It is always a challenge to describe the music of STS9.
The electronic dance band was birthed in Atlanta in the late-‘90s – drummer Zach Velmer and guitarist/sequencer Hunter Brown are natives and keyboardist David Phipps attended Georgia Tech – and cites influences spanning Outkast, The Grateful Dead and Miles Davis.
The quartet, which also includes percussionist Jeffree Lerner and bassist Alana Rocklin, have been delivering sets of winding sonic collages meshed with spectacular light shows for nearly two decades, selling more than 1 million tickets to the intensely loyal fans of their live productions.
On Sept. 2, STS9 (Sound Tribe Sector 9 for the newbies) will unveil “The Universe Inside,” the band’s first new full-length studio album in nearly seven years.
Calling from the Tabernacle earlier this week, where STS9 was in pre-production for a tour that launches Friday at the venue (the guys then swing through Alpharetta Saturday at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre), a gracious and enthusiastic Velmer discussed the band’s Atlanta roots, why this upcoming album took so long to create and why he’s so impressed with Ponce City Market.
Q: You guys play the Tabernacle quite frequently. Why so much love for the venue?
A: It’s a Live Nation room and they’ve been loyal to us. This will be our 30th show (at the venue). It is, honestly, an amazing venue. We love doing it and we feel at home. Most of us grew up in Atlanta and they transformed this venue for the Olympics, so we’ve been going there since 1996. We’ve played the Fox and done this and that, and venues have come and gone, but this has stood the test of time.
Q: You’re doing a second show at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre the following night. Why play two different venues?
A: Really just to do a summer show outside. We do this in a couple of different markets. The Tabernacle is more like a fan show and it’s going to be sold out so not everyone can go. We’ve done this at Red Rocks Amphitheatre (in Colorado) and in New York, too.
Q: You’re based in California, but how did growing up in Atlanta shape the band?
A: Heavy hitters were here, like Outkast, and Forrest Robinson who played drums with Janet Jackson was doing a jazz thing. It was an incredible melting pot of music, from soul to rap to hip-hop to jazz to fusion. Electronic music hadn’t really caught on in the late ‘90s and we were into that. We were just able to be super imaginative and creative. It was huge. When we were little kids listening to music, it was a lot of Southern music and gospel like James Brown, that whole idea of funk. It was inherently happening. We feel really blessed to be from here.
Q: Do you get back much?
A: Oh, yeah. We have lots of family and old friends here; it’s always a little reunion scene. I flew here with my child and dropped her off at grandparents’ for two weeks. To see how Atlanta has changed in 20 years is crazy, but it’s awesome. For years we had this vision that when the record came out we would come back home. It’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s really beautiful, too. And Atlanta is a bit of a hub for shows, because people can come from Asheville (N.C.) and Florida and Alabama.
Q: Are there any places you try to hit when you come home?
A: What’s really cool because I grew up seeing it as a dilapidated old Sears building, is what’s happened to Ponce (City Market)! Now it’s become this fresh, hip place with tons of great food. It’s super neat. I grew up in Stone Mountain, so going there is pretty rad. We would play music out by the lake.
Q: This album is your first in nearly seven years. What took so long?
A: (Laughs) It’s our masterpiece. We just wanted to get everything right. We can’t wait to birth this thing. We had a lot of things to say and a lot of things to share and we’re super excited. It didn’t take seven years to create – it took about 3 ½ from inception. But I guess we’ve been doing our thing, playing shows and having babies. It’s hard to express, but it’s a really exciting time for us. It’s our first album with our new bass player, Alana. We recorded this in a way that you could tell that it’s us — it’s refined and the fidelity is there – and we wanted to take what it’s like from the live experience and express it through the record. It’s funky, it’s fun, it’s conceptualized.
Q: It sounds as if this album is sort of coming full circle with the NASA radio transmission at the start.
A: Definitely, like from (1998 debut) “Interplanetary Escape Vehicle.” With the vocals on the record, everything is very intentional. If you listen to “Light Years,” the fourth track, that’s our ode to all of our experience. The universe inside is that, we all are one. We all came from this stardust and we try to simplify this thing. It’s an interesting state. Just always be positive.
Q: The band is using more lyrics than usual on this record. Why?
A: We had a lot to say in a way that was more than samples. We’ve always had vocalists on our last few records. It was something we were intrigued about as artists, the writing process and then what happened once the artist sang it and then we’d play off it. It was really inspiring and something that we’ve never done – it was so fun and so neat to experience.
Q: Where do you guys look for inspiration?
A: It’s a continuous process. Through our travels, we take pieces of it and we want to share those experiences of what we see and experience. We live in California, yet we travel to Canada, Mexico, Colorado… and when we get together we have these deep conversations and there’s a feeling, that’s where the seed is planted.
8 p.m. Aug. 26. Tabernacle, 152 Luckie St., Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, livenation.com. 7 p.m. Aug. 27. Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park, 2200 Encore Parkway, Alpharetta. 1-800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com. Tickets for Verizon Wireless are $19.99-$49.95. Tickets to the Tabernacle can be purchased only as part of a two-night pass, which runs $59.49-$89.45.