La Dispute were in a rut. After playing together (give or take a few members) for close to 15 years, the post-hardcore experimentalists were too stuck in routine and familiarity with each other to come up with ideas for their upcoming album. In search of something — anything — to jump-start their songwriting process, bass player and indie game developer Adam Vass suggested they turn to a tabletop role-playing game called Tales From The Loop. The premise is basically Stranger Things, but more Dungeons And Dragons: 1980s kids trying to figure out why supernatural events are taking over their small town. So vocalist Jordan Dreyer, drummer Brad Vander Lugt, and guitarists Chad Morgen-Sterenberg and Corey Stroffolino gathered in Game Master Vass’ house in their hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and got to work.
“It was really strange to play a game that was not, on its face, necessarily fun and entertaining,” Dreyer tells me over the phone from Seattle, where he’s been living with his partner for the past year and a half. “At a certain point when you’re experiencing difficulties, you get slightly desperate, especially in a time crunch, and you start to try everything. At least it got us out of our unhealthy headspace and let us goof around with each other and have fun.”
For diehard fans and RPG enthusiasts, the band posted its afternoon play session to Bandcamp as Finding Felix (Tales From The Loop RPG), a two-track recording of Dreyer and company pretending to be middle schoolers. They joke about Van Halen, get into trouble with teachers, and feel misunderstood by parents. It’s cute. But the real fruits of La Dispute’s labor lie in their fourth full-length and first release for iconic imprint Epitaph, Panorama. None of the songs can be traced directly back to that specific game (though perhaps the band’s decision to release Panorama a week early as a simply and beautifully designed computer game could be). But the band’s focused, powerful playing and Dreyer’s sophisticated storytelling are clearly the result of unlocking a new level of creative potential.
“We have always tried to introduce restrictions when we did a new thing, and we spent so much time off between Rooms Of The House, the last record, and this one, that we found it difficult to find a way to do that,” he says. “We found it maybe too easy to settle into old habits that were tread territory, and then we were doing the same thing we did on the last record. And so we had to pry ourselves from that stagnancy.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find anything close to stagnation across La Dispute’s discography. Since 2008’s Somewhere At The Bottom Of The River Between Vega And Altair, La Dispute has consistently drawn lines outside the already loosely defined — yet rigorously defended — borders of what’s generally agreed upon to be the late-’00s wave of post-hardcore, including Touché Amoré, Pianos Become The Teeth, and Defeater. They’re post-post-hardcore. Somewhere, which was reissued on its 10th anniversary last year, features a 12-minute epic (“The Last Lost Continent”), breakdowns with elements of country, blues, and grunge, and what would become Dreyer’s signature scream-to-spoken-word delivery. Even after that, no two records sound quite the same. La Dispute’s sophomore LP, 2011’s Wildlife, tightens all those disparate threads into a more cohesive but no less urgent listen, while 2015’s more melodically developed Rooms Of The House lets out the seams to give more space to Dreyer’s vocals.
Besides their dynamic range, the other constant throughout La Dispute’s history has been Dreyer’s vivid, deeply resonant lyrics, which interweave the lives of others with meditations on his own. Sometimes his writerly instincts are so on-point they’ve gotten him into trouble. Somewhere opens with a trio of songs about a man and a woman going through a divorce. Shortly after the album came out, Dreyer got a phone call from someone who knew that those two people existed in real life. “[They were] just flat out like, ‘This is about so-and-so.’ And it was,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, well, you know, it’s kind of an amalgamation of different stories,’ which is utter cowardly bullshit. I backtracked eventually.”
Fortunately, Dreyer’s real-life inspirations have usually appreciated his compassionate and fair character sketches. “Having spent an outsized portion of our history of a band writing about things that haven’t happened to me, I think that the objective has always been to be observant and to try as best as I can to dictate events as I see them, rather than trying to presume too much about what somebody’s encountering,” he says.
