”We are on the great adventure of our lives. But we hardly know it…” - Chadwick Stokes, “The Horse Comanche”
It began in a living room, or maybe several living rooms— with a flicker of light from a candle or two, surrounded by strangers who, after an evening of music, became strangers no more. This is not the way everyone might begin the process of crafting a new album: crisscrossing the country in an old van and relying on the kindness of brand-new friends with their eager ears and open homes. But this is the way Chadwick Stokes readied the songs for his second solo LP, The Horse Comanche: on the road and in front of his biggest fans, which is exactly how he likes it. Because the best music—like the revolutions it sometimes furnishes—starts in the uncharted spaces, gathered around together.
“I wanted to get to a place where the connection was as real as possible,” says Stokes on what came to be titled the Living Room tour. “It was simply the best way I could think of to battle-test new songs, to tour and have no middle man.”
With the aid of a renowned production team of Sam Beam (Iron and Wine), Brian Deck (Gomez, Josh Ritter, Modest Mouse) and Noah Georgeson (Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart), they took the music from the highway into the studio, recording in the Polar Vortex of Chicago, tapping into the intimate, urgent environment created on those living room floors. Together, they crafted a sonic warmth away from the frigid winds, weaving together the stories and pieces and lives taken from his time on the road and his fresh existence as a family man; of growth and struggle, of reactions to the changing (oftentimes, not in the right direction) political and social landscape around him.
The songs on The Horse Comanche are both urgent and delicate, melding a psychedelic spiral with steadfast folk; from the wistful pop-choir that ushers in “Hazy Maze,” to the eclectic percussion and tropicali beat of “Prison Blue Eyes,” to the sweeping “New Haven” that features guest vocals from Lucius, they’re a diverse snapshot into the mind and world of Stokes, a singer who lives equally in the internal and the external plane.
His newfound producer partnerships also allowed him to express his music in different, sometimes perfectly uncomfortable ways. “I break strings a lot on a guitar, playing with a club fist,” he says, laughing. “But those guys, they said, ‘why don’t you finger pick this song?’ They were constantly giving suggestions to open up the music in different fashions.”
Stokes headed out last fall for the Living Room Tour with his wife and two small children, sometimes sleeping in the middle of the woods or under the stars. The songs, played simply on his acoustic guitar, with no traditional amplification, took as much from the experience as those listening. It wasn’t the stage of Madison Square Garden or a political rally, but this experience fed him in new, sometimes deeper ways, creating the pathway to The Horse Comanche, which is at once his most globally connected and personal record yet. Those living room floors, that quiet hum of a small nighttime crowd gathered around casually but intently—it can be the most furtive workshop. “I’d take the reaction and see which songs needed a new bridge, which ones were too long. And I would go home and scrap it or retool it,” he says. “The experience fed the project completely.”
The album is centered on the message of the title track—“The Horse Comanche”—which was inspired by, among other things, Stokes hearing stories of astronauts going on far-flung missions to space with zero promise of ever returning.
“The song is, in my mind, the centerpiece of the record,” he says. “I just find the horse Comanche to be so mysterious, and has this strong historical precedent. So the idea of a song that says, we are on this ride of life, we’re all riding the Horse Comanche, how amazing is that? That we are all humans and have this chance to be alive, but life just flies by us?”
As he sings on the track, “we are on the great adventure of our lives,” Stokes’ adventure has been one wide and varied, taking him from a small town where he grew up to the streets of Zimbabwe to fronting two enormously successful bands and selling out Madison Square Garden. Through it all, however, the main point has always remained the same—to create music that could motivate a generation to not just hum along and to turn that passion to action. To spark a conversation, not drive bank accounts.
But Stokes did see one way he could monetize music for good—by creating a non-profit, Calling All Crows, that joins bands and fans together in collective activism that’s raised more than a half a million dollars. And The Horse Comanche is a sonic meeting place of all sides of Stokes’ life: the activist, ever engaging in the civil rights struggle, and the father, the husband, the lyricist eternally finding his voice and inspiration from the world around him and the world within. “I think there is a lot more on this record about love and our story and relationships than I’ve had in the past,” he says. “I used to be pretty against love songs.” But sometimes a “love song” doesn’t have to be what you think—it can be about fighting for love in the fiercest way possible, like in “Our Lives Our Time,” which exists in a frustrated world where a fight for equality on all fronts rages on. It’s asking for love—demanding it, even—not simply pining for it. Because that’s a burning part of Stokes’ existence that will always be lit.
“I’d like to do that forever, because that’s what turns me on,” he says about writing politically-motivated music. “But mostly, I just always like to tell stories. The human story, that’s what’s interesting to me.”
Comanche, the horse, was the only survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It’s a lesson for us all to learn: sometimes it takes a different will to live, an unexpected approach, a willingness to fight from all costs and form a point of view that opens us to new ideas, new possibilities and new compassion. A new way, maybe, to ride. The Horse Comanche does this, too.
