The Dismemberment Plan's Travis Morrison Is Still the Best Interview Ever
From left: Jason Caddell, Travis Morrison, Eric Axelson, Joe Easley.
Photo by Shervin Lainez.
About three-fourths of the way through our phone interview, Travis Morrison admits he's hungover. "We had a housewarming party last night," says the charismatic frontman for recently reunited indie stalwarts the Dismemberment Plan, "and I get really, really drunk at my own parties. It's probably not good. I'm barely able to keep up here." It's an understatement: even under the weather, the guitarist and singer rounds the bases on topics from David Foster Wallace to Liberace to the phrase "weekend warrior," punctuating his trains of thought with extended metaphors and an infectious, slightly maniacal cackle.
The Dismemberment Plan, which formed in the early '90s in Washington, D.C. (where drummer Joe Easley, guitarist Jason Caddell, and bassist Eric Axelson still reside), busted onto the scene with their kinetic debut "!" in 1996, but it wasn't until 1999's Emergency & I that they broke through. With the album's local punk-informed angular rhythms, often dissonant melodies, and Morrison's signature talk-singing about quarter-life crises, Emergency & I resonated on a level their earlier works hadn't quite reached. Despite the album's critical success, after 2003's The People's History of the Dismemberment Plan the band started losing steam. "We didn't love the material, we were on tour constantly just to stay alive," says Morrison. "The thrill was gone, and it was not apparent how the thrill could be reclaimed under the circumstances."
In 2009, the Dismemberment Plan reunited to play a couple of sold-out concerts celebrating the 10th anniversary reissue of Emergency & I. During the practice sessions, the band members started jamming together again, and then they started writing new songs. Three or four months and songs in, everyone decided they should probably just go ahead and make a new album. "I was like, 'Okay. This isn't just an EP. We're not going to completely stop producing more music. We're doing this,'" says Morrison.
Ten years after the Dismemberment Plan's last album, their sixth, Uncanney Valley, arrived on a swell of anticipation this past Tuesday via Partisan. Whether the vibrant, eclectic new songs scratch a D-Plan-sized itch in fans' hearts–or album closer "Let's Just Go to the Dogs Tonight" replaces "Ice of Boston" as the ultimate concert singalong anthem–remains to be seen, but Morrison is modestly excited about Uncanney Valley ("I really like it, but that's not really a very good indicator") and very, very excited about his forthcoming "limited engagement" tour.
Dismemberment Plan play Friday at Terminal 5. More show details after the interview.
In a recent interview, you said you dreamed about people covering your songs on Uncanney Valley. Which would be your ideal bands? I could imagine Leonard Cohen singing "Lookin'" or Drive By Truckers doing "Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer." I could imagine the National doing a really strange, solemn version of "Let's All Go to the Dogs Tonight." (Imitates Matt Berninger's voice) "I could be the sugar, you could be the cream." (Laughs) I think they live near me. I just have to find them. I have this demented vision of the National doing a super-weepy, minor key version of that song.
In 2011, you said, "The urge to write again wouldn't come based on hearing stuff we did in '98, it would come from us living the same lives to relive it." You're all doing different things now, so what changed between then and when you decided to make a new record? We started jamming as we were practicing for the [2009 Emergency & I 10th anniversary reissue] shows. We started improvising more and more licks and riffs–none of which actually turned into a song–but when a band is doing that, it means the lights are on. Any time we get together, we spontaneously come up with two to five grooves that, chances are, won't get used because there will be two to five more grooves at the next practice. That's a measure of some kid of chemical or emotional connection that had stopped happening when the Plan was breaking up. When we were practicing old songs, we started noodling. And we were like, "No, we have to play more old songs." And then after a while, we were like, "Hey guys, maybe we should get together with the sole purpose of jamming!" and we all said "Yeah!" We just wanted to make weird noises.
