Dispatch: United We Stand

Jeremy D. Goodwin on June 2, 2017

There’s a clubhouse vibe tonight at Chad Stokes Urmston’s place. Enough people are in the house right now— maybe a dozen—that my arrival goes more or less unnoticed. Urmston and Dispatch bandmate Brad Corrigan are standing in the living room, eating bowls of Raisin Bran. The TV is tuned to a January playoff game between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers.

There’s a camera crew on hand for a second straight day of shooting various promotional footage, and their gear is piled up in various corners; in a few minutes, the band will also play a short set of songs off in a side room for Relix’s video series. One member of the band’s management team is sitting on a couch talking about the history of music videos. Another is out picking up Indian takeout for everybody.

Percussion instruments and video gear are scattered everywhere on the first floor of this rambling house in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, which Urmston and his wife own but rent out. It feels like guys’ night. In the kitchen, there’s a (mostly full) pizza box and a (mostly empty) box of Dunkin’ Donuts treats. Someone is rolling a joint on the counter.

It’s an eventful weekend for Dispatch. They’re racing to get the videos done before Urmston has throat surgery in a couple of days, after which he’ll be on strict doctor’s orders to keep quiet for a few weeks. (That is unless his wife delivers their third child before then, which is a possibility.) They’re also in the midst of signing off on final mixes for the tracks on their sixth studio album, and first in five years, America, Location 12. The record is due in June, around the time that Dispatch will hit the road with old friends Guster, as well as Marco Benevento. Pete Francis Heimbold, the third member of the group, is not present.

When first setting up this evening’s interview, I was told that all three members of Dispatch would be there. Later, I received the update that Heimbold had to return home unexpectedly, and that I’d have to catch up with him at another time. It didn’t sound like anything to worry about.

Urmston and Corrigan say that, for the first time in years, Dispatch is firmly committed to flipping the band’s switch into the “on” position. The flurry of band activity on display here tonight is evidence. They seem full of optimism about the future of the group and talk about a new sense of purpose. Yet, that’s not the whole story. Dispatch is back, yes, but it turns out that, for the time being, they are flying in a missing-man formation.

Smooth vocal harmonies have always been part of this band’s sound. So it’s tempting to read into the way Urmston and Corrigan sometimes answer a question in unison, their words overlapping like the dialogue in a David Mamet play. They pursue parallel points and weave in and out of each other’s sentences, beginning a thought here and finishing one there. 

Corrigan: We wanna work hard. We wanna release a badass record. We wanna… Urmston: …there’s a new level of commitment… Corrigan: …to bring all of this… Urmston: …that we haven’t felt since, like… Corrigan: …the first two records, really… Urmston: …the late ‘90s. It was like, either play less and make it a big deal that we just play every five years… Corrigan: …and keep it nostalgic. Oh, that sounds so awful… Urmston: …or be a real band Corrigan: …and play and prove and reach and inspire. And get after it.

Dispatch originally coalesced as One Fell Swoop at Middlebury College in the mid-1990s, but has functioned more as an on-again, off-again proposition for longer than it was ever a full-time band grinding it out every night on the road. In the late ‘90s, they grew into college and prepschool favorites, thanks to their blend of rock, folk, ska and jam, and their commitment to grassroots fan engagement; with the advent of Napster in the early 2000s, they exploded into generational stars before most fans outside of the East Coast had a chance to see them and, as the inner-band dynamics quickly soured, the trio initially went on hiatus in 2002.

After brushing aside breakup rumors, Dispatch first came back together in 2004 for a warm-up club date before a massive, free farewell show at Boston’s Hatch Shell that drew over 100,000 fans. They staged an equally high-profile and quick New York reunion run leading up to three sold-out nights at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2007, and came together for an acoustic engagement at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center in 2009 at the request of the prime minister of Zimbabwe (the country that the MSG dates benefited). Those all shaped up as isolated projects, and Urmston, Corrigan and Heimbold returned to solo ventures and social activism.

