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Talking politics with State Radio’s Chad Stokes

Observer Scene | Monday, April 21, 2008

Somewhere outside Albany, Chad Stokes is frustrated. Stokes, 32, is the outspoken and shaggy-haired lead singer and guitarist for State Radio, an independent roots-rock band with reggae influences based in Boston.

Stokes is best-known for his many years as one of the vocalists and guitarists for college-rock band Dispatch, who still enjoy a Grateful Dead-like cult following. Stokes spoke with The Observer last week about State Radio’s music, his sometimes controversial political views and the break-up of Dispatch.

What was Strokes frustrated about last week during our interview? Zimbabwe. For Stokes, being a rock musician is more than just a trade, it’s a calling. Stokes lived in Zimbabwe during his 18th year and the experience has deeply influenced both his songs and his commitment to community service and the peace movement.

When Stokes spoke with The Observer, State Radio (a trio also featuring bassist Chuck Fay and drummer Mike Najarian) had just finished a short community-service tour supporting Tom Morello of Audioslave and Rage Against The Machine.

“We just got off a short run with Tom Morello in California,” said Stokes via phone from New York. “None of the artists were getting paid. It was about community service. Besides playing, we went to a homeless shelter and washed some dishes with Tom and friends.”

In early April, Zimbabwe held national elections, although the country’s current president, Robert Mugabe, widely-considered to be a ruthless dictator, reportedly has influenced his re-election victory through threats and terror.

“Right now, with the elections, it’s a crucial time,” said Stokes, passionately. “It’s a country of empty bellies.”

Stokes is worried about the future of Zimbabwe and what Mugabe may do to his people.

“If Mugabe stays in, through some of his strong-arm tactics and intimidation, I don’t know what that country will do. It’s at a very critical point in its history. I have some friends over there who I’m worried about.”

Although Dispatch’s tenure ended officially in 2002, its members have reunited for philanthropic causes. In July 2007, Stokes and former band-mates Pete Francis and Brad Corrigan hosted an epic, sold-out three-night stand at Madison Square Garden in New York to benefit the plight in Zimbabwe and raise awareness about the plethora of political and economic problems there.

“It was cool to play with those kids,” reflected Stokes about playing with a Zimbabwe youth choir during the Madison Square Garden shows. “We were pretty psyched. I was just glad when it was over and we hadn’t [messed] up royally,” said Stokes, laughing.

State Radio is much more overtly political than Dispatch – and plays an intense live show. If you haven’t heard their music, think Michael Franti meets John Butler Trio. State Radio released its first EP in 2002 but gained a higher profile after their first full-length studio album “Us Against the Crown” was released in 2006. In September 2007, State Radio released its second studio album, “Year of the Crow.”

“In State Radio, we’re all along the same lines,” Stokes said. “We feel unfettered and like that we can let it roll, no matter what.

With Dispatch, Stokes said he was often frustrated with his band’s disinterest in playing politically-tinged songs.

“With Dispatch, I knew certain things. (Francis and Corrigan) wouldn’t be pleased with my lyrics. That was hard. It was hard to feel that when I knew there was an audience (for politically-minded music) – where we could make some change and contribute to the peace movement. That was a little bit lost with Dispatch.”

Dispatch disbanded in 2002, before the United States invaded Iraq a year later. Before breaking-up the band, Stokes recalled that members of Dispatch “didn’t really get into it” when it came to politics, but admits that if the group was active during the Iraq invasion, Dispatch may have changed.

“If Dispatch was a working band when the invasion occurred, we would had to have had a serious conversation about what we should do, such as partnering with Iraq Veterans Against the War,” Stokes said.

Stokes said in our interview that politics played a “small part” in Dispatch’s break-up. “Personalities were diverging,” Stokes said. “It wasn’t totally political. Most of it was that we had stopped creating with each other. It was getting to be too tricky to write and play new songs together. For years, we kept playing old (songs) that had been recorded years ago.”

The disconnect between the members of Dispatch from 1999 to 2002 was ultimately insurmountable said Stokes. “I think we all were writing new songs, but somehow they didn’t fit in,” Stokes said. “No one was bringing them to the table. No one would complain. I don’t think anyone wanted new songs.”

