"The most important thing is to capture it well": An Interview with Jordan Dreyer of La Dispute
As the lead singer and lyricist of La Dispute, Jordan Dreyer makes a deep connection with the fans of the band who dig into his lyrics like literature. As a musician, when lyrics end up as tattoos on your fans, you know your words are resonating with the people.
Busy promoting a new album, Dreyer had a chance to speak with us a couple of weeks ago as the band loaded in for a recent show in Boise, ID. The band had started their spring tour on the week before and also recorded an Audiotree session in Chicago just as they hit the road. On the phone, his cordial and conversational voice exuded a friendly and genuine nature; a stark contrast to the angst in his singing voice.
The press release explains the new album, Wildlife, as "a nearly 60-minute musical examination of the twenty-something search for purpose; an exploration of the struggles that confront, damage, and redefine us inevitably in life through 14 tracks. Set up as a collection of "short stories" complete with the author's own notes and sectioned thematically by four monologues, Wildlife discusses the difficulties inherent in growing up by interweaving the author's own ambiguous loss and struggle for meaning alongside the stories it compelled him to document."
Supporting their sophomore album, La Dispute will play The Firebird in St. Louis on Monday, April 16, 2012 with support from openers Balance and Composure, All Get Out and Sainthood Reps. Tickets are $12 with a $3 minor surcharge at the door.
Editor's Note: A special thanks and a big kudos goes to contributorLauren Smalley for helping to write the questions and transcribing the audio of this interview.
Scott Allen: Hey, Jordan, this is Scott Allen from3 Minute Recordin St. Louis. First just let me say thank you for taking time out of your schedule for us today.
Jordan Dreyer: Of course man, no problem, my pleasure, thanks for talking to me.
No problem. So where are you guys at today?
We are just loading into the venue in Boise, ID.
I’ve been there … about 20 years ago or so …
It’s not so bad here. I like it here.
Cool. I’ve just got about 15 - 20 minutes of questions here for you if that’s cool.
Ok, yeah. Cool.
Last time you guys were in town it was kind of a crazy scene – the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers were playing Game 7 of the World Series across town.
Yes, they were.
*Laughs* Any interesting stories from that night or from any other shows that you have played in St. Louis?
We’ve played quite a few shows in St. Louis… honestly, I think one that stands out for probably all of us was a few years ago on New Year’s Eve, we played at the Lemp Arts Center with a bunch of friends. It was a great way to bring in the New Year and that one’s always stuck with me. Of course, the one that was not too long ago where the Cardinals clinched, that was a pretty interesting one.
It was pretty fun, we had a good time. People did a pretty good job, I think, of balancing their attention both ways between the game and the bands playing so… and that’s always something that like … ehh it can make shows a little weird when there’s like a big sporting event at the time you’re playing -- and I know that … I’m a huge baseball fan too so I would have been probably the exact same way trying to balance those two things … but that show was a good time. We always have a good time in St. Louis.
Nice… I’m assuming - you’re from Michigan - so, Tigers?
Tigers. Yes! Oh, yeah.
Obviously, your hometown of Grand Rapids kind of plays a big role in the new record, Wildlife. I lived in Lansing for a couple years in the late ‘90s. At that point Detroit and some of the other towns sort of reminded me of St. Louis when I was younger, but I saw signs of it slipping further. How has a dying rust belt town affected your music?
Well, you know, it’s interesting because Grand Rapids hasn’t been so terribly affected by the economic downturn because we’re so much less invested in the automotive industry. West Michigan, while it’s definitely seen better days, isn’t as vacant as certain parts of Detroit and parts of Flint and the other side of the state are. But, in general, Michigan has kind of had it harder than the bulk of the states and for a longer period of time because of the collapse of the automotive industry and how it trickles down into everything else. So when you see it everyday, it’s just something that affects you - seeing people struggle, seeing homes being foreclosed - I think it definitely stuck with me. We wanted to focus on maybe not just one singular topic, but kind of like discuss everything going on around us or around me at the time. It’s always something that is sort of present in my life. So, I think that it played a role for sure.
I mean even if you don’t live in Detroit but you live in the state of Michigan you still feel for the city because it’s kind of your flagship town. It’s the town everyone thinks of when they think of Michigan and it’s a city that used to be on top of the world in a lot of ways so it’s something that you feel pride in no matter where in Michigan you’re from.
Exactly. When I was there Oldsmobile was still around in Lansing and there was a lot of pride in that. I also went to the last game at Tiger Stadium.
Oh, you’re lucky!
Yeah, pretty lucky, haha. I remember when they tore down the Hudson’s’ Building in Detroit and that sort of stuff and it was almost like the passing of an era where things were just going by the wayside very slowly, but everything was just sort of incrementally disappearing. I mean it took a long time to tear down the stadium but you ultimately knew it wasn’t going to be there anymore.
So, as an upcoming band, how has social media helped your popularity? It seems like 10 years ago bands of a similar style and background weren’t nearly as popular, or maybe had a narrower fan base. Do you think this is a positive change? Or are there maybe more expectation and negative backlash?
