Sometimes, having an album release date fall through can be a blessing in disguise. When the pandemic prevented Boston-based indie/roots band Dispatch from releasing their latest album in May, like they’d originally planned, they took the opportunity to revisit the songs and rethink the way in which they would be released. As a result, the band will put out that album (title TBD) in a series of phases, three songs in each, starting with Phase 1 on October 23 (available now). The final phase will come out in 2021.
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During a recent conference call, co-frontmen Chadwick Stokes and Brad Corrigan explain how their plans came to be much more elaborate. The delayed release, Corrigan says, was “a unique limitation that allowed us to get a little bit deeper into the album. I think Chad and I felt good about what we had done, but somehow taking the deadline off of May allowed us to dive way deeper on a bunch of the songs that felt like they were medium rare to rare: they weren’t cooked completely.”
As a result, Stokes says, “We were going through the idea of the record and what it represented.” Several themes emerged from this brainstorming, he says: “The loss that we’ve had in our own lives in the last three or four years, and also the really heavy loss of the integrity of our nation, not to mention the pandemic and what’s happening in our political climate and also the Black Lives Matter movement.”
And there was another significant change: since their last album (2018’s Location 13), original member Pete Francis departed Dispatch. This was, Stokes says, a “huge change that Brad and I have gone through, trying to figure out who we are as a band without the third founding member.”
Seeking a way to tie it all together, Stokes recalled a text a friend sent him a few months before that showed a chart of the “phases of change” that people go through during times of upheaval. “And he said, ‘Wouldn’t this be so cool if there was some musical accompaniment to this idea?’” Stokes recalls. Looking at the chart, Stokes realized that his friend was right: “All these phases of change coincide with the [new] songs.”
On October 23, with Phase 1, three songs will be released: “May We All,” “One By One,” and “All This Time.” “May We All,” Stokes says, “led with this idea of what it means to be forsaken and what that might look like to different demographics in our country.”
In contrast, “One By One” touches on the death of two of Stokes’ cousins in the past couple of years. “They were just wonderful people,” he says, adding that writing that song “was another way for me to go through the grief.”
As for “All This Time,” Stokes says, “Brad and I lost a friend to the opioid crisis, to an O.D., and the song speaks of our personal loss and how time is just speeding by, and what can we do to hold onto it in a way that honors our time here on Earth and also points to this time in our political dialogue. Lyrically, it’s the centerpoint of the record.”
The album’s complex themes – and the unconventional approach to releasing them – is a hallmark of Dispatch, who have remained resolutely independent since they first formed when the members met at Middlebury College in Vermont. Their debut release, Silent Steeples, came out in 1996, and this latest one will be their eighth studio album, but they’ve never signed a conventional record deal. On their own, they have amassed a large and passionate following (one Boston concert drew 110,000 fans).
The band members decided early on not to sign to sign any record deals, Corrigan says, because “They wanted to make us less ‘us’ and more like something that had already sold well in the past. And it just did not sit well with us.”
“We were playing high schools and VFW halls and community centers, and graduated slowly to the clubs,” Stokes says of Dispatch’s early days. “Things were getting bigger and bigger, so we knew we weren’t doing anything wrong. So I think there was this feeling that we didn’t really need the record labels. We were getting as big as we wanted; we didn’t want to get any bigger any faster.”
Their confidence also came from the fact that their unique musical vision was evident from the moment the founding members first sang together. Corrigan recalls that day: “We were at the Arts Center on our college campus and we sang a three-part harmony. All three of us were like, ‘Whoa! What was that?’ And we just kept singing it over and over again. There was something really special about it.”
“I think in the beginning, the harmonies, and then the merging of ska and reggae with rock came together, and that’s where our sound came from,” Stokes says. He adds that now, even with the band down to two singers from three, this crucial aspect of Dispatch will remain: “It still has the same focus on the vocals that it always did.”
Stokes also wants to emphasize that there’s another element of Dispatch that hasn’t changed: their deep involvement in a wide variety of humanitarian issues. “I feel like one thing that’s always been really informative of our songwriting and of our spiritual and general evolution as humans is some of the service projects we’ve done along the years,” he says.
This work can run the gamut, from joining fans before shows to make meals for the homeless to charitable trips to Nicaragua and Zimbabwe. “We have this opportunity and platform to reach a lot of people, so Brad and I are always going back and forth about what can we do?” Stokes says. “Obviously now, with the election coming up, it’s a huge thing. It’s such an important time to take part in our democracy.”
Through this combination of empathetic songs and activism, Dispatch have created a complex, compassionate world for themselves and their fans. As Stokes puts it, “We have messages in the songs and in the truth we feel needs to be released from us because of our own cathartic journey.”