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La Dispute, No Sleep, ‘The Wave’ And Somewhere… Revisited, 10 Years On

A deep dive into the rise and impact of a truly unique band…

La Dispute aren’t just another band. There’s something special about them. It was something Chris Hansen realised early on, when he first heard Vancouver, the band’s 2006 eight-track debut. At that time the Grand Rapids band and Chris’ label No Sleep were in their infancy. In fact, Chris had started No Sleep the same year Vancouver came out and, totally taken by the record, went to see the band when he found out they were playing near where he lived.

“We were in our early 20s,” remembers La Dispute vocalist Jordan Dreyer, “and had no reason to stay home, so we tried to go as many places as we could. We booked our first West Coast tour and we played a show in Bellflower, California. To this day I don’t know where that is, but we played at a café and it was free and people were being ushered in off the street, like, ‘There’s a band playing in 10 minutes – it’s free, so there’s no reason not to go,’ trying to hustle people in to see our band because we were as far away from home as we could have possibly been at that time, and Chris was there. It was still the early days of No Sleep – I think the Wonder Years were on No Sleep and a couple others – and Chris approached us about doing a record that day.”

As it turned out, La Dispute had actually already recorded – with Joel and Troy Otte, a couple of friends from back home – the bulk of Vancouver’s follow-up, a bold and ambitious album called Somewhere At The Bottom Of The River Between Vega And Altair. It didn’t matter to Chris that the band – then completed by Brad Vander Lugt (drums, keyboards), guitarists Chad Sterenberg and Kevin Whittemore and Adam Vass (bass) – were practically playing an empty room. He’d already seen them play at Cornerstone, a now-defunct Christian music festival held in Illinois, and was desperate to sign them to his fledgling record label.

“I thought there was something there,” explains Chris. “It was unique and needed to be heard by more people. I thought they had so much potential. And they have so much love for what they do I just wanted to be a part of it.” “I don’t think we knew anything about any of the bands on No Sleep,” recounts Jordan, “but he played us some of them and were like, ‘This sounds cool, this sounds legit’ and we decided to be friends and put the record out. And honestly, in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably the most significant decision that we made.”

La Dispute Promo 2018 Photo Cred Jon Stars

La Dispute, 2018

The album was released a few months later, on November 11, 2008. A blend of post-hardcore, poetry, spoken word, and under the surface, even a few subtle flourishes of prog and jazz, the album’s 13 searing, scathing songs are propelled by a powerful and visceral, raw emotion that few other records can compete with. Loosely based on the The Cowherd And The Weaver Girl – a Chinese folk tale about a prince and a princess who are separated after a marriage by a river they’re not allowed to cross – the album charts the breakdown of a relationship, ebbing and flowing between abject, wretched sadness and intense rage. Yet while the folk tale – recounted in full on the last track of Here, Hear, a four track EP the band made to give away with the first 100 orders of their untitled seven-inch – laid the foundation for Somewhere…’s themes, it was actually the dissolution of two real life marriages that a then-still-teenage Jordan channelled to evoke the undeniably devastating emotional damage that courses through the record’s veins.

“On a personal level,” he says, “it’s a tumultuous time for anybody, right? You’re post high school, you’re 18, 19, 20 and you’re figuring shit out and you think you’re in a life or death situation. Your relationships take on a degree of heightened importance – I was in a relationship at the time that was complicated and somewhat tumultuous – so combine those things with my age at the time and it lends itself to dramaticising things and making these sweeping gestures. So as far as the emotion and the passion, it was that, it was being young, and it was feeling a lot.”

Jordan’s lyrics and delivery are so intense – his voice breaking alongside his heart as he details the agonising, bitter demise of a love and marriage gone awry – that it’s hard to not imagine it was based entirely on his own experience, but, ironically, he was actually attempting to distance himself from the subjects and people he was writing about.

“It’s a lot of responsibility telling another person’s story,” he says, starting one of his typically lengthy and considered answers, “and there are things that I would probably do differently if I could go back, because when we wrote those songs I sort of assumed I was being adequately anonymous with what I was talking about, but it became pretty clear not that long after the record came out that I had not done as good of a job as I’d thought, and I wish that I’d been more open about that and had asked before I went ahead and did it. But I was 19 and it was a brash decision. I think it’s important to maintain distance and to not point a finger.

