Interview: Chad Urmston (of Dispatch)


     Interview: Chad Urmston (of Dispatch)

    Beloved jam band Dispatch is a true indie music success story, building a colossal fan base without a record label or management. Before they went on hiatus in 2002, their free, outdoor farewell concert attracted over 150,000 fans. And then the ten-year anniversary of that hiatus came, and you’d think it was all over — except that college students kept sharing the music, peer-to-peer or on hand-labeled CDs, fueling a love for the band that burned strong, despite only sporadic reunion concerts and no new music.

    That all changed with 2011’s reunion tour and the Dispatch EP, both greeted with joy that was only increased when the band announced 2012’s forthcoming full-length album, Circles Around The Sun. As the album nears its release, multi-instrumentalist Chad Urmston walked in the woods — undeterred as he faced heavily-armed paintball fanatics — while speaking with Consequence of Sound about his influences, meeting a whole new fan base, and the band’s future.

    For fans of Dispatch, your reunion, the ensuing tour, and everything have been things that people dreamed about for years and years. How did you guys come to the decision to reunite?

    Part of it for me was the pressure of getting together every four years or so, like three or four years for one big show, you know. I think we all enjoyed playing together and had enough time under our belts doing different projects. But when we thought of the next phase, I just didn’t want to get all ready to play and just do one show. So, it’s like, “Why don’t we get together and play a couple shows, play a few shows, do a mini tour?” And Brad [Corrigan] and Pete [Heimbold] said, “You know, if we’re gonna tour, let’s have some new music.” And I was like, “Yeah, okay!” So, it just kind of built upon itself, and then we got together in New York during a blizzard, and threw around some new tunes we were working on, and it just kind of built from there.

    That new record is coming out in August, and I’ve heard it. It’s a little bit quieter in places, I would say, than both your EP and your previous releases; the sound is more varied. What can you tell me about the ideas or the influences that informed this new record?

    Hmm! Did you say “quieter”?

    I think it’s quieter, yeah.

    Yeah, I don’t know, I think for me…I’ve had such a nice outlet with the other band I’m in, called State Radio, that it’s a little bit more on the rock-ish side. So, when I was trying to figure out what songs to play for Brad and Pete, it was the songs that really lent themselves to harmonies, so that might have something to do with it. But, you know, we’ve been away for so long that we’ve built up a bunch of songs that were-…I don’t think they’re maybe written for Dispatch, but they were easy to go back to, this bunch of half-written songs, and be like, “Okay, which one would be really fun to play with those guys?”

    So, would you say that you do feel that your separate music efforts have an influence on the new record?

    Yeah, I think so. I can’t really speak for those guys, but I know for me it was nice to be in a different project with different identities so that, you know, I could kind of make some columns in my journals, which songs would work best where, and that was kind of fun to do, to kind of tailor the songs to the project.

    Have you played any of these songs live yet? What was the reaction?

    Ahh, let’s see. Well, we played the EP songs, and the reaction was good. We just played for the first time, at Bonnaroo. We played a song called “Not Messin”, and that was our first foray into playing the new album. We did it all real backwards this time, because typically we’ve played songs for years before we recorded them. You know, really battle-tested them a lot. But for this, since we haven’t played live in so long, up until last summer, we did it the other way around.

    [dog howls repeatedly; Urmston laughs] Sorry! I’m out here in the woods. I have my baby in my left hand, and the phone in my right hand, and the dog with us, and then I come across these guys dressed in black ninja warrior outfits with their paintballs! So, I’m turning around! But they had these huge, like, automatic paintball weapons.

    So, um, yeah, it’s nerve-wracking. We don’t really know. It’s kind of backwards for us to record first and then play live for the first time. Usually, it’s years of the other way around.

     Interview: Chad Urmston (of Dispatch)

    With that difference, how do you feel like this fits with the rest of your discography? Do you feel that Circles Around The Sun is more of a departure?

