"We've been called the biggest band nobody's ever heard of, " said Chad Urmston of folk-rock band Dispatch. After all, when the Boston- based trio decided to call it quits in 2004 and rallied their fans for a farewell show, they unexpectedly attracted 110,000 people.
It's the kind of crowd that only stadium acts such as Coldplay could hope for – certainly not an independent band. Three years later, the reunited trio sold out three nights at New York’s Madison Square Gardens. And despite having never played the UK, or even ventured outside North America as a band, such was the demand that, in March, their first London show had to be upgraded to a larger venue. “I love it”, exclaims Brad Corrigan, one of the trio’s three singers and multi-instrumentalists, backstage at the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco. "It's fun to be an underdog."
Not that the band knew their own popularity until that 2004 show, when they held a contest to honour people who had come the furthest distance, offering backstage passes. “We had no idea”, Corrigan says. “We thought it would be Alaska or Seattle, but by the time we had our show there were 25 countries represented.”
Any rising band in need of a role model for making it to the top should look no further than Dispatch, who remain untethered to a record label, and were the first unsigned band to sell out the 3,000-capacity Roseland Ballroom in New York. “We would show up at big venues and people would be, like, ‘Who are you guys?’” recalls Urmston.
“Anyone over the age of 25 at one point had no idea who we were. The industry had no knowledge of us – we had no record label, no radio. We were flying under the radar.” Now in their late 30s, the trio go back to college days where they were united by a love of music and sport; Corrigan was on the lacrosse team, Pete Francis played soccer, and Urmston played hockey.
When they met, Corrigan and Francis had a Simon and Garfunkel-style project, while Francis and Urmston were in a rock band, and the band was born when they merged the two, adding reggae and funk to their folk-rock mix. From the start it was a DIY affair. Their first album, recorded in 1996, was funded by a combination of relentless touring, playing at an organic burrito shop, and working at a shampoo factory. “Chad had dreads at the time; people couldn’t believe that a dreadlocked man was working in a shampoo factory”, Francis recalls. “I had to watch the little bottles, and my job for nine hours was if a bottle were to fall over I had to pick it back up.”
They sold albums at every event possible, from weddings to bar mitzvahs. They set up a PO Box for orders, shifting CDs from Urmston’s Boston home, alongside handwritten notes to fans. It was these touches which would help forge the close relationship with their fans, an organic following they call their “tribe”, and soon fans were helping to sell CDs.
Their success, Urmston says, is owing to the fans. “What’s special about Dispatch is that people who are in on it really feel like they’ve created it; they’re a real integral part of who we are.” They believe that staying independent is what has allowed them to reach this level. When songs from their first album spread like wildfire on the file-sharing website Napster, they refused the record labels that approached them.
“Something real was happening,” says Francis. “But why not just take the song and put it on the radio or distribute the music the way we made it?” It took the band years to strike a distribution deal with a record label; they’ve always preferred to keep friends by their side to help them along the way.
“We’re used to being on teams,” explains Corrigan. “When you meet people who believe in you, they’re the ones who come along with us, but that’s a real independent spirit as opposed to people who are saying ‘ There’s only one way to do it, here’s some money’. We just wanted creatively not to have anyone telling us what to do.” When they did have meetings with labels, they were encouraged to be the next Dave Matthews Band or Vertical Horizon.
“They said: ‘We’ve got a producer who can make you guys sound more like Dave Matthews; your fans remind us of Dave’s fans’. Our instincts were so strong that we could be, like, ‘Those guys didn’t get us at all’.” It’s an emotional return for the band.
Tonight they are road-testing the title track from their new album Circles Around the Sun for the first time. Next week they release the album – their first in 12 years, since their split due to creative differences. They solved their issues by going their separate ways for three years, each taking up a solo project which they continue to use as an outlet for songs that don’t have a place on a Dispatch album.
The catalyst for writing a new album was the touring, and not wanting to revisit the old songs again and again. “I was nervous”, admits Corrigan. “I was immediately thinking ‘Do we really want to do that again because I can remember how much we hurt each other’. But it was so cool when we got back into the studio: the trust is back, the freedom’s back.”
It’s a time of birth for the band – Francis is about to become a father for the second time, and his 19-month-old Charlie and Urmston’s six-month-old Frieda have both already experienced their first tours. Circles Around the Sun is also their first ever UK release. “It’s about time,” Urmston smiles. “We’re huge fans of English music. We grew up on The Beatles and The Stones, Jethro Tull, Traffic, Cream, The Clash.” Corrigan adds: “We just want it to be heard.”
‘Circles Around the Sun’ is out on Monday