La Dispute Interview: Jordan Dreyer on Epitaph Debut 'Panorama' - Rolling Stone
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How La Dispute Turn Real-Life Tragedy Into Post-Hardcore Poetry

The Michigan group has won a rabid following with its dire, artful songs. Ahead of their Epitaph debut, frontman Jordan Dreyer opens up about the origins — and complications — of their singular sound

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La Dispute's Jordan Dreyer (second from left) opens up about the real-life tragedies behind his band's poetic songs, and what inspired new LP 'Panorama.'

Pooneh Ghana

Jordan Dreyer doesn’t have a good name for what he does. Midway through a recent conversation with Rolling Stone, the affable, unassuming 31-year-old — who fronts the beloved post-hardcore band La Dispute in a style that ranges from measured spoken word to an arresting half-scream, half-sob — explained why he shies away from the most obvious designation.

“I don’t think I’m a singer,” he says, sitting in the lobby of his Brooklyn hotel on a January afternoon near the start of his first-ever real-deal press tour. “I am certainly a vocalist, and I’m recently comfortable saying that I’m a musician. For a very long time, I’d just be like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what I do, but I’m not making music.’ Because I don’t play an instrument. I would have to have some understanding of music and theory to be in a band, even if it’s innate. …

“But I can’t, like, sing,” he continues with a sigh and a laugh. “In that way, it’s kind of poetry, and it’s kind of hip-hop. That’s a longstanding joke of ours and all of our friends in bands: that we’re a rap-rock band.”

Dreyer’s struggle with labels makes sense, given the strange blend of elements at the heart of La Dispute’s sound. Often coming across like an obsessive novelist pacing his attic, trying to get the words right, Dreyer presents disarmingly intimate, frequently reality-based narratives of distress and domestic discord as his bandmates — guitarists Chad Morgan-Sterenberg and Corey Stroffolino, bassist Adam Vass, and drummer Brad Vander Lugt, Dreyer’s cousin — churn through beautifully nuanced, masterfully dynamic compositions. Depending on the song, the results might manifest as seething near-metal or understated indie rock.

This isn’t typical teenage-heartbreak stuff, though there was some of that in the early years. The band’s output feels more akin to New Yorker short stories — John Cheever as filtered through an emo lens, or Slint with the urgency level cranked way up. (Fittingly, given the band’s literary bent, their name comes from an 18th-century French play.)

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La Dispute debuted in 2006 with Vancouver, an EP of harsh, chaotic hardcore. Their first full-length, 2008’s Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair, presented a more fully formed vision, with songs tackling weighty topics like divorce. “It shocks me, listening back to it, how dramatic [it is],” Dreyer says of the album today. Somewhere won the group an unusually devoted fan base that has grown steadily in the years since.

In concert, fans speak/scream every word back at Dreyer, whose slight frame flails and convulses in front of the mic. The fervent response only makes his already dead-serious tales, chronicling the aftermath of a drive-by shooting in the band’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, or the 2007 I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse, feel all the more weighty.

“If I pride myself on anything,” Dreyer says, “it’s performing and feeling that connection with people and getting to make eye contact and see people who are affected emotionally by, not even necessarily the specific thing that we’re doing, but just the general mood that punk and hardcore can create in the right atmosphere.”

There are plenty of future shout-alongs on La Dispute’s upcoming fourth LP — Panorama, out March 22nd — a typically moving, at times harrowing set that finds Dreyer heading back in the direction of autobiography after 2014’s excellent, more fiction-based Rooms of the House

The album’s sound and themes feel right in line with the band’s prior work, as various songs address the aftermath of a highway accident, the toll of dementia and how people cope with loss day to day. But in a broader sense, Panorama represents a career milestone: After two albums for SoCal indie No Sleep and one issued on their own Better Living imprint, it’s the band’s first full-length for new label Epitaph, a punk bastion for close to four decades.

“I sort of didn’t remember how much I loved that label until I was in the office and I was looking at all the gold records they had on the wall and I was like, ‘Oh, fuck — that record. Oh, fuck — that record,'” Dreyer says.

During a wide-ranging interview, the vocalist spoke about processing grief second-hand, seeing some of his darkest lyrics turned into Tumblr memes and whether there could ever be an upbeat La Dispute album. The following are excerpts from the conversation. 

What led you back toward a more autobiographical writing style on this record?
When we did Wildlife — in, I guess we put it out 2011, but we wrote in 2009, 2010 — it was a product of my environment. It was just hearing people’s stories, some that grabbed onto me for whatever reason and stuck with me and felt worth telling. So, that dictated the structure of that record.

