On a recent afternoon, Chad Stokes stuffed a van with all of his worldly possessions and emptied the junk at the local dump. After a few years living with his wife and daughter at his parents' house in a sleepy little bedroom town, Stokes had decided to head back to Boston.
The move is symbolic, too: Following a decade away from the music scene, Stokes' first band, Dispatch, is back. No more one-time "reunion" shows, like the instant sellouts the band played in 2004, 2007 and 2009. On Aug. 21, Dispatch will self-release "Circles Around the Sun" on its Bomber Records label, its first batch of new music in 12 years, then tour through the fall in Europe and the United States.
While "indie rock" is a term often used by many bands with major-label-strength backing, Dispatch was the rare exception. Formed in the early '90s at Vermont's Middlebury College, Stokes, Pete Francis and Brad Corrigan became a cult campus favorite, with self-made CDs and mixtapes the most common method of distribution. The advent of Napster only made the act bigger and, by the time labels took notice, Dispatch was too big to need them, or even care.
"We were a little indignant, maybe," Stokes says. "'Oh, now you're interested because of how many tickets we sold? Where were you when we were sleeping in our van, eating leftover pizza from the frat party the night before?'"
By 1998, when the band released "Bang Bang," its brand of reggae-infused roots music was the definition of dorm-room rock. But in 2002, Dispatch disbanded, and a 2004 farewell show at Boston's Hatch Shell drew an unbelievable 110,000 fans. The members kept in touch, and each resulting reunion helped "clear whatever demons were chasing us in 2002," says Stokes, who had since formed another group, State Radio. "When we broke up, I never wanted to be Dispatch again. Even by 2004, we were hesitant to call it the end, because things seemed so much better."
In 2007, Dispatch sold out three shows at New York's Madison Square Garden. A one-off 2009 set at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., sold out in two minutes. Dispatch was gone, but it was also growing. In the winter of 2011 the band convened in New York, and the subject of re-forming came up.
"If we were going to play more than two shows, we didn't want to be some lame reincarnation of our 1999 selves," Stokes says. "We knew everyone was writing. We had the tunes. We just had to sit down and see where we were musically." Dispatch 2.0 then set to work in a rented house in upstate New York.
The first offering, an EP, arrived in early 2011. The 13-date tour that followed sold more than 125,000 tickets, according to the band. Any doubt about the strength of Dispatch's fan base quickly disappeared.
Moving away from its trademark acoustic-funk, "Circles Around the Sun" sounds fuller and more plugged-in while maintaining the trio's seamless harmonies, ragged edges and breezy attitude. But hearing those intertwined voices, the album is definitely and defiantly Dispatch.
But how long will it last? Stokes won't tell. "We could've recorded more, but we didn't have time. We had to save some for the next record," he says, taking a dramatic pause before adding, "if there is one."