The second era of Dispatch’s career truly kicked off in 2011, when the trio officially came back together and hit the road for a series of summer dates at marquee venues like Morrison, Colo.’s Red Rocks, Berkeley, Calif.’s Greek Theatre and Boston’s TD Garden. That run led into the 2012 release of their first studio album in over 10 years, Circles Around the Sun, and additional time on the road. But the Circles Around the Sun reboot proved unsatisfying for both critics and many longtime fans, and Dispatch seemed burdened by the legend of their own absence. In recent years, the group’s performances have been sporadic.

“We have our core fanbase and that’s maybe not that many, and then there’s a bunch of people who kind of know the name Dispatch, and those people think we last played in 2007,” Urmston says. He tells a story about running into some old friends of the band and mentioning that Dispatch was gearing up for the record that would become America, Location 12. They were happily surprised the band was back together.

“We wanted to make a splash with this record and really come back in a way that’s…” Urmston says, trailing off.

“Noticeable?” Corrigan offers wryly.

“Where random friends know we’re back together,” Urmston counters.

In the past, long-simmering personality conflicts and power struggles wedged the trio apart. Urmston displayed his displeasure passively, showing up late for practice or recording sessions. By the end of the band’s first era, the members felt weird getting onstage and acting like best friends. “The crowds were getting bigger,” Corrgian says of their initial run. “But we were so burned out on each other and burned out on touring that it was like, ‘This feels awful. This is what we wanted, and yet we’re kind of manufacturing smiles to play these shows.’”

The band members are now in their 40s and spread out around the country—Urmston lives in Massachusetts, Corrigan has returned to his home state of Colorado, and Heimbold has moved home to southern Connecticut after years in New York City. They were determined not to make the same mistakes this time. After the Circles tour, there was a band meeting to talk about the future. They decided to make Dispatch more than just a series of occasional reunion projects and were ready to make it their priority. But for it all to work, they needed to communicate better.

“Just being honest is the most loving and respectful thing we can do for each other. It’s a little daunting, like, ‘Wow, so you actually would give me permission to tell you what I think? Because I don’t want to overstep my bounds,’” Corrigan says of the new dynamic. They opened up decisions to include management and other collaborators, to avoid the old two-to-one votes that always left somebody feeling resentful. And they needed to get out of their own way on a creative level as well.

“Pete and I can say that Chad just stepped up massively, saying he really wanted to creatively captain this record and captain our band forward,” Corrigan recalls. “It’s tricky with three guys who write songs and three guys who are used to singing lead. That can be our strength, but it can also be our greatest weakness, if we don’t let our natural leader lead.”

With a consensus around the idea of Urmston as the creative captain, Dispatch struck a new balance. They started making plans for a European tour, scheduled for summer 2016. “We had this moment where we all were so pumped to go full-on for the first time in a long time,” Urmston says.

Then Heimbold gave the other guys some news: He was sick. He couldn’t tour. In fact, he needed to step away from the band indefinitely.

As he would announce in a Facebook post in March, Heimbold was suffering from depression. His condition was, and is, so serious that he wasn’t up for any band business last summer or for promoting and touring the new album this year. (He did contribute to the sessions and can be heard on every song, Urmston and Corrigan each make a point to mention.)

When I met with the rest of the band in Boston, Heimbold and his family were still struggling with what to say about all of this. Neither of his bandmates, nor his management, wanted to overstep by speaking on his behalf. Urmston and Corrigan talked honestly about the band’s new sense of urgency, but had to leave out a key detail. The ruse about Heimbold missing our interview unexpectedly fell apart when it turned out he wasn’t available for a phone call either. Something was happening, but no one would say what. Shortly before Heimbold issued his statement, Corrigan called me from the Denver airport and explained the situation: Heimbold was sick and wasn’t sure what to say about it.

“Like others you may know, I battle depression. In order to get better, this problem requires my complete focus and every bit of energy I can spare,” Heimbold wrote in his Facebook message. “In sharing my decision with you publicly for the first time, I feel a much needed sense of relief that will allow me to focus all of my energy on my healing… My hope is that I will also get to share with you some of my successes as I travel what may be a rocky and sometimes uncertain path toward well-being.”

