Sometimes a band has to go away for it to grow. When the reggae-rocking Dispatch called it quits in 2002, the Vermont trio was a much-loved, if not quite legendary, branch of the jam band tree. But something strange happened in the following years: the band got bigger. When Brad Corrigan, Pete Francis, and Chad Urmston reunited for a farewell show in Boston in 2004, an estimated 110,000 people came. When they came together for a benefit for Zimbabwe in 2007, Dispatch sold-out three nights at Manhattan's Madison Square Garden.
Last year, the band undertook a short summer tour. This year, though, is when they've fully returned to life, playing summer festivals, and on August 21 they will release Circles Around the Sun, their first new album in 12 years. Brad Corrigan spoke with us about Dispatch's remarkable renaissance.
When did it become clear for you guys that you wanted to get back on the horse and record a full album?
Well, we'd been comparing our experience to 2004 and 2007, where we coming out of not having played for a good while and then preparing for two-to-four weeks to have these epic events. Those shows were such pressure cookers. Then when we were considering playing Red Rocks in 2011, all three of us were in the same headspace. We missed each other and missed making music together and missed writing songs. It all just sort of carefully fell into place. Like, "Let's try it and if we like it let's do it and if we don't like it we don't have to do it." So we just had a really good time playing Red Rocks and went through with the full tour and decided to record an album.
Once you were back in the studio, what had most changed and what had stayed the same about working together?
What was most different was working with [producer] Peter Katis. He's phenomenal. He's someone who leveled the playing field for the three of us. We didn't have to worry about holding things together. It's scary without a producer. If one guy has an idea, his other two bandmates are trying to tell him whether they like it or dislike it. You end up spending at least half of your energy figuring out how to be honest with each other. Peter was awesome. He wasn't heavy-handed. He just wanted our best ideas and focused on the positives. He really knew how to handle the three of us and make us feel like we were getting better each day.
That was what was different. What was the same?
It's like riding a bike. Our voices just went into what we'd always done. Our harmonies and our vocal blend were just immediate. Also, the way Pete and I play drums and bass and the way Chad's guitar just rips into it — we just fell into it. We've been around the block enough to be able pick up right where we left off and still have chemistry together.
When you guys last released an album 12 years ago, the expectations were a lot lower. This time, you know you've got a lot of hungry fans who have been waiting a long time to hear new music from you. Did you feel more pressure this time?
I don't think so. Like you said, it's been 12 years. Just the novelty of recording again is overwhelming for us. If we did a record every year, I'm sure we'd be really tapped in to what our fans wanted us to deliver or what we could or should be doing differently or what the critics are saying. But coming back after such a long time away, we felt like we didn't owe it to anybody to record new music. We did it how we want to. I think we ended up being pretty true to ourselves. [Circles Around the Sun] is very different than what we recorded in '99. A lot of fans are along with us for the nostalgic ride, but I think they're also going to be excited by the what we've come up with.
What about the new album strikes you as being something you wouldn't have done back in the late '90s?
I don't think there are any real surprising influences. I think what's more surprising is what's not there. We've always had a lot of reggae-infused rock but this album moved more in a rock'n'roll, Americana three-part harmony direction. There's a strong Tom Petty influence. There's a strong Pearl Jam influence. There's a little bit of cinematic Radiohead, Beatles-y production. The harmonies are real crystal clear. I remember when we finished recording we went "Wait a minute. We didn't pull any reggae vibes. There's no syncopated guitar." Then we were like, "Okay!" I think the album gets to the soul of who the three of us are.
All the time you guys were away, did you have a sense that your fan base kept growing?
It's been unbelievable. We're as fortunate as any band out there in that one of us didn't have to die in order for our band to get bigger. It's remarkable to know that we could go away and people were still eager to hand the music off. It's not like we were on the radio or TV. There was no mainstream media pushing us. It was all a grassroots thing. None of us really had our eye on it, though. We were blown away in '04 when we played in Boston. We were thinking 20,000 people might come, not 110,000. Then in '07 we thought maybe one night at Madison Square Garden would be pushing it, but we sold out three nights. We were like, "What is happening?" We're just floored that our fans have stayed with us. They've remained loyal when they could've easily been bitter and thought we should've made more music. Instead they've let us have this really human experience of being a band. They just waited for us to come back. And now we have.