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Interview: Chad Stokes Urmston Of State Radio

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At the beginning of February I reviewed a DVD, Dispatch Zimbabwe: Live At Madison Square Garden, and it was my introduction to the three young men who had been involved with the band Dispatch. As those folk who were loyal followers of the group know the individuals had gone their separate ways back in 2006, and this was the first time they had played together since then.

As I had been really impressed by what I had seen on this DVD, I was interested in seeing what each of them were doing "post-Dispatch". Chad Stokes Urmston had played guitar and some bass for Dispatch and is now fronting his own trio, State Radio. I contacted their management team and asked if I could get a review copy of their new disc Year Of The Crow and maybe talk with Chad.

Thanks to State Radio's management people and Chad himself all the above was able to happen. It should have been easy, I was supposed to phone Chad Wednesday at 3:30 in the afternoon, and I got him at the second number I was given to contact him at. Unfortunately the connection wasn't the best and we kept having to start over again as we'd get cut off periodically. In spite of the technological difficulties, we managed to get through the questions I had for him, and have a pretty cool conversation too.
Chad Stokes.jpg
What I really enjoyed about our conversation was that it was obvious he genuinely believed in what he sings about, and that he is that person who sings with compassion, anger, sadness, and hope about the world. It might sound like a cliche, but it was a pleasure to spend time with him, and he felt like the type of person who I would have a good time hanging out with.

There was something we needed to clarify before we really got underway. In the Dispatch information I had received with the DVD listed Chad last name as Urmston, but with all the PR stuff I received with the State Radio Disc his last name was given as Stokes. So the first question I asked was simply what's your name

Chad: "My mIddle name is Stokes and I use that now because it's easier for people to say and handle then Urmston – but I still consider my name to be Chad Urmston.

Can you give me some biographical detail – I don't know much about you – Your background where you grew up. There was something about growing up in a progressive hockey playing family

(laughs) I grew up on a farm in Sherborn Massachusetts – chicken, pigs, sheep – and grew up hearing Hendrix and Hair 60s, 70s music. But the biggest influence was this place called the Peace Abbey, run by a man named Lewis Randa, dedicated to teaching people about peace and those people who advocated peace – Mohammed Ali, John Lennon, Mother Teresa have all visited it at one time or another. In 1999 I took part in this march where people from the Peace Abby hauled a one ton grave stone – on a caisson, (a cart specially designed for the grave stone) – for the unknown civilian killed in war, all the way to Arlington Viginia.

I didn't do the whole thing, but it was really wonderful experience. We'd sleep in fields along the way, or sometimes people would see what we were doing and appreciate it and invite us to spend the night with them. When we got there, the night before we camped out near the Lincoln Memorial – a buddy and me went for a swim in the reflecting pool that night (laughs). We thought we might get arrested and handcuffed trying to take the caisson into Arlington cematary, so my friend and I greased our wrists. We never did get handcuffed – the cop stopped the procession on the bridge and took the caisson away.

What's really cool is that its been all over the world now. I think it went to the French embassy after the cops took it, and I know its been to Viet Nam and Britain. (There are two stones, one is permanently set up in Sherborne Mass. and the other tours the world to help honour the memory of civilians killed in wars all over the world.)

I also did a year of school at N.Y.U. in New York City, and it was an eye-opening experience as there was always some sort of action taking place. I took part in some of them and it was exciting, a feeling of doing something that was not just about you.

I think I read something about you playing trombone when you were in high school or middle school, was that your first instrument – where did the idea of doing music as a means of expressing yourself come from?

I've always loved music, but I don't know if I ever thought of it as a career or anything like that right away, or when I first started playing. My sister got a guitar when I was twelve or thirteen and I would steal it from her and start playing. You know classic rock songs, that sort of thing. The first time I wrote a song was I set music to a poem my mother had written when she was in her twenties, and that was the first time I had the idea that it was something I was interested in doing. I never really planned it, it was something that just happened, and I kept doing it.

When I got to University I actually first joined Pete's (Pete – bass and guitar player for Dispatch) band as a trombone player. Obviously that changed, Brad joined us (Me: And the rest is history) (laughs) But I played trombone all the way through high-school, and it was fun. I was part of a group who were seen as pretty odd – you know the low brass section – and we had a great time.

Obviously your stay in Zimbabwe had a huge impact on you. How did you end up in Zimbabwe? Do you think it changed you, or did it more help provide you with a focus for what you wanted to do?

I had a friend who lived in the town next door whose father was a Pastor, and they had spent some time in Zimbabwe when he was younger, and his family knew people over there. At the end of high school I didn't want to go off to University right away. It was pretty much an impulsive decision to go – we could stay with friends of his family over there and it sounded like a good idea

When was that?

That was in 1994

Were you doing anything specific – like you weren't with any organization or group or anything?

No we just went over by ourselves and were staying with the people my friend's family already knew. For about the first month we would just walk around – go into the townships and meet people. Sometimes I would take my guitar along – you know things like that. But after that I started looking around for things that I could do that was more constructive. It became the choice between just hanging out or actually making a contribution, asking yourself what I can do? It was still informal, but I got involved and taught some school, played soccer, and got to know the people.

