La Dispute interview: Jordan Dreyer gives us the inside story on the band's ambitious new album Panorama
When arriving to meet Jordan Dreyer to discuss La Dispute’s new album Panorama, it was hard to miss the giant brick of a book that he had sitting next to him on the table (The Tunnel by William H. Gass) – and I immediately knew this was going to be a great conversation. Of course, having listened to La Dispute’s back catalogue and especially Panorama, I knew that Dreyer was a man of words and expression, but the honesty and clarity of his answers to my questions still went beyond my expectations.
What unfolded was a fascinating glimpse into the working of one of America’s most cherished bands, and particularly the machinations of their verbose singer. Without further delay, read on to find out the background behind La Dispute’s excellent new album Panorama.
Panorama will be your first album on Epitaph, it's such a great label to be on at this point.
It's so cool. I did my own circling back when we made the decision [to sign with Epitaph] and realised how invariably woven my own musical history is with the label; they've put out so many records I've loved at different places in my life. I'd forgotten how many Epitaph releases I've loved with a fervour since I was a 13 year old. It's fucking cool, it's really an honour to be a part of the history and the roster right now. So many of our friends are on Epitaph.
It was a long break between albums for you guys, I'm guessing you weren't expecting to take so long?
No, I mean we toured fairly extensively when Rooms Of The House came out, so I think we needed time away to be with family and everyone had different things going on. We needed to decompress and work on other things. But it was the longest break by far we had taken, especially since we all live in different places now. When we all lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, even if we weren't touring we'd see each other or we could practice and write music. So it took some adjustment getting back into the swing of things; it was a lot of time off from a thing that we'd done pretty much every week for 8 years of our lives.
Yeah because even between the other albums you'd have EPs or some kind of release.
We kinda always were doing different things, so to fully step away from it - not be playing shows, not be writing music, not be getting together and rehearsing - got a little stir crazy.
And then when it did come to recording you ended up scrapping the album, or a certain amount if it?
I think we maybe took too much time off. We had 3 months blocked off when we were all in Grand Rapids, or close to it, and we were going to work essentially 9-5 every day and crank out a record. We worked for 2 months, and I think all of us independently realised things weren't working, until it all came to a head. It just didn't feel right, and then we started over. I think part of it was taking so much time off, we forgot how to work effectively, and it took us failing for 2 months to get back to what felt natural.
Was it truly a complete restart?
We came back to certain things later on in the studio, but by and large we threw everything in the bin, which is kinda crazy to think about; 2 months and then... we had a decent amount written and then...
For you lyrically, was that when you shifted to what the album is now?
I think there were a few lyrical themes carried over, more so than the music did. I had a hell of a time myself in those 2 months trying to decide [what to write]; I had spent 3 years collecting information and hearing stories and when it came time to decide the particular vision conceptually and thematically for the record it was hard for me to pick and choose what I wanted to. So when we first sat down to write part of the problem was that I had all of these ideas and it was super scattershot, and maybe overly ambitious. So I think when we stopped and started over it helped me narrow my own focus and settle into one or two of those ideas rather than trying to shoehorn 9 or 10 into 45 minutes of music.
The final album is pretty much on one single topic, which is a pretty personal thing...
It just kinda happened that way too. It's funny, I don’t think I realised exactly how personal it was until a month after we finished and I could go back and listen to it again without hating it; because you spend so much time working on one thing you have a tumultuous relationship with it. I think when we started over and we just said "alright we're gonna start from the beginning of the record and we're just gonna write all our way through it," it forced me to do the same, and it kind of became this linear narrative - if there is a narrative at all - but this one theme emotionally carried on from beginning to end.
The musical element flows so well with the traumatic nature of the lyrics, did they write to your words, or how does that symbiotic relationship work?
I think in this particular instance it was much more the opposite direction; I had a very general theme and introduced that to everyone at the beginning, and they sort of worked on a sonic aesthetic to match the content.
How did you describe the theme to them at that point?