I think it’s a combination of all of those things. It’s the conversation nowadays in regards to music and communication in general. It’s definitely changing the landscape, I think. In many ways I think it’s a positive thing, it just depends on how well everyone adapts to it and utilizes it… I mean even record leaking helps a lot. For us, when our record came out it leaked like a month before. I think it ended up having a much more positive effect for a band of our size and for our little niche of independent music where people who wouldn’t have otherwise heard of our band or had the impulse to check us out would do so just because somebody wrote about it in a blog or offered it as a free download or whatever. In a lot of ways I think we benefited from that and definitely social media has pros and cons. We’re in that day in age where privacy is … scant I guess?
It’s kind of an expectation that you’re supposed to put yourself out there on Facebook or Twitter. I think there’s a whole lot more transparency than there was before … mystique? for the bulk of bands … So it’s an interesting conversation and everyone’s still trying to figure it out, but I don’t know. I think it can be used for good.
Yeah, I definitely think there’s more good in it than bad, but it’s tough to have that anonymity these days because if you’re not on four different types of social media today you’re sort of out of the loop.
So with the rise of internet’s role in music consumption sort of making the value of artistic expression sometimes seemingly worth nothing – e.g.: people expecting music for free, unwilling to pay for CD’s, - how does that affect the band’s creative process?
You know, I don’t think it does, at least not for us. When we’re in that mindset where we’re trying to create something, we’re focused wholly on that thing. I don’t think it really enters our minds how it’s going to be distributed or consumed… I think in some ways it increases your involvement in the process if it does anything. There’s more of an incentive to create something worth buying - not just from the musical standpoint, but also the artistic standpoint - everything from the packaging to what you put with it. So, I think it makes people focus more on the total process than on just the recording itself, but I’m not sure it affected us terribly.
It’s one of those things where you have a piece of art and you’re going to put it out and you’re just hoping people are going to see it and hear it or whatever it may be and you want as much exposure as possible, but it’s sort of weird that there are so many avenues for people to consume it. You know whereas I am just used to buying vinyl or buying a CD where now there are so many different ways to do it.
Sure. Going back to the changing landscape I guess there’s pressure to adapt and out of necessity you have to kind of consider those things in some ways when you finally get down to putting something out.
So, obviously you’re on tour right now. How’s it going?
Great, so far. About a week in now had good shows so far. We’re with three fantastic bands and great people so we’re enjoying it.
Is there a good response to the record so far?
Yeah, definitely! The record came out in the fall and we were on a support tour so this is the first headliner we’ve done in the states since this record came out so it seems like people are responding well to both old songs and new and it’s kind of fun to play new songs and breathe life into everything and it’s fun when people are responsive and singing along and everything.
Yeah, I noticed you guys were kind of holding back a little with the songs before the record came out by previewing one here and one in Europe. Some bands, they’re just kind of working through the live things, but you guys kind of decided to hold back a little bit. Was there a decision on that or were you guys just not ready to get there yet?
I think it was just the interest level of people’s entertainment, honestly. And in some ways I don’t think we were ready to play all the songs that we had written at the time. The record wasn’t out so I think that primarily we wanted to stick to songs that people had heard, that people knew, and then sneak the new ones in as a little bit of a preview and then hit it harder once the record was out and had an opportunity to sit in people’s record players for a little while.
Cool. So you’ve said as long as the band continues to make music you will continue to release these “Here, Hear” EPs. To me, I see the bands’ use of these experimental EPs as like a study for a future musical endeavor sort of as a painter may do a study before tackling a larger work.
Does that bring a catharsis to the writing process? How does it help your process towards creating a full length?
Well, I think one of the things we’ve tried to do with the “Here, Hear” specials is try to broaden the context of what are “proper” records and to give people more of a glimpse of how each of us functions creatively. So, it’s a bit more supplemental if you want to get more into the songs on the records you have an opportunity to do that. You have a way to sort of dissect things, and that’s always been a big part of it. I think for us it’s just helpful to function with restrictions and to challenge ourselves creatively and it gives us a better understanding of who we all are as musicians and kind of helps us grow a little bit.
Maybe bounce ideas off of each other and bring in new concepts?
Absolutely, and I think you see that on the actual records – like you said it’s kind of like a study and you can see it in its early stages.
Obviously the lyrics are a huge aspect of the appeal of the band. Do you usually have all these narratives written out and then have the band write the music or is it vice versa? Or is it sort of a melding of the two?
I would say it is a melding of the two, especially this time around. I had a pretty solid concept for the record itself and for most of the songs on it so when we actually sat down to write; we wanted to make things as cohesive as possible and not just start music first and then go into lyrics. We wanted to start lyrics first and go to the music. But we would take my ideas from practice when we were writing and sit down and go over the stories and toss ideas back and forth and watch it take shape. So it started with a concept and we sat and hashed out the best way to accomplish that musically to capture tones and moods and everything and then once the songs were more solidified I sat down and started putting the final lyrics on everything. So, it was a back and forth kind of thing.
