Photo Credit: Laura Barisonzi

How Chadwick Stokes keeps his Head under the Clouds

By Nick Macksood

August 2016

For the frontman of arguably the biggest indie band in the world, Chadwick Stokes is an approachable man. As someone who spent his youth and young manhood playing Urmston’s songs like “Bang Bang” in guitar shops on Martin’s I’d never be able to afford, there was a moment during our conversation when Chad became less of an idol and more of an influence. This was a familiar experience for others as well. Dodgeball teammates, candid conversations after shows, hangouts at his place on the Vineyard; after hearing anecdotes like this, Chad’s life as the leader of Dispatch and State Radio began to look like too narrow a definition.

Fans of “the biggest band you’ve never heard of” will immediately recognize Stokes as the shaggy-haired activist-rocker of the Boston-based bands Dispatch and State Radio. Dispatch, a band that reached a level of success in the early millennium due to word of mouth and file sharing programs would be difficult to find a modern analog to compare. The group–made up of Stokes, Pete Heimbold and Brad Corrigan–met and formed at Middlebury College in Vermont during the mid-90’s.

Not long after graduating from Middlebury, Dispatch relocated to Boston and began to tour extensively, an act that would tighten their music and characterize it in ways that studio work cannot. The band’s tone–both live and on any one of their five studio albums–feels like an intimate performance. Their acoustic-driven, reggae rock sound is rounded out and kept fresh by their African musical influences and their versatility as musicians: the trio routinely swaps roles and instruments during performances and on their albums.

During their constant travels, Dispatch quickly gained a rapid level exposure at the whims of the Wild West Napster era of the music industry and not with the help of record labels or radio play. “We’d show up and play in New York City. Two months later, we’d do it again and there’d be twice as many people. And then two months later, same place, same thing–twice as many people as the last time,” Stokes told me over the phone that afternoon, “It was growing so fast and so much on its own that when we’d have meetings with the record companies, they couldn’t really offer us anything that we felt like we wouldn’t see on our own.

“And things were happening fast enough. It was just organic enough that we didn’t feel overwhelmed by all the success. I don’t think we would have wanted it to go any faster, really, it would have been unhealthy for us.”


Photo Credit: Laura Barisonzi

Indeed, it seems unlikely that a new band today could make it under the Dispatch model of success. Whether it be the sheer number of creative millennials jostling for position, a more reserved bankroll on the part of record companies in the wake of the 2008 crisis, or the myriad of ways in which downloading and streaming services like iTunes or Spotify have altered the way musicians make their money–”making it” is getting tougher these days. “I think our timing was pretty good. But I think we probably just would have been, you know, if we were playing earlier–and there was no Napster–we would have just done it ourselves,” Stokes added, “But who knows if we could have made a living doing it, you know? We’d probably be farmers now, or something.” A statement that, oddly enough, didn’t sound like such a bad thing to Stokes.

Principally, because Chad is, at heart, a Vineyard kid, “a twelve year old bumming around on a bike, peeking into bars.” Boston born and raised, however, Chad’s Vineyard connections are deep rooted. He spent summer vacations here as a kid at his grandparents’ house in Vineyard Haven, not far from West Chop. His grandmother played piano at Camp Jabberwocky when she was younger, “like back in the 50’s. I think she would show up drunk mostly [laughs] but she was still volunteering!”

As Chad entered his teens, he started volunteering at Jabberwocky where he would eventually meet his wife, Sybil, who is also Dispatch’s tour manager and the mother of their two children. But the island is also where Chad started to play music. One of his first performances–16 years old at the Wintertide Café–was a rendition of “Flying Horses”, an homage to the Oak Bluffs carousel and cornerstone of Circuit Avenue and a song that would eventually appear on Dispatch’s debut album, Silent Steeples. And when prompted further about his time as a washashore kid, the childhood stories rolled from Chad’s memory effortlessly.

“Growing up, we used to kayak over to the drawbridge and jump off that little house–which gave you an extra two meters or something–but we’d do it naked in the middle of the night! I wouldn’t do that now. And one time we got chased by the police. They took our clothes and there we were, swimming underwater, dodging these huge spotlights. You could see them underwater, we’d just be holding our breath under the pylons. Then we ran back to Camp Jabberwocky in the middle of the night–naked–which is it’s own little adventure.”


Photo Credit: Laura Barisonzi

Listening to Chad’s stories as a fan of his music has a certain thrill to it, but combing through them a second and third time–especially when put into context–you start to realize these are just garden variety Vineyard tales of carefree youth. Separating the man from the myth is always easier said than done, but a candid conversation is always a great equalizer.

You can almost read Chad’s sighing as he looks back on the island compared to what it is today, “Now, I’d say it’s… it still exists, I guess, that special-ness that comes with being an island. But there’s something about it that just seems more official now… whereas it used to be once you left the mainland, it really felt like you were entering a place that ran by its own rules.” Of course, nostalgia tugs at the hem of everyone’s life, but Chad’s comments revealed a deeper longing than simply for his past. On some other level, his laments were of a rapidly changing, impersonal world.

In that light, Dispatch’s choice to turn down mainstream influence, wealth perhaps, and publicity for their own brand of authenticity makes a lot of sense. We don’t expect musicians like Chad or bands like Dispatch and State Radio to be models of social activism. We don’t expect them to be as thoughtful as they are about the delicate balancing act between the natural progression of a group and the desire to turn it into a well-oiled machine. We don’t expect them to play on our dodgeball team, nor do we expect them to take an interest in our own lives. It’s just that the popular acceptance of a group like that becomes self-evident knowing that they understand how a communal family like the Vineyard lives.