Similar to what it became in the end: loss and the grieving process, removed from the moment, and how memories can be transformative or can transport you to a moment from a long time ago. When we first hit the reset button and we all had a very honest conversation with each other about why it wasn't working and about what we all individually wanted from the record, sonically especially, we kinda came to a point where we were like "alright we want this record to be heavier, we want it to be more of a screamo record than Rooms Of The House was, but we also want it to be weirdly proggy and to experiment with additional instrumentation and kind of create this ethereal piece." That really helped me settle into focusing on those moments of transport where you are driving down a road and thinking about a car accident.
And it works so well! It's so evocative, the whole way through. The use of Michigan as a setting is integral to the lyricism - even though you live somewhere else now.
I moved to the West Coast, I live in Seattle with my partner who is in Grad School. Had she not been accepted into that programme I doubt that I would've ever explored. Michigan has been such a big part of our band, and continues to be, and I wrote over half this record living in a different state, which I think in some ways probably helped me - being not constantly inundated with it, and also being nostalgic for it. Homesickness played a weird role in me focusing on the setting, the environment where the record takes place. It's crazy how much Michigan has been a part of everything we've ever done.
Before we dive more into the details of the lyrics and the songs, let's talk about some of the surface level stuff: tell me about the cover art of the album.
It was a leap of faith; Adam, our bass player, has always managed the art direction of the band since really shortly after he joined almost 10 years ago. This time around, going into it he knew he wanted to outsource some things; you get to a point where - and I think it's always been an impetus for being creative for us, if you do things the same way you'll get more or less the same product, so we've always tried to introduce restrictions or forced ourselves to move in a particular direction in a particular way, so for this he wanted to pick another artist who did something beyond his own skill set and interests.
When we hit the reset button and we were talking about making a kind of proggy screamo record he printed off a whole bunch of images from artists that he enjoyed and posted them on the whiteboard that we always keep to write our notes on, so we had all these crazy science fiction video game images from Victor [Mosquera], who did the album artwork, and when we were talking about potential artists for making the cover he filtered through a few different ideas and artists he loved and we kept circling back to the one we had printed on the whiteboard. So Adam had a style book and an outline of the themes and he gave it to Victor. Victor sent us some black and white sketches and we picked a couple of particular things and he focused on that. It's been really cool to make this record and to flesh out the vision across mediums.
Like the videos too.
Yeah, the videos too. We were trying to really remain in the ethereal, other worldly landscapes. It's been really satisfying, especially because it's so outside of the box for us. I think the cover is really startling - at least it was for me seeing it at first. I think it needed to be that way; it needed to be shocking and it needed to be stark, and I think it fits some of the imagery on the record in a way that's not too literal, not too overtly "hey this is what the record's about." It was cool to make something that looks like a video game.
And tell me about the title, Panorama; is it because it's seen through your eyes?
Yeah, it's not mean to be super nuanced. I've kind of always described Wildlife as being this snapshot of the city, with similar themes of loss and grief and coping mechanisms, making sense of existence as a whole but told through neighbourhoods. On this record I wanted to be more focused on a synthesis of the last two records, where it's like dialling the microscope in from that theme on to a more specific relationship between individuals. I kept thinking about the drive that I would take, that was the initial spark for the record, seeing memorials along the road and hearing stories from my partner about people that she knew or people that her family knew. Everything in the record is taking place in this one long drive, it made sense to think of it as kind of either a panoramic photograph or a long tracking shot from a film, so it was really just meant to keep it to the idea of the record.
The album starts with the instrumental intro 'Rose Quartz', which is the first appearance of minerals and stones that crop up throughout the record; is that something you have experience with?
No. In talking about grief and the grieving process I wanted to talk about seeking external sources of comfort and I wanted a symbol for it, and I didn't want to talk about religion or something that felt too direct or too obvious - something that's so grandiose that it distracts by placing too much focus on that aspect. So I picked crystals. Initially when we first started writing that was a part of the theme and we were gonna do transitional tracks in between every few songs as benchmarks that guide you through the themes of the record, which stopped making sense when we decided that it would be one long continuous piece. I still wanted to incorporate that into the record, so it appears lyrically throughout as progress through the stages of healing. I did a lot of weird reading about the supposed healing properties of various stones and crystals.
