“We’ve been called the biggest band nobody’s ever heard of,” says Brad Corrigan, one of Dispatch’s three singers and multi-instrumentalists. “People either know everything about us or they know nothing. There never seems to be any middle ground.”
How Corrigan, Chad Stokes, and Pete Francis met in college, formed a band, and — with no radio airplay, major-label support, or significant press coverage — became one of the biggest draws on the live music scene, and arguably the biggest independent rock band in history, is a remarkable story. Though Dispatch hadn’t released a full-length album since 2000, and even officially called it quits in 2004, its music continued to capture the hearts and minds of new generations of rock fans through pure word-of-mouth. A 2004 farewell show at the Hatch Shell in Boston drew 110,000 people, including fans from Europe, South America, and Australia. Not one, but three 2007 shows at New York City’s Madison Square Garden sold-out immediately. A 2009 all-acoustic show, held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., at the request of Zimbabwe’s prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, sold out in less than two minutes.
Having repaired their friendships and reconciled the issues that led to their break-up, Dispatch regrouped for a sold-out U.S. tour last June that included three shows at Boston’s fabled TD Garden Arena, three shows at Red Rocks in Colorado, and the first-ever concert at New Jersey’s 25,000-seat Red Bull Arena. They also released a six-song EP and recommitted to touring and recording, honoring not only the alchemy that occurs whenever these three gather to make music together, but also the powerful bond they have forged with their fans over the last decade.
In March 2012, Dispatch embarks on its first-ever European tour, performing at theatres in London, Paris, Berlin, and Zurich, before appearing at the Bonnaroo Festival in June, followed by the August release of the band’s first full-length studio album in 12 years, Circles Around the Sun. Featuring cinematic, expansive production by Peter Katis (Interpol, Jonsi, The National), the album is an eclectic all-American rock and roll record that delivers the gutsy storytelling, radiant harmonies, and good-time grooves that Dispatch are loved for. Kicking things off is Stokes’ rootsy “Circles Around the Sun,” followed by the swaggering “Not Messin’” (composed by all three members), the jangly “Get Ready Boy,” and the bluesy “Josaphine” before the album closes out with two down-tempo tracks, Corrigan’s “We Hold A Gun” and Francis’ “Feels So Good.”
“We all bring different influences to the table, whether it be Led Zeppelin, Traffic, Radiohead, or Cat Stevens, and just kind of throw it all together,” Stokes says. “The harmonies are definitely a focal point. I personally like to tell stories within my songs. All three of us appreciate meaningful lyrics, whether they’re more direct, like in Brad’s songs, or more poetic, like in Pete’s songs.”
Stokes, Corrigan, and Francis, who each sing lead vocals and trade instruments on stage, met at Middlebury College in Vermont in the early ’90s. “We were all athletes, but we really bonded over our voices,” Francis says. “There was this real lock that happened when we sang together that was undeniable.” After playing together in various duos, the three joined forces as Dispatch, performing shows at Middlebury and neighboring colleges in New England. In 1996 they released their debut album, an acoustic-driven folk-pop affair called Silent Steeples, on their own Bomber Records label, followed by 1998’s reggae-flavored Bang Bang. “From Bang Bang on we started hearing that the music was being handed off to people’s friends and siblings,” Corrigan says. “We thought it was so cool that there was a family of fans developing.”
The 1999 release of Dispatch’s third album, Four-Day Trials coincided with the launch of then-illegal file-sharing service Napster, which enabled the band’s young, tech-savvy audience to freely share MP3’s of Dispatch songs like “The General” and “Bang Bang” and grow the audience in the process. “We played a show at a college in Pomona, California — a state we’d never visited, and a thousand kids turned up and sang along to every word,” Francis says.
Naturally, once Dispatch had established itself as a profitable touring entity, the major labels began sniffing around. “Not one time in any label meeting did anyone say, ‘We love your music and we just want to give wings to what you’re doing,’” Corrigan says. “It was always ‘We’ll make you into the next Dave Matthews Band.’ It was the exact opposite of what we wanted to hear. We knew it would kill our creativity. We don’t have a desire to be anything other than the first Dispatch.”
And yet at the height of their popularity, the members of Dispatch walked away. “We were just incredibly burned out,” Corrigan says. “We had no real friendships outside of each other and we wanted to have lives outside of the band and be part of our communities again.” “It actually felt dishonest to play for our audience when the relationships within the band were breaking down,” Stokes says. “It just didn’t feel right.”
The band members each pursued their own projects, with the Denver-based Corrigan forming the band Braddigan, Francis performing as an acoustic singer-songwriter, and the Boston-based Stokes, recording and touring with his band State Radio. In 2004, the three decided they owed it to the fans to give Dispatch a proper send-off and organized a free show in Boston on the Esplanade, anticipating perhaps 20,000 people would turn up. The concert became the largest independent music event in history (documented in a feature film The Last Dispatch). A contest that awarded backstage passes to the fan who travelled the furthest distance attracted responses from Portugal, Peru, and the United Arab Emirates.
In 2007, Dispatch came together once again to raise money for humanitarian organizations working in Zimbabwe, a country suffering from issues that resonated deeply with Francis, Corrigan, and especially Stokes, who lived there for six months after high school. After tickets to the first Garden show disappeared within minutes during the fan pre-sale, Dispatch added two more shows and became the first independent band to sell out the storied venue. The three-night-stand grossed more than two million dollars and raised hundreds-of-thousands of dollars for charities in Zimbabwe.
Social responsibility has always been a major component of the Dispatch culture. During its June 2011 tour, the band rolled out its Amplifying Education campaign, which focused on educational issues in the U.S. Not only did one dollar from each ticket sold go to benefit education in each local market, but audience members were encouraged to sign up to volunteer, which they did eagerly. “I’m always amazed when people show up for these volunteer events, because everyone’s busy and has a lot going on in their lives,” Stokes says. “But our fans are so passionate about the band, and that seems to lend itself to their wanting to do more than just come to the show.”
Not wanting to let down those fervent souls, Dispatch decided to record new music, which led to last year’s Dispatch EP and now Circles Around The Sun. “We all write so we knew there was material out there,” Stokes says. “If we were going to do a tour, we wanted to play new songs.”
Another motivator was knowing that they were giving back to the fans who had given so much to them. “It’s a dream to know that your music is actually a part of people’s experiences and becomes tied to special moments in their life,” Corrigan says. “That makes it all worth it. Also, it all just feels fun again. We’re so fired up to be great friends and to travel the world and see places we’ve never been before. I mean, come on. It doesn’t get much better than that.”