In a scene in director Helmut Schleppi’s 2005 film “The Last Dispatch,” which documents Dispatch’s (at the time) last concert in 2004, Stokes is seen tersely talking politics with Dispatch drummer and vocalist Brad Corrigan. I mentioned the scene to Stokes and asked him about his relationship with Corrigan and their politics.

“Brad said to me, tell me why you don’t like George Bush,” remembered Stokes. “I said (Bush) was out of touch, in with big business, making wrong decisions for the people. Since then, Brad has been more open-minded to that. Pete has always just been pretty separate from politics.

When he started State Radio, Stokes says it was like “uncapping a bottle of new (stuff)” since he was able to develop his own songs, regardless of how controversial their message could be to some listeners.

State Radio’s current live set mixes tracks from both of their studio albums and the band’s various EP and live releases. “It’s good for us to break it up,” said Stokes of his band’s philosophy on their live show. “We play a lot of the new tunes, with two or three of the older tunes. People have been really receptive and shouting back at us. It’s been cool.”

For their most-recent studio album “Year of the Crow,” State Radio was aiming for a more live sounding record to capture the energy of their on-stage heroics. They enlisted producer Tchad Blake, well-known for his work with artists such as Phish, Pearl Jam and Peter Gabriel, to turn the knobs. They recorded “Year of the Crow” in Blake’s studio outside London.

The lyrics on “Year of the Crow” are unforgiving and yearning, railing against perceived injustices on tracks such as “Guantanamo,” “C.I.A.” and “Sudan.”

“We live in such a wild time in this country,” Stokes said. “We have so much to be upset about. Upset about the war, the cutting of funding of different groups – not just veterans but for people with disabilities, housing shortages, this ‘Every Child Left Behind’ type thing.”

Regarding the war in Iraq, which shades many State Radio songs, Stokes said he has “always been against it.”

“Saddam Hussein was a bad man, but so is Kim Jong-il,” Stokes said. “There are bad places out there, for sure, but a lot of this is channeling our anger from 9/11 to Iraq. It seems really see-through to me. Such a volatile region, but going in and disturbing it with our myopic, Americanized policy was a disaster … we’ve ruined our international reputation.”

Even though Stokes is politically active, he declined making a presidential endorsement during our interview.

“I’m supporting the Democratic nominee,” Stokes said. “I like Obama and Hillary, but I’m not enamored by either. I’m excited by change, what I think it could bring. If I had to be pushed in one direction, I’d lean towards Obama.”

Stokes knows that some of his fans are not always pleased with his band’s overt political tone. At times, Stokes said fans young and old, and some veterans, have given him their own opinions about State Radio’s lyrics.

“I don’t mind if people show up just for the music,” Stokes said. “Ultimately, we’re just a band. It’s cool if they just want to come for the music, have a good time.”

This summer, State Radio has landed a handful of coveted opening slots on the Dave Matthews Band’s summer tour. Instead of playing to packed clubs, State Radio will be warming up thousands of fans in open-air amphitheaters across America.

“I’m sure we’ll be pretty nervous,” Stokes said. “It’s a huge show. We’ve played some big shows and festivals, but we haven’t been the sole opener for a band on a tour like this.”

Stokes is adamant that music can play a vital role in getting citizens interested in their country and important issues. For Stokes, the activism of other bands in 2008 is refreshing.

“I think you see every election people coming out of the woodwork, more bands popping up,” Stokes said. “Bands are a good counterweight to the media, especially Fox News. Playing in places like the Midwest, you can represent a different viewpoint.”

Stokes describes State Radio’s politics as “liberal, with leftist tendencies.” The band is active in raising money and awareness for veterans’ causes, Zimbabwe and the genocide in Darfur through Stokes’ Elias Fund, the Dispatch Foundation and other groups. Stokes also has an obvious passion in supporting people with disabilities, which came through in our interview. Stokes was involved with the 2003 HBO film “How’s Your News?” featuring people with disabilities reporting across the country.

“[State Radio] believes in nationalizing healthcare and having government take a larger role in taking on poverty,” Stokes said. “There are some socialistic tendencies. We just want to stay away from the trend of corporations taking over, the corporate welfare state. Anything the [Bush administration] does, it does with the onus of keeping the CEOs happy.”

Stokes is happy with the independent, grassroots route State Radio has taken.