Situations like that are complicated – at least the ones on the record – so I didn’t want to villainise anyone and I tried to be as objective as one could be, but I also think, as far as being in someone’s headspace, it’s extreme empathy and it’s getting in a weird place creatively. When I wrote those songs I was very isolated – there were a lot of long overnights at home and I think when you focus so intently on making a thing, you – by some sort of unquantifiable thing – can sort of lose yourself in a story and start to forget who you are when you write them. Which sounds pretty fucking crazy, but I do think if I look back on those moments, I was just so absorbed in what I was doing – and so absorbed in the music that my four very good friends, my four family members were making – that it just kind of happened.”

Somewhere At The Bottom Of The River Between Vega And Altair Reissue Trailer

To that extent, Somewhere… is a strange fusion of mythology and emotion, one that exists both more than 2,500 years ago – the earliest known reference to the tale of the cowherd and weaver girl – but also right now. And right now, a decade after it was first released, the album is being re-released with a new sonic fabric – remastered, re-amped and remixed to make it reborn, to convey all of the pain and rage it contains with even greater severity.

“That’s the thing about going back to a record,” says Jordan, “because when you make one you take a snapshot of a period in your life – and for better or worse that’s what it is and how it remains. When we decided to do a 10-year thing, we wanted to do the best we could to fix the things we weren’t capable of fixing at the time. You can’t fix the things that you said or the themes expressed, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it is what it is, a portion of my life and a portion of other people’s lives too, because there are songs on the record that aren’t about me – but we grew as musicians, we grew as people who evaluate and criticise how things sound and how they’re structured, so it was a way for us to have a measure of control over that again retroactively, to go back and be like, ‘Hey, this doesn’t sound the way we want it to.’”

In the decade since La Dispute released Somewhere…, the band’s profile has grown immensely. No longer are they playing in almost empty coffee shops somewhere in California, but to increasingly large crowds of devoted followers. They’ve released two equally acclaimed and thematically complex records since – 2011’s Wildlife and 2014’s Rooms Of The House – and have signed to Epitaph for their forthcoming fourth album. Yet while the band have been steadily marching forward in the 10 years since Somewhere… came out, Jordan admits that looking back so closely at the past wasn’t actually too bizarre.

“You’re never too far from it,” he says, “because you revisit the songs somewhat regularly playing live – there’s a lot on that record that people still enjoy hearing. So for a good half of the record, those songs don’t even really feel that old. Because as long as you’re playing them, they kind of evolve with you and kind of transform in meaning and what have you. Last night and this morning there was an ongoing conversation on Twitter between myself and a bunch of different dudes in bands about a show we played almost 10 years ago in Gainesville at Fest, played behind a storage unit – Kevin Duquette from Topshelf Records organised the whole thing and set up a generator – and it’s really when I have those benchmarks that I start to realise how much time has elapsed between writing these songs many, many years ago and now – and how much has changed.”

He pauses for a second, lost in his thoughts.

“I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but I’ve been feeling particularly nostalgic the past 24 hours,” he says. “Without a signpost, it kind of feels like everything happened both a fucking decade ago and yesterday. But as far as the songs we don’t ever play, it was kind of crazy to go back and listen to them – especially as far as the quality of everything sonically and how different we sounded so many years ago. It was pretty jarring, especially for me because of how different I sound now. It’s kind of shocking.”

Ahead of No Sleep’s scheduled release of Somewhere…, the album was actually leaked online. A decade ago, most bands and labels would have been concerned about the effect that would have on potential sales, but for La Dispute and No Sleep it was almost a blessing in disguise.

“That was peak Mediafire/Blogspot sharing days,” says Jordan, “and suddenly everyone had it. At that time a lot of people were upset about the pirating of music in its pre-streaming days – there was no Spotify and not everything was available immediately digitally upon release – but for us it ended up being this huge boon, because people shared the shit out of it. We’d end up in wherever – Topeka, Kansas and there’d be 50 people at our show and it was like, ‘What the hell is going on?!’”

La Dispute, Andria

For Chris, the rapid growth in the band served as a kind of vindication for signing them and putting their record out in the first place – something a lot of people had advised him against.

