Music is currently the least developed art form. The Beatles can be blamed for that, since they set the easy to emulate template for what it took to be a successful band: a drummer, a singer, a bassist and a guitarist. Maybe two. Granted, The Beatles were clearly quite talented and influential, but fast forward 50 years and groups such as Nickleback have slid into the same mold, albeit devoid of any originality, thought or soul. Some naysayers might think to themselves “Ah, but that’s mainstream rock. ‘Insert Indie Band of the Month’ is original and thoughtful.” But that’s merely pretension mixed in with a bit of confusion; modern music has, on almost every level, lost the thing that takes a collection of sounds and silence and turns it into art: depth.
While Leonardo Da Vinci was an undeniably skillful painter, the technical aspects of his art are not the main reason people still care and are interested in his work; it’s the story behind the obvious, the ways that his art can be interpreted. The symbolism leaves room for exploration and growth, and this carries through into most art forms: A truly good movie isn’t good in and of itself, it’s good because it touches some deeper part of our collective psyche and encapsulates zeitgeist; an authentic and heartfelt dancer does not simply go through motions in time to music, they tell a story in their actions; the best chefs do not serve one dish and only cater to one sensation in the palate, they prepare well rounded meals with complimentary flavors that create a symphony of taste.
In the same way the Michigan-based musicians La Dispute bring such depth to their music that it certifies it as undeniable art. Their last full-length release, Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altar is an intricately layered and cohesively self-contained album that draws thematic influences from a myriad of places: a Chinese folk tale (from which the album title is also taken), infidelity, French Existentialism, Edgar Allan Poe and a host of other authors and personal experiences.
While the album can be interpreted as one story, it wasn’t intended that way: “There’s no narrative arc,” Says Jordan Dreyer, the lyricist and vocalist in La Dispute “there’s no one thing to discover at the end or when you connect everything; everything is very thematically linked, just all dealing with the same types of struggles and the same confrontations, and because each song deals with a similar topic it was easy to draw connections between them.”
There’s a host of ways various songs can be linked; three songs share grammatically similar titling (Adjective Noun for Adjective Noun), and each is a conversation from the same situation. “Two of my good friends families’ parents got divorced at the same time, and as the situation progressed it became apparent that the reason that they had split up simultaneously was that the husband from one relationship was having an affair with the wife from the other. “ Jordan explains. “The first song [New Storms for Older Lovers] is a dramatization of a conversation I heard… through close friends. It’s the husband whose wife is leaving confronting the husband who the wife is leaving him for. The second song [Last Blues for Bloody Knuckles] is him talking to his own wife, and the third song [Sad Prayers for Guilty Bodies] is the two people who left their relationships talking.”
Other ways to link songs can come through lyrical similarities; three songs make use of the idea of ‘wiring in the brain,’ whether it is being cut and rearranged or simply torn out. Still three other songs clock in at under a minute and forty seconds, and others are clear retellings of folklore or reimagining’s of classic poems.
“It’s really interesting to hear people’s interpretations, and a lot of times I don’t want to step on that, I don’t want to impose my own artistic direction on what people hear when they listen to the record.” He elucidates when asked if anyone has found all the connections and Easter Eggs he buried in the LP. “Part of me wants someone to come to me and say “I got it, I figured everything out” and the other part of me just hopes that everyone finds something in it.”
Even though the album is mostly themed around relationships that have fallen apart, it does so in the scope of a question everyone must inevitably wrestle with: Where to find meaning in life. “I don’t think I’ve ever taken an official stance [on meaning in life], I think our songs, more than anything, seek to explore; it sounds corny.” Jordan says while he rings his hands. “A whole lot of existence is spent trying to put your finger on what it is that makes you happy or what it is that gives you purpose, so I think, more than anything, the songs we’ve written are trying to propose different solutions to that in an attempt to figure out which works for me or the listener.” The best example of this can be found in the penultimate track The Last Lost Continent (taking its name from a Tom Robinson novel, Still Life With Woodpecker), which spends a little over twelve minutes exploring the idea of meaning through community and taking solace in the sharing of burdens. It also contains one of Jordan’s favorite lyrics. “It starts with me talking about seeing someone dead at the gas station. Brad and I, our drummer, work at a hardware store in southeast Grand Rapids, it’s where I’ve grown up, and there has been a lot of violence in the last five to ten years, a lot of gang violence. We work right down the street from a gas station, and one day while I was working a guy who worked at the gas station got shot in a confrontation and killed. That whole section [of the song] is about me kind of confronting that aspect of myself that dwells so much on what I’ve struggled with or what I’m struggling with at the time. And then you look at someone who’s been overseas, and that second part of that is me standing in a kitchen with one of my good friends who had just gotten back from Iraq, and he just talked about some of the most heart wrenching and awful and brutal things, things that I can’t imagine ever dealing with. And he’s still the person that he was when he left. The whole section after that is me confronting myself in regards to that. It’s very personal.”