“I’d say things are pretty good in the van right now,” Stokes said. “The momentum of the band seems to be going at a nice pace. You bring a bunch of suits into it, it waters it down. It’s not such a cool thing.”

Stokes said that State Radio’s path is similar to Dispatch’s in some ways. But, Stokes now clearly wants to avoid even entertaining the idea of signing with a record label run by a major corporation.

“With Dispatch, we had some big dinners and lunches and met the big guns of the record labels in New York,” Stokes said. “[Dispatch] was sort of open to it, but [the labels] never saw our vision completely. They said ‘recut this album’ or ‘redo this album.’ They never got us,” Stokes said. “Besides, when the record companies came to Dispatch, we were already almost done with it. We were like you guys are coming at us way too late.”

Stokes was at first hesitant to go into detail about Dispatch’s break-up, but recalled that it was around 1999 that the band began to go downhill.

“Probably the recording of “Who Are We Living For?” was when it started,” Stokes said. “There were some arguments over what songs to pick. Lyrically, we weren’t on the same page. Everyone started to be pissed with each other in 1999.”

Stokes said it was the arguments over lyrics during the recording for Dispatch’s fourth, and last, studio album that caused increasing friction within the band.

“People would say this is too racy, too risky,” Stokes said. “People would come to the table and say here’s a song. Then someone would say ‘I’m not comfortable with that.’ Then, someone would say ‘what the [heck] are you talking about?'” Stokes said. “Artists are sensitive people. When they come to the table with a song that can be damaging it makes you less excited. Then you become a legacy act playing old tunes.”

“[Dispatch] was three different guys,” Stokes said. “I was political, Brad was spiritual and coming into his religion. Pete was more of the romantic and the poet. Pete wanted to push the envelope in terms of lyrics. I wanted to be edgier politically; Brad was honed in with his faith. It was a democracy, with people putting everything out there.”

“I think the United States is in a tough place and it’s our responsibility, and legacy of our forefathers, to speak out about what we think is wrong,” Stokes said. “Like the bumper sticker says, dissent is patriotic. We should let our voices be heard.”

As Stokes has become more politically active over the years, he said he still understands why some fans are not interested in his message.

“I don’t blame people who aren’t involved,” Stokes said. “But, I think it’s great when they are. When people come up to us after shows and tell us they’ve been affected by our music, or started a Save Darfur Club, an Elias Fund … it’s rewarding for us.”

With State Radio, Stokes is confident that “we’re in it for life.” Even after the tense Dispatch break-up, Stokes said he wanted to continue to make music.

“I thought I’d give it one more try, to see if the same problems had to exist,” Stokes said. “You put eight years into a band, you can finally afford a bus, you feel like all of your work has come to fruition,” said Stokes on Dispatch.

The reality of starting State Radio from scratch was a major change for Stokes. “A year later, I’m back in a van, playing to forty people, if that,” Stokes said. “It’s pretty humbling trying to start again. We hit the road hard; we built it organically. It’s been tough. I felt like I’ve done this before, he we are again – driving at 4:00 a.m., loading the van.”

Now, State Radio is normally playing to 500 fans or more. “Once you get in the 500 range, it feels pretty big,” Stokes said. “The weirdness is playing Madison Square Garden or the Hatch Shell in Boston with Dispatch when we didn’t have any real new songs, playing the same tunes we’d been playing for years in the basement of a dorm. That’s the weird thing that’s hard to process.”

State Radio is looking to record their third studio album after the 2008 presidential election is over, probably in January 2009. Besides this summer’s tour and planning future studio albums, Stokes said the band plans to release a “four or five song EP, spin-off type thing, more acoustic, like 2004’s ‘Simmer Kane’ EP.”

What will the next State Radio album sound like?

“Some of the tunes we’re working on now are epic, more rock based,” Stokes said. “I’d like to get more experimental, add more riffs. I’m not sure where it’s going. Sometimes, we visualize our next record as rock-based, a ‘big world’ sound with (John) Bonham-sounding drums … more of an airy, big sound.”

Will Dispatch ever reunite?

“There might be a show or two in a few years,” Stokes said. “I don’t think we’ll be a working band. I don’t know. Not at the moment. Breaking up was the best thing for our friendships.”

The views expressed in Scene & Heard are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Observer.

Contact Bob Costa at rcosta1@nd.edu