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Dispatch: May We All Be Forsaken


Published in Relix Magazine, June 21, 2021 A few days after Brad Corrigan welcomed his first baby into the world in late 2020, his Dispatch bandmate, Chadwick Stokes, offered a simple piece of advice. “I told him: ‘Get down on the floor as much as you can with your little boy and just roll around. All he sees are these giants above him. That’s his world. Try to see it on his level,’” Stokes recalls, speaking from his Massachusetts farmhouse, where his entire extended family has been quarantining together for nearly a year.

Corrigan took those words to heart. While discussing his band’s next steps during a Zoom call from his home in Denver in early 2021, Corrigan even makes a point to bring his four-month-old son Amos—a tiny thing with two chubby cheeks swaddled in blankets—into the frame for a bit.

“What gives me hope these days is seeing the world through Amos’ eyes. Nothing’s baked into this dude yet,” says Corrigan, gazing down at his son, then back at the screen. “I can’t wait to see where the next generation will take us—where their bravery and courage will lead us.”

Corrigan and Stokes are now both in their 40s—Stokes is a father three times over—and they’ve been creating music as Dispatch for much of their adult lives. They’ve been activists for just as long; building awareness for social movements through their politically charged music, throwing massive benefit concerts and even founding their own nonprofits. In fact, these musicians were the next generation of changemakers before they began raising a new one.

In 2021, Dispatch is gearing up to release their eighth album, Break Our Fall, exactly 25 years after the band debuted as a rootsy, reggae-folk group of liberal-arts[1]school friends. It’s their most politically pointed album to date—filled with sharp-toothed rock tunes addressing America’s ills head-on. A clear evolution from campfire parables that made the band famous (cue a summer camp sing-along of “The General”) on the prep-school circuit around the turn of the millennium, this is a collection of songs pushing listeners to look inward and ask the tough questions. It’s their #MeToo album, their Black Lives Matter album, their anti-white nationalist album. It’s—as Stokes says proudly—Dispatch 2.0.

However, this isn’t the first time that the members of Dispatch have been on the cusp of entering a new era. Stokes, Corrigan and Pete Francis met as students at Vermont’s Middlebury College in the mid-‘90s and began writing songs as One Fell Swoop, releasing their debut, Silent Steeples in 1996 and the perennial favorite Bang Bang a year later. Soon after, they rebranded themselves as Dispatch and, with the help of early mp3 file-sharing services like Napster, their music eventually became a dorm-room rite of passage—exciting hippie art majors and frat boys alike.

The band offered relentlessly catchy blend of stripped-down folk and reggae, peppered with enough activism-inspired lyrics that their young fans truly believed that they were part of a movement—whether they were actively marching in the streets or not.

But, after three proper studio albums, a handful of bootlegs and some live recordings, things started to fall apart. By 2002, Stokes, Francis and Corrigan had started moving in three different directions; the tension was palpable and, without an official announcement, they quietly parted ways.

After a few quiet years, Dispatch did regroup for a more formal goodbye in 2004, as well as city-specific reunions in 2007 and 2009, but didn’t truly feel reactivated until 2012. That’s when the seemingly reinvigorated trio recorded and released Circles Around the Sun, their first new music in over a decade. The three singer-songwriters did interviews and spoke—though coyly, without any commitment—about the band’s future. But the album came and went. Dispatch returned to silence. And that’s where the story of Dispatch 2.0 truly began.

“Pete is a founding member, a dear friend and a brother. And our friendships were always the key to Dispatch,” Corrigan says now. “But Pete had started to manifest more of a struggle with depression. It made touring a scarier thing. For years, Pete would tell us he was fine, but Chad and I could see he wasn’t feeling good. He was playing well, but his energy and his spirit were somewhere else. And we began to wonder: ‘Does this help or hurt the band? Does this help or hurt Pete?”’

The Circles Around the Sun sessions were filled with, as Corrigan describes, peaks and valleys—starts and stops, communication breakdowns that were never fully addressed.