Nice. It sounds like quite a process not just somebody sitting down - not to say that it’s easy or cheap or something - but different from someone sitting down with an acoustic guitar and writing a song. This sounds like a very intricate process that you’re describing.
Yeah, it was, and I think it was due in large part to the breadth of the concept and also I think it’s just how we function best. We really sit down and think about absolutely everything that goes into accomplishing what you set out to accomplish. I think everyone operates on a different level, and I think that’s just how we function best.
You write these full length albums from multiple perspectives lyrically. Do you identify with one more so than another on this record?
Well, there’s really two things going on on this record: the stores, and then the more linear narrative - the narrator if you will - and I think that’s the one I most identify with. When you tell other stories, the most important thing to me is to capture it well and do the characters justice and do the events justice and there’s a certain amount of stepping outside of your own self and diving into a character to really do things justice. And the other part of the record is kind of the reflection of those stories and that’s the part that took a more personal tone on the record, and that’s probably the one that’s most me.
Sure. Basically, your lyrics are almost like a free form lyrical structure. They aren’t basic, normal song lyrics. They fit into their own sort of genre like a free form poetry or something like that. What has influenced you along those lines in your writing?
It’s basically just how I’ve always written, so it’s just what’s easiest for me. The other things I think that has to do - in large part - with is the way my band-mates play their instruments and the way they write songs. More than anything the way I’ve progressed as a writer, or my style or whatever you want to call it has been impacted pretty heavily by just the nature of the music that it accompanies. So more than anything I’d say my band-mates. They’re writers and musicians that I look up to like anybody else, but the thing that I’m consistently surrounded by is my band-mates and their talents and tendencies so more than anything I think it’s probably due to that.
That’s cool. I didn’t know if there were certain writers or artists that influenced you more than others so it’s interesting you’re talking about the way the music hits you rather than, “I read this author or this poet and this work influenced me…”
Sure, of course there’s inevitably some of that. There are people I cherish and people who have influenced me in that regard, but I think the interesting thing about writing lyrics is that you are operating with restriction as far as structure goes and you have a specific set of canvas and a specific set of paint or whatever - to go back to the painting analogy - so I think that shapes how things turn out. If I was writing those stories without the songs I probably would have written something different in a lot of ways.
Now that you guys have made a deliberate concept record do you think the next album will kind of follow the same path or do you think the creative process might lean towards an album with songs with a looser theme, less concept.
It’s hard to say right now since we’re so fresh off of this one. In some ways I think that because we’ve done this record and it’s been in some ways intricate thematically in regards to the narrative, I wouldn’t be surprised if we go a little bit in the opposite direction. But we’ve always tried to do something different when we release something so I wouldn’t be surprised if the next album takes a looser concept. No matter what it’ll be an idea that drives the record itself. Like I said, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is more loose conceptually.
Nobody wants to go out and make the same record they just made every time. That just gets boring.
Right. Definitely. For sure.
Just having the ability to do that sort of a concept and then go to “well these songs sort of fit together but it’s not necessarily a thread that follows all the way through.” It’s about this, but not necessarily all tied together.
For sure. And I don’t think there’s any less integrity in that or that it’s any less of a challenge. It’s just a different process.
I have one last question. For this record I’ve noticed that you guys have started a project with 826 Michigan and are selling a limited edition package on this tour. I was wondering how you got connected with that organization.
The easy answer is that I read Dave Eggars when I was a lot younger and really enjoyed his writing and through that got turned onto the whole McSweeny’s culture and 826 Valencia. So that’s 1. Number 2 is that I think it’s something that we in some ways fit in with and we all think is a really cool program and it does a lot of good and it makes a lot of sense for us to work with them in some ways I think. We’ve done things in the past with other charities and we try our best to keep it to a local level and as close to home as we possibly could. So it made sense to work with the Michigan branch in Ann Arbor and we got a hold of them and they’ve been fantastic throughout the entire thing. They’ve provided a whole bunch of copies of one of their writing collections. It’s pretty fun to leaf through and read. It’s all done by kids who have gone through the program. The poems and lists … and it’s kind of all “McSweeny’s-esque.” It’s a lot of fun. It’s just a cool program that does a lot of good and helps a lot of underprivileged children and provides not just creative writing classes but homework assistance and after school programs and yeah we just got a hold of them and they’ve been fantastic throughout the whole process like I said. It’s been a lot of fun.
I think that’s the nice thing about independent music a lot of times is that artists really can get a lot of projects out there and it’s not just the big pop superstars. It’s real projects that affect real lives and real people and real communities, not just fodder for the TMZ sort of thing.
Yeah. It’s … just like you said. I don’t need to reiterate, haha.
Since they are limited edition will you have these packets still available when you hit St. Louis?
For sure, we will definitely have some available. We’ve been limiting the amount we sell at each show so we can have some the whole tour and it’s interesting we’ll sell a lot one night and only one or two the next so I’m not sure how aware people are that it exists, but we’ll definitely have some available in St. Louis for sure.
Awesome. Well it’s been great talking to you and I’m excited to see the show.