20 years before the emergence of STS9, NASA sent Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 on a mission to the farthest reaches of the solar system and beyond. Each of these probes was equipped with identical Golden Records, special messages attached to what Carl Sagan called “a bottle launched into the cosmic ocean.” They contained numerous images and sounds from throughout the world, pieces of music from various cultures, a map identifying the location of our planet, and other information for whomever, or whatever, might find them.
While the Golden Records included greetings in 59 languages, they made no mention of nations and borders, wars and rivalries, or anything else that divides us. What they did mention was life, love, peace, birth--the things that bind us to one another and to the planet we call home.
The Universe Inside is a reflection of this message. It means we are one, made of stardust and the forces of nature that evolved over billions of years. Connected by the sun, moon and stars, we are the living breathing conscience of the Universe. It is an album about human identity and the magical truth of who we are, where we’re going, and our place in the Universe. It’s about the joy and pain of being human, and the hope that one day, with the help of a common origin story, we can become a global civilization and cosmic society--a society that embraces each other and the vast cultures of Earth as one human race, transcending man-made concepts that keep us apart.
Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell could have been speaking at any point in the last 19 years when he declared that STS9 “speaks in the future tense.” Their penchant for stylistic exploration continues with The Universe Inside, an album that was written, recorded, produced and mixed by the band at 1320 Mission Control in Santa Cruz, CA. The members of STS9--Hunter Brown, David Phipps, Zach Velmer, Jeffree Lerner and Alana Rocklin-- went through a lot over the course of making this record. In order to connect and express something more direct than they could with the music alone, the band chose to utilize more lyrics than they have on any of their previous efforts.
Voyager’s Golden Records have influenced STS9 since the group first came together in Atlanta, a city that lies at a crossroads of musical traditions. It was there that they were exposed to a kaleidoscope of sounds that would inform their art for years to come, inspiring them to create sonic collages that are as diverse as the mixtapes they grew up with. OutKast, the Grateful Dead, Michael Jackson, Herbie Hancock, Boards Of Canada, Prince, Miles Davis, Talking Heads and Stevie Wonder are among the artists that have been on constant rotation since the band’s inception. The Universe Inside is dedicated to them and everyone that made their records possible.
STS9 developed their innovative style by standing on the shoulders of giants, but they’ve influenced an entire scene in their own right too. Superstars like Bassnectar, Pretty Lights and Big Gigantic found some of their first audiences opening for STS9, where they encountered a community that was eager to embrace a new kind of dance music. In this way the band acted as a common ancestor for much of today’s EDM culture, providing a solid foundation that allowed others to reach new heights. By continuously pushing the envelope in ways that are both accessible and unfamiliar, the five piece continues to stay ahead of the curve. Modern audiences are clamoring for a new kind of electronica that combines the energy of 21st century dance music with the dynamics of a band. For many music fans, this is a brand new sound. For STS9, it’s a movement they’ve been pioneering for two decades.
Recent years have been filled with countless milestones as the band evolves both in and out of the studio. STS9 has criss-crossed the country on an annual basis, bringing their expansive sound, one-of-a-kind light show and message of unity to larger and larger audiences. Along the way, they’ve been joined by a wide range of supporting acts, from electronic music giants like Diplo and Tycho to hip-hop icons like Snoop Dogg, Nas and Big Boi (the tables were turned when STS9 opened for Jay-Z at Denver’s Pepsi Center). Their tours have featured near annual stops at beloved festivals like Bonnaroo, Electric Forest, Lollapalooza and Outside Lands, as well as 20 performances at Colorado’s famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre and 30 sold out shows at Atlanta’s majestic Tabernacle. Altogether STS9 has sold over 1 million tickets, landing them a consistent spot on Pollstar magazine's list of the nation’s top 40 current touring acts. Their last three releases--2008’s Peaceblaster, 2009’s Ad Explorata and 2011’s When The Dust Settles--all reached #1 on the iTunes electronic charts. In 2015, they helped the Grateful Dead prepare for the “Drums/Space” segments of their 50th anniversary “Fare Thee Well” concerts.
STS9’s efforts don’t stop there. The band teamed up with Oscar-winning producers Anonymous Content for a documentary titled ReGeneration, which showcased Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Talib Kweli and others’ ideas for creating positive change in the world. The work they put into scoring the project, as well as a 2008 film called All God’s Children Can Dance, was largely responsible for the birth of their lauded “Axe The Cables” show. Since its debut in 2009, this acoustic take on STS9’s most cherished tunes has toured theaters and opera houses throughout the United States, and the band continues to surprise select venues with the material to this day.
STS9’s sound is in a constant state of evolution, and so is the culture surrounding it. What started out as a deeply loyal fanbase has blossomed into a full-fledged community united, not just by their love for STS9, but by a mutual desire to engage the world in a positive way. It’s a philosophy that has been encouraged by the band’s music, as well as their actions. Over the years, STS9 and their fans have helped feed communities with Conscious Alliance, built houses in post-Katrina New Orleans with the Make It Right Foundation, raised money for Rock Against Cancer and supported dozens more national and regional philanthropic efforts.