Did it tempt you to actually try them out?
I never discount the possibility of something, but it's not for me. They're cool - they look cool! [Laughs]
'Rose Quartz' leads into the two-part 'Fulton Street'; Fulton Street is an important street in Grand Rapids?
It's a state highway, it runs all the way from the West Side of Michigan all the way across to Flint, Michigan, which is where I think it ends. It's a pretty significant street in the city of Grand Rapids, it runs from downtown out past where I lived for years with my partner, and then beyond that towards Lowell, Michigan, where she's from, so we would drive it pretty often. We spent a lot of time driving back and forth between where we lived out to Lowell.
And the songs are a narrative of that drive and the memories, which is very cool. But I'm particularly interested in the part where you mention "in the shadow of the pyramid"; what's that referring to?
[Laughs] Part of that drive is through Ada, Michigan, which is a little township between Lowell and Grand Rapids, that's generally fairly affluent. It's the headquarters of a national company called Amway, which is a multi-level marketing business - it's a pyramid scheme; it's a gigantic enormous pyramid scheme that has had an outsized influence in Grand Rapids because the two people who started it are two of the wealthiest families in the state of Michigan. The events in that point in that song take place less than a mile down the road from Amway International headquarters. The venue we play in Grand Rapids is called The Pyramid Scheme - it's a big thing.
What happens between 'Fulton Street I' and 'Fulton Street II', it seems like there's a change of perspective?
The first one is one narrative thought; the beginning is about a body that was found in the late 90s at a particular place on that stretch of road, and then it shifts into brief snippets of multiple stories meant to show that travel through time and space - memory being prompted by notable places. Then it shifts into a vision of my home life at the time that we were writing the record and the year or two leading up to it, and then returns back to the stories that I talk about at the end of 'Fulton Street I', but at a more emotional level. It kind of shifts from talking about the events to talking about the reaction to the events. The space in between was meant to show time elapsing.
There's a lot of darkness, obviously, in the lyrics, but one that stands out to me is "There is that phantom path carved in ghost steps, sloped down to a pond somehow still half-frozen, the evidence of struggle..."
That is a reference to another event on a stretch of road that we would drive to get to Fulton Street. Initially I had a few different stories that I wanted to speak about more specifically, again similar to the way that we did things on Wildlife, and then we shifted to making this sort of stream-of-consciousness narrative, and I decided that the right thing to do wasn't to have this song tell this story, but it still showed up on the record in a couple of different places. It's a reference to an accident that happened in the winter on the route out to Lowell, and it's another spot on the record where the character telling the story is meant to be transported from reality to a past instance - which connects to 'Footsteps At The Pond'.
The pond shows up a few times; is that a specific place?
Yeah. It's not from a story directly related to anyone I know; it was another death, another tragedy, that happened on that stretch of road. I feel like when you live in a city like Grand Rapids that isn't particularly populous, everyone has more direct connections with people who might have been involved in accidents or tragedies, you become more cognisant of the stories. That's what I couldn't stop thinking about when we'd pass that place, which is right in our neighbourhood, so [we’d pass it] all the time. There's a degree of talking about other people's tragedies to envision my own reaction to one in my life.
'Anxiety Panorama' is at the heart of the record, and is such a heavy listen - was it tough to write?
It was one of the harder ones to write, for sure. It was one of the last ones I finished. It went through various vocal incarnations, because I had such a difficult time figuring out how to capture what I wanted to capture mood-wise, and because it's a short song, relative to most of our songs, but it goes through so many different things, so finding ways to make my part contribute to the song without being fucking obnoxious was a little hard. At a certain point I had to stop trying to be specific and focus more on capturing how it feels to be anxious than trying to articulate. Rather than trying to be like "hey, here are x numbers of adjectives and metaphors and similes that tell you how it feels to be anxious," it was more like "let's try to make the song feel anxious."
It comes across as being so close to the bone.
