Ben was a tall, lanky fellow, with blonde hair, blue eyes, and had a very awkward but comfortable way about him. To this day I can’t tell you what our first interaction was because it’s always felt like we’ve always been best friends. There wasn’t ever one day where it hasn’t felt that way. His full name is Ben Churchill (actually a distant relative of Winston Churchill – his great, great, great, great, great nephew I believe is what he’s told me). Ben’s family always interested me, not because of the Winston Churchill thing (although that is very cool) – his family always seemed to give off this vibe.
To explain this existential “vibe” I am referring to, I must first explain the Churchill Christmas Party (patent pending). This night of festivities is probably my favorite time of the year, besides actual Christmas day. They invite close friends and family to come to their house, and celebrate the holidays, spread holiday joy and christmas spirit. This party has been happening for generations. Generations of good times. And good vibes. It’s almost as if the Churchills have perfected good vibes. Or is it simply that is something that is encoded into their genes. The Churchill Christmas Party (patent pending), is thrown every year by Eric Churchill (although the party’s history does date back to Ginny’s side of the family, Ben’s mother and Eric’s wife and my second mother).
It is also at one of these Christmas Parties where I met Crawford. Crawford is now a ex-manager of STS-9. He handled the business side of things for the group. There were a lot of questions that I had about the artistic processes and overall mission of the group. Unfortunately, he felt uncomfortable and awkward answering those types of questions, but was open to responding about where he saw the group going. Ultimately, the creative differences between manager and artist clashed (as they typically do in the music industry) and they parted ways with each other.
The more pressing reason as to why I pursued this particular music group was because from the first time I had heard about their existence from Crawford Byers, previous manager of STS9, I had become entranced with their music. And it wasn’t in the typical way of it “tugged at my heartstrings,” “pumped me up,” or even that it made me feel good – it was more that it made me wonder. The music and sounds they create force your mind to wander. Wander far away from the drama of the current world, and get to leave that for a second to experience your own inner peace. To be able to elicit this sort of reaction out of an audience is an amazing feat, one that should be appreciated far more than it already is.
Crawford, while he did technically only work on the business side of the coin, did not give off the impression of a typical businessman. When I first met him, he struck me as this sort of odd dude with longer, messy hair – sort of the “estranged uncle” look. The type of guy who looks like he started a band in his garage instead of managing one. After talking to him, although, it was clear his place amongst the public sphere was far more unique.
Crawford grew up with a passion for all types of music, but had no way of truly expressing that. He said that his greatest gift was actually his greatest curse – his love of music with no musical talent. Of the handful of times that we have talked about his work with music – he often reflects on his younger years of listening to music. The differences in sounds of the music of the past and music today, he says, is actually no different at all. After all, music is comprised of the same notes – so the sounds you hear in songs are all basically the same (percussion, drums, vocals, bass, guitar, keyboard/piano) – it’s just different variation of everything. However, what made STS9 especially unique for Crawford was that the music they were making was using all of these same instruments that often reproduce similar sounding music and notes. When they were put in the hands of Hunter Brown (guitar/midi-keyboard), Alana Rocklin (bass guitar), Jeffree Lemer (percussion/handsonic), David Phipps (keyboards), Zach Velmer (drums), and using the STS9 magic they were able to create a whole different sound. They were able to create sounds so drastically different and creative using a mix of the “normal” musical instruments we think about and modern music technology. The sounds they make are truly out of this world. They are re-defining what music is. Music necessarily doesn’t have to come from the combination of the same instruments we are used to seeing – we know live in an age of ever-improving technology, which should mean that the things we can now do with music are endless. STS9 is beginning that musical revolution into a more technical artist group because the possibilities are endless.
STS-9, which actually stands for Sound Tribe Sector 9, is an experimental electronic band who has centered its focus on heavy psychedelic, instrumental and electronic funk music. The best way to truly understand how their music sounds like is to just actually listen to it because it’s hard to describe on paper. But it basically transports you into space. Not exactly outer-space but a different space. A space that you can construct. The way the group has perfected its own sound into a electro-techno concoction of sounds. (Disclaimer: the genre that wikipedia has “claimed” STS9 to be in is “Livetronica.*”)
How I was turned on to the group is actually quite interesting. I first heard of them way back when I was a freshman in highschool. Me and Ben were in my basement, hanging out, laughing, probably talking about girls or something, I don’t know what we did back then. Music was playing in the background. The playlist was on shuffle, it was all normal sounding pop-culture music, with some rap songs making their way in, and some traditional EDM songs as well. Then this sound, not a song, not music, a sound projecting out from the speaker and suddenly we both stopped talking. It was immediate. It was like we had been awaken. It was STS9.
