idobi editor Eleanor Grace caught up with La Dispute frontman Jordan Dreyer at the Toronto stop of the band’s North American tour for an in-depth chat about everything that went into their new record Rooms of the House, how they challenged themselves creatively this time around, and what they’ve learned over the past almost ten years of being a band.
So with this new record, you guys really came straight out the gate with everything. You had been a little quiet for a while, and then suddenly there was a new record, new tour, new everything. What was important for you guys about doing everything all at once rather than bit by bit?
I think it’s just the way that we operate. Part of it is based purely on our current living situations; we all are scattered about the globe, so it’s not as easy as it used to be to just stay consistently active. Another thing is that it’s important for us to have a distinct separation between this aspect of our lives and our home lives. It’s easier for us to take three years off and just do our own thing, and then wait till the time is right creatively to put something else out and do everything in one block.
How does it feel now that you’re finally back at it?
Good! It’s a lot of fun. Getting the record out was…a chore, but it was a lot of fun. It was very satisfying recording it and writing it and the whole process of construction was exciting, but then the logistical aspect of it was a little intense at times. So it felt really good when we finally got to the point where tour was starting and the record was out and we could just enjoy playing songs and seeing people and being in front of an audience.
Was there anything that was particularly chore-like about this release or was it just the standard administrative stuff that goes into putting an album out independently?
Well, finishing recording was the first big chore. I had a bit of an issue with a bout of writer’s block but worked through that and finally got it all tracked. And then it was just…I mean, we released the record ourselves, so there was a little more control — which means a little more work. So it was a little different than releases in the past where [this time] we had to do the full press push and pick things and decide how it’s streamed and where it’s released and, you know, all the work that comes with keeping something closer to your chest than the normal “put it out with a record label” route.
You mentioned the writing process for this record. I feel like on the last record, Wildlife, your songwriting definitely took a little bit of turn more towards a storytelling sort of narrative style. And this record is even more conceptual. How were you inspired to make that shift as far as writing both as a creative process and as a cathartic, personal process?
Well, the first time I ever wrote from somebody else’s perspective was on our first proper full-length Somewhere [at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair], and I think those are three of the songs that turned out the best and that meant the most to me. It was a whole different experience having to empathize that heavily to try to get a full grasp on what another person might be going through in a foreign situation. And I thought it was challenging not only from an artistic standpoint but also as an individual, to really kind of eat one’s sin and fall into the role and the catastrophe. It felt natural. On Wildlife we did a lot more of that than we did on the previous record, and again it was the same thing — it was very satisfying to be able to explore every avenue. I think when you’re writing from purely your own personal perspective and telling your own story, you have a tendency to focus on surface emotions and how you react immediately to incidents. And when you are able to separate yourself and have to kind of wear a character’s clothes, you have to make those reactions, so you have to think about everything that’s confronting a person and how they might react and everything that might be going through their brain at the time. So I think it gives you more angles to approach as far as fleshing out the human condition or something like that. So this time around, there were parallels I could draw with characters at times with my own life, but for the most part I wanted to be able to really objectively create a universe, and I had to separate myself completely from it in order to do that.
Obviously when you do that in songwriting you’re dealing with works of fiction, but on a personal level, have you felt like that whole process has changed you as a person or how you interact with people?
I think so, definitely. I think it’s kind of an extreme empathy to — I mean, even the first songs that I wrote from another person’s perspective were about divorce, and writing those songs going into it thinking there was a villain and being pretty certain who that villain was, and then going into the writing process and having to think about every reason for something happening and coming to the conclusion that it’s not as easy to point a finger as you might think going into something…I think it’s given me an opportunity to really be a blank slate and try to think about everything that goes into something going awry, I guess.
I think it’s clear that you challenged yourself creatively when it came to the songwriting on this record. What are some of the other ways that you guys really challenged yourselves?
It’s always been important to us to switch the process up every time we approach a full-length. I think every idea sonically and lyrically has a process best suited for realizing it. And we’ve always wanted to challenge the creative process so that the end product wasn’t stagnant, so that things would shift and change and we could change as individuals and as a collective entity artistically. This time around, it was being a heavy editor and trying to be more concise where songs in the past had lacked structure for the most part, and had kind of been one part to one part and these more sweeping, six minute, all over the place compositions. And with this record, we wanted to dial it back down, not just lyrically — which was a big thing for me — but my bandmates musically wanted to be very, very deliberate and very careful with everything and try to, I guess, write more conventional songs. Let that be our challenge. I think a lot of people have heard me say that in interviews and been like, “Oh, well, you’re making it easy on yourself.” But it’s the exact opposite because we’ve always functioned in the opposite way where our style of songwriting, our strengths have always played into writing eight minute long songs. So to be like, “Let’s write a two and a half minute song and try to tell a story and try to create an adequate backdrop musically for that story,” it’s…I think [this is] the record we’re most proud of, and I think that’s a big part of it. And I think my bandmates really really did an incredible job, and that’s part of the reason that I probably had such debilitating writer’s block for so long, because they did an impressive thing.
Hey, that’s a good challenge to have to rise to. What sort of places were you guys drawing from creatively, especially new places since you were kind of trying to take a different approach with it?
I guess everything was kind of new. It was new writers and new musicians and new personal experiences. We made the decision very early on to not take anything off the table. So I mean, there’s Radiohead, but there’s Steve Reich, and like, old jazz records that we were listening to in the studio every night, and books that I had just been reading that I probably would not have drawn from previously. So it was a lot of different things. I don’t think we ever really consciously pick our influences, but, you know, three years passed and we all experienced a lot of different things and incorporated new art and new experiences into ourselves.
What are some albums that have impacted you in the way that you would hope your music would impact others?
