State Radio's new album is titled Year of the Crow.
C. Taylor Crothers
Last summer, a group named Dispatch held reunion concerts, selling out Madison Square Garden for three nights. Not bad for a DIY indie jam band. These days, lead singer and songwriter Chad Stokes has a new band called State Radio.
State Radio's new CD, Year of the Crow, contains songs about Darfur, Iraq, the CIA, Halliburton, and Guantanamo Bay. "This is real and this is what moves me," Stokes says. "From the beginning, a lot of my songs were anti-establishment."
But Stokes doesn't just sing political lyrics. He started the Elias Fund to improve the lives of youths in Zimbabwe. And he's currently working on a TV show called How's Your News? that functions as a kind of comic news documentary anchored by people with severe disabilities.
Stokes says he was awakened to political activism early, by living next to a place called the Peace Abbey in his hometown of Sherborn, Mass. "I would see the founder, Lewis Randa, [and] he would be chained to a crane in Boston because of this or that project." It wasn't long before Stokes started joining him.
One of the songs Stokes played in the studio, "CIA," is based on work he did with a confrontational political group in New York protesting the CIA's operations in South and Central America. It's an unusual topic for a rock song, particularly one that's essentially a punk-rock dance party, but Stokes says he's not concerned about driving away potential fans with politically controversial lyrics. "It's amazing what you can put into a song, and people won't pick up on it," he says, although the band does occasionally run into opposition. "Some guy came up to me last year and said, 'I love your music, but I don't like what you say'... We had our tires slashed in Kentucky, and we've gotten people giving us the finger from the crowd, if we're opening for someone else."
The band's new album, Year of the Crow, was produced at Peter Gabriel's Real World studios by Tchad Blake, who's worked with bands such as Soul Coughing and Pearl Jam. Blake brings an organic grit and immediacy to the recording that elevates it above the more conventional rock-band sound of State Radio's first release, Us Against the Crown. Stokes says that his approach to recording was new to the band: "It was all about feel and energy. We'd play five takes, and he'd say, 'Now, this sounds like a recording, take 4, but take 1 sounds dangerous,' and so we'd always go with take 1."
There's a rich tradition of protest in folk, blues, punk, and reggae, and State Radio is one of the few bands nowadays that work in that tradition. One could argue that the politics are a bit naive, or the lyrics simplistic. But at least these songs are trying to actually say something — and they feature great, loose playing by Stokes and his bandmates Chuck Fay and Mad Dog, as well as excellent, rough, dry production. In this unusually exciting campaign season, people seem to be waking up to politics. Maybe they'll start taking a little in their music, too.