall tour. They'll be back in the states for three nights at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver just in time for New Year's Eve.