The members of STS9 have also poured their souls into 1320 Records, a homegrown label that currently boasts over 300,000 unique downloads of 1,000+ releases by more than 100 different artists. In the tradition of classic imprints like Blue Note, Motown and CTI, 1320 Records is dedicated to the principles of collaboration, cooperation and community. Its artists tour together, appear on each other’s releases and mix tracks for one another. It’s a friendship as much as a label; a group that has fully embraced the digital age by releasing an overwhelming majority of its music in high-quality, downloadable formats. This accessible, environmentally friendly business model helps artists like Emancipator, The Glitch Mob, Ott, Prefuse 73, John Hughes, Telefon Tel Aviv and many more to connect directly with their fans, who keep coming back for more.
All of this brings us to 1320 Records’ latest release, STS9’s highly-anticipated album, The Universe Inside. The record’s opening track, “Supercluster,” samples the original NASA STS-9 radio transmission and represents the band’s return from a journey that began with 1998’s Interplanetary Escape Vehicle (in a nod to the Golden Records, that album’s cover art displays an image of a Voyager-like spacecraft). The first words that are heard are a shout out to STS9’s home, and muse, California. What follows is “Out of This World,” a track that begins with the sound of the space shuttle’s door opening. This song--about a person, a muse, or a love--is what’s playing in the shuttle after it lands.
The album’s third offering, and first single, is “Get Loud,” a collaboration with singer/songwriter Betty Idol and acclaimed production team the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League. Envisioned as a throwback from the future, the song is an ode to the musicians and producers that STS9 grew up loving. Like much of the band’s work, it features a rallying cry disguised as a dance hook. The lyrics are a call to “let it lift you up,” “say it proud,” and stand up for justice and civil rights. Next up is “Light Years,” an instrumental interlude comprised of field recordings the band made over the past few years. Its title is a reference to how quickly time flies and how fleeting every moment is.
The fifth and sixth tracks are familiar to anyone who has kept up with STS9’s live output over the past couple of years. “World Go Round” speaks to the fact that people have the power to change the world. It’s meant to be an uplifting message, but it can also be heard as a warning about what happens when that power is not used for good. “Totem” is an answer to philosopher Alan Watts’ suggestion that you “find something that expresses you” (Watts’ words can be heard in the tune). A totem is something that represents an idea, a natural object or animal believed to have spiritual significance. Watts’ declaration is STS9’s totem.
“Give & Take” is about the things that bind us to one another: friends, family, life and death. The song is dedicated to a person close to the band who said, before she passed, that her life “all seems like a dream.” It’s a sentiment that is reflected in the lyrics and overall feeling of “Give & Take,” which is followed by “Elsewhere.” The song is a live recording of a studio improvisation that was combined with percussionist Jeffree Lerner’s recording of a nearby beach as the ocean’s waves were pulled ashore by a full moon. The sample "just beyond the bay, near the entrance to the Golden Gate" is another reminder of where the story of the album is taking place in that moment. The track’s title is a reference to that place the band goes together musically; a place where feel overrides form.
“Sun, Moon & Stars” is a song about the feeling--after staying up all night--that anything is possible. It’s about love and feeling connected, in a crowd, to something larger than the crowd itself. “Sun Moon & Stars” gives way to “New Dawn, New Day,” another track fans will recognize from the live rotation. The song, which includes a sample from Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” is the first tune the band wrote with bassist Alana Rocklin. It was a message to the fans, and a reassurance to themselves, that expressed their hope in that moment of starting something new. By juxtaposing the Simone sample with a drum and bass rhythm, STS9 was able to give the singer’s forward-thinking message a nostalgic touch of their own as they connected it with some of their earliest influences. The track precedes “Worry No More,” a piece that can be interpreted in many ways depending on how the listener feels. The song pulls in different directions like the shifting of the winds during a storm. Vocalists Lisa Taylor and Maureen Murphy call out that “love is all around,” acting as a lighthouse in the middle of the tempest.
Charles Darwin had much to say about “common descent,” the idea that inspired the title for the album’s penultimate track. In On the Origin of Species he wrote, “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." This brief interlude contains a sustained vocal chant that represents an otherworldly feeling of inspiration, as if something is speaking to you from the center of the universe. It’s a feeling that is in contrast to the earthly chants that open the record’s final number, “The Universe Inside.” Like the album that shares its name, the title track is about story, identity and feeling the past, present and future collide in a moment of reckoning. It recalls the spirituals of old before taking the listener back to nature, off on the next mission; a mission that is rooted in the rawness of the Earth. With lyrics that are both personal and metaphorical for a larger group of people, the song sums up the album: ”We are one, made from dust of the stars / down here we bear the weight of the pain and the scars / just want to live with nothing to hide / every one of us a universe inside.”