It was similar in this one, where it was just, like, a lot of repetition in my home life. I didn’t have a whole lot going on, truthfully. We were in-between record cycles and sort of in flux. We all live in different places. We did Rooms and then we toured for that record and then we had all this downtime.

That is what I was inundated with, the routines that I had and the same streets that I’d drive and the same places that I’d go. So, feeling connections again to stories from my neighborhood and from the places that I lived and from the places that my partner lived and where she grew up, that made me want to talk more about my own life, or speak directly from experience rather than extrapolate from others or fabricate entirely.

This neighborhood you’re describing, how close is it to where you actually grew up?
The neighborhood [in Grand Rapids] that I lived in was a five-, 10-minute drive from the neighborhood that I grew up in. From the time I was 13, 14 and riding my bike or taking the bus to go to the record stores and the book stores and the coffee shops where my friends and I hung out, we’d all go to this neighborhood called Eastown or East Hills, and I’ve referenced it on records years back. That’s the neighborhood that my partner and I lived in when the idea for the record came up and when we started writing.

She grew up outside of Grand Rapids in a city called Lowell, which is a city of 6,000 people. It’s an old mill town, half an hour out of where we lived. So we did a lot of commuting back and forth between Grand Rapids and going on this highway that runs all the way to Flint, M-21, which is Fulton Street. So from Eastown where we lived, the route we’d take to drive out to Ada, Michigan, where she worked and Lowell, Michigan, where she grew up, I would just hear the same stories from her about people who passed or different events. And it felt impactful because so many of the stories were about death and about people passing at a young age, and I didn’t experience a whole lot of that where I grew up.

She and her friends, everyone has a story of somebody who passed away — car accident or whatever it might have been. So, yeah, it felt like you could trace the history of a city through the stories that you hear from the people who live near them. But then, like, how much don’t you know? If you can drive down the road with one person and hear about this body that a maintenance worker found, and then a half mile down the road you see a roadside memorial for somebody who passed in a car crash, you go a little further down, and then what about all the things you’d hear from other people who are 20 years older, 30 years older? That’s where the earliest incarnation of the record came from.

There’s that line in “Fulton Street I”: “Will I ever put flowers by the street?” It seems like you’re zeroing in on the perspective of someone who hasn’t been through that kind of tragedy but is wondering how they would react in that situation.
Hundred percent. And that’s something that, honestly, I didn’t consciously think about it until well into the process. It’s not the first time that I’ve talked about that. It goes back to Wildlife.

Right. I was going to bring up the second-to-last track on that album …
Yeah, exactly: “Everyone in the world comes at some point to suffering …”

It was like, all the things this person, who I’ve spent a considerable portion of my life with now, how much she’s endured and the people in her close social circles and her family and her sisters, and how little I have in my 31 years of life. There’s an anxiety, I guess, for having so far been relatively unscathed from a tragic standpoint.

It seems like “Rhodonite and Grief” is touching on some of that too, this idea of someone close to you going through something and trying to figure out how to be there or …
How to help.

Right, exactly. What can you say about that song?
Yeah, I mean, that’s a lot of the record, because it’s talking about people close to me and their interactions with loss and the accompanying grief. That song is about being an effective companion in the context of someone else’s loss and grief. Or observing it as a third party. There’s a few different things on the record that I was trying to articulate: how it feels to experience another person’s grief when it isn’t directly yours. And how difficult it can be to find a way to help a person going through something, because it’s super fucking hard to do that, too.

I mean, obviously I don’t think it’s as hard as experiencing your own grief, but trying to figure out how to be helpful without being overbearing … It’s a very difficult balance to strike. So, I very deliberately talked about, in that song, trying to remove myself from the situation. In the first paragraph, I talk about watching somebody through a car window. I talk about watching somebody through the window coming back the back from the store, so it’s very deliberately meant to be a secondary character’s perspective of someone else’s grief. And then the very end, just finding these kinds of trivial, menial ways to help somebody deal with what they’re dealing with, buying little gifts and sort of an expression of guilt that there isn’t a better way to help. But also, I think that’s sometimes probably what you need to do? I don’t know.

What is rhodonite?
It’s a stone, a crystal.

Different kinds of stones or gems come up a few times in the record. What’s the significance of those images?
Yeah, I wanted a recurring symbol or motif for the external sources people seek out as an effect of their grief, or preemptively. I feel like everybody has their thing, whether it’s their religion, or music they listen to. I feel like everybody has this cloud of despair hanging over [them], like the inevitability of our death. People seek external ways to feel comfortable with their eventual fate and the fates of the people around them.