Being there took me out of myself. I saw all that these people had to deal with; AIDS, poverty, and it wasn't nearly so bad then as it is now either. I was really impressed by the fact that in spite of their world being filled with problems all the people I met had a generosity of spirit that really stood out, a refusal to be brought down by circumstances.

It made me want to do something with myself that was respectful of people like that, something worthwhile, or that could make a difference.

Have you been back since

No, but I really want to. I made a really good friend over there, Ellias and I found out that his son was really badly hurt – stabbed in the side of the head over a bag of sugar – that's how desperate things are right now I guess – and he's getting better, but still having trouble with one side of his body. I'd really like to see them and see how their doing

Let's get back to music again. You wrote songs for both Dispatch and now State Radio – What do you see as the differences between the two experiences – both in the actual process and any changes in direction your focus might have undergone.

Some bits of music can't be controlled, you just write what comes. When I was with Dispatch I would write songs, and than pick the ones that I thought would work for the band. I pretty much do the same thing now, select the stuff that I think will work best for Chuck and Mad Dog. I probably keep in mind what they bring to the band when I'm writing now, knowing that I'm playing with them.

I also think there's less of a filtering process now then there was in the later days of Dispatch, and less censoring of political content. With Dispatch there were three of writing songs and it was pretty free flowing that way, but it also started to make things difficult towards the end. You have three very creative people working, each of us writing material that we want to play – it can't help but create tension. We were together for eight years.

That's a long time, and with three creative people there's bound to be lots of growth, and a desire to do things … explore your own ideas. It seems like you guys had the brains to know that and were right to let it end

It was still hard.

Here do you find yourself looking for inspiration for material – or do things just sort of jump out at you from the headlines and you say I've got to write a song about that.

From everywhere really, the Internet, other Artists. Sometimes you go out and you've had a conversation in a bar or something and a topic comes up, and you go home and start looking it up on the Internet and you find out all this information on a subject, an it will inspire you to want to write about it. Mainly though it's what going on around me, or things that I"m thinking about. Like I said earlier you can't really control the music and it's an ongoing process of absorbing and creating based on all of what's around you.

How do you see the interrelationship between your music and your lyrics – do you try and create a sound that will reflect the feelings being expressed in the lyric?

What I'm usually trying to do is marry the melodies to the words, so that they work well that way. I'm trying to keep the diction as natural as possible in the songs, obviously you have to play with it sometimes so that everything works, but I really want them to compliment each other. The music is really a natural extension of the lyric.

Are there any people in particular that have inspired you, shaped the way you think, or influenced your outlook on the world?

Well John Lennon, and Thoreau – Walden was really important to me, and the existentialists. I really like what Rage Against The Machine talk about with their idea of living what you what you sing.

Not just talking but doing?

Yeah, taking part in the world not just commenting on it.

What do you hope to accomplish – stupid question in some ways I know, but a number of songs on Year Of The Crow refers to specific issues.

Well I hope they like the music obviously, but I'd like it to encourage thoughtfulness, and hope that they don't just accept things at face value. A lot of our material decries against what we see as the corruption of authority. How those in power are abusing it and the problems that's causing. So I'd like people to think about that.

I wanted to ask about the title of the CD Year Of The Crow Does the crow have any special meaning for you

Well part of it is the associations with Native Americans. I've always been fascinated with Indians since I was a kid. You know the usual stuff, building a teepee and sleeping out in it, but I've also done lots of reading about what's been done to them over the years, and their current situation. I know the Crow is an important figure in some American Indian stories, and so that's one reason, to make that reference.

The Crow is the harsh voice of truth in some stories

Yeah and that's part of it too. Also it's the idea of the underdogs, those who aren't in authority coming into their own.

The ravens coming home to roost?

Yeah, definitely

The song "Fight No More" on Year Of The Crow is about the former Nez Pearce Chief, Chief Joseph (Thunder In The Mountain) What was is about his story in particular that attracted you to it?

When I started reading about American Indians, at first all I read about were the Sioux. People like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and it was all about warriors and fighting. Chief Joseph was the first American Indian I read about who talked about peace, and even though he was resisting, he tried to preserve his people by getting them away from war and not fighting.

State Radio is about to start a tour of Europe later this month, is this the first time over there for you

No we've been over a few times, we recorded Year Of The Crow in England (Me: "Yeah right, I'd forgotten that – I guess you have to go over to Europe to record there) Yeah, and we have played in Germany before this, at some big festivals with bands like Pearl Jam.

How do you get gigs like that without a label

Well our distributor, Network, are really good about that, and get us into the line ups for the big festivals in Europe, and our management company does a lot of that as well.

Do you like playing over in Europe

It's great, we get a lot of press and people are really up for the shows and always having a great time. It's funny you know I bet you we're on the radio more in Germany than we are over here. We're going to France for the first time on this tour, so we're looking forward to that.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.