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Cover Story: Dispatch

| May 31, 2011

Stop Making Sense

Even serious music fans pass through life without ever hearing certain pivotal artists. Usually it’s a lack of awareness; often it’s willful, but always unfortunate.

Appearing: Tuesday, June 7th at Pritzker Pavilion (50 S. Michigan Ave.) and Wednesday the 8th at UIC Pavilion (1130 W. Halsted) in Chicago.

Dispatch could be one of those bands for you. The trio formed in the Northeast around 1995, and slowly built a reputation in jam-band circles on intuitive, organic vocal harmonies. Their flair for activism hardened their scene credentials and, sensing little to be gained from corporate affiliation, released albums on their own until breaking up less than a decade later. Despite a completely accessible catalog, radio outside of their home region stayed away. Poof. Gone.


The band continued to exist on the hard drives of jam fans, who traded albums and bootlegs obsessively in the trio’s absence. When the reunion topic arose, the demand became overwhelming. Next thing you know, Dispatch has sold out three straight nights at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It’s the sort of thing that makes people take notice.

“I don’t really know why we can bring 25,000 people into a soccer stadium in New Jersey [Red Bull Arena],” says bassist Pete Francis, alluding to this summer’s trek that includes stops at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion and UIC Pavilion, “and have three nights sold out at Red Rocks. I never imagined in a million years we could start a band in college that could do that. There’s a lot of mystery – good mystery – to this band. I just feel like it’s about being true to ourselves, and that we’re allowing the music to happen naturally. We’re not forcing it, and we don’t have A&R people breathing down our necks or anything like that or having to belong to any style.”

It’s such an astounding turn of events that Francis almost equates their pre- and post-reunion phases as two separate bands who just happen to have the same lineups.

“I think that we have turned a corner in the last few months,” he laughs. “We’ve turned a big corner, and in a way that we’re a new band. I don’t know what it is, and it’s hard for me to describe. It’s mysterious. I don’t understand it. Not a lot of rhyme or reason.”

Francis, guitarist Chad Stokes, and drummer Brad Corrigan have become one of the most successful touring bands in the country, and you still can’t hear them on the radio. That might change, however, and soon.

Currently, they find themselves decamped at the Bridgeport, Connecticut studio of famed indie producer Peter Katis (Interpol, The National), working on a new album to follow this spring’s self-titled tour EP. Indications from lead “single” “Melon Bend” are that Dispatch have already embraced the chilly sonics that Katis has made his hallmark. That’s not to mean the band have uploaded themselves into the Kid A ether, but there’s nothing flippant about Francis’ new-band assertion. A new band with years of practice.

“Yeah, it’s a lot like riding a bike,” he agrees. “We got together in December and shared some songs we’d written. The way we worked in the past was we’d collaborate with each other, and sometimes somebody will contribute a chorus to a song that had the verses already done. The Dispatch thing is always a collaboration and pretty eclectic in musical styles. If it’s a reggae tune, a rock song, or a folkier ballad, that’s sort of the vibe.”

Though following the rules has never been a big part of the plan, neither has been becoming a nostalgia act. New material has trickled into reunion setlists, but this summer the staples face a whole raft of competition.

“We played that huge show, The Last Dispatch, in 2004 and each guy had like one new song,” Francis recalls. “Then, in 2007, we played in Madison Square Garden, and there were a couple more. But it was really focused on the older material, so it does feel good to have new songs to bring to everybody. We’ve done these big concerts and done larger, more rocking versions of [fan favorites]. But now it’ll be nice to have all new material and old songs. It’ll be fun to sneak in new ones. People will have the EP to download or play on their stereos or computers or whatever. So they’ll hopefully get to know the tunes before they come to the show. It’ll be a balance.”

It’ll also take some adjustments on the part of the fans. Whatever the band were listening to on their own, it has infiltrated.

“I feel like the new songs have some of that old Dispatch,” he says, “but they’re a little more modern and we’re at a different place musically. Working with Peter Katis has been pretty cool. I had been listening to some of The National, and I was curious to know who mixed their last record, High Violet. I don’t know his Interpol stuff as well, but I know he’s done them and The Swell Season.”

Francis laughs when it’s pointed out that Dispatch don’t share any of The National’s Catholic claustrophobia.

“Right! That’s one way to look at it, but I’m always listening to sounds and he’s very talented and gets great sounds,” he responds. “We knew that he liked to work in both an analog and digital world, which we like. He draws from weird, wacky tones to straightforward organic sounds. He’s played in bands for years, so he knows what it is to be a musician and has good instincts. It’s also a vibe thing. We talked to other producers on the phone, and sometimes you try a guy, and it isn’t right. But we got along, and we’re having a great time. I think the songs are pretty interesting, with their arrangements.”

Self-torture doesn’t appeal to Dispatch. To them, the formula is pretty simple: you take your influences, put your heads together, and write some catchy songs. Despite their conspicuous rise, this much stands clear.

“Whether we’re influenced by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, acoustic stuff, reggae – everybody has different styles when they come in,” he explains. “We’re three songwriters and musicians, and that has allowed us to be who we are. That’s why we never went to a record company, because we didn’t want to be pinned into ‘this is the frontman, his backing band, and their sound.’ We can play acoustic songs like ‘Flying Horses’ or ‘Elias,’ and then we can play a more rocking song like ‘Time Served,’ or a reggae song like ‘Ride A Tear.’ We don’t want to inhibit it. This EP represents that.”

They also have time, and plan to use it. Rehearsals at Montana in Manhattan built the songs up from their rawest forms, where mostly drums and bass were established. Recording for basic tracks then moved to Water Music in Hoboken, New Jersey, to take advantage of its gigantic live room for big drum sounds. All the time, the band discussed, poked, and prodded the material, unworried about twisting the arrangements.

“One song on the EP, ‘Con Man,’ is kind of a reggae/dub type thing, but it’s got some farfisa organ,” Francis says. “But also, a long time ago, my brother got me this steel drum that was hand-pounded from this old guy in Antigua. He gave it to me for Christmas 10 years ago and we broke that out. Brad had never played steel drums before, but he came up with this cool melody for the chorus. With three people, there are more ideas coming and our producer, that makes four, there’s a lots of discussion. Sometimes you go back and change more, or add tons of stuff.

— Steve Forstneger

For the full interview, grab the June issue of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.

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  1. JP says:

    I’ve been listening to these guys for over 12 years and when I heard they were going to tour this summer I was amped. The Red Rocks shows have been fantastic. These guys are three real people, not some inaccessible rock stars. All of them can sing, play multiple instruments and seem to be having a blast doing it…had big smiles on their faces while they blew us away with their music. So much fun. Brad’s mom was at last night’s show, and she was sitting next to me (in the front row) during a couple acoustic numbers. She said “do you love Dispatch?” “I love Dispatch.” It was a really cool moment. I hope they keep working together and touring, doing good public works, and stirring up the fans to do the same. Thanks guys for the great music.

  2. Ben says:

    I first heard of these guys back in high school, about 9-10 years ago. First song I heard was “Elias” on a mix CD a friend of mine gave me and I immediately found every CD & track I could by these guys. I love that they aren’t a “reggae band” or a “rock band” or even a “jam band”, They’re just Dispatch; they’re all of that and none of that and it’s great. The same CD I heard Elias on had the first Ben Harper & O.A.R. songs I had heard too, these bands were(are) so unique and influenced my musical taste so much, even to this day. Anytime a Dispatch song comes up on my iPod now I’ll spend the next few days listening to them, the music is timeless, seems as fresh as the first time I heard it. Glad to know they’re back doing their thing!