A Highly Anticipated Comeback : An Interview with Pete Francis of Dispatch

“There was a decorated general with a heart of gold.” If those words do not induce nostalgia or call to mind the image of a dorm-room troubadour, then you probably did not “come of age” in the late 90s or early 2000s. These words are the opening lyrics of Dispatch’s iconic 1998 song “The General,” their most popular and defining song. (It’s defining in the same way “That Was A Crazy Game of Poker” defines O.A.R., which is to say it’s  recognizable to most people who listen to music.) With the trio’s distinct brand of roots rock that often borrows from genres like funk and hip-hop, Dispatch built an incredibly loyal fan base, taking off as a highly touted live act and receiving critical recognition as maybe the biggest and most successful “indie” band of all time (strip the term “indie” of its current connotations). Songs like “Two Coins,” “Silent Steeples,” and “Elias” remain ingrained in the musical memory for many of us who grew into adulthood near the dawn of the 21st century.  Their “indie” credibility is fostered largely by the fact that this is a band that relied almost exclusively on their fan buzz—both by word of mouth and file-sharing—to act as the  PR method for getting the word out.  The word certainly got out. Over 100,000 people showed up for their official farewell show in Boston, more people than Phish’s “farewell” concert.

Dispatch officially called it quits in 2002 and Chad Urmston, Brad Corrigan, and Pete Francis parted ways, each of them continuing to make music via their own projects and occasionally reconnecting to play one-off reunion shows for charity. Though the band’s dissolution seemed permanent, the proverbial ice began to thaw last summer. It looked as if there might still be another chapter left in the Dispatch story after the band played a handful of nights in Red Rocks and made a few other stops around the US. Today marks their full-fledged comeback and the release of their first studio LP in 12 years, Circles Around The Sun.

The landscape of music changed while Dispatch was on hiatus. Popular indie music is more electronic than it has ever been. Filesharing is now decidedly evil. The question looms; will Dispatch survive—that is to say, will they have relevance for new fans—or will they be merely a musical throwback, playing sold out shows to 33-year old’s screaming for the hits off Silent Steeples and wondering if the babysitter will mind if they’re a little late? It is a question that will be answered largely by the fan reception their new record receives and whether it resonates with a new generation. Circles Around The Sun is very much a rock album and certainly projects a fuller, more mature version of themselves (you couldn’t play all these songs with your trusty acoustic guitar and a bongo drum). Frankly, I think it’s just adventurous enough.

A few weeks ago, I had the unique pleasure of chatting with Pete Francis—vocalist, bassist, sometimes guitarist, and co-songwriter for Dispatch—on the precipice of a new chapter of the band’s history. During our conversation, we touched on many subjects, including but not limited to: fatherhood, his brief foray into the teaching world, the vilification of file-sharing, the original title of “Circles Around the Sun,” and the problem with record companies. Check it out below!

“Circles Around The Sun”


The Silver Tongue: Hi Pete, this is John Beringer with the Silver Tongue Online. How are you doing?

Pete Francis: Doing great. It’s a hot day in New York City. I’m just chilling, sitting back with a nice coffee and having a good day.

TST: You’ve got a lot going on with Circles Around The Sun coming out in a few weeks and a nationwide tour coming up. Speaking of the new record, I really like it. I’m a big fan and was growing up as well. I actually caught your show last summer at Millennium Park in Chicago.

PF: Thank you very much. That was such a cool show. The crowd really responded to us and it’s such a great venue

TST: You’re playing Outside Lands on August 10th in San Francisco, and then the band kicks into tour mode. Is the rest of the band living in New York City as well? What are you going to do until then and how are you going to spend the next few weeks?

PF: Well, we’re going to get together as a band, and we’re going to do some rehearsing a few days before Outside Lands. Chad [Urmston] lives in Boston and Brad [Corrigan] lives in Denver. Until we meet up, I’m chilling in New York City with my little one year old. He keeps us busy and I have a great time with him.

TST: What has it been like being a new dad? How has life changed?

PF: It is great to be a dad. It’s like time traveling a bit, you know? You’re just going back and seeing what it might have been like for you in those years when you weren’t really conscious and couldn’t remember things. You get to experience a one-year old’s life. He’s opening every door and every drawer, pulling out everything he sees. It’s a blast, really fun actually.

TST: Everything is new again.

PF: Yeah, exactly.

TST: I have a funny question for you. You’ve been recording as a solo artist since the breakup. This is obscure, but a comment in 2008 on a YouTube video for your solo song “Shooting Star and the Ambulance” reads as follows, “This guy is now teaching at my school.” Is this true? Did you get into teaching during the time off from Dispatch?

