Q&A: David Phipps of Sound Tribe Sector 9

Categories: Interviews

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David Phipps plays keyboards for Sound Tribe Sector 9 (read more about them in this September 6 Westword article), but he’s also the group’s reigning tech guru -- the musician as responsible as anyone for making the band sound forward-looking and adventurous. On top of that, he oversees STSP’s website, www.sts9.com, and as a result, he had insight into everything from marketing strategy to fan posts, be they complimentary or cutting.

Phipps took a break from looking after his new daughter to gab about a whole range of topics. He reveals plenty about his unusual upbringing as the son of missionaries; the band’s early days spent living in a failed recording studio; the high standards of so-called jam-music fans, who are more willing to criticize favorites than many observers believe; the extra-musical duties of the various bandmembers; and the main benefits of recording and releasing a new CD.

Hint: They’re not financial.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Laura [Cohen, Sound Tribe Sector 9’s publicist] tells me you’ve got a babysitter for the day.

David Phipps: Just our good friend Anna, who’s in town for the day. We tried to time it so she’d be home at the time of the interview.

WW: And how old is the reason for the babysitter?

DP: She’s about six and a half months old.

WW: A pretty new addition to the family. What’s her name? And can you brag on her for a couple of minutes?

DP: Ayanna Edin Phipps. She’s healthy, happy: little Roo, we call her. She’s the best baby ever.

WW: Sounds wonderful. Is she sleeping through the night?

DP: She’s sleeping through the night – although sometimes not. She wakes up around six for sure, but we can usually get her to go back to sleep and she’ll sleep until eleven or noon sometimes. I just try to get a little work done while she’s in and out. She’s getting a little older now, and when she was in the newborn phase, she would just eat and sleep, and I could do whatever, and I’d lay her down and she’d just lay there, or play with her toys. But she’s just about ready to crawl. So the newborn comatose baby phase is over. She sleeps through the night, but not very much during the day. Unless we go for a stroll, which we do often. We have a little small apartment here in San Francisco without a yard or anything. So we try to go for strolls quite a bit in this little park around the corner.

WW: Does she react to your music? And if so, what’s her reaction?

DP: I guess so. She reacts to pretty much everything. But she’s already seen a bunch of shows. She came out for the last time we were in Colorado and did five shows at the Boulder Theater. She had her own little backstage there. She was only about three months old then, and those were her first big shows. And she’s since been to our festival that we did in North Carolina and out to see family in Reno and Florida. She’s seen more of the world than I had in the first ten years of my life.

WW: It sounds like she’s in for a very exciting life.

DP: Yeah. It’s good stuff.

WW: What’s your background? Where are you from originally?

DP: My family’s from Florida, north Florida. I grew up there, and a couple years in Louisiana. And when I was ten years old, I moved to Japan. My parents are missionaries there. They actually still live there, but they’re coming home for a leave of absence to take care of my grandmother. I lived there until I graduated from high school at eighteen, so I lived there for eight years. And then I came back to the States and went to Georgia Tech, which was close enough to my family and the South, but big city enough for somebody who’d lived the last eight years in Japan. I wanted to stay in an urban kind of place. And I ended up going in and out of Georgia Tech for four or five years before meeting the guys at a benefit event for the local day-care center, but also an excuse to have a huge keg party with several bands. We just met there and started playing together, and came up from a local bar to national acclaim [laughs].

WW: I’m told you guys had a mutual friend connection, and at that first show, you’d arranged to come up during a certain song, and you came up early.

DP: I did. I kind of bum-rushed the stage. I was moved by the whole band thing. It wasn’t probably until a month after that I realized you could be in a band and go play for money in bars. This trumpet player, Gary Gazaway, hired us after this mutual friend booked us at his little bar in Panama City or Pensacola – I can’t remember. One of those “P” beach towns. He actually took us in this fifteen-passenger van on a couple of weeks’ worth of shows. That was one of the first times I stopped going to class. And he kind of introduced us to the whole process of booking a show and playing it and then in some form or fashion either getting free food or beer or money or gas money out of the whole experience. That was brand new to me, even at that point. So I, in my kind of innocent way, felt like it was the time to play piano with those guys, and they went along with it, thank goodness.

WW: When did you first start playing keyboards and piano?