While writing Panorama, this slightly removed outlook was put to the test when he decided to source material predominantly from his partner. “Being so close to someone made me want to think about how something affected them, to understand as best I could and to be as helpful as possible through the process,” he adds. He wrote about things she experienced directly, like the decline of her grandmother due to Alzheimer’s, and indirectly, like stories about people she knew from her hometown of Lowell, Michigan. The central theme to most of Panorama is grief, which Dreyer admits he has not experienced but still portrays with startling accuracy. “There You Are (Hiding Place)” mirrors a grieving person’s capacity for huge, conflicting emotions that come and go as it surges from quiet to explosive in the span of a verse-chorus. On the stirring “Fulton Street I,” over militaristic drum builds, he meditates on never having experienced loss himself, wondering, “Will I ever put flowers by the street?”
Other songs almost write themselves. Over guitars that tiptoe uneasily around each other and a muted trumpet on “Rhodonite And Grief,” Dreyer recounts a conversation with his partner about her grandmother’s deteriorating mind. “‘Kill me by surprise’/ You said/ ‘I don’t want to stay alive to watch the words go first like hers,’” he says. For anyone who has watched a loved one get old and retreat from this world before disappearing completely, those words cut deep. Despite the heavy subject matter, Dreyer manages a few moments of levity. When I mention that the verse “Rhodonite for stress relief/ Promethazine for sleep” really captures the millennial cure-all, Dreyer laughs and agrees.
“There’s sort of these two competing trends, where a lot of the people I know who deal with stress and anxiety, they’re consulting either their astrological chart or taking a Xanax,” he says. Determined to maintain his objective perspective as much as possible, he quickly adds, “I’m not even necessarily trying to say anything about how we operate sociologically or the merits of either one. I don’t really have an opinion. I think people need things. I just think the contrast is interesting.”
When it comes to issues of social justice and equality, however, Dreyer has never been hesitant to state his opinion. All proceeds from the visual Panorama album go to LGBTQ youth advocacy group the Trevor Project. In 2016, La Dispute printed “Don’t Legislate Hate” shirts to take a stand against HB2, North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” while benefited queer legislation organization Southerners On New Ground. In a cruel twist of fate, they performed at the Fillmore in Charlotte on 6/12 — the same day as the Orlando nightclub shooting. In a fan-made video from that evening, Dreyer implores the crowd to stop the “cycle of violence.”
“While we’re allowing people in power to legislate morality based on your identity, while we are villainizing the other, we are throwing gas on the fire,” he says in the clip. “The only way to fight it is by loving the people around us, opening our hearts to understand it, even if you don’t understand it.” He then launches into “King Park,” a harrowing Wildlife cut about a tragic drive-by shooting that happened in Grand Rapids in 2008, with the crowd shout-singing along to every single word.
Clearly, Dreyer is preaching to the choir. As is apparent in their 2015 documentary Tiny Dots, La Dispute fans are a diverse and dedicated bunch, ranging from the grizzled, grey-haired man who opens the film talking about how much he loves the band to the girl whose mother drove her six hours to see one of their shows for her 17th birthday. “The fact that I can talk to a 75-year-old man who comes to see our band, and I can talk to a mom who took her daughter and she’s like, ‘Now, I love it too,’ or I can talk to a 16-year-old trans person who takes some degree of bravery from what I talk about as a white, straight, cis male is really, really cool and remarkable,” he says. It’s his willingness to tackle uncomfortable topics in his lyrics, from anxiety and depression to pervasive self-doubt (“I broke it all/ I’ll fix it all/ I failed you all along,” he blurts out to his partner in Panorama’s “Anxiety Panorama”), that attracts such a wide range of listeners, most of whom have wrestled with what he’s singing about.
La Dispute’s commitment to supporting and fostering community stems from their close-knit, DIY beginnings. The band originally grew from family ties between Vander Lugt and Dreyer, who are cousins a few years apart in age, and started bonding over shared interest in music when they worked summers together at their parents’ hardware store on the southeast side of Grand Rapids. Vander Lugt had been drumming for a couple of years and Dreyer was into “the slightly edgier, slightly more record-store type bands,” like Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, which the owner of their local vinyl emporium Vertigo Records recommended to him. “It was probably my idea, because I don’t play any instruments, and I wanted to be in a band,” says Dreyer, who tried keyboards and the guitar before abandoning both. “So I’m sure I brought it up to him to be like, ‘Hey, maybe we should make music together. I can sing.’”