The sound of a revolution doesn’t come with a bang; it doesn’t come with a whimper. Revolution reveals itself like a song. Cultural change starts with inspiration; the desire to break from the status quo and write a new chapter. For these days of uncertainty, the Boston-based trio State Radio set the explosive soundtrack for change with Rabbit Inn Rebellion.
These 11 tracks create a concept album, depicting a dystopia world ravaged by endless war (“Take Cover”), wanton executions (“State of Georgia”), heartless oligarchs (“Big Man”) and the unlikely love between freight train runaways (“Adelaide”). But this isn’t science fiction; these stories are true, revealing facets of the world, as it is today.
State Radio’s Chad Stokes (of Dispatch & Chadwick Stokes), Chuck Fay and Mike “Mad Dog” Najarian serve up rock n’ roll realism that weaves together stories of the downtrodden and the oppressed, but never loses its sense of hope. The album is raw and gritty, rolling with thunderous drumming and delectably grimy guitars. If there is a through line of anthemic rock, it’s because the record was crafted from drummer Mad Dog’s basement - just three guys, some amps and ideas. “The best thing about this record is just the raw energy and the basic facts,” Stokes says. “We recorded it to tape with these old amps from the 70s and these big drum sounds in a warehouse.”
This is rock; unrefined, hard and volcanic. “There’s not much reggae or ska on this record, which is new for us,” Stokes says, “Mad Dog just crushes the drums so hard, and Chuck propels it with his bass. We were playing to their strengths. These tunes are more Zeppelin and Sabbath than ever before.”
On “Roadway Broken,” interlocking bass and guitar riffs chop away, as the drums tumble and smash behind Stokes’ howl. The chunky up-tempo grooves of “Sugarbeet Wine” seem all that more energized, when paired with its slow-burning airy interludes and sternward-arcing slide guitar. Recorded in the Boston area, Rabbit Inn Rebellion is close to home, lacing together their personal histories and convictions.
With these songs, State radio crafts a narrative of where the world is going, and where it has been. If these songs sound like road trip music, it’s because much of it was written on the road…or to be more precise, on the rail. Between projects, Stokes decided to hop on the trains, the same way modern gutter punks and age-old hobos have traversed the country. Stokes and his brother rode from coast to coast stopping off in cities and towns, picking up stories.
“My brother Willy and I were jumping freight trains across the country and stopped in this town in Arizona,” he says. “I ended up getting back on the train with a dog, and he ended up getting back on the trains with a girl, Adelaide. We made it out to Sacramento, where we got arrested. But, the whole story is based on this crazy love that Willy and Adelaide had for each other and then their ultimate break-up.”
On “Desert Queen,” Stokes divulges his own love affair with his new four-legged sidekick, Lefty, who tagged along for their adventures. Rumor has it, Lefty has rocker roots too; he’s descended from the Grateful Dead’s touring dog, Karma. “He was given to me by a Choctaw Indian man called Toothless Donny near Flagstaff, Arizona. We bonded right away.”
With Calling All Crows – the band’s non-profit organization aimed to mobilize musicians and their fans to create change through music and service - State Radio interacts with fans in local service projects in the cities they tour. They meet the people who buy their records, while giving back to their communities. “We’ve never had major label help,” Stokes says, “we get together with fans at protests or do service projects between shows. It’s never been a top-down kind of thing, it’s always been from the ground up.” Founded in 2008, Calling All Crows has raised over $250,000 to empower women in Sudan and Afghanistan and invested more than 17,000 hours of service in local communities and across North America and Europe.
Action is hardly a new concept for the members of State Radio. Before the band, Mad Dog volunteered as mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters, while Fay was and continues to be a powerful voice for Instant Runoff Voting (or Rank Choice Voting) and comprehensive election reform across the country. How’s Your News?, a film project created by filmmaker/author Arthur Bradford and Stokes while working at a camp for adults with disabilities, was picked up by Trey Parker and Matt Stone for a run on HBO and MTV. On tour, State Radio have joined with Amnesty International to expose the injustices and improprieties of the legal system, worked to minimize wildfire danger by removing invasive plants from areas in California, raised money to support hundreds of Afghan women with shelter and education and have partnered with Oxfam America to organize home run derbies and 5K road races. Most bands have touring schedules. State Radio has an action calendar.
Organic musicality paired with socio-political lyrics, Rabbit Inn Rebellion is State Radio’s most urgent record yet. It’s a hopeful antidote to the plague of cynicism, a metaphoric candle lighting a world gone dark.
“We didn’t care if it was little messy or not perfect, if the energy and the driving nature and sense of urgency was in it, then we would go for it. That’s what carries the album,” says Stokes. “This is totally a full steam ahead, pedal-to-the-metal album. You can feel the blood coursing through it.”
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