When asked what three songs would best display La Dispute, both musically and lyrically, for someone who has never heard them before, Jordan pauses before responding: “That’s really, really difficult. For me, at least the songs we’ve written and recorded, the three songs I always felt were the strongest from my end were the three [aforementioned] divorce songs. New Storms for Older Lovers is probably my favorite song to play live; it’s just still a lot of fun. I wouldn’t tell anyone to listen to The Last Lost Continent, because then they would think all of our songs were twelve minutes long.” He slightly chuckles, and thinks a bit more before continuing. “I think Said the King to the River is a good one… I think that’s the kind of a song that pretty well shows off what our band is, musically and lyrically.”
La Dispute is well beloved among their fans for their lyrics, which neatly straddle the line between being so quotable that they’re almost aphorisms, but real enough that they could occur in everyday conversation. “I don’t have any tattoos, for one. I’ve never really figured out the policy… It’s just not my thing I guess.” He responds when asked about how it affects him when people get his lyrics tattooed on their body. ”It’s incredibly flattering to have somebody make permanent your words in that regard, in that manner, on their body. Sometimes it’s a little shocking. Sometimes it’s like ‘You’re going to have that for the rest of your life; do you really want something that I wrote?’ But it’s very flattering; it’s very cool when people do. That people feel enough of a connection with things that I’ve written that they want to make them a permanent part of their being, it’s a really incredible thing.”
He seems rather humbled by it, but when asked what the most humbling experience he’s gone through, it wasn’t what others have done: It’s how other’s have been affected by what La Dispute has done. “When we started making music, it was never really our intention to play for anyone but ourselves and the only reason that we continued to do it was because we’d play shows, we’ hear people and meet people who felt some sort of connection and would come talk to us. Whether it was ‘Great show, I really like your band’ or ‘I’ve heard this song and it really connected to me on a personal basis because of this thing that I went through or how I interpret it.’ So I’ve had some really incredible experiences meeting people who have been affected by something and found some sort of solace in anything that we’ve done as a band, because it’s really helped put my personal experiences into perspective. It’s a constant humbling experience for me to have suffered through the things that I did and am currently, and to see how other people have gone through much worse and come out on the other end of it a positive individual. Life is humbling in that way. It’s crazy. It’s crazy, and it’s a little- it makes me feel- I don’t know.”
Even though he is unable to express precisely how he feels about affecting people in such a way, he has no trouble narrowing down who and what affected him in the writing of their last album and the most recent. “On the new record there are a lot of very Folki-st topics that show up in multiple places… And part of it is the whole conversation about home and just finding what that is, so there’s a lot of Michigan, a lot of bizarre Michigan artists and things that kind of crept their way into the songs on the new record just because I was trying to very quietly paint a picture of home without going out there and being like ‘Hey. This is my state motto.’ Or something… As far as Somewhere, it’s a weird combination of books I was reading at the time and musicians I was listening to at the time; I’d say the weirdest one is, and I guess it is kind of apparent, but I was listening to a lot of bizarre hip-hop. Aesop Rock was one that I was listening to a lot… I was reading a lot of Vladimer Nabakov and listening to a lot of Aesop Rock, two artists that are very linguistically impressive that play around with the language a lot.” However, unlike with their prior LP and EP releases, their newest as-of-yet-unreleased offering doesn’t draw as heavily on literature. “With the new record it was so much a pre-determined piece of art that I’m not sure how much of what I was reading crept in there. From the outset it was the five of us really jumping headfirst into it conceptually and mapping things out, so it’s hard for me to pinpoint now what books and what artists affected the way I write or we write as a whole, and maybe as time passes I’ll figure it out more. But as far as books I’ve been reading lately, I’m about three quarters of the way through a really great book of short stories by David Foster Wallace, who I’d never read before, called Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I just bought it when I was in San Francisco, it’s hysterical.”
La Dispute has a hectic tour schedule, and is on the road frequently. They’re also 80 percent vegan/vegetarian, which isn’t as difficult to maintain while on the road as one might assume. “We do a lot of grocery stores, but a lot of people are very accommodating because they assume that if you’re in a band you’re vegan or vegetarian. It’s a little more difficult in the states than it is in Europe, ‘cause Europe you’re playing spots and they just have the best three-course vegan meals because they just assume… Taco Bell you can eat, you just have to be careful about how you do it. They do let you substitute rice for anything, and it’s easy to order a taco and sub rice for beef and take cheese off it.”
Speaking of Europe, they’re going to be hitting it up the end of July and beginning of August to play a string of shows with Touche Amore and Death Is Not Glamorous. Their new album is finished, but they’re not even sure when it’s coming out. “Sometime in the fall” Jordan smiles in response, with a look of childlike anticipation on his face “that’s all I really know.”