Interview with vocalist Jordan Dreyer | By Yong Los
Grand Rapids is a vibrant city located just beneath the pinkie knuckle of the state of Michigan. It exists within the shadow of neighboring Midwestern major cities like Detroit and Chicago but continues to grow and develop a character of its own. Throughout their existence as a band, La Dispute have injected bits and pieces of the city into their music, acting as mediums for the region to tell its stories. Their fourth full-length, Panorama, due out March 22 on Epitaph Records, examines artifacts of grief and grieving within the context of the band’s experiences in Grand Rapids.
La Dispute’s latest effort finds a balance between the captivating, emotive narration they’ve become known for and an experimental edge that brings new life to the stories they tell. “The vast majority of what compelled me to write were experiences I had while living [in Grand Rapids] or experiences tied directly to there or experiences people had in proximity to there whilst living in West Michigan,” vocalist Jordan Dreyer explains.
La Dispute’s music is like an out-of-body experience. Dreyer’s poetic lyricism and the band’s creative instrumentation complement one another seamlessly, creating entire worlds of unique images, characters, and lessons. Between Dreyer’s ability to sketch a scene with just his words and the band’s splashes of color painting it, La Dispute’s music moves and shakes with passion and emotion. But the most important influence on the band is Michigan itself, both the persona of the region and the music community the band grew up around. “The biggest recurring character in all of our records is the city itself and the state of Michigan. A major part of the band’s identity is being from Michigan and from the Great Lakes area,” Dreyer says. “It’s the bands that you play with more than anything that impact you. Even if it’s not a sonic aesthetic, they compel you to improve on your craft: when your friends write good music, it makes you want to make good music.”
The first iterations of the band began while the group were still in high school. Throughout this time, members came and went while La Dispute cut their teeth within the Michigan music scene. It wasn’t until their 2008 debut LP, Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair, that the band slowly began to feel like themselves. Record after record, La Dispute have reinvented their creative process, learning more about themselves and how they operate as musicians. “There’s a certain recklessness in the first couple records we did where we were maybe less analytical with what we did and things kind of flowed organically,” Dreyer says. “We kind of tapped into an energy, and things are a bit more methodical now.”
La Dispute have always been intentional about the message and structure of their music, using experiences and stories to highlight the concepts in each record. While some experiences are personal, others are stories that have moved Dreyer in an emotional way. “I like to tell stories, and I think it would be a bit disingenuous of me to tell stories that I lack the experience to directly relate to,” he explains.
The band’s ability to take real-world events and make them relatable in a way that impacts a large audience is no small feat, but according to Dreyer, incorporating stories that aren’t his own has stirred some hesitation. “I don’t know that I really ever sit down prior to writing a song about other people and think about the full ramifications of doing so,” he says. “That’s something that I feel occasionally guilty about, having not asked for permission from someone to tell their story.” But at the end of the day, Dreyer believes these stories are meant to be told. The lessons to be learned have a lot of merit in themselves, and when they are brought into the context of these records, La Dispute are able to piece together works of art that not only tell a meaningful story but are also rooted deeply the members’ personal lives.
Panorama takes a snapshot of a specific area in Grand Rapids and chronicles Dreyer’s experiences and observations as the area has changed. The record focuses on how the gravity of these changes is felt throughout the community, telling stories of life, death, and grieving. “Specifically, Panorama is about loss and grief, about how long a process it can be—how, I guess, infinite a process it can be,” Dreyer says, “because to be totally honest, I imagine people don’t ever completely recover from a loss. There are always ways it affects you.”
While the core concept is rooted in real-life occurrences, the narrator skips through time and space across Panorama, exploring these moments to their end. These events take a fantastic and ethereal turn, allowing the band to experiment with new ways of creating an engaging piece of art, but this fresh process and perspective didn’t come without its challenges. From restarting the process after months of progress to working within the geographic and time constraints of the members’ personal lives, La Dispute managed to persevere through the hardships to create something they’re proud of. In addition to these outside factors, they were also faced with the growing pains that come with writing new music. “For me, I think I’ve become increasingly critical of my own output, so I spend a lot of time writing and rewriting and writing and rewriting,” Dreyer reflects. “I had three-quarters of a notebook full of the same two sentences written in different ways over and over again. It’s very neurotic and probably not healthy, but I think, in some ways, it’s more fulfilling now, because you have those obstacles to work through.”
Over the years, La Dispute have consistently created emotionally engaging records that tackle serious subjects. The experiences and stories they use throughout their albums are valuable for the lessons that can be learned and for honoring those involved. At the end of the day, the nature of the band’s music has resonated with many in a way that is unique and personal. “The thing, for me, is that I still see people at our shows, and I still feel that human connection when we perform live and when I speak to people after shows,” Dreyer says. “I get the sense that people who come up to me have found some courage in the fact that we chose to talk about something that they may otherwise feel uncomfortable speaking about.”
Photo credit Stars