Good. I hope so. That's another one where I was so involved in it in my own head that it wasn't until we finished and I could go back and listen to it that I realised how intense it was... maybe too intense. [Laughs]
Definitely not too intense! I love the line "I was building landmarks for my errors in your scars."
You intended to make one long piece of music, but did you think about the sides on vinyl? Because that is the perfect ending to side A.
Good, we made the right choice then. We debated for a long time about how we would break up the first half of the record, because initially I don't think that song was there, it was later in the record, and it felt off, and then it was Brad our drummer, who is the mastermind of those types of things, he was like "wait a minute, this song should be here, it should end the first part."
And then it opens up perfectly on the second side with a more serene sound on 'In Northern Michigan'. It's further back in time than the rest of the record, and it seems happier.
I think the last two songs on the record are the "happiest."
But there are some happy memories on 'In Northern Michigan'.
Definitely, I guess in that respect yeah. I think the last part of the record is meant to offer some sort of statement of love and a conclusion of sorts. But as far as individual moments that's definitely the song that is remembering good things.
Which makes the harder parts hit harder when they're put right up against each other.
I think you need the contrast. You need to break things up. I say that, and then I think back on all our records, and there's a big disparity between happy and sad.
Is 'You Ascending' a peaceful ending?
I think it's a peaceful ending. It's been interesting when I have looked at what people are saying about the tracks we've put out so far, hearing their interpretations, because as intense as it is, as emotional as it is, it comes from by far and away the happiest period of time in my life, where things have gone exceptionally well for me, and I have wonderful people and a wonderful partner. Having said that, even in the happiest moments in your life nothing is uncomplicated, and that's part of finding contentment, learning to balance the difficult things with the good in your life.
So, if the record is kind of, at its bare bones, a journey between two people, one of their grief and the other's close proximity to it, the end is supposed to be a statement of love and a way to say that part of being in any relationship is agreeing to be there for someone's grief, to be there for someone's difficult moments. So in some ways I regret not being more explicit in that capacity, or not writing a coda to the record that says so. The end of 'You Ascendant', a visual of someone literally ascending, is a symbol of somebody assimilating their grief in a beneficial way, rising above it. The last part of the record is to say that no one is alone in that.
In the lyric sheet some parts are italicized and some aren't, is that meant to signify anything?
Yeah, I wanted to clue you into the difference between what's real and what's internalised. I tried at times to use my language as well, saying "nights" or "days" at the beginning of certain phrases, it was meant to evoke some sort of remembering; something happening in someone's head as opposed to happening in real life. In the [limited edition] book I annotated all the lyrics, and I might do so even more extensively in the future online, because we only had so much time - and I'll probably remember things that I forgot to include.
Have you guys discussed what you're going to do live; if you're going to play the whole record in full?
I think we're going to try to play every song, maybe someday play it in order. We've done it with every record at some point I think - I don't know if we've played Rooms front to back - I think this record probably ought to be. Not right off the bat, because if you put the record out and then went out on tour and only played these 10 songs I can imagine that would be an unsatisfying experience for people who haven't had an opportunity to sit with the record, or who don't like it and like other records - which is fine too. But I think at some point [we will].
We've got a friend coming on tour with us to help us perform the songs, because there's so much more than 5 people can do, so we've got a friend coming to play additional parts, and our tour manager's going to do our auxiliary percussion. The idea is to be able to play everything we wrote and performed on the record, at least as close as is physically possible with 7 people on a stage - and I'm not much help. At a certain point I think we'll play it front to back.
And finally, I can see from the book on the table that you're a reader, are there any books or writers that might have influenced the writing on this record?
Everything that I've done since Rooms of the House has been pretty heavily indebted to Don DeLillo, who's a favourite author of mine; when we did Rooms Of The House I read Underworld and a couple of his more recent works of fiction. This one I was reading a lot of William T Vollmann; some of the initial structural ideas that showed up on the record were borrowed from his books of fiction and short stories. A lot of this one too was film, we set out early on to make something cinematic in scope, so David Lynch, always been a big Stanley Kubrick fan, so there's some of that on the record. So not exclusively literature this time around, which was kinda fun.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 22nd March 2019