By Rami Abou-Sabe
Riding the wave of late-Nineties folk rock, Dispatch burst onto the college scene in 1996 with their dorm room debut, Silent Steeples. Attracting a strong grassroots following and building a reputation through file sharing sites like Napster and Limewire, the unsigned band followed up the acoustic Steeples with 1997’s breezy Bang Bang, defining the Dispatch sound and spawning hits like “The General.” The group’s heavy-hitting 2000 release, Who Are We Living For?, showcased a more muscular band but also marked the beginning of the end for the three musicians.
Chadwick Stokes “Chetro” Urmston, Pete “Francis” Heimbold, and Brad “Braddigan” Corrigan formed Dispatch as students at Middlebury College before relocating to the Boston area. Without major label support, the trio grew Dispatch into one of the most successful bands in America. Touring extensively across the country following the release of Who Are We Living For?, tensions between members and differing opinions on which direction to take the music led the group to call it quits in 2002. “Even though the crowds were getting bigger and bigger, I was like ‘We’re not a true representation of what we’re trying to do,'” Urmston explained.
In 2004 the band reunited at Boston’s Hatch Shell for “The Last Dispatch.” Expecting no more than 20,000 fans at the free concert, Dispatch – and the Boston authorities – were shocked when more than 100,000 people from across the globe showed up, shutting down Storrow Drive. The group reunited again in 2007 for three sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, donating the proceeds to Zimbabwe charities fighting famine, disease, and social injustice. In 2009, Dispatch performed an acoustic show at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. at the request of Morgan Tsvangirai, Prime Minister of Zimbabwe.
Then, in 2011, everything changed. On January 1st, Dispatch announced a reunion tour set to kick off in June. By May, an EP had been released (Melon Bend), and the band was making the late night rounds. In 2012 Dispatch dropped Circles Around The Sun, their first full-length in over a decade, embarking on a North American tour in support shortly thereafter. Despite the first long-term reunion since the band’s 2002 touring days, the national interest just wasn’t where they hoped it would be. “We didn’t tour enough after releasing that record,” Corrigan told Mix 104.1. “Or before,” Urmston added.
Capping off their return with a celebrated live release, Ain’t No Trip To Cleveland Vol. 1, the band began work on their next studio effort. With songwriting sessions dating back to 2014, America, Location 12 is Dispatch’s most coherent release since Bang Bang 20 years ago. The first Dispatch record to feature Urmston as the sole songwriter, the record feels more distilled than previous releases. Gone are the days of the group’s Beastie Boys-esque rap rock, while the ska influence on classics like “Bats in the Belfry” has been replaced by refined Americana songwriting, showcasing a more mature sound.
In celebration of the release, Dispatch kicked off their 2017 tour with a short New England swing last weekend. Mix 104.1 caught up with Urmston and Corrigan as they stopped by three Newbury Comics’ and finished up the weekend with a private show in Salisbury. Absent from the interview was Pete Francis; last month, Francis announced he is battling depression and would be sitting out the tour to focus on his health. “I feel a little bit like we’re a three-legged dog, we can kinda get on from here, but it’s a little bit of a different animal than when Pete’s with us,” Urmston revealed.
Editor’s Note: Sitting cross-legged at the edge of the Salisbury boardwalk overlooking the Atlantic on a perfect spring evening, I sunk into a wide-ranging conversation with Urmston and Corrigan. The longtime friends exuded warmth, often finishing the other’s thoughts and delving into impromptu ‘Princess Bride’ reenactments. From Dispatch’s storied career to Pete’s absence, and what the return of Dispatch looks like moving forward, read on for our exclusive Q&A with Chetro and Braddigan. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Dispatch has had quite the return to form, does this record make you feel like you’re officially back?
CU: Yeah, we kinda feel like we’ve been back since 2011, but there’s maybe something in the greater conscience of this country or something… We still get a lot of, “Are you guys playing again?!” Right now a lot of people are like, “Oh my god, you guys are playing again!”
BC: “Loved that band!” Could you still love us now? Would that be cool?
CU: So something about now, it feels like people might know that we’re back more than they may have known in 2011. That’s kind of a circuitous way of talking…
BC: Which means we’re hoping three out of every 10 people that say ‘Dispatch’ “love” that band – in present tense as opposed to past tense.
Does that mean there’s a focus on new music in the live show?
CU: Yeah, there definitely is. It’s funny, we did an EP, and then we did Circles, and we basically play two or three from those 15 songs. Which isn’t a great percentage.
BC: We didn’t tour enough after releasing that record…
CU: Or before.
BC: So I think the more we play now, the more fun it will be to look at all the material that we do have to draw from. I mean the EP, some of our favorite tunes are on that, but then we released Circles, and the focus was more on “Get Ready Boy” and “Circles Around The Sun” and “Josaphine.” It’s been a great ride, but I think this record has… It’s easier for us to focus on it because there are five singers right now, and so many of the songs lend themselves to great layers and layers of harmonies.
CU: Harms for days!
BC: Harms for days.