Dreyer’s love of reading authors like Kurt Vonnegut and writing angst-ridden, politically-driven poetry inspired by Rage Against The Machine led him to the front of the stage, where he “would just walk up to the microphone and talk,” he says. “It just happened through sheer tyranny of will.” Besides Vander Lugt and Dreyer, the longest-serving band member is Morgen-Sterenberg, who replaced his older brother Derek when he quit after La Dispute’s first show. Vass quit his screamo band and moved from Northwest Indiana to join the lineup after another one of Vander Lugt’s friends, also named Adam, left music a few years in to go to law school. Kevin Whittemore, Stroffolino’s predecessor and a co-founder of the band, left in 2015 to become a luthier.
La Dispute’s first shows were at local volunteer-run venue Division Avenue Arts Collective, which was forced to close and relocate in 2013. (In 2015, the band played a stripped-down acoustic show to raise money for its relocation.) They distributed “very, very shitty demos” recorded at their friend’s house for free on burned CDRs, and socialized their shows through flyers and proto-social networking site Xanga. Even in those early days, fans would show up already knowing all the words to all the songs. After graduating, they built up their fan base by playing weekend shows around the state, from Ann Arbor to Detroit.
“There was a very slow build and always has been,” says Dreyer. “Even if we never thought, ‘We’re going to make a living out of this,’ we were in our early 20s and we loved it more than anything else that we did. Working a nine-to-five and going to college didn’t seem like appealing alternatives to living out of a van and eating Saltines and peanut butter every day.”
Dreyer’s vision on Panorama has matured far beyond those initial budget tour dreams. Though he’s never shied away from interrogating topics beyond the scope of his direct experience — not everyone would write a song about a man whose schizophrenic son stabbed him — it takes a hard-to-come-by degree of articulate self-awareness to turn his insight inwards, to unflinchingly examine his own shortcomings with the person who means the most in the world to him. “I faced my own pain in no way I embraced it/ In the bedroom with the door locked tight/ Like a coward when the flash burns bright I’ll hide,” he says in the tambourine-led “View From Our Bedroom Window,” his voice low and quick like a confession. The band’s propensity to shift genres mid-song has settled into a more consistent, confident aesthetic that’s a touch subtler but no less dynamic. With shades of The Bends-era Radiohead, restrained guitars and lightly hit snares carry Dreyer’s intonations for the first half of the seven-minute “You Ascendant” before his voice blooms into a desperate promise that, “I will be everything you need!”
There is also, despite the introspective subject matter, a certain lightness and ease in how each song flows the next, like how the gentle, synth-washed ambient of opener “Rose Quartz” carries into the barely perceptible feedback introducing “Fulton Street I.” You could think of this tracklist as second draft, since La Dispute recorded a whole batch of songs they wound up discarding, losing precious writing time in the process. “Because of the time crunch, we didn’t have time to sit and hyper-analyze every potential option,” says Dreyer. “It forced us to try [new ideas] and to see if they functioned well on a practical level. Rather than endlessly debating them internally, we just threw a bunch of shit at the wall.” Once they had a suite of songs they were happy with, they decamped to Philadelphia to record and mix with Will Yip, the engineer who also worked on Rooms Of The House. At 10 tracks, Panorama is relatively short for a La Dispute full-length, second only to 2006’s more classically first-wave post-hardcore Vancouver.
La Dispute will begin their North America Panorama tour in mid-April, giving fans about a month after the album’s release to learn all the lyrics — which isn’t to say some didn’t start trying weeks ago, even before the visual album revealed the words. Though Dreyer is a little nervous about playing new songs for audiences for the first time in five years, for him, touring is “truly the thing in my life, beyond just being at home with my partner and friends, that makes me feel the most fulfilled.” Almost 15 years into making music that lots of people adore with his best and oldest friends, Dreyer still sounds absolutely floored, improbably humble and nearly at a loss for words that he was able to make a career out of his two foundational passions, music and words.
“I got real fucking lucky,” he says.