La Dispute’s Jordan Dreyer Talks Crystal Healing, the Impermanence of Being, and Radiohead
With Panorama marking the Grand Rapids emigrants’ first album in five years, Dreyer tells us what set the project into motion.
“I’m a Virgo,” says Jordan Dreyer, the lead singer of post-hardcore band La Dispute. “One time, years ago, a person came up to me at a show and said, ‘You’re a Virgo!’ She just nailed it. Somewhat recently, someone showed me a thing on the Internet, a meme about how if you listen to La Dispute it sounds like a Virgo wrote the lyrics. I don’t know what that means, but it makes you feel humbled. It’s beneficial to be able to be categorized for a sense of modesty, even by memes and crystals and charts.”
For anyone who doesn’t know their astrological signs, Virgos are identified by their organizational prowess, humility, and their search for logical and practical meaning in the exacting details of their lives. After speaking with Dreyer, his sign fits. Whether you believe in astrology or not is beside the point; the characteristics of each sign relate to personality factors that we’re all capable of having—a panoramic display of human emotion. Dreyer and La Dispute try their best to capture these emotions in symbolic lyrics and sweeping melodies, recreating a narrative experience you may (or may not) have had before.
Since forming in the DIY scene of Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2004, La Dispute has amassed a discography that’s tackled depression and anxiety, love and infidelity, heartbreak and loss, forgiveness and understanding, anger and regret. Like all great epics, La Dispute’s albums serve as half-spoken, half-screamed poems about people (real or fictionalized) and their intertwining histories. On their newest and Epitaph debut, Panorama, Dreyer explores grief and the mystery of attachment through the familiar actions of moving and losing loved ones. Inspired by a twenty-five-minute drive from his house in Grand Rapids to the hometown of his partner, Dreyer conceived the album through the unfamiliar territory of a new town he was visiting multiple times a week. Eventually, the couple moved to the Northwest together, where the emotional exploration continued.
“First and foremost, home is the people you are most familiar with—family, stronger friend groups, shared experiences over time,” Dreyer explains. “There’s a very strong, immediate connection to the people you know there and the relationships that define who you are. It’s a strange thing—why do you feel such an emotional connection to a territory or a city block? It’s been something I’ve been thinking about a lot.”
Dreyer continues, “Now, going back to what I perceived as home, it’s complicated. I feel like a bit of an outsider. And that’s a strange feeling to have somewhere you think you’ve known your entire life. We’d leave on tour, people would continue to live their lives and make memories, and we’d come back and be placed in the middle of it.”
“Now, going back to what I perceived as home, it’s complicated. I feel like a bit of an outsider. And that’s a strange feeling to have somewhere you think you’ve known your entire life.”
This is reflected in the themes on Panorama, where the streets and people are remembered with fondness and criticism in an inherently different way than the stories told on 2006’s Vancouver, 2008’s Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair, 2011’s Wildlife, and, most prominently, 2014’s Rooms of the House. Although Wildlife is a fan-favorite for its chant-inviting anthems “Edward Benz, 27 Times” and “King Park,” Rooms of the House bears the most semblance to the direction La Dispute is exploring on this album, with the allegorical tale of a couple breaking up spread across eleven songs. Each track takes on a different meaning through time and relationships, creating an aging effect: You’re there for it all. You hear all the mistakes that are made.
On Panorama, the mistakes are internalized instead of actualized. Most of the album sees Dreyer reflecting on this new version of himself in a new town. In “Fulton Street I,” the narrator contemplates the loss of a member in their community, presumably hit by a passing car. While the town mourns, the narrator asks themselves what they would’ve done, or what they would do if that person was someone they knew. “Will I ever put flowers by the street?” is Dreyer’s shouted mantra. The repetition bears heavy—we’re unable to predict how we will act in a difficult situation, but we can guess how we’d like to act. Dreyer, being the Virgo that he is, analyzes the situation honestly.
When it comes to Panorama’s exploration of grief and loss, Dreyer used something unexpected to translate his feelings into something tangible: crystals. “I wanted a recurring symbol to suggest the variety of external sources people seek for comfort and consolation in the face of tragedy,” notes Dreyer. “I didn’t want to talk about extreme things with their own implications, like religion, or whatever it may be. Having grown up in a religious community, I’ve had that discussion in song before and it felt like previously trodden territory. There’s been an interesting contrast in people I know and don’t know, and their capacity toward things like that—crystals, chakras, astrological charts and what have you—and all that contrasting with how connected we are digitally. The contrast between a laboratory chemical and this supposed healing power of naturally occurring minerals or stones…it’s interesting to me. As far as the crystals I picked, I wanted to represent different facets of the grieving process without doing so in such a clerical fashion. That feels very cyclical to me, instead of linear.”
Panorama is presented linearly, but the thematic exploration is cyclical, reflecting back to previous tracks and prior storylines. It’s clear that La Dispute tries to stay objective in their writing, but how the actual members feel is quite different from what the record implies. While there are references to crystals throughout Panorama (“Rhodonite and Grief,” “Rose Quartz,”), Dreyer is skeptical of these crystals’ abilities. “I did a lot of research. I don’t take stock in it. I don’t assume it’s impossible, and it doesn’t matter if I think there’s a direct tangible connection between it and something else as long as it’s helpful, y’know? I grew up in a Christian reformed church. It didn’t speak to me, but I know a lot of people that are good people that practice faith intelligently and delicately even when I abandoned my own faith early on. I learned to be understanding.”
Don’t let the heavy discussion fool you—Dreyer’s charm is highlighted by a unique sense of calm mixed with a dry wit. When talking about the album, he expands on the jazzy, more experimental tone of the tracks by name-dropping some of the band’s current favorite musicians: Drummer Brad Vander Lugt (who also did most of the sounds and synth washes on Panorama) and guitarist Chad Sterenberg have more modern-to-postmodern taste, Dreyer notes, with influences ranging from Philip Glass to Arthur Russell to Brian Eno. Radiohead, however, was something everyone could get behind.
“It’s amazing how satisfying it is to have an idea and see it to completion. I think we’ll keep doing this as long as we have a reason and we don’t forget the things we set out to do.”
Along with Hail to the Thief and Kid A, Dreyer cites OK Computer as the definitive Radiohead record. “That’s the one that really hit me—that made me get it. I was in high school, and I had a friend that always talked about Radiohead. We all do. In some down time, I put that on my iPod—I did the same thing with Wilco. There was one particular moment on tour when someone put on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the basement of a friend’s place in Seattle where I was like, ‘Oh shit,’ and it clicked for me.”
The duality of La Dispute is not a trend; it’s a trait that’s personified the group for over ten years. They don’t do things out of boredom or commercial pressure—they act when they feel it’s necessary. This explains the heavy impact of each album, and the five year gap between the release of Rooms of the House and Panorama. “We’ve never plotted steps ahead, truthfully,” says Dreyer. “We start something to work on when we have nothing to work on. It’s harder to look forward when we all have things going on in our lives, but we’ll see what the future holds. It’s amazing how satisfying it is to have an idea and see it to completion. I think we’ll keep doing this as long as we have a reason and we don’t forget the things we set out to do.”
In the grand tradition of Dante describing Hell to us and Homer recounting the Odyssey, Jordan Dreyer is writing an epic closer to home—in the hearts of towns and people we (vaguely) know. FL