State Radio combines popular music with political protest, garnering fans that appreciate not only the band’s message but its tightly constructed, melodic mix of rock and folk laced with bits of ska and reggae. Recalculating the rock star’s all-about-me equation, State Radio members take part in service activities at soup kitchens and battered women’s shelters during the stops they make on tour.
Lead singer and songwriter Chad Urmston talked to Inerd recently:
Q: What first got you into music?
A: I started trombone in 4th grade and so but always liked singing when we were younger. We had the soundtrack to “Hair,” and we played it a lot, also “Free to Be You and Me,” [laughs], then we got into The Who and Zep, Black Sabbath, Traffic, Jethro Tull, the good stuff.
Q: Seriously, Jethro Tull?
A: I still feel like Tull has a big influence and bands like Traffic. Both those bands kind of borrowed and learned from traditional folk songs. I feel like those still have influence, but also Rage Against the Machine and Alice in Chains. Those were my high school years so that had a big influence. When I was probably 12 or 13 playing in bands playing classic rock like Cream and Aerosmith but then as the mid 90s hit with the scene in Seattle, that had a big influence.
Q: What about reggae?
A: I love the Clash, anything out of Jamaica out of the 70s, Jimmy Cliff, the Wailers, the Gladiators, Freddie McGregor. I like that stuff a lot. Comparatively I’d listen to more rock than reggae.
Q: But Zeppelin doesn’t have political lyrics, so where’d they come from?
A: Part of the reason I was into the reggae was because it had this kind of fight-for-your-rights undertones. It was politically aware, this marriage between the music and the message. That was something I grabbed on to, an epiphany for me: I realized music can be part of a movement and can contribute to a movement. Because I played the trombone I was into early reggae and ska bands because of the horn influences, so that kind of got me in there: the Specials or even the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, loved their horns. I was nuts about them, the Specials, but then again I love the melodies of reggae and how you could combine these really sweet melodies with the lyrical content.
Q: Who influenced your political viewpoint that informs your lyrics?
A: Probably from my parents and a place in Sherborn [Massachusetts], the Peace Abbey, a center for activism. As a kid I would see, my eyes were open to all sort of things going on, for instance, different protests at the Peace Abbey. Dinners we would have, people going into Boston and chaining themselves to cranes and getting arrested. An awareness that I was lucky to be privy to, and some great role models.
Q: What did they inspire you to believe?
A: We don’t have to accept the way things are because that’s how rich people say they’re going to go. We can stand up and fight the corporations or policies politicians are making. We have power as people to shake things up.
Q: Who were some early role models?
A: Local activists, and of course we looked up to Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn, musicians like John Lennon, the Rage guys. I’ve become friends with Tom Morello [Rage guitarist], partly because of our shared interest in what music can do.
Q: Speaking of rich people, are you following the Occupy Wall Street movement? [This interview took place just as the protest began]
A: I want to go down there. We just got off tour so it’s everyone just wants to go home, but I’m very inspired by what’s going on there and I hope people have the staying power and I hope Bloomberg [New York mayor] doesn’t crack down on the park.
Q: What’s it like being on tour?
A: The best things are being out there. We do service projects, meet fans and do community service and that’s always really rewarding and see what’s going on in each town. Meeting people and kind of getting a feel for what their lives are like in that part of the country. The worst part’s probably just not being home, having transient lifestyle. In some ways I appreciate it but it’s hard when you’re in flux all the time, hard to stay organized and keep on track of friendships.
Q: Does being on stage further creativity?
A: It’s great to be out there and connecting with the audience with new songs. As far as the creative process, you do end up at sound check occasionally messing around with a new chord progression or a lick on the guitar but I’m not sure how much. My music benefits from being home and in a quiet space and being inspired and listening and getting involved. I need a quiet space to get into the creative zone. Not sure if being on road is helpful that way except when you go into cities and whether we’re in a soup kitchen or women’s shelter — that stuff is pretty inspiring and is informing.
Q: How do you balance politics with keeping the music vivid, fresh and listenable?
A: Everyone has to have a meter when something is too didactic. No one wants to be hit over the head. I think my meter is okay in terms of feeling like it’s gotta be whimsical or abstract enough — that it’s an interesting story on its own and not just pushing some political agenda.
Q: One story that is memorable is “The Ballad of Benjamin Darling,” [about an 18th century slave who saves his master from drowning in a shipwreck and is granted his freedom]. The problem is the story doesn’t end well. Will you do another song about it?
A: I’d like to do a part 2.
Urmston tours with his band State Radio but also as a solo act (Chadwick Stokes) and with his previous band, Dispatch. A new State Radio EP is coming out in November and a full-length record in March. Meanwhile, State Radio is raising money to support women’s shelters in Afghanistan.