PF: Well…just for a little bit. I was always kind of curious about teaching, but I found out pretty fast, within the first couple of weeks, that I didn’t really want to be a schoolteacher. I went back to my old school and checked it out. I thought it was cool hanging out with the kids. I coached some soccer which I ended up enjoying more than the teaching, but I did go back and I was really more of an observer for a couple of weeks.

TST: You mentioned you were coaching soccer, and I read something about the band coming together over college athletics at Middlebury. Is that right? Were you a soccer player in college?

PF: Well, we didn’t really come together over athletics, but we all really loved sports. We loved hockey, soccer, lacrosse and stuff. Brad played lacrosse at Middlebury, and Chad and I played intramural hockey. We also liked to play doubles tennis together, so it was more of that kind of thing.

TST: Gotcha. Was your experience in teaching integral, or were you the one who pushed for the Amplifying Education tour last summer?

PF: We all talked about that and felt like we really wanted to focus on schools. We were each connected with the places that we attended, and I support a school – or my family does actually – called Waterside School in Stamford, CT. It helps kids who are coming from low-income families make it on to better middle or upper schools.

We (the band) talked about education and how we value and believe in it. It also might have been a bit symbolic since we all met at Middlebury, a good school that we really liked. You know? We wanted to continue to support teachers, and that was our reasoning.

TST: Maybe more than any band I can think of off the top of my head, with maybe the exception of Bono, Dispatch seems very dedicated to giving back with the donations through the tour and encouraging people to get involved in their communities. I think it’s very admirable.

PF: Thank you. It feels good to give back with schools and other organizations.

TST: So, after the break-up of Dispatch, you entered the realm of the singer-songwriter sound and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there was Urmston’s politically charged bluesy rock band State Radio. Did you find it hard to remember how to be Dispatch again? Obviously you can play all the old songs, but was it challenging remembering the dynamic of the band and whose roll is what and then coming together to write an actual album as Dispatch?

PF: That’s a good question. I think the one thing I definitely noticed is that we grew as musicians and as people. When you have a creative being in your early 20s and then you’re years older… in your 30s a lot of life passes and our life experiences – whether with music or not with music – really affected the way we came together. But it wasn’t like we had to try to find a way to be Dispatch again. When I hear the record, I think it feels like Dispatch, but in a new light. The songs that we wrote I don’t really feel like, “Oh that’s Chad’s song or that’s Brad’s song,” etc. I feel like there was a real assimilation. I’m not sure what your opinion is or other people’s opinion, but I think it’s us, just Dispatch 2012.

TST: I feel the same way. I think it feels like Dispatch, but Dispatch with more production and a more mature sound. It’s quite a bit different from the original acoustic, Silent Steeples, jammed-out Dispatch. I think at times it is more of a rock album.

Were most of the songs written as collaboration or did everyone bring individual stuff. I know you wrote “Feels So Good” and sang on that. Did someone come with a riff and everyone builds on that or what was the process? Especially with everyone living in different cities, how did the album come together in terms of the songs?

PF: Well, I’ve got one story I’ll give you that is kind of funny. A friend of mine, a great guy we toured with named Boo Reiners who played banjo and a lot of string instruments, he gave us this Tom Petty documentary. I think it’s called Running Down A Dream or something like that. It’s like four hours long and is such a good documentary. I think Chad got really inspired by it, and he wrote a song that for awhile we just called “Tom Petty.” The song ended up actually being the title track “Circles Around The Sun.” We thought it had this Tom Petty-esque thing going on and he [Chad] had the riff and the changes, but it really came together with Brad’s drum beat.

“Not Messing Around” is a song that is really us laughing and having fun, rapping and whatnot. It’s got some groovy stuff, and I had a machine that I ran through the bass pedal to make it all funky. That’s a perfect example of our collaboration; we definitely came together as a group to experiment with different drum kits, different bass sounds, lots of different guitar sounds and amps. So it really was a musical collaboration for all three of us.

Then there were also songs like “Feel So Good” that, like you said, were more of my style. I wrote a solo song with Dispatch harmonies for everyone else to sing.

TST: I definitely see the Tom Petty reference especially on the chorus of “Circles Around The Sun.”

PF: Yeah, it’s definitely got some Petty in it.

TST: What is “Feel So Good,” the song you wrote on your own, about?

PF: “Feels So Good” is just about my son being born and how it was just such a remarkable day in my life. It just marks a certain time that I’ll never forget and how he is a light in my life and just sort of like ‘man it feels so good now,’ just one of those moments where you’re so thankful.

TST: I read something that I had to keep re-reading, because I almost didn’t believe it. Is it true that you just had your first ever European tour?

PF: Yeah, we actually had our first European tour in March!

TST: How was that and how do you explain that? With as big as you were in the late 90s/early 2000s, it seems kind of unbelievable.

PF: Yeah it’s kind of funny, but we just never really had the opportunity. At the time we didn’t have any agents that could book us. We’ve always been sort of under the radar in a sense, so people didn’t really know us over there. Finally, an agent got the story recently and was willing to put some shows together. It turned out to be pretty cool over there.