    I don’t know. I would say it’s got elements of all the other discs, that stuff. If anything, it’s a little more Americana, a little more straight-ahead Tom Petty-ish, some of the tunes, especially the title track. If anything, that’s a little bit of a departure. But “Not Messin” is kind of like our…you know, you hear our wanna-be Beach Boys influences, and then the other stuff is like, kind of folkier type songs. And then “Circles Around the Sun” and “Get Ready Boy” are kind of more Americana, kind of barnstormers.

    So, I’m one of the fans who discovered Dispatch while you guys were on your hiatus, and I saw you perform for the first time live last summer, and I was super amazed. I didn’t know, that whole time, that you guys were switching instruments all the time. I was totally floored when I saw your guys play live.

    Oh, yeah! [Laughs.]

    So, how did you guys start doing that in the first place? And can you talk a little bit about how you decide who’s going to take what part on different tracks?

    Yeah, usually the guy who wrote the song is playing guitar. And then, so for instance, on the songs that Pete writes, because he writes on his guitar, not on bass, he’ll come over, and he’ll play guitar, and I’ll play bass, or he’ll sing lead and play guitar. And that’s pretty much the way it rolls. But in the beginning, we all play guitar, and we were like, we don’t wanna just be a trio of guitarists. So, Brad had the best rhythm, so unfortunately for him, fortunately for us, he went back to the drums and is an amazing drummer, considering that’s not his first instrument. And Pete’s older brother is an amazing bassist, so Pete had a little bit of a handle on the bass. So, we bought a bass from a friend of mine who was in my first band for 40 bucks, and borrowed a drum kit from Pete’s friend, and Pete’s brother’s cabinet. And Brad…I think in the beginning we didn’t even have sticks, so he used hangers, like dowels for hanging coats. It was kind of lucky, from my perspective, that Pete and Brad are so good at something that isn’t their first instrument.

    I thought that was a super amazing thing, and the biggest argument to say back to anyone who’s like, “Oh, you know, jam bands,” like, “Have you seen these guys play?” Because I’ve never seen another band where all the members can play all the instruments.

    [Laughs.] It’s especially cool that Brad can come, play lead guitar, and then play drums so well, and sing pretty much the whole time while he plays the drums. It’s really cool.

    What was it like coming back and starting again? I’m sure there were a lot of people like me who had never seen you guys before. Was it really surreal? Did you feel like it was a lot of old-time fans, or newer folks?

    I feel like it’s always amazingly new. I feel like when we’re looking out at the crowd, and this is kind of the word we get back to us, that 9 out of 10 people are seeing us for the first time. I guess that’s what happens when we…because everyone who goes to shows for the most part is like, you know, around the age of 20 or so, and we’ve been playing so sporadically, they kind of almost grow out of us, and then their younger cousins come. [Laughs.] And, so, it’s amazingly a new batch, I feel like.

    And you said you guys were just at Bonnaroo, and I know you did Dave Matthews Band Caravan last summer. Dispatch seems like a perfect fit for the festival circuit. Are you planning to do more festivals?

    Yeah, we’re doing…this is our first. We’ve never festivals before, so we played at the Hangout Festival in Alabama, and then we did Bonnaroo, and we’re playing Outside Lands in San Francisco. And then we’re doing a few festivals in Europe in August as well. And festivals are really fun. It was so funny how, I don’t know, I think we’re just lucky that some of the same songs we played as teenagers in basements, not all of them worked for the bigger crowds, but some of them do okay. So, I think we’re just lucky that these little acoustic songs, because we play two or three acoustic songs a set, and some of them are okay with the big crowds. So that’s really fun for us, to kind of see the, you know, the trajectory of the song.

    As soon as I heard that you guys were playing the Caravan, I was very jealous, because I saw it in Chicago, so not one of your stops.

    Yeah! So many good bands on that tour.

    Yeah, there were so many, but I just thought, “Oh man!” You guys would be really cool to see at a festival, because it’s that very, sort of accessible but interesting music, where people who know you are are obviously going to be excited, and people who’ve never heard you before would also be interested.