One rainy afternoon in April, I have a follow-up phone call with Urmston. Since our late-January meeting in Boston, he’s had vocal chord surgery followed by three weeks of silence. His daughter, Charlie Bird, was born. He talks to me while he’s sitting in his van, parked on the property in rural Sherborn, Mass., that is home to multiple generations of his family. His sleeping infant daughter is also in the van. He speaks softly.

When Heimbold told the rest of the band that he needed to step away to address his depression and the issues related to his illness, everybody spent a few months thinking about how to proceed, Urmston explains.

“It really came to a head, where we were like, ‘We have to either cancel Europe or not,’” he says. “And slightly after that, ‘Are we going to do a Dispatch record with these new tunes or not?’”

Heimbold encouraged his bandmates to move forward, and assured them that he’d return to Dispatch when he’s able. (Through management, Heimbold declined invitations to be interviewed for this article, both before and after issuing his statement.)

The Europe tour went forward, complete with two additional musicians and a nightly announcement expressing Heimbold’s desire to be there. For their summer tour behind America, Location 12, Urmston and Corrigan will be joined by John Reilly and Matthew Embree, longtime members of Urmston’s other bands, and Mike Sawitzke, who engineered (and played on) the new album.

“He’s been really incredible about giving us his blessing,” Urmston says of Heimbold. “But it’s really tough. Bands go through different phases and, in some ways, this is just a different one, but we’re missing our third guy. It’s a strange and sad and hard season.”

America, Location 12 builds on Circles Around the Sun’s sounds. It was recorded just north of San Francisco last fall at a house studio that looks down on Stinson Beach. My Morning Jacket, Chris Robinson Brotherhood and others have recently gravitated toward the studio’s relaxed, Big Pink vibe. To hear Urmston and Corrigan describe it, it sounds like an idyllic setting. Breezy tunes like “Painted Yellow Lines” and “Only the Wild Ones” would be perfect soundtrack fodder for a California beach party. The vocal harmonies on the record are plentiful and gorgeous. Some of the songs range pleasantly into earworm territory. The ska and uptempo reggae flavors of the band’s early days are nowhere to be found, and the new songs don’t groove too hard. It doesn’t sound raw or hungry, but it does sound confident, and it’s extremely tuneful.

Producer John Dragonetti says he and Sawitzke brought two carloads of vintage amplifiers and guitars to complement the old-school gear the studio was outfitted with. They used a vintage RCA pre-amp from the 1950s, Dragonetti’s Ludwig drums, vintage Gibson guitars, some Casio synthesizers and a 1963 Hofner bass.

“We went for some early- ‘70s fuzzed-out sounds,” Dragonetti says. “I didn’t want to use contemporary distorted-guitar sounds or any of that stuff. I just felt like these songs feel older to me.” He added that the studio’s internet was down a lot, which helped with the sense of pleasant isolation by the beach.

The summer tour will take the band across the U.S., followed by 11 dates in Europe. Management says there may yet be an announcement of more tour dates this year. Urmston and Corrigan are not, at this point, expecting Heimbold to be able to join them.

Seated with Corrigan at his house back in January, while the video crew packs up its gear downstairs and that takeout Indian food is being eaten, Urmston says that it’s important to keep the new material in heavy rotation this summer. That was the idea last time out, he says, but the band fell back into a greatest-hits set.

“If we’re going to be a real band, let’s have the shows be really different, let’s not necessarily lean on these 10 core tunes every time we play,” he explains.

Urmston and Corrigan are both a little afraid that their old fans won’t entirely buy into the new record. But that’s a risk that comes with growth. With new touring members on board and Heimbold’s future participation unclear, there is some uncertainty. Dispatch’s identity is indeed still evolving. But that’s not all bad. For musicians seeking to make their old band a fully vital concern again, it’s absolutely necessary.

“We are curious about what our identity is,” Corrigan says. “We’re always trying to figure that out.”