TST: Were the shows big? Did you get a good response from the fans abroad?

PF: We did. We got to play some really cool rooms. Some rooms were 1,000, some were 2,000. We played a 300 person room called King Tuts Wah Wah Hut, I believe, in Glasgow, Scotland. We went to Germany, Sweden, Amsterdam, Zurich. It was very cool.

TST: Had you traveled abroad before?

PF: I’ve traveled abroad, but it was just because my mom is Swedish, so I’d been to Sweden a lot. I’ve traveled with friends and family to different places in Europe: Germany, Italy, etc.

TST: I’m very interested in your response to this… I’ve read your bio, and I know Napster is cited as being integral in spreading the word about your music, allowing the fans to act as your PR. It was a very interesting time when file-sharing became popular. Given your experience with Napster as part of Dispatch and your experience recording your own solo work and not operating as a wildly popular entity, how do you feel about sharing music these days and what it’s turned into?

Moreover, I’ve read many complaints from musicians about how hard it is to survive now that music stealing or “sharing” has been normalized, at least surviving from record sales. So what is your take on that, and do you think you’d feel different if you had never had the success you had with Dispatch and were just solo musicians trying to make it?

PF: Without question, I would feel different. I’ve enjoyed doing solo work, and that has been fun, but being in Dispatch is something different altogether. We felt like we were evolving with the music business. When Napster came about, that was really new to everybody. It was, in a way, kind of this music revolution. People are now saying, ‘It’s stealing music,’ but I thought of Napster as an alternative form of radio. When I was a kid I would tape record songs off the radio – was that stealing the songs? I don’t know that I really agree that it is. It was one form of getting music, and if you allow someone to get music through a free download, you’re giving them an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I like your song. I’m now going to support you further. I’m going to go to your show. I’m going to buy a tee shirt. I’m going to tell my friends about your music, etc.’ So that’s how I looked at Napster. I looked at it as a way of giving and spreading the word.

I think that’s the danger with major record companies.  When they get so controlling and say, ‘Okay, we threw some spaghetti at the wall and that sticks, so we’re gonna find all the spaghetti that is like that and throw it at the wall and then maybe you’ll get like 20 Nirvanas,’ or whatever, you know what I mean? It’s more product-oriented than music-oriented. Granted, I think the record companies can do a lot for bands, but you know, they can also fold in on themselves.

TST: It’s harder for them to quantify the benefits of music sharing, basically, because they aren’t as direct. You can look at record sales and see a direct correlation with how profitable or ‘successful’ you are, but they can’t see how maybe the other ways that a band brings in revenue might be indirectly attributed to this word of mouth.

PF: I think that’s a good point because it’s a music business…business being the key word there. They want people to quantify and know what are our sales for the year are. That’s why I think it’s still kind of amorphous and not figured out totally. Spotify, for example, it’s like you can get all the music in the world and stuff, but it’s unknown how the artists are really benefitting from Spotify. I don’t really know, other than the same word-of-mouth being spread.

TST: I can tell you with my limited knowledge of Spotify and conversations with artists that the benefits are very minimal from a directly attributed dollars perspective. It’s funny you brought that up. I’m guilty of using Spotify; I’m a paying member, and a musician friend of mine pointed me towards an article that really shows how little artists are compensated for the Spotify plays they get. I do really try and go out of my way to purchase records when something is good. For me, it’s almost more of a research tool.

PF: I guess the way the artist is going to be making money is touring relentlessly and selling merchandise, you know. That’s not easy either.

TST: In the same vein of my last question, what have you been listening to lately and how do you feel the musical landscape has changed? The guitar has seemingly fallen out of favor in indie music and more people are using other means to create, such as a laptop or a synth. What’s your take, and how did you think that Dispatch’s music would be received in this landscape?

PF: To be honest, I’m in favor of all different creative forms to make music. I don’t think electronic music is a drag. Good music is good music whether someone is using a laptop or a guitar. I hope people just dig our music because they like the songs or what’s happening. There is a lot of stuff going on with DJs, you got that guy Deadmau5, I think, and, um, Skrillex, right? I don’t know it that well but I think it’s pretty cool. Radiohead does a great job incorporating electronic music into their sound, and I’m in favor of all forms of music making. It’s fun to keep stretching and going further to different places. I don’t ever want someone to just say that rap and electronic and death metal is just such a drag.

TST: Your sound is diverse, There’s rock, funk, hip hop singing, etc. It’s always been kind of a hybrid.

PF: The three of us have always been into bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam and Beastie Boys. We really like bringing in all different kinds of sound.

TST: Thanks so much for your time today, Pete.

Stream Dispatch’s Circles Around The Sun

North American & European tour

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