Singer-guitarist Chadwick Stokes started prepping for his terrific new album, The Horse Comanche, last winter on one of the coldest days of the year as the polar vortex brought subzero temperatures to the Midwest. He thought the bitter cold would turn away his co-producer, Iron and Wine's Sam Beam. But when Beam and a handful of musicians showed up at a Chicago rehearsal space, Stokes knew he was dealing with a dedicated man.
"It was snowy and bitterly cold," he recalls in a recent phone interview when asked about that first day of rehearsal. "I've hung out in New England since I was born. I'm pretty accustomed to cold. I don't mind it typically but it was at a level where if you took the gloves off, you were screwed. You needed to put them on immediately. It was the kind of cold that hurt your fingers right away. I didn't think anyone would be there. It was snowy and freezing. I showed up at this practice studio and Sam [Beam] and Sam's musicians from Iron and Wine were there and they were all ready to go. I was amazed at the resilience."
It's not too much of a stretch to say that that resilience comes across on the album, a meticulously crafted release that was recorded at Chicago's Shirk Studios and at L.A.'s House of Blues. Beam co-produced the release along with Brian Deck (Gomez, Josh Ritter) and Noah Georgeson (Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart). It alternates between psychedelic rockers like the title track and sparse, folk-y tunes such as album opener "Pine Needle Tea," a twitchy song that features hushed vocals and acoustic guitars.
The album also comes across as the culmination of a career that already includes some major accomplishments for Stokes, a guy who started out playing the trombone before putting more of his energy into learning to play guitar.
"My heroes were Jimi Hendrix and Dylan and the Who and the Kinks," he says. "Just to even pretend when you sit in the room for the first time and your friend is playing drums — it's a pretty incredible experience. Friends of mine who lived at this farm next door all played instruments and they needed a singer. They asked me to sing. They would give me a cassette tape of Traffic and Cream and all this classic rock stuff that I didn't know."
A trip to Zimbabwe right after high school also proved to be a formative experience.
"My friend had lived there as a child," Stokes explains. "He knew people we could stay with. We concocted the plan. We wanted to get as far away from Massachusetts as possible. I heard a lot of Southern African music — a lot of drums and that amazing guitar style. A ton of reggae too. I wasn't anticipating that. Bob Marley is a huge star. He played there in 1980 when they won their independence from Great Britain. He played that inaugural show."
Upon returning to the States, Stokes would form Dispatch, a jam/indie rock band that would develop a huge grassroots following before taking a hiatus in 2002 (a 2004 reunion concert for what was billed as one last performance reportedly drew a throng of 100,000 fans).
"I think with Dispatch, it's a lot of managing that trio and trying to figure out what's the best batch of tunes for us that's cohesive," he says. "That's always tough. There's three strong leanings."
After Dispatch, Stokes formed State Radio, a hard rocking band with a political agenda.
"We were all psyched to be political and sing about things we thought were getting overlooked and we could really go the distance and pursue that," he says of State Radio. "With [State Radio's] Chuck [Fay] and Maddog, I knew where they were leaning musically. I was pushing that band in that direction. It made for the most fun live shows. As we got heavier, it got better. There's not much that's more fun than playing heavy distorted guitar music on stage. I like writing songs, but I'd rather not be a singer-songwriter and sit there and play. I'd much rather be in State Radio and get super-fuzzed out sounds and try to go to a place physically where your mind is taken out of the picture."
He says both bands are active, though Dispatch will play only a handful of shows this summer and State Radio won't get together again until 2017.
Prior to recording The Horse Comanche, he embarked on a "living room" tour and played the tunes in an acoustic setting so he could tweak them when it came time to record them in the studio.
"It helped me to get to know the tunes, and I could ask people what they thought and picked the ones that worked best," he says of the living room tour. "It was great to have people's input and have other people involved and get that information from them as far as different titles and lyrics and what the song was about and if it got confusing and what it needed. We did three different tours — two in the States and one in Europe. Each one was maybe 15 shows. So all together it was maybe 45 or 50 shows."
The reference in the album title is to the horse that survived the Battle of Little Bighorn. Stokes says a stop at the Natural History Museum in Kansas, the place where the horse now rests, helped inspire the song.
"I fell over those lyrics linguistically and later looked into it and was like, 'Oh, my god,'" he says. "Not only was that horse at the battle — and it brings up so many things about the American Indian wars. I've been obsessed with the Native American plight ever since being a kid. This is oversimplifying it but you have an amazing battle where the Native Americans strike back and you have the element of animals in war. These free, innocent beings getting thrust on one side or the other. Subconsciously, I had an idea but I didn't intend to go there."
With its whisper-thin vocals and gently strummed guitar, the song sounds a bit like a cross between the Beatles and Iron and Wine as Stokes croons, "We are all on the great adventure."
"That track was the centerpiece of the record," he says. "As the song grew and was realized in the studio and different things were added to it, Brian and Sam said it was their favorite track we recorded. It became the most important song on the record."
Certainly the concept of a "great adventure" also describes Stokes' career to date. And with The Horse Comanche, you get the sense that the trip has only just begun.