April 27, 2007

State Radio

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State Radio are currently on tour to promote their album, Us Against the Crown. Since they’ll be headlining the Springfest Benefit this Sunday at Cornell, frontman Chad Urmston — former member of the phenom-band Dispatch — took some time away from singing and saving the world to talk politics and music with Daze.
Daze: Have you ever been to Cornell before?
Chad Urmston: Eh … er … no. Never.
Daze: Okay, then that’ll be exciting! Maybe. What are the songs that gave you direction musically when you first started playing?
C.U.: Let’s see, songs that we’d written or —
Daze: Songs that you’d listened to that motivated you to want to play.
C.U.: Maybe Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of,” Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” …
Daze: So, songs that are really trying to get anyone to get up and do something.
C.U.: Yeah, I don’t know. That’s just what spoke to me. It was like, ‘This is more than just words and music. There’s a story here; there’s a movement here.’
Daze: A lot of your music with State Radio has lots of political overtones. With that in mind, what’s the significance of the name “State Radio”?
C.U.: We got it from reading about when Slobodan Milosevic was taken out of power by the people. It was just an interesting concept in two ways: one, that it was a manipulative tool that the state used to control the people and to control the media to paint a certain picture. So it had some pretty heavy weight that came along with it, but it could also have an older, more innocent feel of when radio was just starting and each state had one radio station, like a public radio type thing.
Daze: Was the original idea of State Radio to be more issue-driven music than Dispatch?
C.U.: Hmm, with Dispatch it was just … I had to be a little bit more careful with Dispatch about what I wanted to say and how I said it. And with State Radio, the three of us in State Radio are more likeminded, so it’s like full speed ahead.
Daze: If you had to pick one main topic or issue that really gets you heated and motivates you to write songs, what would it be, and why?
C.U.: I think in the last few years, it’s been the war in Iraq and feeling betrayed as a citizen of this country and feeling frustrated and sad for the families that have lost loved ones to a war that didn’t need to happen. I think that the frustration and sadness that came along with this fabricated war, I just can’t get over the loss of life that has occurred in the last three, going on four, years. It just seems so mindless and there’s nothing worse than people dying needlessly. I can’t help but feel extremely upset or moved by the death toll on both sides.
Daze: Some people argue that only a very few of the songs people point to in rock ‘n roll as being political actually are. Who do you point to as an inspiration with the political messages of their music?
C.U.: I think Ani DiFranco is just great. I love her lyrics and I feel like she stands well behind them. Johnny Cash had some terrific songs that were speaking out for the oppressed or telling it like it is in a decisive, frank manner that people were able to take and to comprehend in a way that hadn’t happened before him. Those are the big ones.
Daze: How do you feel about the fact that a lot of musicians, I read in Rolling Stone this week in fact, are all of a sudden coming out with music with political overtones? How do you feel about the fact that they waited until now, President Bush’s seventh year in office, to say anything?
C.U.: I don’t know. I guess I don’t know that many bands that — I’d like to read that article — but I think that most of the bands that are political now probably were seven years ago. They just weren’t in Rolling Stone because they were a smaller band, I’m not sure. But I think that it’s a lot of bands that are on a smaller level that are pretty political; it’s just the mainstream ones in the past have been so disappointingly apolitical.
Daze: How come you guys decided to only release live sets before this album [Us Against the Crown]? What about these songs motivated you to want to record them in a studio and what’s different about them?
C.U.: We don’t really have any live albums. We did a full-length record that was all in the studio that came out last February [Us Against the Crown], and before that, some of the stuff was live, but there was still mostly studio tracks on the EPs that preceded that.
Daze: Oh, okay.
C.U.: So this doesn’t feel too different except that some of these songs are newer. With the last album, we’d played those songs live for years so everyone already knew them, if that makes any sense.
Daze: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I understand now. Dispatch Zimbabwe is this summer — whose idea of the three of you was it and why did you decide a reunion concert was appropriate for it?
C.U.: We talked a year ago and decided that it would be worthwhile to get together for a benefit, and we all had our own ideas. Different ideas were getting thrown around and Zimbabwe was just something that wasn’t in the news all that much and we had a connection with. For me, it was at the top of my list and it was pretty close to the top of the list of Brad [Corrigan] and Pete [Heimbold] so it was the kind of thing that we could all agree on. So that unified us and motivated us to move forward with it.
Daze: What was your time like in Zimbabwe? You studied abroad there, right?