“Somewhere… was and is one of the first points when I realised this could actually be something that wasn’t just something i do after my day job,” he says. “It made me realise how much I wanted to do this and how much I wanted to find other bands to help make it successful. And it made me realise too that I shouldn’t listen to what people say when i show them bands I’m thinking about signing. When I first found La Dispute on MySpace – I was searching for bands who had listed Saetia as an influence – I heard it and I fell in love with it. They just had Vancouver out and I showed a few people and they all thought it was garbage and said it wouldn’t do anything and that I shouldn’t bother. But I ignored them because I thought what they were saying was bullshit and there was something unique and amazing to them, and I knew I wanted to work with them. I don’t think No Sleep would be anything that it is today without La Dispute and without this record. Not only did they help move the label forward at that time, they allowed us to get more recognition within the scene and the community.”

Indeed, not only did the record help establish La Dispute and No Sleep, but it was also pivotal in the rise of a movement of sorts within the post-hardcore community – one centred around La Dispute, Touché Amoré, Defeater, Pianos Become The Teeth and Make Do And Mend. Jokingly referred to as The Wave by the members of those bands in private – a term that gained traction once it accidentally became public knowledge.

“The whole thing was built on an inside joke,” chuckles Touché Amoré’s Jeremy Bolm, “but the inside joke was made because we felt like we were this community that was growing. And not to compare us to the importance of the DC scene, and the era of Dischord stuff, which was all called Revolution Summer, but I think we looked at what we were doing as this new take on that, yet definitely knowing we weren’t as important. What we didn’t expect when that became public was that it’s really easy for people to grab onto. We basically gave everyone a name to use, which we didn’t expect. But it was cool that people saw it as something. And it’s unfortunate that I have to use the word, but there’s a new wave of what we were doing happening right now with Gouge Away and Culture Abuse and Drug Church. But back at the time, we weren’t putting much stock into anything – we were just excited to be touring and playing with bands who felt the same way we did about everything, who had the same beliefs and same concerns and same this and same that. And that was all it really was.”

“The whole The Wave thing was always funny to me,” adds Chris, “but I think every band that was a part of The Wave was a very important part in that scene and that group, in terms of the amount of support they gave to each other, which helped move each one forward more and more and more. One thing that’s amazing about the scene and the community is how much support there is for other bands and labels. That helped so much to get the music heard more and to allow them to progress and do what they love. I definitely think they were an important part of The Wave – one that helped connect some of it together more.”

La Dispute, The Castle Builders

Interestingly, given how close La Dispute and Touché Amoré are and how the two bands came up at the same time, it took Jeremy seeing La Dispute live for Something… to actually resonate with him. It’s surprising, too, considering how visceral and emotional that record is – and how visceral and emotional Touché Amoré’s music is – but their history remains inextricably intertwined from the beginning.

“Our demo seven-inch came out on No Sleep,” he says, “and when that was being put out, Chris had given me a CD copy of Somewhere…. When I met Chris, he was working at Revelation Records and he was co-workers with [6131 Records’] Joey Cahill and I met him through Joey. When Touché started, we had done a demo and all I wanted for forever was something on vinyl. I’d seen that Chris was starting a label. I didn’t really know him very well, but I thought he was friendly enough so I sent him our CD, and as we were getting to know each other he showed me some of the other stuff he’d done, like the first Wonder Years LP and the La Dispute record. And when I first heard it, I was like, ‘Yeah, okay, this is alright – it was like a Midwest take on a mewithoutYou thing with an At The Drive-In-y feel to it. I didn’t 100 per cent get it at first.”

A few months later, however, when La Dispute were booking that fateful West Coast tour, Jeremy sorted out a gig in his home of Los Angeles. And then everything slid into place.

“They were looking to book West Coast shows,” remembers Jeremy, “and this was when I was still booking all the Touché shows at DIY spaces in LA. There was a venue at the time called Motion LA that was run by ravers who didn’t understand how cool the space they had was so they’d let us rent it for next to no money, so I booked a show. It was us, Comadre, La Dispute and Ghostlimb, and I met them in the parking lot and was immediately greeted with kindness. There was a really strong immediate connection, so I was like, ‘This band is awesome.’ And they start to play and probably within a minute of the first song it made sense. It was like, ‘Okay, now I get this.’ In person, that music kind of pushed everything into a different realm. It clicked. And then, going back to the record, it made a lot more sense to me.”

