Dispatch: The Road Well-Traveled
When it was finally time to enter the studio, the band—for the first time— looked for outside help. In their search, they found noted indie rock producer Peter Katis (The National, Jónsi) through their shared management connection with Guster.
“We recorded almost all our records with Jack Gauthier,” Corrigan relays. “But he’s such a good friend that it would be hard for him to say, ‘Here’s what I’m hearing.’ We wanted someone who was going to play the producer role exclusively.”
The first thing they did was record a modern version of their ‘90s anthem “The General” and gave it away online. Then, they completed six new tracks for a self-titled EP released last May. “We definitely wanted somebody who had a style, and we listened to a lot of his records,” Francis says. “He had good insight into the songs.”
Dispatch took a break from the studio in mid-2011 for their first tour in almost a decade. Hitting mostly sheds and outdoor theaters, it was by far their biggest national tour. Success gave them some helpful luxuries: the band recruited some auxiliary musicians to flesh out their arrangements which allowed Corrigan to play more guitar. They traveled in eco-friendly buses and were able to donate money to educational charities in every market that they visited (instead of focusing on one cause).
From Stokes’ perspective, knowing that they would never be able to outdraw their initial reunion show actually took the pressure off the band and allowed them to focus on the music. “Once you kind of give up on that, then you can just have fun up there,” he says. “Getting a little bit of space from each other and therefore appreciating who those guys are as they’ve grown into men made it less about who is singing the most and more about trying to get the best songs out there.”
“There’s a lot of refining tensions that are happening onstage or in the studio, or even in our financial decisions as a band,” Corrigan admits. “But all those tensions are really good when we’re trusting each other, as opposed to the three of us just insisting on doing things our own way.”
They reconvened with Katis last fall to record the full-length Circles Around the Sun. “He gets into the DNA of the band and takes the band where they’re supposed to be headed as opposed to putting the Peter Katis stamp on the band’s sound,” Stokes says. “When you’ve known each other so long, it felt like that team aspect.”
From his Bridgeport, Conn.-based studio, Katis reflects: “I had heard there was a lot of tension in the band, but to me, they seemed like best pals. All they did was joke around. Unlike a lot of rock bands, they played a lot of sports and they love rough-housing. They have this game called squat-a-friend. I had to be like, ‘Guys we are in a studio, you can break things in here.’”
Picking up where their last album left off in 2000, Circles Around the Sun is a mix of topical rockers, acoustic-flavored ballads, funkier deep-album cuts and the occasional rap moment. They tried some new sounds too: Corrigan played piano on a number, Francis wrote a song with Chris Whitley in mind and the band used a drum pad they’d picked up in Trinidad.
“They all had their distinct styles so I tried to incorporate songs by all the guys, though Chad probably wrote the most,” Katis says. Then, Owl City’s Adam Young mixed the record. They released the album independently in August through a distribution agreement with Universal.
Like Dispatch’s previous full-length, 2000’s Who Are We Living For?, Circles Around the Sun has a thick, largely electric sound that’s a shade darker then the band’s late ‘90s releases. The album’s catchy title cut is filled out by grungy guitar solos, organ swirls and a harmonica solo. Francis’ “Feels So Good” flirts with an Allman Brothers vibe, while the collaborative, groove-oriented “Not Considered” is laced with the band’s trademark harmonies. The protest song “Flag,” inspired by the Sand Creek Massacre of Native Americans in the 1800s, tackles a topic that reminds Corrigan of the Rwandan genocide. And while some of the organic pop hooks and ska-energy of the band’s earlier albums remain, Katis fleshed out the band’s instrumentation while Young gave the album a post-aughts mix.
“It was helpful knowing I have State Radio because I was able to let the project breathe and figure out what was most Dispatch-y,” Stokes says. “I would never do [the hip-hop flavored] “Not Messin’ Around” with State Radio because it is more suited for Dispatch.”
If anything, age has also given the band some more perspective on their sound and none of the band members seem particularly interested in writing about relationships at this point in their career.
“We’ve grown up together so thankfully all of our experiences are kind of woven together,” Corrigan continues. “We’ve been there when family members have died or when children have died in our families. There are things happening now that didn’t happen when we were 18, 19, 20. But I think we set a good precedent back then: Our decisions need to be heart-led, as opposed to about finances or about influence.”
They are also secure enough in their friendship to show they don’t have to devote their entire life to the band. The group has plans to tour into 2013, but still intends to focus on their individual projects and charities. Then they hope to eventually reconvene for another album.
“I’d like to get weirder on the next album—a little [more] out of left field,” Stokes says. “We were a little insecure about putting some of our stranger songs on this record since it was our first one back and we wanted it to be really strong in a meat-and-potatoes way. Now that the pressure’s off, I’d like to work some West African jams and I’m interested in stretching out the songs a bit.”
Corrigan adds: “Everything is dependent on our friendships. If the friendships are good, the foundation of the band is good and you naturally want to create new material and you want to share it with your fans. It’s a very human thing, not a mechanical thing.
Though he cringes when he uses the word “reunion,” Stokes can see Dispatch regrouping every few years for the rest of their lives.
“I’m guessing when we’re in our 50s, we’ll tour less than we are now and give validity to the word ‘reunion’ when we come back in our 60s and 70s.”
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