“We were proud of the music that came out [of 2012], but I didn’t wanna do that again,” Corrigan says. “We came away from it a little gun-shy about ever recording again.”

***

Three years later, with Circles Around the Sun still in the rearview mirror, Corrigan, Stokes and Francis called a “Dispatch state of the union” in New York, with their managers, wives and therapists all in attendance. Though part of Dispatch’s charm had always been that they were a band boasting three strong creative voices, they needed a clear leader. And Stokes stepped up.

“I said: ‘If you want both my feet in this pool with y’all, you need to trust my vision of where Dispatch could go,’” he remembers. “The three-headed monster of Dispatch had become debilitating for us; it was impossible to make decisions.”

Francis’ ongoing struggle with his mental health also came into focus. Stokes and Corrigan speak lovingly, and carefully, about those difficult conversations.

“The band relationship can be so confusing. You’re business partners, but also almost like lovers. Creating music is so intimate,” Stokes says.

“Pete was courageous. He was like, ‘Shit, I need to work on a plan for my depression. You guys tour, bring in some new players to the band. It’s not fair for you to stop when I stop and start when I can start,’” Corrigan says, before pausing to find the right words. “Chad and I had to start building Dispatch 2.0 while Pete was a satellite circling above us.”

Without Francis, Dispatch hit the road in Europe and began working on new songs. They invited a new production team—including Mike Sawitzke from Eels and John Dragonetti of The Submarines— to join them in the studio to work toward their next LP, America, Location 12. Francis joined his bandmates in the studio for a few days to record guitar parts, but his involvement in the album was limited.

“Pete added a few really choice parts, but it was clear to all of us that this trio we’d been for years and years—we just couldn’t find it anymore,” Stokes says.

Before Dispatch—now a fully fleshed[1]out, large-scale touring band—launched an extensive run behind Location 12 in 2017, Francis published a letter on Facebook explaining that he could not join his band on the road: “In order to get better, this problem requires my complete focus and every bit of energy I can spare. In sharing my decision with you publicly… I feel a much needed sense of relief that will allow me to focus all of my energy on my healing.”

Besides the odd sit-in, Francis never fully rejoined the band. Corrigan describes the group’s long push and pull with Francis with a frankness that comes with time and space: “The plan was always for him to rejoin Dispatch when he could, and we tried that. It just wasn’t working. It was like an athlete who is injured and keeps coming back a little too soon.”

Following America, Location 12—and its quickly released follow-up Location 13, built from songs created in the Location 12 sessions—Dispatch 2.0 hit another creative high. The band’s sound had blossomed from the sparse, soulful tunes of the late- ‘90s into something fuller, richer, more textured. A far cry from the dorm room reggae of their early years, they laid down a set of thinking-man’s rock. The songs offered not only a wider sonic palette, but also more space to breathe.

“What you’re hearing is a newfound freedom, a bit of relief,” Corrigan says. “We’re focusing 100% of our energy on music.”

By 2019, Stokes—now the band-appointed team captain—was churning out tunes at a rapid clip. He recorded and released an album with his band The Pintos that year while simultaneously writing new Dispatch material.

Corrigan remembers sensing a new energy in Stokes’ songs when he heard “Year of the Woman,” a righteous, fiery welcoming of the #MeToo era, released as a one-off single in 2019. There’s no mistaking its chorus: “There’s a sea change coming/ Like a high court summon/ From sea to fuckin’ shining sea.”

“I heard those demos and I could feel there was magic inside. Those songs were a 50,000-foot view of the tensions in our country: violence, race, privilege,” Corrigan says. “I knew then—we are no longer in Location 12 or 13. We’re in a brand new place.”

The clear intra-band roles established during that 2015 band meeting emboldened both Corrigan and Stokes.

“Brad was like our manager in the early days, while Pete and I were these flighty, romantic poets,” Stokes says. “He had a big, black address book with tour dates and details. The more he tried to control things, the more I ran from that. But when we agreed that I’d lead, he didn’t have to chase me, and now we can just breathe in our relationship.”

