Interview: State Radio’s Chad Stokes Urmston

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When State Radio pulls into town for a gig, fans are likely to find bandmembers working in a food bank, protesting in the streets, or doing something equally decent long before the doors open. Dedicated to human rights and common decency, the trio has created a deep bond between political activism and hard-rocking onstage agitprop. The trio continues to castigate the power structure on its new album, Let It Go, while continuing to organize for concrete social change through its online activist network, Calling All Crows. The group is headlining a tour through November 7 before joining 311 for a series of dates from November 22 through December 8. Catch a show — or even better, join them at one of their public-service events or teach-ins earlier in the day.

We recently caught up with singer-songwriter-guitarist Chad Urmston in Athens, Georgia, where we asked him about State Radio’s endorsement of Alan Khazei for the Massachusetts senate seat left recently left vacant by the late Senator Ted Kennedy.

HeadCount: It’s rare for a band to outright endorse a candidate for public office. What made State Radio decide to throw its support to Alan Khazei? Is there a personal connection?

Chad Urmston: We really respected Senator Ted Kennedy for what he’d done for Massachusetts over the last forty-six years, and he left a huge and important vacancy. When we heard that Alan was running, we knew who he was through our connection with City Year and thought, here’s a smart guy. He’s not a career politician and he believes in public service and lines up with us on healthcare and education. He’s a real person, something we’re not used to in politics.

Someone could almost say the opposite about Ted Kennedy.

That’s what was so impressive about Kennedy. Although he was born and raised to go into politics, and rose through the ranks as a politico with tons of money, he was always aware of people who were less fortunate, and the legislation he passed reflected that.

What was the City Year connection?

Alan was co-founder of City Year, a domestic Peace Corps for kids eighteen to twenty-five years old who are paid to dedicate themselves to service for a year. It’s in nineteen cities across America, and in South Africa, and has a $46 million budget. It’s served more than 75,000 children and it’s part of Americorps. Three of our crew members are City Year alums. Every four or five shows we’ll work with City Year when we do public service projects before shows in different cities. It’s an amazing program that really transforms inner-city kids, who go through the program and become leaders of tomorrow.

How did Calling All Crows come about? How do you choose your causes among so many terrible problems in the world?

We were doing many benefit shows, and we’d started doing public-service projects during the day before our shows. Other bands started asking us about it, so we decided to make it a little more official. We could ascertain where the money goes after we raise it. Now people ask us to do Calling All Crows benefit shows. Our goal this year is to raise $100,000, which will provide 5000 stoves for women in Sudanese refugee camps. At the same time we also focus on public service, so Calling All Crows was a way for us to brand our public service, offer it to other bands, and start a network. Calling All Crows draws off all the traffic the band was attracting; it’s kind of our little brother. We have a big online network online with lots of information. People are really ineractive with each other, too. And now many more fans show up before shows, because the information is right there.

We also have a program called How’s Your News?, which is a news team with disabilities. It was picked up by MTV last year. We’ve been doing it for fifteen years, making our own movies. This project is mostly for fun, but it focuses on disability rights and treating people with disabilies like anyone else.

What are the Teach-Ins for Troy?

Our overall focus is on human rights. We teamed up with Oxfam for the stoves for Sudanese women. The rest is kind of a public-service thing for whatever each particular town needs, such as food banks, poverty relief, or cleaning up urban spaces. But the Troy thing falls under our human-rights umbrella. We’ve been working on the Troy Davis case for a couple of years. He’s a man from Georgia who was convicted of killing a white cop twenty years ago. He never received a fair trial and was convicted purely on witness testimony with no physical evidence. Seven of the nine witnesses have come out since then and said they were coerced into pointing their fingers at Troy, and that it actually wasn’t Troy but this other guy. I heard about him through Amnesty International and got to know Troy’s sister, who’s the leader of the movement to free him. I’ve spoken to Troy a few times, and to his mom, and today we were out protesting on Athens’s streets just to get people to know his name. He’s an exmaple of why the death penalty is wrong. There’s no DNA evidence. After twenty years and three execution dates (one of which was within 30 minutes of his scheduled execution), the Supreme Court has finally allowed an evidentiary hearing in Savannah, which happens in a few months.

How do you reconcile your rock-star status with your public-service work?

We’ve seen so many kids who come to shows and Calling All Crows events start their own projects. We’re really face-to-face with a lot of really inspiring young people, whether it be through City Year or Teach For Ameirca or smaller groups. It’s so rewarding, even if the majority of our audience is there to rock out and have fun. A handful of kids are really ready to make a difference. Like today, when we were protesting on the street almost everyone was on their way to lunch or class or whatever. But every now and then someone would stop and be curious. You learn to appreciate small connections.

Tell your friends!