La Dispute

I always like it when my favourite things join together, like when I find radical politics in speculative fiction or, in the case of unique band La Dispute, spoken word within hardcore music.

Since my introduction to spoken word, I always had an inkling that there was a relationship to hardcore music, a genre I’ve loved for some time. In my own work, I’ve been influenced by bands such as Carpathian, but never had hard evidence to show that the two fields were connected.

That was until I came across La Dispute, a band from Grand Rapids, Michigan, whom I discovered through photos of their gig in a warehouse. The first track ‘Such Small Hands’, from their debut album Somewhere Between Alter and Vega, struck me for its use of spoken word rather than singing. But throughout the album vocalist Jordan Dreyer straddles the line between speaking, singing and screaming, sometimes barely able to control his voice as he works himself up, pushing out lyrics carried by the heavy guitars underneath.

That raw energy is something I can relate to in the often-unpredictable spoken word/poetry scene around Melbourne, though it’s only seen amongst a minority of poets. The musical connection or roots within the Melbourne poetry scene is more obviously connected with hip-hop or folk music. Slam poet Luka Lesson also performs hip-hop and has played support for artists such as Lowkey, and the Centre for Poetics and Justice, run by Luka and other Melbourne poets, conducts youth workshops that have a strong connection to hip-hop and rap, which lends itself to their style of spoken word.

Whereas hardcore music, a movement out of the US punk scene that’s associated with raw guttural screams, is something not often associated with poetry. Perhaps because it can be hard to understand the lyrics in a pub, with instruments overwhelming screaming voices, making it incomprehensible to the untuned ear, but the lyrics are full of rich, dark images that are worthy of further study.

The post-hardcore movement narrows the gap between the genres, with bands much more likely to experiment with blues or more traditional rock alongside the familiar screaming or ‘growling’, as it is often called. La Dispute is often situated in that movement. The band consists of five close friends who like to play music, and use it to express themselves. They tour heavily (they visit Australia this February for the third time in three years) and collaborate with other artists, from other hardcore bands to much tamer music, like Koji. They don’t identify as any set genre, preferring just to play music, but they do belong with a group of other hardcore bands to a ‘tree house club’, The Wave, formed as a means to support each other through a shared philosophy of what music means in this scene.

La Dispute’s connection to poetry is even more explicit in the short Here, Hear EPs, which they continue to produce, putting poetry, stories and spoken word to music, and covering the work of other writers such as Bukowski and Edger Allen Poe. These smaller projects clearly influenced their more well-known records.

Their latest album, Wildlife, is described as ‘a collection of sort of stories/poems annotated by the author and split into thematic sections by four monologues.’ In ‘a Letter’, Dreyer describes his process:

I’ve never spent a lot on finding a remedy
I guess I figured that it hurt for a reason
I guess that’s why I’ve always turned to writing it down
Not just in stories, but the letters in between
And I guess that’s why it haunts the pages of everything-
to self-examine.

Writing for Dreyer is a kind of therapy, which I’m sure a lot of poets can relate to.

The music connects with a dedicated, predominantly young fan base – their all ages/under ages shows are often the most enthusiastic. I attended both the adult show at the Arthouse and the all ages show at a youth centre in Footscray last year; the poet in me was inspired to see fans reciting the spoken word verses after undoubtedly playing the first album over and over like I had. There was, perhaps, an affinity with poetry that they did not recognise, hidden amongst the guitars, drums and raging mosh pit in front of us.

For me, raw anger has always been something that is much easier to express through spoken word than prose, and it’s the reason I like hardcore music. I wonder if the old stereotypes of poetry were broken away, we could win over a few hardcore fans in the process, like the hip-hop fans who’ve discovered poetry as a means of expression. Of course, the lyrics and music are not so easily divorced, yet spoken word incorporates elements of music all the time. The lines are increasingly being blurred. The point is that we should experiment with the words and the best medium in which to express them.

There can sometimes be an aversion to ‘angry’ poetry in the spoken word scene, with the argument suggesting that poets who express anger have no range of emotions. But the range and vacillation of Dreyer’s voice as he almost throws up lyrics on stage suggest that anger is not a one-tone emotion, and that fans connect with what he says and how he says it. When brought to poetry, that ‘tone’ can make new connections and offer new outlets for expression, ones that may not have been thought of previously, especially by those who think poetry is for the realms of neat, rhyming verse (something akin to Banjo Patterson).

This poet often dreams of performing to a crowded audience moshing around me, perhaps reciting the words in a manner similar to Jordan Dreyer and La Dispute.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Benjamin Solah is a writer, socialist, spoken word artist and blogger who lives in Melbourne, Australia where he is studying Creative Writing at RMIT. He spreads his words and outrage at the injustices of capitalism through pages, screens, microphones and megaphones. He is the editor of MelbourneSpokenWord.com and his writing has appeared on Crikey, the Overland blog and The Emerging Writer.

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  1. If you’re interested in music and spoken word, you might check out the history of Jamaican DJ music. It’s not only an obvious antecedent to hip hop, it developed a distinct poetic trend (most obviously, LKJ and Mutabaruka, but also people like Prince Fari).

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