Since 2004, Grand Rapids band La Dispute has been inching toward success one fan at a time. The members kept at it for four years, playing small shows here and there, until one e-mail changed everything.
The e-mail was from the tour management for punk/hardcore band, Thursday. A friend of La Dispute's had shown its record, Somewhere at the Bottom of the River between Vega and Altair, to Thursday vocalist Geoff Rickley.
"It was insane for me," said Bassist Adam Vass. "I grew up idolizing this band. When I first heard about it, I thought there was no way it was real. Someone was playing a joke, or it was some kind of scam."
Rickley loved what he heard and wanted to set up a tour. Arguably, that tour was the real start of La Dispute's success.
"We'd released the record in 2008 and it didn't go very far past where we'd toured," Vass said. "But by 2009, thanks to that Thursday tour, we were doing really well."
To quantify "really well," the band has toured with Thursday and Thrice and was featured on NPR and Alternative Press Magazine. Currently, La Dispute is headlining its own tour across the country.
"My main focus has mainly been creating art that is an extension of myself," Vass said. "It's sort of paternal, in a way. There's something really great about seeing a song that I write, or that we write together, and watching it grow - and seeing in the end how people interpret it in different ways."
Mark Leech, former owner of Skelletones (a one-time hub of Grand Rapids' punk scene, which closed in 2009) remembers watching the band at its outset, anticipating an eventual rise to national stardom.
"Their audience grew every time they played Skelletones," Leech said. "The first show brought maybe 25 people. Then word of mouth would bring them more fans, and before I knew it, they were selling out shows ... I think the kids at Skelletones could see that this band was trying to do something new and unique. But most of all, I think they could see how genuine the guys in the band were."
Before the ‘big break,' it took time for La Dispute to gain momentum in Grand Rapids. The band played shows once every couple of months - primarily in the small, 200-person capacity space of Skelletones.
"The bulk of the people who came to see us early on were just people we hung out with," said Vocalist Jordan Dreyer. "We only played shows when people asked us to. It was just sort of for fun. In a way, that's never really changed."
The harder the band members worked, however, the more fans they accumulated.
"Grand Rapids always saw us through," Vass said. "I remember going to Ohio and playing for two people in a coffee shop, and thinking ‘what are we doing?' But then we'd come home to Grand Rapids and play to 400 people."
Even as things began to gain speed for the band, the members still maintained a down-to-earth attitude.
"You know, even when they started to do really well, they were still just these generous, humble people," Leech said. "They were always friendly to everyone they met."
This month, La Dispute is closing out its North American headlining tour with a show at The Pyramid Scheme. Up next for the band is a summer European tour to continue support for its latest record, Wildlife, released last fall.
"I really took the focus of the lyrics off myself and wrote about the people that were around me," Dreyer said about Wildlife. "We wanted to tell more stories with an emotional connection. They're all kind of unintentionally central to the place that I grew up, the place where we're all from -- Grand Rapids."
The stories in the album aren't necessarily fiction either, and they're not always easy to stomach. The track "King Park" tells the story of murder suspect Kyle Keenan, who killed himself during a police standoff on 28th Street in 2008.
"I would say we want the same thing all artists do," Vass said. "If a painter has a piece of art, he wants an emotional reaction - not necessarily just a positive one. It's like if you see a movie that makes you really sad, you acknowledge it's good because it made you sad. That's what we want to do."
And after the tour for Wildlife is over?
"I don't like to speculate about the future," Vass said. "But I'm content. We're all content. We love what we're doing so much that I think we can keep recording albums and keep touring forever, like some kind of self-fueling machine."