A decade on, Somewhere… , in all its re-amped glory, remains as powerful and moving as ever. It is, as it was, an unrelenting torrent of bleak desperation, full of rage at the futility of trying to claw back something that’s long since gone, something (or someone) who was so close and dear to you, that was an inextricable part of you, but which is now removed, vanished, separated by a body of water that will never – ever – let you get close to it again. That emotional evisceration – the tragic loss and helpless haplessness of Andria, the gut-punched, heart-shredded emptiness of Fall Down, Never Get Back Up Again or the rage-fuelled sadness of New Storms For Older Lovers – is still present on the record, but now, something else exists within its songs, something that wasn’t fully there when the band first made it: a sense of community and hope, and maybe even peace and redemption. Partly, that’s the power of hindsight, the perspective of distance, of growing up, of realising that – even if it’s the last thing you want to do – you have to let go to truly move forward.

“I definitely think that’s the big thing on the record,” says Jordan. “The end of the record doesn’t necessarily provide a resolution, but I think it provides an alternative path. That was the big thing that I wanted to portray in The Last Lost Continent, that while we feel uneasy or lack rest or feel scared or angry, there are ways to cope. And for me at that time – and still to this day – it was the community I found in punk rock and it was playing shows and it was the way it felt to be in a basement with 40 people singing along to songs, either ours or a friend’s. It was about that community, I guess, and finding one, finding a family. I don’t know that I really feel any differently about that that now. I think you are further into settling into a structure that works for you the older you get – ideally, anyway. I’m in a place where my life is so much more fulfilling than it was then. I have a beautiful life with a partner I love with a wonderful family and I’m still able to do the thing I love for a living and that’s fucking wild still. Every time I think about it I’m like, ‘Shit that’s so crazy that people care enough that I’m able to do this more or less – though not entirely – as my means of survival.”

La Dispute2012

La Dispute, 2012

Jordan is on a roll now, thinking and speaking deeply, his words rolling off his tongue in an almost stream of consciousness style. He’s retracing his past with a still-unsure pen, but with the confidence that the last 10 years, and everything that’s happened in that time and everyone he’s met along the way, the people, places and opportunities that this record gave to him.

“That’s the thing about having whatever sense of community – punk, alternative, whatever you want to call it,” he continues. “It makes me feel like I have a connection to other people, that I have a culture, that I don’t really have just by virtue of being, but I also think that part of the culture is grounded in a lack of contentment with the status quo. Punk is unique because it gives me a place to be and a family to be around, and part of that is being unhappy with the way things are and the way people are treated and I think the last couple of years have really cemented that in my head. You start to think that everything’s working out the older you get and then you realise that it’s a facade and that for many people very dear to me – and to all of us – it doesn’t work that way. It’s the same as it was, in a way. I might not be upset about the way that circumstances affected me then as a young person, but I’m still pissed about the way the world is. I think that’s the mission statement of the record, if there is one. I don’t necessarily think it was planned that way, but it was the point of the record where I’d spent however many songs being distraught over one thing or another thing or speaking to somebody else’s despair – and The Last Lost Continent is meant to be a rallying cry – like, we all have shit and we’ve all experienced shit, and that commonality is powerful. And I saw that and we saw that with the shows we were playing at the time and the bands that we were friends with and still are friends with and the culture that still in some ways exists today. That’s the one song that still holds a deeper meaning to me.

“I think that it’s still about making connections and finding safe spaces and finding places where you feel fulfilled and enriched and people who fulfill and enrich you. I find it difficult to empathize with 20-year-old me, honestly. I don’t really connect to the subject matter any longer. In fact, a lot of it I feel the opposite. There’s a lot of refusing to let go of things that I think if I could do it all again I’d just be like, ‘Next year’s going to be better – you’re going to meet new friends and go to different places and meet new people you’re interested in on a romantic level.’ I think that maybe I walked too close to a line that told me not to let go. And I regret that. But it’s hard to think about. Life changes dramatically quickly in your 20s and I suspect that it’s going to continue to do that. I’ll probably not agree with everything I said at 31 years old 10 years from now. Some meanings evolve with you and some don’t.”

He finally pauses to take a breath. There’s more to say, but at the same time, there really isn’t. Somewhere at the bottom of the river between Vega and Altair, the past lies drowning, letting loose one last single, silent, submerged scream full of all the pain and beauty and joy and suffering that life has to offer.

Words: Mischa Pearlman

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