DP: I guess four years old? My parents being the minister of music, or the music side of the church thing, everyone in my family was brought up playing instruments and singing. We all took piano lessons as soon as we could reach the pedals.

WW: How many siblings do you have?

DP: I have one brother and a bunch of cousins.

WW: So there was a lot of music in whatever house you were in – not just listening but performing?

DP: Yeah. As we got older, my brother and my cousins, it wasn’t as cool to do the family singalongs. We all played guitars. But for a good stretch there, that was what we did. When we turned to teenagers, we kind of turned our noses up to family traditions. But to this day, there’s the little Christmas carol singalong or whatever. And my mom plays the piano and my dad sings in the church, so they were always practicing their hymns or whatever. So piano lessons, piano practice… I can remember in the first grade, we were all doing the classical piano routine, and this one kid did a jazz thing. And that really started splitting my piano time into learning what I needed to for the next lesson and kind of doing my own thing.

WW: What age were you when you started splitting off into different directions?

DP: By the first grade. By the third grade, I’d written some songs and that kind of thing. Nothing prolific as thirteen year old Mozart by any means, but I thought it was neat that I didn’t have to read the music. Because my mom comes from the school where she reads sheet music like she’s reading a book. It’s an amazing talent, a totally different skill that you need to play in a band that specializes in improvised music.

WW: Is she someone who doesn’t like to deviate from the music?

DP: Actually, no. It’s the old Southern embellish the hymn type of accompaniment. So you could definitely say that my first understanding of playing more than is on the page did come from my mom’s piano playing.

WW: You mentioned that during your teenage years, you thought that the family singalongs were uncool. But I imagine after getting older, you appreciate that in ways that perhaps you didn’t back then.

DP: For sure. I’d hope that as my daughter gets older, that we’re singing along together [laughs].

WW: You mentioned those first shows, where you were surprised that you could get something from them aside from the satisfaction of playing them. But didn’t you guys go pretty quickly from playing a few shows to playing a gazillion shows?

DP: Yeah, somewhat, because we loved it. And also, at that point, we’d all moved into what was actually an abandoned recording studio. The bass player was in one vocal booth with his bedroom, and the other vocal booth was the guitar player’s bedroom, and then there was a loft above that this other guy who carried gear around us for years and years, he lived up there. We had to come up with $600 every month. We played shows to make that happen first in the Georgia area, and then going back to the Mississippi and Alabama venues that Gary Gazaway, Mr. El Buho, introduced us to. And we got some really good advice along the way, especially from the Georgia Theatre. A lot of bands from Athens or Atlanta, they’ll play the Georgia Theatre every week if they can. And he told us to play it once a month at most and you’ll actually seem bigger than a local band if you limit your plays. That was really good advice. We were able to not just get swallowed up by the music scene. And by that time, we’d met Jeffree who’d also toured on the road with Leftover Salmon for a couple of years, and he was our guide through those early years. Most of us weren’t even old enough to rent a van or a car. It was just kind of trial by fire, but getting the rent paid and really working the same twenty songs. It’s so funny, because nowadays we’re really critical of set-list diversity, but for the first couple of years of Sector 9, it was the same twenty songs for three hours. It was different every time, but they were the same songs.

WW: Did you write set lists back then?

DP: No, we just sort of went through our repertoire. It was very loose improv – much more so than today. Twenty-five, thirty minute versions of songs aren’t unheard of, but harder to come about when we have so many really good songs to play that aren’t so far out on a limb.

WW: So, in a sense, what those long songs did, beyond giving you a chance to improvise, is stretch out your best material so you didn’t have to play a song that wasn’t first rate?

DP: Sure. And get our grounding about what a relationship with an audience can be for live music. That the audience can participate in how something comes across. If the kids are liking it, why stop? And so we had really understanding fans and listeners and we were able to get our chops together and learn how to build tension and release with in an audience in our style without being derivative of anything else in the scene.

WW: Did the communication skills that allowed you guys to know when to keep going or when to pull back: Were they there from the beginning? Or did they have to develop?

DP: I think from the beginning we’ve all had, without sounding too corny, some kind of psychic connection or a telepathic connection. For whatever reason, we’re really close as people and friends and family and brothers. Music is just a really heightened way of expressing that connection that we share. We feel like we’re married to each other. We’re in a lifetime relationship, something more than a band. I think people might feel that from us, and that has a positive vibe.

