We Didn’t Plan It: An Interview with Eric Axelson of the Dismemberment Plan

When DC-based indie rock heroes The Dismemberment Plan disbanded in 2003, a hush spread across the music world. That’s not meant to sentimentalize things, here — yes, the quiet had something to do with mourning, but even more so it was the silence of the vacuum created by a world without The Plan’s frenetic, legendary live shows. Vocalist/guitarist Travis Morrison, bassist Eric Axelson, guitarist Jason Caddell, and drummer Joe Easley routinely put on the kind of shows that bred in their fans a rabid, sacrifice-anything-to-get-there dedication in following the band. Luckily enough, The Dismemberment Plan reunited for a full tour this year, picking up where they left off without missing a beat.

Eric Axelson doesn’t know quite what to make of the legend his band has become in the near-decade since it first called it quits. The crowds have been enormous and possibly even more energized than those ten years ago. “Back in the day,” he says, “when we were active, we were coming through all the time. Now, it’s been eight years — so, there’s a chunk of people in the crowds now who … are like, ‘I’m so excited, I found out about you guys in 2004 after you broke up, so I never got to see you,’ or people in their 40’s who flew out from the West Coast to see the shows.” He likens the mood to his own recent experience seeing The Police, a band he missed when they were touring actively in their prime — a way of catching up with the past, an excitement at an opportunity you were sure had already passed you by. He goes on to share his genuine delight in people’s enthusiasm about seeing his band in 2011:”I think in general our crowds back in the day were pretty high energy and happy, but these days, especially, you look out in the crowd and just see this big sea of smiles. It’s really powerful to see that,” he says with a laugh, “not to get too hippie about it.”

As far as where The Plan fits in with today’s roster of popular indie acts, Axelson says, “I don’t follow music as much as I used to, which is a shame, but I think in some ways our music feels like it holds up and still fits in today. I think people forget how weird it was at the time, in ’98 … people forget how oddball we were.” He mentions tUnE-yArDs, Dirty Projectors, and Sleigh Bells as current bands “doing something outside the norm” in the vein of The Plan’s ethos. “It’s hard to be in the band and know where you fit outside the band,” he concludes. “Still, it’d be cool to hear those bands were into what we did,” he says, laughing again.

Of course, the notion of not fitting in is nothing new to The Plan. As a band in the ’90s in Washington, DC, the group bumped elbows with Fugazi, Jawbox, Smart Went Crazy, and other Dischord punk heroes. And while The Plan shared DNA with the Dischord sound — a focus on danceable rhythms sharing space with spiky guitars — their eclecticism always put them outside of that box. “When we first hit the road in ’95-’96, when DC was even more punk — for lack of a better word — the style was a lot harder,” he explains. “By the late ’90s, you started to see Q And Not U and Black Eyes come together, but there were still times when we’d pull into placers in the Midwest where they’d expect us to sound a lot more like Hoover or Jawbox — both bands that we loved — but we’d walk in with a trombone and a Casio, and people were like, ‘Hm … I thought it’d be different.'”

The Plan likely doesn’t face that problem today. Most of their DC brethren have long since split, and somehow the sound of his band has largely outlasted the Dischord sound in popular music today. (Axelson says he and the band have tried, many times, to convince Jawbox to reunite, to no avail; this writer will ask you to continue to pray for Fugazi to play again.) Now, people are bringing confetti to throw during “You Are Invited” or fake money to shower upon the band during “The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich”. This is a band that invites audience participation, bar none. It makes sense, then, that The Plan will cement their reputation as an essential live band with the release of The Dismemberment Plan Live in Japan, a double-LP documenting a single show at Tokyo’s Shibuya O-nes on February 9th, 2011.

Maybe recording a DC show would have been too obvious? Axleson explains: “It was kind of a surprise — we didn’t plan it, to be honest. We got to Japan, and our label said, ‘We’ve got one show where you’re the only band playing.’ … and our A&R guy there said, ‘We’ve got a sound guy coming to tape the show, is that all right?’ And it just turned, step-by-step, into a live album.” The mammoth 23-song set sounds fantastic, coming as close as possible to capturing The Plan’s live energy on tape.

And if things have changed for the band in the States, they’ve changed in Japan, as well. Axelson speaks of past crowds in Japan and a strange habit of the audiences there in the ’90s: “During the songs, kids may dance — but then the song ends, and they clap, and it’s dead silence,” he laughs. But now, he says, “We got a lot more activity from the crowd, every night kids joking with us and a couple shows where kids got onstage, one night where a kid broke his arm … ” PopMatters offers this idea to anyone looking for a dissertation idea: Cultural Shifts in Japanese Youth Culture as Displayed at Dismemberment Plan Shows. First come, first served.

In any case, The Dismemberment Plan will continue to be one of the most beloved bands of the past twenty years, whether they create any new music after this reunion or not. Axelson says they don’t have plans to write or record, but that they also don’t have plans not to. “I’m not trying to be vague,” he says, “but on the one hand, everyone is open-minded to playing more, but it comes down to making schedules work. We’re not against it, so I wouldn’t say these are the last shows, but they might be. We’ll see — in some ways, it’s nice, no one’s put their foot down and said no, but we don’t want to force it.” His own band, Statehood, might return to recording this summer after the untimely death of frontman Clark Sabine. Axelson seems eager to return to writing music, to having another creative outlet. “I’m not someone who writes whole songs,” he says, “so it helps to have someone like Travis or Clark or Davey [von Bohlen, of The Promise Ring and Axelson’s other former group, Maritime] around for that.”

Keep your fingers crossed.