Jeffree Lerner, the percussionist for Sound Tribe Sector 9, profiled in the September 6 edition of Westword, was the last member to join the band, and the most experienced going in, having previously served as a drum tech on extended tours by Colorado’s Leftover Salmon. In conversation, he comes across as arguably the most reflective member of the group, and the most serious. There are a few laughs here or there, but for the most part, he speaks about music in reverent tones.
Among the topics covered: Lerner’s bucolic Michigan upbringing; the birth of his love affair with drumming, and his interest in the instrument’s rich history; his entry into the band and philosphy about improvisation; his response to the dreaded how-do-you-like-being-called-a-jam-band question; his thoughts about aggressive tour
schedules and especially memorable shows; personal reviews of each STS9 recording; and ruminations on charitable activities, a passion of his that he hopes will further solidify the bond between band and fan.
You can’t beat that.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you from originally?
Jeffree Lerner: I grew up in a place called Big Rapids, Michigan.
WW: Where is that near? And how would you describe it?
JL: Well, it’s very rural. I grew up near the Manistee National Forest, probably about ten
miles from the nearest stoplight.
WW: That sounds pretty good, actually.
JL: It was. When I became an adult, I realized how fortunate I was to grow up in that kind of environment, with the woods and nature and all these bald eagles around. It gave me a really good foundation, and a lot of where the inspiration for my music comes from is
nature and the natural world.
WW: And yet probably as a kid, you might have felt a bit trapped. Is that true?
JL: Not really. I just didn’t know any different, really. [Laughs.]
WW: So it wasn’t as if you were watching TV shows about the big city and feeling like you were missing out.
JL: No, the only show that made me feel like that was The Brady Bunch, but that’s because I’m an only child. (Laughs.)
WW: So you wanted to go from being an only child to having eight other kids around the house?
JL: (Laughs.) Sounds like fun, you know?
WW: Tell me about your parents. Do they have a music background?
JL: I think they have an appreciation for music, not necessarily as players. They’re music fans. Growing up in Michigan, there was a lot of the Motown influence when I was growing up, and lots of R&B records all around the house.
WW: Where there was one artist you remember really connecting with back then?
JL: As a kid, I think the first one was Earth, Wind & Fire, because my dad had all the albums. That seemed to be the one that resonated with me the most at that time. I was pretty young, though.
WW: When did you start playing music yourself?
JL: I started out early, playing music in school and pulling out pots and pans and stuff like that. But once I got into high school and discovered sports and stuff, I kind of set it aside, and then I picked it up again when I was in college.
WW: So during a period when a lot of people are starting to focus on music, you set it aside?
JL: Yeah, interestingly enough, it all happened like that. I don’t know the reason. And when it found me again in college, hanging with a group of kids who were friends, and we started a little band together and started playing out. That’s when it was revealed to me:
This was my path.
WW: Do you remember what the band was called? And what kind of music did you play?
JL: It was called Soulflower, not that anybody would ever know who that was. And it was all improvisational stuff, doing some covers and just hanging out with my friends. It seemed to be the most creative and productive way that we could spend our time.
WW: So when you realized this was, as you said, your path, was there a moment of epiphany? Or did it slowly occur to you that when you were playing music with those guys, you were happier than when you were doing anything else?
JL: I think for me it just kind of unfolded, especially with the instruments that I play, being of such a traditional nature and the percussion world having such a history: congas and marimbas and stuff like that. So it kind of unfolded for me, and I spent a lot of time
finding my own voice and understanding that music was so cultural and spoke to people’s experiences. And the unfolding happened because of the right teachers and the right people coming into my life and giving me the information that I needed to know, and sharing. It was a really organic process.
WW: It sounds as if the instruments you play became more meaningful the more you learned about their background. Is that true?
JL: Well, I think the meaning was always the same. But on a personal level, if you’re a guitar player today, and you pick up a guitar, there’s been so much done on a guitar that it’s a challenge to find your own voice and what you have to say through the instrument.
And I think that from the beginning I was challenged like that just because of the cultural aspects to the music that I was studying.
WW: A lot of players are satisfied with trying to sound as much like their favorites on the instrument as they can. But for you, it sounds like you realized early on that you didn’t just want to imitate. You wanted to come up with something original to you.
JL: Exactly. And I think that’s where all original music comes from musicians digging inside of themselves to find their voice. And a lot of times, you’ll find what has already been done, because that’s natural. That’s what humans do with instruments. You’ll find the
same things that other musicians have found. But it seems to be much more rewarding, and give you a different sense of ownership of the music.
WW: Is finding your voice a process, not a destination? Do you feel like you’re still in the process of finding your own voice?
JL: Absolutely. I try to learn every day. I’ve definitely not arrived. (Laughs.) I’m taking on a lot of different stuff. I’m picking up the vibraphone right now, and two or three years ago,
I picked up the tabla, which is a lifelong journey with that instrument. It’s endless, you know? It’s endless.