We both acknowledged how weird the “song” was, but back then I was too young to fully grasp what I was listening to. The way music is often portrayed to us, an artist singing about something – tends to evoke certain images in our minds, it begins to paint a picture, but that picture is the artists’ picture (not your own). What STS9 is able to do, because a lot of their “songs” are rid of vocals, is allow you to construct your own image in your head. They’ve picked the paints out for you, all you need to do is paint.
STS-9 has been around since 1998 (the year I was born if you were wondering), and has generally for the most part stuck to their original mission and goal of the group. Obviously, when you create a group that produces a form of art – you must first figure out what it is you want to get out of it. What you want your mark to be. What people will listen to. What they will use to escape. To forget about the world they live in, and leave it momentarily and be in the artist’s world. Be connected with their spirit. Their soul. Their energy. What they want people to feel when they listen to their music is a sense of release from the toxic world we live in today, and create a new reality for yourself. One that can temporarily improve your standard of living, enough so that you aren’t focused on the poisonous world around you. Their music isn’t like the typical “Pop/EDM chill vibes” sort of music that relaxes you automatically, but rather is more of an an escape from the world. It gives you a chance to reconstruct reality and gives you a new sense of consciousness and understanding of the world. No joke – if you don’t believe me listen to their latest album “The Universe Inside” (2016).
STS9 takes full advantage of the ever-expanding opportunities techno folk music has to offer and effectively produces music that affects people on 2 rudimentary levels. The one being on an emotional level, where they genuinely feel something. And the second being on the spiritual level where your spirit becomes more connected to the physical world. Obviously, I was way more interested in learning how they went about achieving the effect of the second level, but Crawford felt uncomfortable talking about the artists’ work without their consent – as it is really their kind of intellectual property. Ever since detaching from the group – this is how Crawford has felt.
The “breakup” of STS9 was extremely difficult for Crawford because he felt that his true voice wasn’t being heard, and that if everyone (and he nobly took blame as well) hadn’t been stubborn in their thinking then maybe they could have found a middle ground. Then, he told me, there could have been something truly beautiful.
The time they were coming up was during my highschool days, so I would see Crawford every year and ask how they were doing. He would simply respond with, “the music world is ready for us.” The world was ready for someone like STS9 to emerge, the musical ecology was ideal, but no one knew where to look. Around the time they started to be recognized was when they moved out to Denver, Colorado. This is the ideal place for STS9 to exist. The cultural shift occurring in Denver perfectly match the positive vibes that STS9 is attempting to produce through their music. Around this time as well is when Crawford’s relationship with STS9 began to waver. I have been told very little about the real reason as to why STS9 and Crawford disagreed. It seems like he is still friendly with the members and is rooting for their success, so he doesn’t want to jeopardize that potential future success in any way. However, the problem that started the rift was the question of whether to produce songs that tapered towards the popular sounds in pop-culture.
Essentially, going against the very foundations that they had in mind when they started the group. Crawford, obviously being on the business side of the group interestingly was trying to combat the band’s push towards a more “popular” type of music so that they could gain recognition. They pushed Crawford to try and make the group seem like a more popular type of band to attract more fans, but after a while of trying to do this (putting out ad campaigns, teasing new releases, getting popular venues), he couldn’t handle it anymore. “I had become the manager that I would always see and laugh at,” he was telling me, “man, those guys are just drones, day in day out all work no fun…stop for a second and enjoy life – I bet most managers don’t even know half the songs that their client has made.” This is the hardest part of leaving STS9 for Crawford. He doesn’t get to sit around with those guys, and just watch them create beauty, he says. He will always cherish the days he worked with STS9 as those were some of his better days, reminding him of youth and being free, not so caught up in the world we live in today. Which was their whole mission with their music – to break away from the idea that everyone has to have a schedule, a plan of what they are doing, when they are doing, and how. Crawford sums it up nicely, “there is no more real spontaneity anymore – original creation is dying out.” The early days of STS9 gave Crawford hope that there is a musical renaissance coming. One that doesn’t solely base what they produce off of profit snatching, but a revolution against the capitalist tendencies. A movement of artists that are independent of record labels and things like that, so that they can produce the music they want people to hear NOT so that they can make the most money possible. This was the case with STS9 – they were independent and can do what they want; however, independently chose to migrate towards more popular culture because that’s where the profits were.
There are other Crawford-minded people out there in the world that are really striving to give the power back to the artist. There have been big, recent changes in the music world that could make big record labels a thing of the past. Spotify recently implemented a new feature where artists can bypass the 3rd party upload. Basically, what this means is they don’t need representation to post music onto spotify anymore, so it has become a lot like Soundcloud in that sense. This is big because it could destroy record labels, which are to blame for artists throwing creativity and originality to the wind, sell their soul, and try to do anything for a buck. Now, it gives power back to the artist. Allowing them to create on their own, and break from the norms of the music industry. The world is ready for more STS9’s and independent artists to show us real, original music. We can’t keep listening to the same old shit.