Posted March 11, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

Chadwick Stokes Gets Personal

Chadwick Stokes, photo by Photo credit: Margarita Platis
Chadwick Stokes, photo by Photo credit: Margarita Platis

Recorded at Chicago’s Shirk Studios and at L.A.’s House of Blues, Chadwick Stokes’ new album The Horse Comanche pairs the singer-songwriter with producers Sam Beam (of Iron and Wine fame), Brian Deck (Gomez, Josh Ritter) and Noah Georgeson (Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart). It alternates between sparse, folk-y tunes such as album opener “Pine Needle Tea,” a song that features hushed vocals and acoustic guitars, and psychedelic rockers such as the title track. Stokes, who still plays with indie rock bands Dispatch and State Radio, recently phoned to talk about the album.

What initially inspired you to want to become a musician? Did you have a moment when you were growing up?
Not really. I just really liked it. I played trombone as a kid up through high school. I played guitar in junior high. My heroes were Jimi Hendrix and Dylan and the Who and the Kinks. Just to even pretend when you sit in the room for the first time and your friend is playing drums — it’s a pretty incredible experience.

Were you parents into music?
My aunt and uncle who lived with us had vinyl collections. Friends of mine at this farm next door all played instruments. They needed a singer and asked me. They would give me a cassette tape of Traffic and Cream and all this classic rock stuff that I didn’t know. I didn’t know that stuff because I had two younger brothers and an older sister.

How’d you end up living in Zimbabwe?
My friend had lived there as a child. He knew people we could stay with. We concocted the plan. We wanted to get as far away from Massachusetts as possible. That was right after high school. I played in a bunch of bands. I had been in ska bands and reggae bands.

Did you hear lots of African music when you were there?
I heard a lot of Southern African music — a lot of drums and that amazing guitar style. A ton of reggae too. I wasn’t anticipating that. Bob Marley is a huge star.

Talk about the “Living Room”” tour you embarked upon last year. Did that help you prep for the album?
Definitely. It helped me to get to know the tunes. I could ask people what they thought and pick the ones that worked best. It was great to have people’s input and have other people involved and get information from them as far as different titles and lyrics and what the song was about and if it got confusing and what it needed. We did three different tours — two in the states and one in Europe. Each one was maybe 15 shows so all together it was maybe 45 or 50 shows.

You started recording the album last winter in Chicago. Talk about what that first day was like.
It was snowy and bitterly cold. I’ve hung out in New England since I was born. I’m pretty accustomed to cold. I don’t mind it typically but it was at a level where if you took the gloves off, you were screwed. You needed to put them on immediately. It was the kind of cold that hurt your fingers right away. I didn’t think anyone would be there. It was snowy and freezing. I showed up at this practice studio and Sam and Sam’s musicians from Iron & Wine were there and they were all ready to go. I was amazed at the resilience.

The title track has a message. Talk about that.
That song is a trilogy and a love story. It starts off with the horse Comanche and these other historical references and moves to a hundred to two hundred and three hundred years. It carries on to the middle of the song merges into this space travel world and the idea of someone leaving forever and going to Mars. It’s about making a decision about whether or not to do something that’s hugely historically significant and leave a loved one behind. The character is trying to get some kind of feel about whether the love is real and whether it’s worth it to stay. I’m amazed at relationships in terms of how you get so intimate with someone for years and years and if you break up, you don’t even talk to them at all. It’s so stark but it’s the way we’ve evolved in this world of monogamy, I guess.

You pair up and if you decide it doesn’t work, you just say goodbye to someone who might live two buildings away. You say ‘goodbye’ after spending 800 days together and suddenly there’s no communication. That scenario boggles my mind.

The reference is to the horse that survived the Battle of Little Bighorn. How’d you come across that story?
It brings up so many things about the American Indian Wars. I’ve been obsessed with the Native American plight ever since I was a kid. This is oversimplifying it but you have an amazing battle where the Native Americans strike back and have the element of animals in war. These free innocent beings getting thrust on one side or the other. Thirdly, the animal is still standing at the Natural History Museum in Kansas, which we all went on the last tour. It was almost a spiritual coincidence in terms of it being so layered. Subconsciously, I had an idea but I didn’t intend to go there. That track was the centerpiece of the record. As that information came in and the song grew and was realized in the studio, Brian and Sam said it was their favorite track we recorded. It became the most important song on the record.

“Prison Blue Eyes” has such a good feel to it. It’s a really peppy song. What inspired it?
That song is the best recorded. You feel like you can jump inside of it, it’s so deep. Sonically, they hit the nail. It has a Brazilian stringed instrument and upright bass. Originally, I was against using too much upright bass. It felt too woody or too jazzy. I wanted it to be more lo-fi. One of my favorite records is The Harder They Come soundtrack and a lot of my reggae and ska leaning comes from that. There’s a rawness to it and fight-for-your-right stuff on that album but also some amazing singing and harmonies and story that push you through. That to me, I was into that feel of a ‘70s Jamaican thing. That colored some of it as well.

Is that you whistling on the song?

Can you do it live?
I can sometimes. Sometimes I start smiling. Sometimes my beard is too long. Sometimes I ask everyone to jump in on the whistle. Sometimes, when you whistle on the mic, it sounds like someone is just blowing into the mic. It’s not easy. The answer is it is speckled attempts.

The record has a psychedelic rock vibe.
I was listening to a lot of early Pink Floyd. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were such cool periods. It was before disco set in and these awesome rock pop songs were getting tweaked and weird. It’s like a sweet spot there. You have these crazy sounds taking you to this fantasy world, but you still have these amazing songs.

What’s the status of your other bands, Dispatch and State Radio?
State Radio is on a hiatus until 2017. Dispatch is playing two shows this summer in New York we’re doing some overseas stuff as well.

How do you separate your solo material?
I think with Dispatch, it’s a lot of managing that trio and trying to figure out what’s the best batch of tunes for us that’s cohesive. That’s always tough. There’s three strong leanings. With State Radio, we’re more or less on the same page and we’re all psyched to be political and sing about things we thought were getting overlooked. With Chuck [Fay] and Maddog [Najarian], I knew where they were leaning musically. I was pushing that band in that direction. It made for the most fun live shows. As we got heavier, it got better. There’s not much that’s more fun than playing heavy distorted guitar music on stage. I like writing songs but I’d rather not be a singer-songwriter and sit there and play. I’d much rather be in State Radio and get super-fuzzed out sounds and try to go to a place physically where my mind is taken out of the picture. I miss that, but the solo stuff is pretty focused and a more distilled version of where I’m at in my life because I can just be more personal about things and write more from my own perspective.




Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.