The Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison on reunion, inspiration and critics
After over 10 years since their last album, the Dismemberment Plan is releasing its newest album “Uncanney Valley.” The band was a mainstay of the indie rock scene in the ’90s and early ’00s, but broke up in 2003 and reunited in 2011 to tour. The Plan has grown up a lot in the meantime: Eric Axelson has been teaching in public schools, Morrison leads a start-up called Shoutabl and sings in church choirs, Jason Caddell has been working as a freelance audio engineer and Joe Easley works at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as an engineer. The four practice in Washington, D.C., where they were originally based, on the weekends as they balance their day jobs with recording and performing. They’ll be headlining CMJ Music Marathon in New York on Oct. 18, Paradise Rock Club in Boston on Nov. 2 and Union Transfer in Philadelphia on Nov. 3. Frontman Travis Morrison talked to Metro about the band’s dynamic over the years and the changing tide of the music industry.
Metro: How do you balance your day job with rehearsals and gigs?
Travis Morrison: Well you know most bands are like that really. I think that it’s fun – it’s also tiring and you have to focus … We had day jobs for the first five to six years of the Plan. You just have to try to stay on top of your own life.
Can you tell me about Shoutabl?
It’s a social network for bands. We don’t think there is one right now. You have to cobble together your services out of Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. But there’s no one social network service that covers all of that.
How has social media changed the landscape for you as musicians?
Well it’s fun. It’s great. It’s a really exciting landscape. It’s a different kind of thing. Most rock bands are not just musical concepts – we do t-shirts, make videos … We say weird things – they’re almost always multimedia enterprises and I think stuff like Twitter, where you say 140 character things, make me wonder where some bands would have been in 1994 without Twitter. They’d be so lonely. Musicians like Twitter because they have quick thoughts, but they’re not essayists. The drawback is that record stores used to be much more important and gravitational centers. But times change and things are fun as times change.
How has the band dynamic changed after all of these years?
What I tell everyone is that in 1995, we were dating. We were a college romance that went on a six-year road trip and when the road trip was over, we had so many bags under our eyes. It was fun and it was the most awesome thing to do when you’re 23. Charles Darwin got on the beagle for 10 years. Ten years collecting species! I read that and I was like, ‘Oh, you were on tour.’ But instead of playing clubs, he was digging up dead butterflies on the Galapagos. So back then it was very much that road trip. It was very much a dating or marriage-like commitment. Now, I think it’s much more like adults who come together who have other things going on. Rock and roll is the only art form where people are expected to get together in a band and drive around all their lives. No other art form has that dynamic. It’s fascinating to think of the emotional demand we put on bands and how much that narrative matters. It’s not healthy or artistically truthful. It’s clear that we’re friends for life, but at this point if the four of us started fighting, that would be so weird. If we hated each other, we would have settled that a long time ago. We’re no longer Charles Darwin on the boat for 10 years.
It sounds like you’re leaving the door open to keep reuniting forever.
Well I mean there’s a hole in the wall we could go through or not go through. There used to be a door with a padlock and a chain that you couldn’t just walk out of – it was like a New York City apartment door. Now there’s no door. Now if the inspiration’s there, we’ll work together and if it’s not, we’ll do other things.
What’s changed in the writing and recording process over the years?
It’s been so long since I was that person that I’m not sure – it’s a little more meditated, maybe. When you’re a very young band, just the fact that you’re making a record at all is incredibly exciting, but as you get older and you’ve done it a few times, you need to kind of merge with the material. The excitement of doing it is very exciting and radiates out of the music but that kind of fades. You can only make your first record once and you have to stay hungry throughout the rest of the material. A lot of people find that very challenging. It’s less about a process and more about a material that makes you more critical and more excited if you’re honest with yourself.
What was the inspiration to produce an album this time?
We were playing different shows to promote a vinyl rerelease for “Emergency & I” and while we were practicing, we started to get little jams and grooves and after a while we were like, “Well, hey, when the shows are over, why don’t we get together and keep jamming?” We weren’t trying to be super goal oriented – it was just to have fun and that kicked off the process. After a while, the songs showed up.
You mention in other interviews that you disbanded after the songs you were writing stopped exciting you. Why do you think that dynamic changed?
Boy, I don’t know. That’s where God comes in. Seriously. I don’t know. We were all in different places and different things have happened for all of us. I moved to New York City and had personal things happen, relationships, things to write about in terms of inspiration and so on and so forth. We all just kind of had things like that that spurred us on. There are so many personal things about it that it would be hard to trace why. How come this time when we got together in the basement, we started basement jamming? Maybe we had enough coffee? I really don’t know.
What does “White Collar, White Trash” mean?
That’s probably from me. Moving up to New York City, I became acutely aware of where I was from. Where I’m from is D.C. and also Virginia and kind of the belt of Northern Virginia that is really the edge of the South. I was going down there for work and I thought, “I don’t think I could ever be back here again.” And I just thought “white collar, white trash” – that’s what I’m looking at right now.
It’s been 20 years since your band formed and your new album “Uncanney Valley” sounds a little different, but ultimately you still sound like the Plan. Are you hoping to gain a new fan base or just looking to hang onto your devotees?
We can always hope, can’t we? You never know, do you? I tend to have an unhealthily fatalistic attitude about my role toward the art and culture. I don’t think you will love me. I don’t think everyone is going to love what I’m involved with. I’ve always used the metaphor about the pachinko game. When you’re putting your art into the culture and you let go of the ball – which is finishing the record – then you just watch it bounce down. I’ve had people who love what I do and I’ve had terrifying media yeehaws against what I do. And at this point, I’m like, well, I did the best I could – let’s drop it into the pachinko game and see where it lands. Any artist’s dream is that everyone who ever loved anything you ever did loves your record and everyone who’s never heard of you also buys the record. I’ve always never really been too worried about it. I just want to put it out there and give it a chance.
Your solo album “Travistan” (2004) was slammed by Pitchfork. What was that like for you?
It ultimately turned into a real positive. It did mean that I was kicked out of the business for a while. I don’t think that was because of the review – a review is just a review – but the industry-wide reaction was frightening and creepy and slightly robotic. I’m still talking about this review and I talk more about it than any other review I’ve had in my life combined. But since I was kicked out of the business, I had to look for inspiration in other things. In indie rock, all people wanted to talk about was Pitchfork and it wasn’t healthy and it was weird. So I joined a church choir and took Indian art classes and tried other things. Had I been a moderately successful indie rocker, I might not have had that more interesting trip.
Do you have any cool memories to share about CMJ?
I remember being on a panel in maybe 1998. I was hanging out with my friends until 2 a.m. and I was driving to New York City from Washington, so I was deliriously sleepy. I also remember performing at NYU’s Skirball Center – I think we played an early iteration of “The Rapture” then. It was a good show – a fun show.
I remember going to CMJ as a college kid and coming up and getting drunk and racing around hysterically to catch bands. Not to play the “I was there when” card, but in 1992, 1993, New York City was f—ing gritty, so it was pretty exciting to be in the Meatpacking District and the East Village. I have all kinds of memories from CMJ.