So that was just meant to be a symbol. I don’t know the exact moment that gave me the idea, but throughout the record there are all these different stones that all have supposed healing properties and they all coincide with some manner of grief, or that kind of thing. I can’t remember which exactly rhodonite was, but there’s rose quartz at the beginning, then rhodonite, and I took specific listed properties from crystal-healing books about calming your senses in the face of loss or being able to articulate … like opening up the throat chakra.

And it’s nothing that’s ever spoken to me or that I take much stock in, but I thought it was a cool symbol.

There are lines in the song about a “convalescent home” and “aphasic patients.” Are those references to a sick relative?
Yeah, I mean, the whole song is really [about], like, losing a family member. And in particular to dementia. My partner is in grad school for speech-language pathology. So, “aphasic patients/apraxia of speech” is kind of juxtaposing the loss of a relative to dementia with her career.

Judging by your lyrics over the years, these kinds of tragic or wrenching stories have been a real obsession for you. On the last track on Panorama, “You Ascendant,” there’s even sort of a catalog of possible ways to die. Have you been preoccupied with morbid thoughts all your life?
It’s hard for me to think beyond the 10 or 11 or 12 years now we’ve spent making music. And it’s kind of something I think about now and again, having spent so much time talking about other people’s tragedies. I don’t know if I was, as a young person, particularly interested in the morose or anything.

I think we started making music at a very young age, a tumultuous time. So you start making music when you’re that age, and the music that you’ve gravitated toward to that point — the stuff that like really connects with you emotionally, that speaks viscerally to you — whether it was Hot Water Music and hearing these triumphant songs about belonging and about community and about finding your own way, or it was listening to Planes Mistaken for Stars songs about being drunk, or whatever, everything is, like, turned up to you when you’re that age.

So, you take a snapshot of a period of time in your life, but you also inadvertently set your creative course for the next decade in a weird way because you get comfortable doing one thing, you get good at doing one thing; that becomes your wheelhouse. So there’s the three songs on [Somewhere] that are not my stories, that are about people’s divorces, and those were the songs that I connected with the most making that record, and then in the years after releasing it.

So, when we did Wildlife, I leaned really hard into telling people’s stories, and I talked about things that happened in my neighborhood. And in a manner that I tried as best [as I could] to make respectful, and just more or less, to dictate these stories. But yeah, there’s that block of songs on that record: “King Park,” [about] the drive-by shooting; “Edward Benz, 27 Times,” about a guy I met whose son had stabbed him; and “I See Everything” about one of my teachers from high school who lost a child to cancer.

I think that there are times when I feel guilty having taken that course where you never really consider, and I don’t think you should necessarily, the responsibility that you have to the people that will digest what you create. But there are times that I have felt like maybe me writing a song like “King Park” that relies so heavily on this big dramatic climax is maybe prone to misreading. And especially now that everything’s so reducible. We live in a culture that digests and compresses things into memes on Tumblr. I think we got a lot of that, which is fine. That’s a whole ‘nother conversation. But I think you worry that these big events that by nature aren’t reducible, that are complex and nuanced, become “Can I still get into heaven if I kill myself?” memes.

Wow, is that actually a thing?
Yeah. Like I said before about being 17 and listening to these bands — there’s nothing inherently wrong about that, I don’t think. But I think you worry as the person who presented it into the public forum that maybe you ought not have? Especially considering it’s never been your story beyond it being something that happened in the neighborhood that I lived in and where my parents own a business. So there’s a degree of guilt sometimes, or at least concern going forward, and when we wrote [Panorama] I felt immediately drawn to those really big, complex, nuanced stories of tragedy and I think you sort of black out when you get so into making something. It’s not until the very end of it that you look back and you go, “Man, really, should I have done that?”

Also, too, being in a band where fans sing along to every single word at shows — do you ever think about that when you’re writing?
I don’t think so. It used to be when we’d write songs that you wanted the sing-along parts, so from a logistical or songwriting standpoint, you maybe embed them in the music in places. I don’t really ever think about how things are gonna connect. I already have a difficult enough time to committing to the order of the words that I write. And maybe that’s why I black out and don’t think about the sort of emotional implications of having written about something so intensely difficult to hear about, until down the line. Because if I thought about it while I was doing it then I think I would beat myself up about it.

