An out-of-body view of STS9's August 2022 concert at the Quarry on the campus of UC Santa Cruz.
(Via buttercreations)
City Life

After playing all over the country, STS9 comes back to new home venue in the Quarry

On Friday and Saturday, Sound Tribe Sector 9 — aka STS9 — will bring its expansive, hypnotic, galactically adventurous sound to the Quarry Amphitheater on the campus of UC Santa Cruz. The two-date appearance marks a follow-up to the band’s first gigs at the Quarry almost exactly a year ago.

For more than 20 years, the five-piece band Sound Tribe Sector 9 has been performing its distinctly atmospheric music in some of the most picturesque atmospheres in the country. That includes the famously breathtaking Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, where the band played back-to-back shows less than two weeks ago.

Still, if you wanted to point to the quintessential STS9 venue, that one place above all others where the band’s expansive, hypnotic, galactically adventurous sound is most at home, then you have to land at the Quarry Amphitheater on the campus of UC Santa Cruz.

Why? Well, first because, much like Red Rocks and other outdoor venues in natural settings, the dramatic redwood-shrouded Quarry fits hand-in-glove with STS9’s soaring, improv-heavy, often psychedelic sound, allowing the listener to follow into the soundscape where the band leads.

And, second? It’s home.

Sound Tribe originally came together in Georgia in the 1990s. But around 2000, the band members moved en masse to Santa Cruz County, and they’ve made it their home ever since.

STS9 at the Quarry isn’t merely a thought experiment. It’s happened before, and it’s happening again. For two nights, Friday and Saturday, the band will bring its full show to the Quarry. The two-date appearance marks a follow-up to the band’s first gigs at the Quarry almost exactly a year ago.

“Oh, it’s pretty special,” STS9’s Zach Velmer said of the group’s upcoming shows. “Last year was a kind of proof of concept that this could really work. And we’re incredibly grateful and excited to be doing it again.”

And, added STS9 percussionist Jeffree Lerner, it was also the people element that made the Quarry shows stand out among the band’s dates last year: “You can have the greatest-looking lights and the best venue and all those things, but it was the people of Santa Cruz and their energy and the vibe that really put it over the top.”

Along with shows by indie pop star Carla Morrison, the STS9 shows in 2022 marked the beginning of a new era in the history of the Quarry, a traditional gathering place and performance venue on campus going back decades that only in recent years has been upgraded to meet the demands of contemporary live touring acts.

Last August’s shows attracted capacity crowds to the 2,700-seat amphitheater, which feels remote though it is only steps away from the Bay Tree bookstore and the de facto center of campus. With its explosive light show, STS9 invited its audience to take in the spectacular surroundings and the openness of the space gave the band and the audience room to experience the music’s fullness.

Sound Tribe Sector 9's light show made the Quarry a star attraction at its 2022 concert.
(Via Butter Creations)

“With our lighting engineer and with the folks at UC Santa Cruz,” said Velmer, “we definitely put some energy into making it feel a certain way up there, too. So it wasn’t just that everything was focused in on the stage. We backlit the trees. When you walked in, it felt a certain way. We wanted to accentuate, obviously, where we were.”

Velmer and Lerner play alongside guitarist/keyboardist Hunter Brown, keyboardist David Phipps and bassist Alana Rocklin to make up STS9. Four of the five members still make Santa Cruz County their home. Rocklin, the only exception, lost her home in the 2020 CZU fires. She now lives in Colorado.

From their original base in Atlanta, the members of the band came to Santa Cruz one by one. Velmer said he first came to Santa Cruz while still a teenager in a “spirit quest” to discover the Western U.S. “No one had cellphones back then, so I literally had a schedule where I called my parents to check in on payphones,” he said. “And I was supposed to be in the Santa Cruz area for just a few days. And I ended up staying for two weeks — I mean, it was an unbelievable place — and I remember [thinking to myself], I just have to live where the mountains meet the sea.”

It was a few years later, after the band was formed, that the idea of relocating from Atlanta to Santa Cruz began to spread and ripen in the band members’ minds. “It just kind of manifested,” said Velmer, “and we all made the whole journey, which was amazing. I mean, it was a crew. Not only was it the band, but it was some of the band’s best friends, girlfriends, dogs. Everybody. We just made a trek.”

Jeffree Lerner added that it was not only a groovy environment and beautiful scenery that attracted the band to lay down roots in Santa Cruz. It was a move to be heard as musicians as well.

“The other part of what attracted us here is the openness to our music,” said Lerner. “At that time in our career, we were trying to expand our audience in different parts of the country. And from the first High Sierra Festivals to our first Fillmore shows [in San Francisco] to Palookaville [a 1990s music club in Santa Cruz], there was this community of fans [throughout Northern California] that made us feel at home as well. My memory is that we didn’t necessarily plan on staying for 23 years. Our mission as a band was, ‘All right, let’s go live on the West Coast for a year or two, get some fans.’ We kinda planned on bouncing around the country a little bit to spread our music far and wide. But we got stuck here, in the best way.”

The members of the Santa Cruz band Sound Tribe Sector 9 outside Seabright's Day's Market in spacesuits
The members of the Santa Cruz band Sound Tribe Sector 9 hanging out at their favorite Seabright market, in spacesuits, as people do.
(Via TMWRK Management)

STS9 not only makes its home base in Santa Cruz, the band draws from it for inspiration as well. With a recording studio in town, the members of Sound Tribe will land in Santa Cruz after an often hectic touring schedule for some time to refill their creative reservoir. “It’s a pretty infinite vessel of beauty and inspiration for us,” said Velmer of Santa Cruz.

Last August, at the STS9 shows at the Quarry, I chatted with some ticket holders as we all made our way from the parking area to the venue itself. It was an enchanting, cool, uncharacteristically fog-free summer evening. The folks I walked with, and others I talked to later, were all from somewhere else, from the greater Bay Area, Southern California or beyond. They were here not only to experience STS9, but to get a dose of Santa Cruz from its loveliest scenic spots at the university.

“If you look at the data from last year,” said Velmer, “and the ZIP codes from where people were coming from, a lot of folks came from other places to experience Santa Cruz as well.”

“That’s a really cool thing that’s an added extra to all this,” said Lerner. “We have these fans coming from all over the country. And we’re kind of bringing them into our home, and showing them a deeper look into the inspiration that Santa Cruz and the redwoods and the ocean provide in our music. It’s a huge source of our inspiration. The beauty and the nature and the culture here all definitely influences the music that we take all over the world. But this show is like inviting people over to our house.”

Sound Tribe Sector 9’s “Wilder” show takes place Friday, Aug. 4, and Saturday, Aug. 5, at the Quarry Amphitheatre at UC Santa Cruz. Shows begin each night at 7 p.m.