Few bands are as outspoken and thought-provoking as State Radio, the musically inventive, socially and politically charged trio fronted by Chad Stokes. With its sophomore album, Year Of The Crow, the group–rounded out by bassist Chuck Fay and drummer Mad Dog–matches its conscience-raising messages with an inspiring amalgam of rock, punk and reggae that is as distinctive as it is sublime.
For U.S. concert-goers, Stokes was first known as the voice behind agit-prop outfit Dispatch, a band that sold a whopping 600,000 albums by word of mouth. Although the outfit’s six-year tenure ended in 2002, its members have reunited for noble causes, including 2007’s epic three-night sold-out stand at Madison Square Garden to benefit the plight in Zimbabwe. In lieu of college, Stokes lived in Zimbabwe during his eighteenth year, and the experience not only galvanized his songs, but it also shaped his life with a commitment that is as strong as ever.
Simply stated, it is impossible not to be moved by the sounds emanating from State Radio, whether it’s the genocide in Darfur, which is told through the eyes of a young boy on the alluring, rhythmic “Sudan,” the explosive, edgy, reggae-laden “C.I.A.” or the steamrolling rallying cry for justice known as “Unfortunates.”
“The ultimate goal of State Radio is to have people consider what I’m saying as they enjoy the music we create,” Stokes says of the trio’s objective on Year Of The Crow. “I’m not looking to alienate anyone.”
The frenetic, piercing, punkish, proclamation “Guantanamo” does just that, as Stokes seethes, taking aim at the current administration while looking back on the Bush clan’s sordid history.
“Reading about it over the years, my frustration just built up,” Chad says. I think that’s what I do with a lot of my songs. The subjects just build up in me for a while and then they need to find a way out. And it’s really just a method of keeping me sane. It’s basically about the tragedy that the Bush family has inflicted upon us over the years. That song is also loosely tied into Indian rights and how [President Bush’s grandfather] Prescott Bush dug up Geronimo’s skull in 1918 so that his secret society at Yale could rub it as part of their initiation.”
The next step in the Bob Dylan-Bob Marley-Clash-Rage Against the Machine lineage, State Radio is an unusual but effective conduit to information. Its inspired, aggressive and progressive musical brew is most often accompanied by lyrics that prompt listeners to dig deeper. And fans have indeed combed Wikipedia about song topics (“The Story of Benjamin Darling Part I”) and educate themselves about cases like the West Memphis Three (“Unfortunates”) where justice has clearly faltered.
Unconcerned with major label deals and radio exposure, State Radio thrives by living and giving as charitable men who play outstanding live shows. Developing a following from the ground up, Stokes is a unique fixture who defies music industry traditions. He’s also proof through his efforts with Dispatch, his forthcoming TV series “How’s Your News?” and State Radio, that a loyal and engaged cult following is arguably the best of all business models.
Year Of The Crow was recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios in Wiltshire, England and was overseen by acclaimed producer Tchad Blake (Gabriel, Pearl Jam, Soul Coughing, the Bad Plus). “Tchad was integral in making a record that was more indicative of our live show,” Stokes says. “I don’t know too many producers by name but he’s one of them.”
“We didn’t want to be too picky about things,” Chad continues. “We just focused on energy. We only had a couple of weeks to do it, and we were sandwiched in between two tours, so it was just a true recording representation of who are.”
Gabriel’s studio is, as Chad explains, “An unbelievable facility. It’s this old mill with water running right through it on either side of the control room. The live room is this tall stone-type place and the control room looks directly out onto the mill. Plus, its run by this tall Rastaman named Solomon, who makes sure that everyone’s needs are taken care of.”
That atmosphere allowed for tracks like the furious blues-thumping anti-Halliburton missive “Gang of Thieves” and the uplifting, trombone-bolstered ska-touched “Barnstorming” to take shape. Of the latter, Stokes--whose first instrument was the aforementioned horn–says laughing, “Tchad was cool, because I’m not that good at the trombone. And he loved the idea that if I played the part twice and we tracked it, I sounded like a junior high marching band trombone section practicing.”
With the infectious, cerebral “Fight No More” and the desperation-injected “Rash of Robberies,” the band’s musical depth and commitment to lyrical salvos are flawlessly fused. The intensity of “Rash” results in an unusual approach, as the band thrashes along, until it seemingly runs out of gas; then it takes a deep breath and starts up again.
“I played the song and as it developed, I realized I needed a bit of oxygen, a gasp of breath,” Chad chuckles. “It just pauses for a second and jumps back into it. It became an animal of its own and sometimes you just play along with the song and see where it takes you.”
“And the one cool thing about this album is that the quiet parts are quieter than they’ve ever been, but the loud parts are louder than they’ve ever been,” the State Radio brainchild marvels. “And when we play live, there are some really intimate moments where it’s barely guitar and it’s just Chuck and I singing and the crowd is with us.”
With the previously mentioned “How’s Your News?” as proof, legions of fans have also joined Stokes and the show’s co-creator Arthur Bradford to make it a success. Working together at a Martha’s Vineyard camp for the handicapped nearly a decade ago, Chad says, “We started making short videos with the campers-little vignettes and man-on-street reporting. And the tapes started circulating and it ended up in the hands of Matt Stone and Trey Parker of “South Park” fame.
“They just thought it was so great,” Chad continues, of his additional medium to invite social change. “So they contacted us and gave us some money to continue with it. And then, when it was finished the first “How’s Your News?” feature film--which was about 30 minutes long--was picked up by a bunch of the major film festivals. Ultimately it ran on HBO and Cinemax, which we couldn’t believe. Then we shot the pilot and now it’s going to be an actual series for TV.”
Stokes’ uncompromising creative and artistic spirit developed as he grew up connected to the earth as part of a free-thinking hockey family on a small Massachusetts farm. Chad’s sense of adventure began at an early age as he would explore the town’s underground aqueducts and find himself drawn to its legendary Peace Abbey as he perfected the trombone and guitar.
Along the way, he participated in a caisson “Stone Walk,” pulling a huge gravestone that represented numerous unknown civilians killed at war. Alongside 15 peers in peace, the 28-day adventure along back roads to Washington D.C. only heightened his outlook, with such experiences adding to the social and political perspectives that inform the music made leading up to Year Of The Crow.
With the willingness to give back and raise issues, it’s little wonder that State Radio’s following--which gravitated to its first album Us Against The Crown (2006) and a series of well-received EPs--continues to expand. Positive karma seems to surround everything that Stokes does, of which he says, “I’m thankful that we’ve been able to grow as a band. And being in Dispatch enabled me to fund our growth without being fucked by some major label. We feel very lucky that we don’t need to necessarily sign any of our rights away.”
“As long as people keep believing in us,” State Radio’s leader says, “and we feel like we’re making a worthy contribution to the movement, we’ll keep playing.”