C.U.: No, I just went there after high school for half a year just ‘cause I didn’t want to go to college then. I was tired of school and I wanted to get out of small-town Massachusetts, so it was a pretty eye-opening experience as far as reckoning myself with my place in the world and the inequities of life and why this person has this much and this person has that much. To see death so closely with AIDS and open graves, it made me find a new perspective on things.
Daze: Why did you pick Zimbabwe over all other places when you were deciding where to go?
C.U.: I had a friend who had lived there for a year, a best friend. So he knew some people over there and the two of us went over there together. We were looking at a bunch of places to go but it was the place where we already knew a couple of families that we could stay with, and he knew a bit of the language already so he could teach me.
Daze: Have you been back —
C.U.: No, I haven’t been. We’re looking as a band — with Dispatch — we’re looking to see if there’s any time where we can get back.
Daze: Did the music of the region seep into yours in any way? Like in “Elias,” of in any other song more than just lyrically, with the actual music itself?
C.U.: Yeah, well it definitely got me excited about hand drums and congas and the rhythm in the vocals was wonderful to listen to so I like to think that it’s seeped into my consciousness because there’s great music over there.
Daze: After you left Zimbabwe, you went to Middlebury, right?
C.U.: Yeah.
Daze: What did you study there?
C.U.: I was only there for a year and I didn’t really study anything specifically. It was just takin’ this and that class. I was studying music and history and literature and religion — just sort of anything that seemed interesting to me. And then I went to New York. I went to the New School of Social Research for a semester, and then I went to NYU for a year-and-a-half.
Daze: What was the alternative if you weren’t going to be a musician? What was the plan?
C.U.: I would like to be a hobo for a little bit.
Daze: [Laughs]
C.U.: [Laughs] I’d like to spend more time outdoors if I wasn’t a musician. My brother does a lot of outdoor education, so maybe I would have fallen into something along those lines.
Daze: Like Outward Bound or something?
C.U.: Yeah, he does all that stuff. But the programs that are exciting to me are like the programs that will take a bunch of kids from the inner city and take them to the outdoors for the first time and build rope swings and stuff. I think that would be pretty cool.
Daze: Before you went to Zimbabwe, were you always so interested in world affairs? Or was that your turning point?
C.U.: I wasn’t really. I had grown up in a pretty liberal household but, yeah, it wasn’t something — that’s why I’m so impressed by some of these high school kids that come out to our shows that started this or that club or are really up on their current events. That’s impressive because I know when we were in high school, there were other things on our minds. That was definitely a big part of an awakening.
Daze: How did you meet your bandmates Chuck and Mike?
C.U.: I met Chuck through a friend of ours — actually, his old band, Princes of Babylon, opened up for Dispatch. So he was in a similar musical circle, and I knew he was a great bassist, but I didn’t really know him as a guy. And then with Maddog, I went to high school with a friend of his.
Daze: Why did you want to have another band after Dispatch as opposed to just going solo like your other bandmates from Dispatch?
C.U.: I don’t know, I think I just liked the gang aspect of being a band. I wasn’t all that psyched about just the solo feel of things. I like that we’re like a team. I like that feel.
Daze: There’s been a lot of talk in the media lately, lots of newspaper and TV specials about the lack of student activism by and large these days. What do you think could be done to get students to be less apathetic?
Daze: Uh, I think they can reinstate the draft. It would be pretty effective. Other than that, I think kids feel so disconnected because if they don’t have a family member or a friend who’s just been killed in the war or come back all fucked up from the war, they might not think about it too much. As far as, say, the genocide in Sudan, a bunch of kids just don’t know about it. I don’t know besides the draft what would rally you. In some ways the internet’s taking over so that sometimes you feel like you do a virtual march, you don’t have to go to the real march. There’s ways to contribute in small ways, but even then I don’t think it’s happening that much. I wish I knew what the key was to get rid of the apathy, but I’m not that sure of an answer for you.
Daze: Well, as an example of one student group that is active, how did State Radio get involved with the Springfest Benefit concert for the Food Bank of the Southern Tier that some student groups are putting on from Cornell?
C.U.: I think we have a reputation for doing a bunch of these benefit shows, so we get a lot of requests that come in, and then we just read them and hope they fit into our schedules, then go for it. We feel like this is an important cause so it wasn’t too hard of a decision for us.
Daze: What’s up next for you and for State Radio after that show?
C.U.: Let’s see, we play Rochester — we’re basically on tour from then out. We head out west. Actually, we head a little bit out west, but mostly south. We’re headed down the coast for a little bit.
State Radio will appear with Tally Hall and IY at the Springfest Benefit, which will be held this Sunday at 55 Ridgewood Road from noon to 6 pm. Visit www.stateradio.com for more information about the band.