WW: Earlier today, I talked with Zach, and he marveled that this was the longest relationship he’s ever had. Is it more complicated because you’re married to four other people, in a sense? Or is it more similar to another kind of a relationship, a family relationship?

DP: It’s probably more compromised, but there’s five of us, with five individual lives and different priorities. But we all take this as our beyond fulltime job, and we’re really involved in every decision and every aspect of our business. We just enjoy being on the same page, or trying to be on the same page. We all have cycles of stepping out for a minute or taking time when needed. But this is very much our thing, a thing in our lives that we take pride in.

WW: You mentioned the scene earlier, and that may just refer to other bands playing in a whole variety of styles. But do you think of yourself as part of a scene? Or do you think of yourselves as being apart from the other scenes out there?

DP: I definitely think we’re a part of many scenes, and I’m proud to be part of many different groups of people who appreciate live music. I think the easiest association, just by where we’ve played and who we’ve played for, is with the jam band scene, which is really not much more than a group of really dedicated music fans. If you leave styles and fashions aside and get down to the core of it, what’s called the jam-band scene, I feel, are people who are into a lot of different kinds of music and actively go out and see music and support music from closer than the armchair. Because if you listen to us and then, say, Yonder Mountain, where one’s a bluegrass band and one has computers on stage, there’s really not much in common. So I think it’s more people who like to see musicians performing live, taking chances and hopefully doing something that they haven’t heard on any of the studio albums or collections of live recordings or what have you. I will say that the jam band scene is very critical of the music. They’re not afraid to give open criticism whether it’s on the Internet or face to face.

WW: So you’ll have somebody who’s in every respect a fan and come up to you after a show and say, “That didn’t meet your standards”?

DP: Sure. Well, maybe not face to face. That’s a ballsy kid, for sure. [Laughs.] And I’m only involved so much because I do most of the Internet and website stuff for the band, being a homegrown and self-employed type of thing. I do have to maintain, and so every once in a while, I happen to read a review or what-not in the process. And sometimes it’s kind of like your own dirty laundry. It kind of smells good. [Laughs.] I don’t know what I’m trying to say. But it’s actually helpful to read that a number of people are waiting for this song that we haven’t played in five years or what have you. It does kind of bite a little bit to read a subpar review, but it only pushes us.

WW: It sounds like, coming from the perspective of someone who’s a real fan of what you do, that it feels more like constructive criticism.

DP: For sure. I’m flattered that someone would be paying that much attention to our music that this was wrong, or we played this song three out of four nights. We’re not necessarily always of that mentality. We just want to play what we want to play, what we’re feeling that night, and sometimes don’t consider that maybe ten people have seen the last four nights in a row and they want to see different songs every night. We try to play to everybody, but sometimes it’s hard.

WW: In addition to doing the website, you’re doing the download site as well, right?

DP: Right. Actually, our good friend Jimmy in Santa Cruz built the download site. We just redeployed it. It’s pretty similar on the outside, but on the inside, there are a lot of changes, to CSS dynamic blah-blah-blah. CSS-driven dynamic rapidly deployed music download site. We did a lot of hierarchical and admin changes that aren’t apparent from the front. But yes, the music download site is kind of homebrewed. We’re the only client that Jimmy has. And we just launched a new STS9 store, where we brought our ticketing and merchandise fully in house and are taking orders and shipping out totally within our own organization. So all of our online services are as close to home as you can get, which helps us out as independent artists to be able to reclaim as much money from our art as we can. As well as have a real finger on the pulse of our customer service and our fan base’s needs, so if something slips through the cracks, we have the full opportunity to remedy the situation – send out extra goods or coupons or whatever. Just really stay in touch with our fan base and take care of them, because they really take care of us.

WW: Were there times when you weren’t totally in control of those aspects and you’d hear of problems and wish you’d been able to handle them personally?

DP: Sure. I’m not by any means badmouthing or taking away from companies that have supplied our services for many years. There’s always going to be customer service problems that could be handled better. We’ve already had our share in just a week. Something needs to be changed on the order or whatever. But we just feel like the opportunities are bigger for us to combine all of our services when it is under our control. And it’s a simple thing, but now on our website, you can order a t-shirt and a ticket at the same time. There’s not any other service besides Music today that can do that, so we’re kind of proud of ourselves [laughs].

