STS9’s Zach Velmer on fan service and his band’s sold-out three-night stand at Belly Up
IF YOU GO …
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Friday, March 22; Saturday, March 23, 9:30 p.m.; & Sunday, March 24, 9 p.m.
Tickets: Sold out
More info: bellyupaspen.com
What: STS9 x Skye Gallery
Where: Skye Gallery
When: Friday, March 22 through Sunday, March 31; pre-parties March 22 and 23, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
More info: skyegalleryaspen.com
Their Red Rocks shows are the stuff of legend, their New Year’s Eve runs in Denver draw fans from around the country and their annual Aspen stand is a bucket list item for every hardcore follower. The experimental jamtronica band formerly known as Sound Tribe Sector 9 — it’s STS9 these days — may be from Atlanta, but Colorado is ground zero for their tribe. A quick look at their stats on streaming services confirms that Colorado is the epicenter of STS9 fandom.
“It’s such an honor to have that kind of loyalty and consistency when we go to Colorado,” drummer Zach Velmer said in a recent phone interview from home in Santa Cruz.
The band’s three Belly Up Aspen shows — March 22 through 24 — have been sold out for months and are among the major musical events in ski country this winter.
The band is also setting up shop at Skye Gallery downtown with a pop-up art show featuring four original pieces of work by STS9. They’re based on the cosmic symbols that have long filled STS9’s album covers, T-shirts and multimedia concerts. The band and gallerist Skye Weinglass are hosting pre-parties at the gallery before each of the weekend’s shows.
“The last time we were there, Skye had a show and we were like, ‘Why don’t we just do something here?’” Velmer said. “It’s exciting for us, and for Aspen, and it’s a different experience for the fans.”
The new visual artwork comes along with a massive amount of recent studio work for STS9. Velmer teased: “2019 is going to be a very creative sharing year on many platforms.”
The band meticulously plans out set lists, mapping overall themes and minute details down to small nuggets to treat superfans, while always leaving open spaces for improvisation and surprise.
“There’s a magic that happens when we’re playing in the studio and rehearsing and there is a whole new energy when we are onstage in front of people,” Velmer said. “It multiplies. … We’re not necessarily making the music. We’re just letting it come through us.”
STS9 fans follow and study the band’s intricate, cross-genre performances with scholarly dedication, tracking and cataloguing set lists with a devotion reserved for only a handful of artists in the post-Dead era.
Velmer and his band mates — over the past two decades — have responded with thoughtful fan service, packing sets with brain candy for their hardcore fan base.
“We want our fans to have a special and unique experience,” Velmer said. “We look at sets, look at what we played last time — there is so much energy and thought that goes into creating these experiences for our fans.”
Knowing that fans are paying such close attention, of course, poses a challenge to STS9 to reinvent the wheel every night. But they try to challenge the fans as well, messing with them and pushing their boundaries.
“It’s a symbiotic experience for the fans and the artists — it’s cool and it’s very real time,” he said. “We can see it in the crowd — we can see people losing their s— and freaking out like, ‘Oh my god, this is what we’re doing?’”
At their most recent show, in Chicago, for example, the band dusted off its early rarity “Common Objects Strangely Placed” and mashed it up with the more well-know “GLOgli” from 2005.
“You could tell people recognized it, but they couldn’t put their finger on it,” Velmer said. “And then the message boards and the social media blew up because of it.”
Velmer was chatting recently with a fan on social media about some of the buried sonic treasures from STS9’s New Year’s Eve show at the Fillmore in Denver. The set included a 19-minute section where the bandmembers played melodies from six STS9 songs, mashed them up and layered them, rewarding the repeat listens and attentive ears of their most devout listeners. They’re planning some similar surprises for Aspen.
“It’s like a map and a puzzle,” Velmer said. “The band is having so much fun right now that it’s silly. … When you really start digging and diving into the magic of that, you see these things blossom that you didn’t even know were there.”
Most winters in recent years, STS9 has done a run of Belly Up shows — rare small club gigs for a band that fills large theaters and headlines to the largest of festival crowds.
“The crowd is closer to you than any other venue, so there is this primal rawness, this in-your-face thing,” Velmer said of the intimacy at Belly Up. “I look down and literally 3 feet away from me is a person staring at me.”
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