    Yeah, it’s interesting, because we never had management or a record label or anything, that when we were a full-swinging band, we never really opened for anyone. So, we were always in front of our crowd. So, this is the first time where we’re getting up on a big stage, and we’re in front of a crowd where people may not know who we are. So, that’s new for us. And it’s good. I mean, you hope by two songs in…people are kind of deciding on you for the first few songs. It’s fun to try to play our best, so that people get the best impression of who we are if they don’t know us.

    Dispatch is a pretty consistently politically expressive band. How do you see your role in politics, and what do you guys hope to accomplish?

    We hope to accomplish dialogue, and you know…opening the gate to some issues that people might not otherwise be exposed to. So, that’s why we’re concentrating on our education initiative, and I think we all feel that we have a responsibility to bring some light on the issues that might not get the exposure from mainstream media. So, we sing about a lot of different things, and we try to bring that to the table, too, in a way that is beyond our songs or listening to the songs.

    dispatch1 Interview: Chad Urmston (of Dispatch)

    Photo by Ted Maider

    Can you tell me more about the education initiative?

    Yeah, it’s called Amplifying Education, and we have been doing a bunch of things: collecting books at the different venues we go to, and meeting up with fans before the shows to do different service projects, cleaning up schools and gardens, and just kind of getting people involved in services. And we did some forums in Boston and Denver, where we had education experts in those cities come out and have a round-table discussion about where we are with education and why we aren’t…why we’re in a bit of a crisis in this country, and what things we could do to help out the system. And then we also supported Teach for America, and a program called City Year. City Year in Denver, it was their debut year there, where twelve 17-to-24-year-olds began a year of service there, mentoring and helping out in low-income classrooms. So, that was really cool, to meet up with those 12 City Year participants to talk about what their year was like and the difference they had made in the Denver school systems.

    And you had funded the Elias Fund, also. Are you guys still involved with that today?

    Not so much. I keep in touch with the guys who took it on, who now direct it, the two brothers from Colorado, and they’re about to go over to Zimbabwe and see Elias with about 10 volunteers, almost like a Habitat for Humanity thing, to work on some buildings and also some micro-agriculture.

    From what I read online, it sounded like it was growing into kind of a bigger thing, and so that’s why I wondered if you guys were also still running that, or if you’d had to bring in some help.

    Yeah, we pretty much brought in some help, and once we raised the funds for Dispatch: Zimbabwe in New York City, we really wanted to…we didn’t want to sit on the money that we had raised, we wanted to get it out to the people as quick as possible, and the Elias Fund is kind of its own thing, and carried on pretty much with a minimal up-checking from me. My mom is still the Elias Fund treasurer, so anyone who donates to the fund, we get a check here, and she sends postcards back thanking the people.

    It’s interesting, too, the way that Dispatch is able to do the political songs. Political songs for me are often a turn-off, but “Elias” is one of my favorite songs. You guys are able to write those and make them not divisive or heavy-handed, but very subtle.

    I think it’s a kind of fine line to it. We never try to be preachy. If anything, we’re just trying to tell a story, and maybe that story ends up being political, but that’s not how it starts.

    What are your hopes for the band in the future? Where do you see this going?

    We’re really excited to have this album come out in a month or two, because it’s the first album we’ve done since ’99. So, that’s exciting. It’s exciting to play the new songs and just feel like we’re a band again, with blood running through us. It’s really fun to play with Brad and Pete. And, you know, we all have this love for each other that’s…towards the end of our tour, in 2002, that wasn’t really there, or maybe it was just buried too deep. [Laughs.] So, it’s fun to hang with those guys and to go to new places, and to see…just kind of ride it. But I don’t know if, beyond…you know, we’re psyched about the album, so I think we’ll tour that for a little bit, but then we’ll probably go back to our farms. [Laughs.] And after we’ve played, maybe for a year, or maybe…you know, give it some time. For the last decade, it’s been pretty nice, compared to the first decade we spent together, which was all huddled around each other inside of a van.