WW: It sounds like your approach to the non-musical side of things mirrors your approach to the music – that you like to have control over that as well. Is that fair to say?

DP: Yeah, for sure. What Behind the Music episode has ever ended good? We’ve yet to see many people really succeed in the old paradigm and come out with the artistic integrity or the rewards for their efforts intact when it’s all said and done. We’re just careful, because we want this to last as long as it can, that it’s not taken over by management or a label and is taken down a path that’s hard to come back from. And I guess we feel like we have the best ideas about what to do next. And it’s worked pretty good so far. We might have been able to take more advantage of opportunities. But we feel like it’s more important to remain independent.

WW: Some musicians resent the time they have to be away from the music to do these other things. Are you able to compartmentalize in a sense – to get the most out of the experience when you’re working on the music, but not feel bad when you’re having to handle business things?

DP: I think so. We have a calendar online. Everything’s kind of blocked off and scheduled on a day to day basis. It’s gotten even more so with Ayanna’s doctor’s appointments and different things we’re involved in. So we’re all just excited to come to work every day and work until it’s done, and make time for that, and don’t have anything else to do. Our rehearsal space, also, we can’t play until after five. So that gives everyone in their own particular division of operations to get some stuff done during the day. I actually watch Ayanna while Valerie, my wife, is at work. And then she comes home and I’ll pass her off, and then I’ll stay up until two or three in the morning, working. That’s how it is [laughs].

WW: You mentioned the divisions. What’s everyone in charge of?

DP: Zach, being a fashionista, runs the merch and merch design. He handles sourcing, new designs, picking what kind and cut of t-shirt or whatever. I think he’s done everything from wrist bands to CD cases to messenger bags. He runs all of the merch design. Hunter Brown is kind of the artiste of the group. He heads up not only graphic design, and making sure all of our graphics as well as music has integrity. He’s by far the most creative music producer within the group. Murphy, up until about a year ago, was really, really involved in the touring, touring logistics and booking, and so has had a really big part of the way we make our way across the country a couple of times a year, and still plays an active role in kind of being the band’s voice and devil’s advocate with maybe overambitious touring plans our agent proposes. And he’s kind of the voice of the band everywhere from the stage to interviews to other places. He’s kind of our mouthpiece. And Jeffree is our H&R department. He brings people on and lets them go gently.

WW: That’s a tough job.

DP: He’s got the personality to do that. And he also does a really good job keeping a handle on our crew and our crew relations. As you can imagine, having ten to twelve people on the road, it’s kind of like summer camp, and there will be feuds and pranks and fun times, and sometimes it takes mediating to get through the week. Jeffree’s really good at that.

WW: In speaking with Zach earlier today, he said that despite you guys having had many recordings prior to Artifact, that he looks at Artifact as your first album. Do you see it that way, in that it’s a step into a different realm?

DP: I think it’s the first album that we probably put due time into – that we actually let go when we were ready to let go of it. That was after delaying it maybe a year, a year and a half after it was supposed to come out, and pulled out of the record label that we almost signed to, and that was going to release it. We delayed it and delayed it and kept working on it until it was what we wanted it to be, and only then did it come out. So this is the first one that we really felt, as a group, “This is done.” Our first album was done in three days as kind of a demo disc. Offered Schematics was really creative. We recorded all in analog at this old studio with all this vintage gear, with tape loops and actually splicing tape and going into cardboard boxes. We learned a lot, but when we got into something like that, we were pretty young and inexperienced to pull it off to completion. But it is out there. It’s just to be remixed, in my opinion. Or just remastered, from the original analog masters. We were a bunch of twenty year olds recording to two inch. We didn’t really know what we were doing [laughs]. And everything else was more, let’s get something out there that’s live, some live recordings to tour on. We need a new CD on the merch booth because it’s been a couple of years. Those kinds of things. We’re glad to put it out there, put out some live music, good quality, but it’s nothing like the group really getting behind an art project or an album like we are now.

WW: You’ve got kind of a push-pull with the band in the sense that onstage, spontaneity is one of the prime draws, but when you get into the studio, that first-take, this-is-what-we-did-so-let’s-leave-it-that-way kind of approach, you might not be taking full advantage of the studio.