In Dispatch 2.0, the songs start with Stokes. Then, Corrigan will listen to his demos, offer some edits and new avenues to explore, and contribute to arguably Dispatch’s signature sound—their gorgeous, effortless harmonies.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re jets in Top Gun, or fish swimming together,” Corrigan says. “We know each other’s moves, and we move really quickly together. I couldn’t love or respect Chad any more as a human, which makes everything else gravy. I love who he is, and I love who he’s becoming. I love how fearless he is in questioning himself, and the world around him. So, creatively—it’s Matthew Shelter just become fun as shit.”

Stokes wrote the songs of Break Our Fall to be, in his words, “a bit of a backdoor to people’s minds.”

“You get in through the heart with melody and feeling,” he says. “But you hit their minds with your lyrics.”

On “Silent Type,” he sings of “a man hanging from an old oak tree, for looking someone in the eye,” before a stomping, bluesy riff clears the road for the chorus, stacked high with harmonies. “Another storm is coming/ We gotta take a stand so we don’t fall.”

And his words are even sharper on the hushed, finger-picked “Promise Land”: “One man gets killed by a man sworn to protect him/ We’re reeling and dealing and elect a white nationalist president/ But we need to look at ourselves; it’s more or less how we voted/ What’s that tell you now?/ Tells you that we wrote it.”

***

In early 2020, Stokes and Corrigan entered Panoramic House studio in Stinson Beach, Calif., with producers Dragonetti and Sawitzke, as well as touring bandmates Jimmy Parr, John J.R. Reilly and Matt Embree. Working with the same creative team—in the same studio as their previous set—brought a welcome level of comfort for both Dispatch cofounders. The space’s wide windows open onto the ocean; it was built in the 1960s entirely from recycled materials from nearby San Francisco. The calm was pervasive; the band’s focus was laser-sharp.

“We worked in our own rhythms, in nature and in sync with each other. Each morning, I’d drive down to the beach, walk a mile along the ocean. Chad would walk down this path filled with vines and trees—he’s like a character in Where the Wild Things Are,” Corrigan says with a laugh. “We got breath, sunlight, exercise and then we’d go into the studio and record. It’s the healthiest way we’ve ever recorded.”

Stokes remembers waking up at 5 a.m.—his body still on East Coast time—to quietly review the songs queued up for the day’s session while the band slept. The results were passionate pleas for change, performed with a disciplined, serene mind.

The band closed their sessions at Panoramic House feeling like they’d created some of their best work, with a spring 2020 release date in mind. And then the pandemic hit. Without any touring plans or real reason to rush, Stokes remained arm-bound with his brothers, sister, parents and kids. Corrigan, who’d just gotten married and had a baby on the way, found himself on a makeshift honeymoon in rural Idaho for months on end.

Separately, Corrigan, Stokes, Sawitzke and Dragonetti continued to quietly work on Break Our Fall, tweaking lyrics, adding textures and refining harmonies. The music not only provided each member a cocoon from the traumas of 2020 but also a way to process what was unfolding around them.

Break Our Fall’s first song, “May We All,” benefited the most. When Stokes wrote it in 2019, the song was a prayer: “May we all be mistaken/ About our current state/ About the current of hate.” But in 2020, after he witnessed the country quake in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Stokes knew the song wasn’t quite finished.

“I had 50 different options for one line; it needed to be right,” he remembers.

He landed on a simple, but powerful, phrase. It was also an admittance that though, as a white man in his 40s, he could never truly know the struggles many of his neighbors face on a daily basis, he could still listen, learn and support the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements: “May we all be forsaken/ Like the Black man trying to breathe/ Or the woman that’s never believed.”

So, while Break Our Fall is clearly a protest record, it is also a hopeful one. It’s a belief that, before they can truly heal their country, all Americans need to see each other first—that there’s no way to create change and build a better future without acknowledging the pain of the past. And, in that way, Break Our Fall not only speaks to the activism that Dispatch has always engaged in, but it also speaks to Dispatch itself.

“What we see in the light, we need to keep in the light,” Corrigan says, his son now sleeping quietly in his arms. “What we see now, we can’t unsee.”