When you were younger and going to shows, were you that kid… ?
Singing along? Yeah, sure. Definitely. The big one for me when I was younger was Hot Water Music. When I was like 13 or 14, in middle school still, I had a friend with a CD burner, like the one friend who had the technology. He would burn his older brother’s CDs and he was the cool friend that we had. And he burned me a Hot Water Music record, Forever and Counting, when I was 13 or 14. And hearing them was just kind of transformative because it was all about community and belonging and about finding your own path. Growing up in a very religious area, it was revelatory for me, having recently abandoned my adolescent faith to find a new text, I guess. And it was going to the record store and [finding] Hot Water Music and Small Brown Bike and, like, BoySetsFire.

That’s probably why when we started making music, I wanted to write about super emotional things because the bands that I loved and connected to were more or less the church for me. It was — it’s super corny to say, but, like, “you’re not alone” shit.

So how did you come to combine all that with the more literary aspect of the band? Hardcore and poetry aren’t necessarily united in every teenager’s mind.
The two things that I’ve always loved since I was little were music and reading. Like, those were always the two things that I wanted to do, when I was kid, going through my dad’s Neil Young records and then getting older and getting into Kurt Vonnegut when I was that age. So these two things kind of happened in tandem; they were always what I loved and then a lot of the musicians that I idolized, too, when we first started making music, were of that literary bent.

So it was a synthesis of my two passions. I think more or less, when we first started making music, I had a specific tool set from which to pull, and I couldn’t sing, so it was like, I’m gonna speak these parts, but I’m gonna try to make the writing compelling on its own. And then, yeah, listening to Joanna Newsom when I was that age, and the Hold Steady and the Mountain Goats, MewithoutYou, bands [whose lyrics are] compelling enough to stand on the page.

To this day, I’m even more reluctant to say that I’m a writer than to say I am a musician. But if I think back on that crossroads of my life, I could’ve graduated high school and gone to school and I would’ve probably gone for English. And instead I make punk music. And it’s going great and I love it. And the thing that I love the most about it is I get to — maybe not the most about it, but another thing that I love about it, is I get to do those two things that I’ve always loved. I get to write, and I get to spend hours on end editing and re-editing, and I get to do it while making music and performing for people. And that’s awesome.

“I could’ve graduated high school and gone to school and I would’ve probably gone for English. And instead I make punk music.”

I wanted to get back to something we were talking about earlier, how you “set your creative course” with the band’s first, very intense album. It makes me wonder: Could there ever be a happy La Dispute record?
I don’t know. I genuinely don’t know. I feel like there are happy songs. They’re not uncomplicated. I don’t know that we could ever make a La Dispute record that was just, like, exclusively euphoric. That’s never been my experience in life, in general. Life has always been good, but never exclusively so. How many people experience sheer, unbridled bliss 24 hours a day, 365 days a year? If they exist, I don’t know them. They probably do, I don’t know.

But there are songs of ours that are happy in that they present a conclusion that involves some sort of realization or reconciliation. But I don’t ever know that we could write a record that didn’t have happy without sad. At least not a La Dispute record. I don’t discount the possibility, but I think that La Dispute is just kind of inherently that.

That makes sense, because some of this album seems like a love story set against the backdrop of tragedy. There’s one song about driving through a rainstorm, and there’s a line about being “dumbstruck with love and terror” …
Yeah, “love and terror both.” So, this is the happiest I’ve ever been. But like we were talking about before, nothing is ever uncomplicated. Nothing is ever exclusively good. Or exclusively bad, or at least the majority of the time it’s not. So, given a frame of time, you’re gonna experience ebbs and flows no matter where you are in your life, no matter how comfortable you are, no matter what’s going right, what’s going wrong. Like, there are gonna be rainstorms you drive through, the clouds open up, and you are truly dumbstruck by how … There’s a Joanna Newsom [lyric], still one of my favorite lines on the record she did Ys, what did she say?

“We could stand for a century, staring, with our heads cocked, in the broad daylight, at this thing … dumbstruck with the sweetness of being …”

That line, “dumbstruck with the sweetness of being,” is such a remarkably beautiful and concise way to capture an emotion like that: when you’re driving and you see a sunset or you come upon a landscape you’ve never seen. You share a particular connection with a person and that’s super powerful. So I think that’s a good image for the record as a whole. There’s tumult, certainly; there’s shit going on that is difficult to deal with, but love isn’t uncomplicated, and relationships aren’t.

And I think truly coming to a place of peace is coming to understand that duality and being able to cope or compensate. Or to have somebody to help you do it. So that’s a lot of the record — talking about all the facets of love.

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