The vocal harmonies between the three of you is a defining part of every Dispatch release. Even on these two new records, the three-part harmony is still there. Does that make touring without Pete difficult? Different?
CU: Yeah, it’s both. For a bunch of different reasons. Emotionally it’s hard not having him here, and we’re not doing any of his songs. It’s new for us to do a setlist where there’s no Pete coming in, at least for a couple songs… So I feel a little bit like we’re a three-legged dog; we can kinda get on from here, but it’s a little bit of a different animal than when Pete’s with us. So we’re trying to adapt. But we do have all these new tunes that we have no choice but to play because we’re on the road and we started this process before Pete got real sick, so we just had to make a decision as things were revealing themselves, and as Pete struggled more with depression whether to just pull the brakes on the whole thing, or to be like, “Well let’s play and then as soon as Pete’s healthy he can jump back in.” So we decided to do the latter, but it is a tricky thing.
Was he present for the full recording sessions? Because the record feels like it’s the three of you guys.
BC: Yeah, he did a great job being in the studio, and we’re really grateful for that.
What’s next? Are there more songs that didn’t make the cut?
BC: What’s next beyond this record? A lot more records! We hope.
CU: We’d like to release the ones that we didn’t quite finish.
How many songs that didn’t make the cut are ready to go?
CU: I think we have 11 right off the bat that are almost there.
BC: We started with maybe 35 or 40 in the demoing stage, and then narrowed in on 26 or 28 of them that we were like, “These could fly!” and then recorded 15. There’s so much in the well right now that it would be great to get all of it done while it’s still so – what’s the word – prescient?
CU: Kind of like ‘aware’ would you say?
BC: Or ‘time sensitive?’ ‘Relevant?’ I don’t know. I often try to find words.
CU: I often say words I don’t quite know the meaning to.
BC: If I said ‘prescient’ would you say ‘yes?’
CU: Would you nod?
BC: Or would you give me that look?
CU: I do not think that word means…
CU & BC: What you think it means [laughs].
BC: But we should say we’re excited to focus on this record first. Our managers are so stoked how stoked we are, but when we start talking about the next project they’re like “Guys guys guys!”
Well, I think a lot of your fans are excited to hear that you’re focusing on the future of Dispatch. People were pretty unsure about that for some time. It seems like there’s a consensus between you guys now.
CU: Yeah. It’s tenuous ground, but we have a level of commitment now – at least for the future that we can foresee – we want to give it our all.
BC: And it feels great to have a lot in the pipeline, as opposed to “Wow, we just did a record, and we have nothing left.” Even our production team, we were joking with them… They worked so hard, and each time we took a break, they stayed in the studio. And when we finished we were like, “When are we gonna do the next one?!” And they were like…
CU: “We actually need a break…”
BC: “Can we just enjoy this moment?”
Speaking of the production, this record is a bit more produced than a lot of the music you’ve put out. Maybe Who Are We Living For? had a little flourish, but for the most part, there’s techniques and effects on this record that haven’t been in your music beforehand.
CU: It kind of mirrors our process; everything is a lot more deliberate this time around. Between our relationships, and the process of working on the songs and choosing the songs… In the studio itself, it was way more deliberate. Some of those old recordings are just us shooting from the hip, and with this, there was some focus.
The songwriting for this record started before the big political shakeup of the past year, is that maybe why the songs aren’t so overtly political for such a socially-conscious band?
BC: I think, at least for me, the more I listen to these songs you just get to go a layer deeper and deeper each time. I would say it’s by far the most political record we’ve ever done. It’s probably not as obvious, which to me is the best form of protest. I think when people come with their boxing gloves up, you’re immediately typecast into who’s gonna win and lose in this. And people either come with their boxing gloves or they go, “I’m not gonna listen to you.” But I think having deep political themes, it becomes ‘We’ and ‘You.’ So it’s like, you have to face what corruption would be to any of us if we were immediately given power and money and all kinds of stuff, but at the same time holding people accountable. So it’s less judgemental I would say. I really do think that the greatest form of solidarity and protest is saying, “We’re all culpable in this, but enough of us that band together…” Trump can do what Trump does, and other corrupt folks – CEOs or whatever can do what they do – but it still comes down to, “Can we link up and be stronger than an individual?”
Do you feel a responsibility to social change through your music? Is that part of what drives you as a musician?
BC: I think so, yeah.
CU: I think it’s a nice place to be in for our psyche’s because we get to let it out. But then it also can be part of something, to contribute to the movement.
So after your little album release run here in New England, you’re playing two sold out shows in Colorado and embarking on a mini U.S. tour before finishing up at Levitate Festival in Marshfield, MA, July 8th. What comes after that?
BC: We’re going to Europe in September, and then maybe South America in October. And then we have some plans – unofficially…
CU: An acoustic tour, but across the country.
That would be really cool. I remember catching you guys at MSG in 2007, and you played an acoustic set on top of your tour bus, Wimpy, in the middle of the Garden. It felt like a different concert halfway through this huge arena show.
CU: Yeah! That’s what we’re going for.
BC: That was unforgettable when we pushed Wimpy out…
Yes, it really was.