That’s a really good question. I mean, the easiest route for me to take is the first band that ever really had a positive impact on me — Hot Water Music when I was fourteen. And it really was that revelatory young punk rock moment where I was like, “These people are singing about things that I think about and that my friends and I go through.” So that was a big record — Forever and Counting by Hot Water Music was a big one for me, where it was just like, it had songs I could sing along to, songs that made me feel like I had companions the world over and people who understood. But I mean, you get older and I think — there’s still those records, but I think watching people really challenge themselves and do great things artistically is incredibly inspiring. Every Joanna Newsom record, I hear and it makes me want to write again. So it’s a lot of different things, I guess. There’s so much good music out there.
How unreal was it when you got to tour with Hot Water?
Oh, it was incredible. My bandmates knew, when we first said we were submitting the offer, my bandmates were like — everybody looked at me.
Like, “Jordan’s gonna lose it.”
[laughs] Yeah, “Jordan’s gonna lose it.” And then we got to do it, and we were three or four days into doing the first tour we did with them, which was in Europe. [I remember] Chuck [Ragan] coming up to me and being like, “I just wanted to let you know how inspiring it is to see you guys play and how much we love you guys.” And it was like, “No no no no no, I’m supposed to be saying this to you.” So crazy.
What’s it been like to be able to tour with your idols like that?
It’s awesome. Especially Hot Water, like, those dudes still are constantly in good spirits. They’re the least jaded people ever. They love what they do. They love that they have the opportunity to do it. They love each other. They still get along great. It was crazy. It was very inspiring as a — I mean, I guess we’re not a young band. We’ve been doing this for almost ten years. But for a band like Hot Water that’s been doing it 20+, for them to still be the same four guys and still love what they do when they’re given the opportunity to do it and still make great music, it’s really cool.
As you said, you guys aren’t a new band anymore — you’ve been at this almost ten years, which is crazy to think about. Now that you’ve reached this point in your career and you’ve got your third record under your belt and it’s what you’re most proud of, what are some of the biggest lessons that you guys have learned, especially that you were able to bring to the table on this record?
Well, part of it goes back to Hot Water and how none of those dudes are remotely close to jaded. It’s really easy, I think, to live this lifestyle and take it for granted. And like, it’s not an amazing thing every day. People are like, “Oh, you get to tour in a band and travel. I bet it’s incredible. You just hang out all the time and play music.” It is not that. It’s hard. It’s hard to have a home life and have healthy relationships and everything. So there are reasons to be jaded. But it is easy to, I think, get frustrated and to let that take over the splendor of the experience. And I think for us it’s been important to always remember that the main reason that we do this is because we have fun doing it and because we love each other and because we like to make art and perform for people. So I think it’s really remembering the basis for starting out. And from a business aspect, keeping everything close to the chest has always been really important to us. I think it’s part of the reason that our band has been successful — we haven’t relinquished control to people who weren’t close to us and we haven’t relinquished control in situations in which we didn’t have to. It is increasingly easy for bands to be in control of how they’re presented and we’ve always made a point of being in control and I think it’s been good. It’s cool every night to play for people and even on nights that you’re having a bad time and frustrated with how something’s going, it means something to people and that’s cool.
If there were one piece of advice you could give yourself when you were starting out your journey in music, what would it be?
Have fun. I feel like we’ve done it all pretty well, but I think that’s a big thing. It’s important to have a home life. It’s important to have people that you love back home. I think if I were to tell myself one lesson starting out — and still to this day — it’s communicate with the people who care about you, because as much as their lives go on without you at home, when you come back it’s still an important thing to them to have you there. And having healthy friendships outside of this is really important. I’m still the worst person at communicating, so I’m still learning that lesson.
You were mentioning control, and obviously with this record, putting it out on your own gave you the opportunity to have more control. What are some other ways that you guys would like to explore doing things DIY down the road?
I think with the record label, we have this thing that’s DIY and it’s all ours and it doesn’t have to just be a record label. I think that one of the things we want to do is explore other artistic avenues and be able to support other mediums. If we have a friend who wants to put out a chapbook of poetry or whatever, we can do that — we have the opportunity now. I think one thing that we haven’t done as much of recently that we used to do quite a bit is hosting events, and it’s not something we can do as much anymore cause we all live different places, but I think that’s still an important thing to all of us. We’ve talked a lot about hosting events with our resources in all the places that we are, partnering with the record label and a charity and having an art showing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, or in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, near where Brad lives. So, I don’t know. It’s so early in its infancy and we’ve been so focused on getting the record out that we haven’t really had the proper opportunity to flesh different ideas out. It’s like, what comes next after this three-month tour cycle is done?
Alright, we’ll talk next tour and I’ll ask again when you’ve had some more time to think about it.
Last question: what are your biggest goals for this album cycle? What’s on the bucket list before you go in to make the next record?
You know…I don’t know. I think it’s important to temper expectations. Part of what has made this so exciting to us from day one is that we’ve never really had any, so anytime we go anywhere and kids show up, it’s this moment of…I don’t know, it’s crazy. It’s crazy that we played for 1200 people in our home state last night. We used to play for 20 kids and be just as excited. So I think it’s about not taking for granted what you have and not setting unrealistic expectations. It’s been cool to put this record out and have other media outlets that have consistently neglected our whole niche of the subculture finally pay attention — and that’s been cool not just for our band but for watching all of our friends in Title Fight, Pianos, Touche, all these bands that we grew up with, it’s really great to see them taken seriously. You don’t want to have that moment of affirmation be — that’s like, the least punk rock thing, to be like, “I want someone to validate what I do.” But it is cool to get to that point and to no longer be dismissed because you put as much work into what you do as anybody who chooses to play acoustic guitar or whatever.