Interview: Travis Morrison of the Dismemberment Plan

After seven years away, the Dismemberment Plan are back on the road. And all because of the changing vinyl market. Lead singer Travis Morrison talks about life after indie, Jimmy Fallon and Darwin.

Photo: Francis Chung
The reunited Dismemberment Plan on stage, January 2010.

A decade ago, despite being a D.C. band, the Dismemberment Plan were a regular fixture in Chicago. The band's publicist and record distributor resided here, so it felt like a second home to the manic band. Several of their spectacular shows are now spoken of as indie legend. There was that time at Fireside Bowl, when the entire cruddy venue erupted in wild dance, overflowing up onto the stage. There was the time at Empty Bottle when a mechanical failure forced the foursome to ditch keyboards and return to their punky, guitar-driven roots. These memories perhaps had something to do with the Plan's two reunion shows at Metro, February 19 and 20, quickly selling out.  To discuss the comeback, we rang up singer Travis Morrison at his desk at The Huffington Post, where he works in advertising.

You moved from D.C. to New York City. How do you like it?
It’s kind of Peter Pan Island. You can wake up one day and be 50 and have nothing to show for it but having been to a lot of plays.

Do you miss D.C.?
In a way. New York and D.C. are really different. They’re not in direct competition in terms of lifestyle. D.C. is more outdoorsy. You can go running down the river. You don’t want to go jogging down the East River, much less down Flatbush Avenue. But, no, I don’t profoundly miss it. I’m also down there two to six times a year. I stay in touch. Every once in a while I’ll see something New York that makes me think, this would have been better in Washington. But it doesn’t translate as a real emo moment. Or maybe I have an emo moment that doesn’t translate into an emo day.

You’ve got a few reunion shows under your belt. Have you noticed any difference in crowd—behavior, demographics?
Well, there are more people, which is mystifying. I don’t really know how these things happen. Maybe just that there’s a larger audience. That’s the simple answer. Aside from opening for Pearl Jam in Europe, are these the biggest crowds you’ve played for? In the past, we’d maybe sell out 30 minutes before a show. Now it’s sold out well in advance. I don’t think pent-up demand fully explains that. It’s not like every day more and more people get upset and need to see us play live. That doesn’t make any sense. Something else was happening. Cultural changes, people finding stuff on the internet. I mean, I’ll take it. It’s better than things changing and less people going to our shows. [Laughs]

You have a perspective to see how indie fans acted in the ’90s verses now. I’m thinking of your Tweet after the Fallon appearance, where you reacted to criticisms about your dance moves. Today there is much more detailed nitpicking. Compare that to the legendary show at the Fireside Bowl, when everybody went fucking nuts. I’m just wondering if it’s because kids today live too much online with MP3s and are thrown off by live performance.
It might be. When you analyze, especially in the performing arts, you come up with a lot of pieces that really turn you off. I don’t know if you get that with a Phillip Roth novel. Performing arts can be really embarrassing. The challenge is to do something really embarrassing that people are really into, as opposed to something really embarrassing that’s awful. Do you think people today are more afraid of being embarrassed? Well, people who are going to be motivating to write about you are going to do the laundry list. “I dug it” Is a boring blog post. But a blog post listing all these details you noticed is interesting, but it will come across as super critical. If you’re going to analyze, you come at it with by all its parts and pieces. The part that evades analysis is really short: “Well, I dug it.”

So have people been dancing at the reunion shows?
Sure, yeah. People are going completely fucking crazy. People were totally going wild. That’s what really counts. Whatever commentary is posted online… People can talk about the creepy behavior at a party all they want, but they went to the party, they got drunk. That’s something I’ve learned. Discussion of the party the next morning is less real.

[Bassist] Eric [Axelson] mentioned had the Emergency & I come out on vinyl back in 1999, you would not be doing this tour now.
Oh, yeah. We weren’t like, “Let’s go play shows.” It absolutely is about the reissue.

It’s odd to think that it wasn’t financially feasible to release vinyl seven years ago, and now it’s the only financially sound way to release physical copies of music.
That’s true. The market did not exist. Vinyl was at its lowest point in history. We would not have recouped. The only people who bought vinyl were Shellac fans.

Or just Shellac themselves.
[Laughs] Shellac’s mothers.

In going back and doing the reissue, what was the process?
We were pretty aggressive in thinking about it. We listened to the half-inch tape. Went to the studio and put them on a reel and compared them to a CD, to the digital masters before the CD.

Did you do this with Chad [Clark] and J. [Robbins]?
Yeah. We realized, it’s true: CDs are awful. It’s all totally true. I was really glad we took the time to do that, remaster it from the half-inch.

Well, you made it 4% better.
[Laughs] But that’s the kind of difference that does count for something. It does have to be a down-the-rabbit-hole, super-incrementally-better thing. It is going to be about a certain amount of luxury in the product. Don’t get me wrong, I listen to music in my iPod all the time on crappy earbuds. I listen to utter trash like everybody else.