DP: Right. We’re constantly learning. In the past few years, we have a studio space that’s somewhat of a professional recording space, and a professional recording rig. Of course, we could always do better. But we’re all learning to be better engineers, so the spontaneity you’re speaking of is getting better captured in the recordings we’re making ourselves. Again in our independent vibe, we’ve learned that rather than spending $10,000 or $20,000 in recording time at a studio, we bought the equipment ourselves and learned to run it ourselves so we can record any day we want to and not be on the clock. And that has regained a lot of spontaneity in our recording, and just what we’re able to do as a band. Not to say that we haven’t blown a lot of money…

WW: Especially with all those computers. I imagine there were some you purchased and thought they’d be just what you needed, and then it didn’t quite work out that way. Is that true?

DP: Right, right. For sure. I’ve had a couple of computers take dives on stage or whatever. It seems like every couple of years, we’re buying new computers. The studio rig is pretty stable, though. Pro Tools, once you make the step to the Pro rig, they kind of run more like a piece of hardware than a computer. They just do what they do.

WW: What happened when the computer took a dive on stage?

DP: It was, I guess, New Year’s, and at the bigger shows, they put me on these risers, and they’re sometimes kind of wobbly, and my computer wasn’t secured, and in the heat of passion, it toppled off. It hit the edge and toppled further off the stage. It was a good way to get a new computer.

WW: What did you do?

DP: I just kind of kept going. There’s nothing you can do.

WW: It’s not a matter of, “We have to reboot. Everyone has to be quiet for the next twenty minutes”?

DP: We’ve gotten really good at dealing with that kind of thing. It’s a given that somebody’s computer is going to do something at any show. We’re all prepared to either move on to the next song or improv just long enough for a reboot or whatever. It’s just part of our show.

WW: I understand you’ve been recording a whole bunch of new material. Is there a common theme to the material that hasn’t been heard yet? Or is it all over the place?

DP: It’s definitely all over the place, but it seems like there are several core themes that are emerging, and we’ve kind of taken a big pile of fifty to sixty songs and been able to group those into kind of themes. One of them being maybe more modern kind of dance anthem, roller rink vibe. And we’ve recorded a group of songs with old Strats and acoustic pianos and Rhodes, and it harks back to an older funk kind of fool – a sort of authentic instrumentation of the funk era. And we also recorded a bunch of kind of melodramatic, cinematic themes for a soundtrack we were working on. So it’s a wide spectrum of how to release all of that. Kind of each as its own side project of STS9 or creating kind of pseudo artists with each group, or picking the best of each group and just making a really diverse album that would speak to a lot of interests. That’s probably what we’re leaning toward now, but it’s a lot of different music to get our heads around.

WW: Do you have a sense as to when you want the next album to be available?

DP: When it’s done. We always get a lot of advice from industry experts, and when it’s the best time to release something, and our booking agent has ideas about when is the best time to put something out. But with this much work put into it, we’re not going to release anything until its ready.

WW: That sounds like a lesson you learned on Artifact – that by waiting until you were all happy, there were no regrets afterward.

DP: Sure. Because honestly, what is it worth? We’re not making money off of the sale of the record. In this day and age, an artist, even of our success, can only hope to recoup the money they put into the album. That’s the first hope.

WW: That’s a sad statement in many respects.

DP: It is. But what’s the release of an album do for us? It gives us something to talk about. It gives Laura something to talk to people like you about. And it hopefully gets more people coming out to the shows. If the album is good enough that a hundred more people are coming out to see us next year, they just spent $40 on us, not $15. That’s what we’re hoping for as our band: That the music is good enough that people are going to join the community.

WW: And I’m sure it’s energizing for you guys as well to be creating new things, instead of just constantly refashioning and recycle your previous material.

DP: Sure. Economically, I think there’s more from us to gain from having a true fan who’s going to come to the show and maybe buy some live downloads. Maybe they’ll get into the whole live download collecting thing. And now they’re buying that same song maybe ten times over again in different performances and different shows. That fan is worth more to us and worth more to the community than selling… Well, maybe selling a million albums wouldn’t be that bad. [Laughs.] We haven’t experienced that. We try not to get our hopes up. Like, we’re having a great year. What do you think we’ll sell? A 100,000 albums? Good luck. We have to be conservatively smart about our expectations and just treat it for what it is, and what we hope it to be, which is a long-lasting piece of art that stands up to a piece of art and stands up to the test of time. Something that’s hopefully still here after we’re gone.

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