How do you think fans will react to Uncanney Valley? They're going to crush it like a grape. [Laughs] I think there will be a lot of chin-scratching, like "Does this sound like the Plan?" which is kind of an intellectual shell game, but that's how intellectual rock & roll fans are. In the end the question is, will the songs stick with people six months, nine months, two years later? You can discuss an album in the context of a band's previous records all you want, but do people still play it? That's really the only thing that matters. Do people listen to it? A lot of that has to do with the appetite of the public at the time the record comes out. You do your best, you say what's on your mind, and other people might get behind it or they might go, "That's really weird, dude." It's like [Japanese gambling game] pachinko and the ball is the record. You drop the metal ball and it bounces down and you want it to land in the slot that's going to get you money.
You said Gloss Drop by Battles was something you listened to while playing with the D-Plan again. Any other records you were listening to? It would be different for all of us, but for me, when we started kicking off, tUnE-yArDs, that album w h o k i l l was still in really heavy rotation. What else was I listening to in 2011... that Fucked Up record, David Comes Alive. And I listened to the National. High Violet was spectacular. I'm a magpie. I listen to so many things. I could be like, "Oh yeah, I'm really into the piano pieces of Edward Grieg."
You also said once that musicians have appetite while critics have taste. Did I say that? That's good. Wow. It sounds like I was talking in some kind of British accent. (Imitates British accent) "Here's the thing..." Most musicians I know don't judge. They're like, "Oh, okay. I dig it." Like, my brother-in-law plays baseball. He's not pro level but he's pretty close, and he watches a lot of baseball. I remember asking him, "Are you a fan of a team?" He was like, "Not really. I'm a fan of players, I'm a fan of the game." A lot of musicians are fans of the game. It's not necessarily forming an identity with certain records. Occasionally I'm like, "This is trash, get it out of my sight," but not usually.
What was it like playing alongside the Replacements at Riot Fest? I walked over from the Pixies to see the Replacements, and they start playing and I realized, as great as the Pixies are, the Replacements are so much better. Not to take away from the Pixies, but that's how good the Replacements were and are. That explains how I feel about being at the same festival as the Replacements. There's a David Foster Wallace line about watching a tennis player who's ranked 150th in the world get torn to shreds by the number one player. He said it was like watching a powerful predator get ripped apart by a larger, more powerful predator. And just seeing those songs and hearing that voice, they were just on a whole other level than anything I've ever done.
Are you still playing with your other bands, the Burlies and Time Travel? Does playing with other outlets help you bring something else to the Dismemberment Plan? Time Travel's super on hiatus. It's hard to find the time to work on it. The Burlies kind of have a Spinal Tap problem with our bassists: we've had bassists, but they keep moving, or they're busy, or there's something they're not telling us. But yeah, that's a going concern. It's fun. One problem the Plan had was only playing with each other; it was one of the things that kind of led the Dismemberment Plan to drive into a ditch in the early '00s. I would never go back to that in a million, billion years. Learning from being with other musicians is vital. The choir is another thing I do. And I have a friend that I would get together with and we'd just do acoustic covers. I didn't do that that back in the day, so I'm making up for lost time.
Has joining a church choir affected your singing at all? The choir has had a huge influence on my guitar playing rather than my singing. I learned a lot about the construction of music, because choir music is usually just four melodies at the same time. It's very spare but it can sound very rich. And I was like, "How do they do that?" So I started writing vocal pieces on guitar. I would sing the soprano part, and if there were an alto I would play that on guitar. Learning those pieces on guitar has influenced my guitar playing and the overall sense of what I thought the music should be doing. I still have the same unpleasant mid-Atlantic vowels. It's terrible. Makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
How do you feel about your upcoming tour? Great. I've been trying to think of a word for it because it's not quite a tour. Weekend warrior is the most depressing image in the world. When I hear the phrase "weekend warrior" I think of white tube socks, and none of us are wearing white tube socks. Someone suggested "limited engagement," and I love it. It sounds so Liberace. It implies that we'll be flying into a lot of the shows, and that we own the plane, and we're really fucking wealthy. So, we have some limited engagements. I'm really excited. I love, love, love playing live and being onstage.
The Dismemberment Plan perform at Terminal 5 on Friday, October 18th. Doors at 7pm, show at 8pm. $27.50 advance, $33 day of. All ages.
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