Does it depress you that you do all that work and people will still mostly hear it as a cruddy Mediafire rip or whatever?
No. They can still hear the lyrics. It’s not like it’s imperceptible. It’s not like you listen to an MP3 on earbuds and it’s white noise. You can hear the chords. There are some soundscapes that do suffer on MP3. But it’s not like… I really need to get this Katy Perry on vinyl! I have no problem with people having a kind of Katy Perry relationship to our music. “Oh, yeah, I heard this song once. I jog to them.” That’s fine.

Looking at the recent setlists, there are a lot of older songs from the first two records. You got away from those late in the Plan’s career. How is it going back?
I just really like those songs. In retrospect, on the first couple records we’d get about 4 or 5 songs together and then completely run of energy. The songs are really good in some cases. They have a certain simplicity that balances out with the later stuff that got baroque. It’s good to have stuff that’s more garage-rocky opposed to the Radioheady stuff.

I remember once at the Empty Bottle about ten years ago, your keyboard broke and the set had to all be old, old material.
We had to become a basement band again. It was 1993 all over again.

How was Fallon?
It was awesome; it was totally terrifying. You’re playing a show to 100 people who are like 100 feet away. With 17 cameras in between. They’re all on wheels and go up and down on hydraulics. It kind of feels like there are a bunch of velociraptors surrounding you. They go back and forth and up and down. It feels like there are aliens checking you out.

Sounds very Spielbergian.
Yeah. But the people there are so nice. The vibe you get form the show is the vibe you get from the team—really positive, funny. It’s very loose. They finally figured out what to do with all the pieces they have. It’s rock and roll. All these cool bands coming are coming by. Some of the stuff is half ass, and that’s awesome. They really hit a groove.

You’re a big hip-hop fan. So how was it to read Questlove’s gushing Tweets about the Plan?
He’s such a music fan. I asked him about this record by Res, this R&B singer from 2001. It’s one of my favorite records of all time, from Philly. He’s just someone that, in the limited time we got with him, totally geeked out about music. That was cool.

Funny how you ending up on an episode with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. Did you ever play with Trenchmouth or Sleater-Kinney in the 1990s?
We never played with Trenchmouth. We tried, and they broke up right before the shows. We had two shows booked with them [in 1996]. When we started, we wanted to be a punk band and we wanted to be a rhythm band. The things that Fred did with Latin beats—he put rumbas and mambos in punk rock. That was amazing. And that other clown was in Sleater-Kinney. [Laughs] It was little intimidating.

What have your learned about the band since coming back?
We’re not the band that plans things out. We like a crowd that says dumb things and does dumb things. Let’s face it, if they don’t do that, we’re fucked. We’re pretty… One thing we’ve realized since we’ve gotten back together is that we’re a deeply sloppy and improvisational group of people. We have to make that work for us. We’re not the two-coats-of-paint type in terms of our show and presentation. There will always be a bit of Big brother & The Holding Co. chaos with what we do. We see if someone throws something at us or wears a weird outfit and react accordingly.

So you want that.
I love it. Oh my god. That’s totally me.

“Please throw stuff at us!”
I’m dying up here!

You look well. The band looks exactly the same.
I’ve looked the same since I was six years old. I’ve kind of always looked 28. We haven’t been touring for seven years. That stuff will wear you down. We’re tan, fit and rested. We all have interesting jobs.

I don’t know, that didn’t seem to work with the New York Dolls.
But we weren’t that big into… ah, um…

Extracurricular activities?
We weren’t conservative, but we’d party a little and go to bed.

[Drummer] Joe [Easley] does robotics for NASA now. He might get something on a space shuttle this year. Any word on that?
It’s all pretty in-process right now. It’s up to the lawmakers right now.

The Plan has one of the more fascinating “Where are they now?” bios.
I’m really proud of that. I’m still really exicted to be around Joe, Eric and Jason. That’s a blessing. Other bands, when they get off tour, they look at each other and are like, “Who are you?” We all had to grow up and make adult lives. But it’s a blessing we find each other so engaging. Other people look at each other and go, “I went to high school with you?”

You have a new band [Time Travel], too.
Yeah, we’re kind of semi-pro at this point. Working on our sound. We’ve played some quiet local shows. It’s a lot of fun. But we’re not ready for prime time.

Do you still yearn for the prime time?
In some ways. I would want to do it if it’s totally awesome. [Laughs]

If you could guarantee awesomeness.
Like what we’re doing right now. It’s all totally awesome. A big part of it is a road trip, and I think we’re past that part of our lives. You know, Darwin was on his tour, his boat tour, for almost ten years, until his early 30s. He got home to England and never left England again. He never left his manor again. That’s kind of a natural thing. You go out and explore, then in the next part of your life is more about a consolidating thing. You can’t just become a total grouchy homebody. But it’s a total natural thing. When I read that about Darwin, I thought, “Oh, shit, that guy was tour.”

The Dismemberment Plan visits Metro February 19 and 20.

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