After three records all powerful and prodigious in their own right, La Dispute have finally crafted the record that will define them as a band. Panorama isn’t just their best work to date – it’s a landmark in alternative music as a whole. Words by Matt Doria.
When La Dispute dropped Rooms Of The House in 2014, it felt like there was no possible way for the band to progress further. 42 minutes of straight sweltering, soul‑rattling emo, it showed the Grand Rapids troupe reach a peak with their sedulous blend of tumultuous post-hardcore and gut-wrenching poetry. But five years on, La Dispute have managed to defy the odds with Panorama – an all-out emotional rollercoaster through stormy sloughs of angst and anxiety via raw, hardhearted musicality.
Lead guitarist Chad Sterenberg sums it up best: “It’s probably the most interesting, and layered, and complex thing we’ve ever put together.” It’s the type of record that truly deserves to be indulged as an event in its own right – not just for the consistently meticulous and atmospheric soundscapes at play (every track leads into the next, for example), but for the sheer opulence that La Dispute revel in across its tight 45 minutes.
Of the band’s initial ambitions for Panorama, Sterenberg says, “I think during the whole process, we knew we wanted it to be this grand, ethereal thing. But it was interesting because you never really know what you’re building until it’s there.”
Despite it coming five years since its predecessor hit shelves, Panorama wasn’t a slow-burner for La Dispute. The record only materialised in recent times, following years of writer’s block at the hand of a truly exhausting touring schedule. What’s more, the band didn’t exactly give themselves a lax amount of time to gather all their bearings for it.
“We only had a few months to put these songs together in,” Sterenberg admits, “And the first two months were spent working individually and coming up with all of these ideas alone. The first time we got together, we figured out that something wasn’t working – it just wasn’t clicking – so we scrapped everything we had up until that point and basically started over from scratch. And where we stated from there was bring in a room together. I think that’s what was really missing before.”
When the band finally made it into the studio as a full unit, time was already wearing thin. Writing sessions were often done on the fly, which meant they were unable to fall back on their perfectionist tendencies. “We were relying on our instincts a lot of time,” Sterenberg says. “We had to come up with a lot of our parts in realtime because of the way we were writing, so a lot of the ideas we had, we didn’t have any time to overthink or be too precious with. Brad [Vander Lugt, drums] and Adam [Vass, bass] would often start with the main grooves, and then I’d write on top of that – we were sort of reacting to what everybody else was doing.
“There are parts where, in some ways, it’s much more simple and a lot less thought out than we’d usually do,” he continues. “We were writing more based on feeling – what we felt had to be in the song at that moment in the process. Adam was saying that he almost thought of it as a spiritual experience, how these parts came a little bit out of thin air, and we just had to capture them and put them down.”
Such a process led to a record that ended up surprising even the band themselves. “It’s interesting, because I think a lot of my parts that ended up on the record, I probably never would have come up with in the first place,” Sterenberg says. “I know I never would have come up with them by myself, at least.”
Ultimately, part of what makes the La Dispute of 2019 so unique is the fact that – as much as some fans love to pretend otherwise – they’re all actual human people. And in five years, they’ve all grown and gone through habitual shifts in their personalities. And by way of their individual evolutions outside of the band, even if they wanted to, LP4 never could replicate the dynamic of La Dispute’s previous efforts.
“Even the way the band operates has been different, because we’re all living in different cities,” Sterenberg explains. “A lot of the early process for this album was just kind of figuring those sorts of things out – how to work together while we’re all in separate places, yet do our own things at the same time. And I think musically, I changed a lot over the last five years. I’ve been getting into a little bit more improvisational stuff; I used to have these jam nights where I’d get together with some of my neighbours and we’d all just play. I think putting myself in uncomfortable situations like that really allowed me to expand what I’m doing as a musician.”
Collaborating with people outside of La Dispute was crucial for Sterenberg in developing new techniques as a guitarist and songwriter.
“Every time you play with a new group of people, it’s a totally different dynamic,” he muses. “And I think that shows you a lot about yourself and your own playing – there’s things you’ll learn about yourself from those experiences that will totally surprise you.”
It’s a fitting notion, given that Panorama is La Dispute’s first album not to feature Kevin Whittemore on rhythm guitars. Having left the band in April 2014 – less than a month after they released Rooms Of The House – Whittemore was replaced by Corey Stroffolino, who brought a distinguished edge to the band’s usual modus operandi.
“When we were putting these songs together, a lot of the core construction was done with Brad and Adam and I,” Sterenberg tells us. “But then Corey would come into the process – he was kind of in and out for the whole period that we were writing in – and a lot of what he did was taking the structures and ideas that we already had, and taking them in a whole different direction. He definitely put his own flavour on a lot of the songs, and I think that shows up in a really cool way on the record – he has a lot of really interesting melodies that shine through, and his parts stand out in ways that are uniquely his.”
To cap it all off, although La Dispute toured Australia last in December 2018, Sterenberg says the band are eager to return – especially now that Panorama is out in the wild and they’re reinvigorated with new ear-splitting anthems to spur pits with. “I don’t believe I have specific dates yet, but I know for certain we have plans,” he teases.