WW: Tell me how you first got together with the Sound Tribe guys. From having just spoken to Zach, it sounds like there was a core group together that you joined.
JL: Yeah, they were a band. We were introduced by a mutual friend they’d gone to high school with, and he’d become a good friend of mine over the past couple of years. He was like, “You have to meet these kids. They’re everything you talk about, about the kind of
people you like to play with.” So we met, and there was just this chemistry. It was as much on a musical level as it was on a personal level. It was just a perfect match.
WW: In terms of the two levels you mentioned, the musical and the personal: Is it possible for only one of those things to connect and still have it work? Or do you really need both of them to make the chemistry come together?
JL: I wouldn’t say it wouldn’t work, but the chemistry definitely helps. It makes it more holistic, if you will. And I think it’s a testament to that fact that we’ve been together for ten years and we’re still growing and coming up with new stuff and keep challenging ourselves on that level. I don’t know, though. I’ve never been in a band where I didn’t have that. It might be an integral part of what I need in a group.
WW: How has the sound of the band evolved since you first got together? And how much of a role has technology played in that?
JL: I think it’s played a huge role. But then again, if technology wasn’t there, I think we would have evolved in the same way. But we chose to embrace the technology, so that’s definitely a part of it. When we started out, we were highly improvisational, didn’t
necessarily write set lists, we just went out there and raged it for an hour and a half, two hours, three hours, whatever it was. And I think if anything could be said of our sound, I think it’s a matter of maturity and really dedicating ourselves to that sound and spending the time off the stage to develop that. Again, it’s not one of those things were we set out to be here. It was a really natural, organic unfolding of the music we love. As much as we play
for fans, we’re playing for ourselves as well. It’s just a process of playing the music we love and are inspired by. It just kind of evolved and became this thing.
WW: If I’m following you correctly, was the music completely free-flowing early on, and over time, more structure has been applied to it? And if that’s right, does the music still feel as free now as it did when there were no boundaries at all?
JL: That’s a tough one, because it’s hard to generalize about all the music, because there are things that are definitely more structured, and there are things that are left more open. And I guess that’s where the maturity comes in, just being able to discern those moments. We treat a song like a conversation, where the song is the subject matter. We all listen to each other and we all respond, but if someone wants to go off on a tangent and is inspired to talk about something different, we’re open to that. And that’s kind of what happens in the music as well. If someone wants to take a turn and start talking about something else, we’ll all join in the conversation and move with it. Even if we were totally structured out, I wouldn’t feel limited with the freedom just because of the five of us, the way we were work together and listen to one another. So I don’t feel restricted at all. If we want to move that way, we’re able to.
WW: How much does trust in each other have to do with that kind of format working?
JL: Everything. Everything, for sure. Just to know that your brother’s got your back up there, and if you want to take a chance, they’re your safety net. Or if someone wants to go out there, someone else can be their tether and keep them from going too far. It’s a real relationship out there. We become one.
WW: Are there times when one or more of you needs to be reeled in and after the show you say, “Thanks, I was losing myself there”?
JL: Not too often, really. We’re really able to take it to the places we need to. And, you know, that trust is a big part of keeping it all together. So there’s not too much of it.
WW: In my conversation with Zach a few minutes ago, the word “jam” came up, and he became pretty exercised about it. He didn’t like the fact that you guys have to answer that question about whether you are or aren’t in that category…
JL: Here’s my take on that. When we talk about the “jam band community,” I feel like we’re talking much less about the bands than we are about the fans. You can’t describe our band as a jam band and also describe a bluegrass band as a jam band.
WW: And yet people do all the time.
JL: Yeah, people do it all the time. But really what it’s about is a community of people out there in our country and abroad that support live music. I feel like that identity has more to do with them than it does to us. And the bands those kids go to see become jam bands, not necessarily of the music they’re playing but because of the community.
WW: Do you feel a close kinship with that community? Or do you just feel lucky that the community happens to connect with what you guys do?
JL: That’s a good question. There’s definitely a kinship, because if they weren’t out there supporting what we’re doing, I wouldn’t be out there doing what I’m doing. There’s an integral connection there. But music is music. People are out there expressing themselves, and just because somebody doesn’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not valid and that someone else can’t enjoy it. But it’s more to do with the mission that we’re on, and when those two worlds overlap, that’s great, it’s beautiful. And at the same time, if it didn’t, I don’t
necessarily know that we’d be catering our music to that. I think it’s just one of those things that has happened naturally in the sense of the ideals of live music and that culture.
WW: You mentioned the word “mission.” How would you describe the mission you’re on? Is it as simple as just being as creative as you can? Or is there something more to it than that?
JL: I think the number one thing is just integrity in art. We try to bring our best show and put as much work from home to make those shows such. It’s just a product of the work we put into it.
WW: You don’t want to take any night for granted, thinking that if you just show up and put in the time, everything will be fine. You want to have that focus every single show…
JL: Absolutely. We don’t take anything for granted at this point.