Kicked Out of a Building That Then Collapsed: An Interview With Travis Morrison
The veteran indie singer-songwriter discusses the past, present, and future of the Dismemberment Plan, how D'Angelo and Pearl Jam influenced their music, and what it's like to grow up making records.
Sometime during the last decade, the public perception of the Washington D.C. indie rockers in the Dismemberment Plan transformed it from a freewheeling group of underground outcasts into a respected legacy act. Plenty of artists rise up the ranks of popularity over the years, but for the Dismemberment Plan, an act that dissolved in 2003 after ten years and four records, the transformation occurred without the band even knowing. All it took was time.
The Dismemberment Plan singer-songwriter Travis Morrison has no qualms about the past. He freely admits that the band is unusually lucky to have two classic records -- 1999’s Emergency & I and 2001’s Change -- to have had the opportunity to reunite in 2010, go out on a big tour in 2011, and release a fifth album, Uncanney Valley, ten years after disbanding. He’s also keenly aware that the two solo albums he released in the meantime, 2004’s Travistan (the notorious recipient of a rare 0.0 score from Pitchfork) and 2007’s All Y’all (released under the name Travis Morrison Hellfighters) effectively turned him into something of an industry pariah. Still, he’s a spirited conversationalist, happy to ruminate on the band’s early records and discuss the state of the music industry. He also seems genuinely grateful for the hand that he and the Dismemberment Plan have been dealt over the last two decades.
On November 4, the band reissued Change, their fourth and last album before splitting in 2003. Using that as a springboard, we discussed the band’s past, present and future, growing up through music, getting kicked out of the industry and coming back with something new to say.
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What do you remember most about recording Change?
I remember being excited because it was the first record we had made where anyone cared ahead of time besides a very small group of people in Washington. Emergency & I was a fair success in the indie rock world, so for the first time we were making a record where people we didn’t know were interested in what it was going to sound like. That had not quite happened yet. It was very exciting.
It seems like a much bleaker album than Emergency & I particularly.
It is glum.
Was that a conscious progression for you?
No, I just think of it as a late 20s record. Sometimes people in their late 20s can get a little sad. I don’t think this record is remotely as good as the record I’m about to refer to, but I think the famous late 20s record is Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. It’s very heavy in existential themes, almost maudlinly existential themes. In your late 20s, life changes are happening and you’re not sure how you feel about them. Maybe you feel a little less connected. It’s the very first time in your life when you’re like, “I’m not young.” You really start to feel it, somewhere around 27 or 28. You’re like, “Oh, shit,” and you kind of start thinking you’re older than you are. You start thinking you’re Old Man River, and you’re not, you’re just 28.
I think there’s just a very interesting set of emotional things that that album grapples with that can be heavy. It can be heavy to a 29year old in a bar, trying to decide if they should go back to grad-school as opposed to a 24-year-old or 25-year-old -- which is [when we made] Emergency & I -- when there’s still a little bit of post-collegiate buoyancy. I think both of them kind of speak to those little segments of time in peoples’ lives. Or at least, you know, urban white people. [Laughs] My target.
Do you think that tonal disparity accounts for why it’s not quite as beloved as Emergency & I?
Well… yes. Emergency & I has a foot on the gas, that athletic energy. Almost like it’s too much. It’s almost like there was the ultimate record that could have been made somewhere between the two records. The few times that I’ve listened to Emergency & I front-to-back -- especially later in life -- I’m a little tired at the end. It reminds me of what Monty Python said after they made their first movie, which was that you can’t laugh for an hour and 45 minutes. There’s a limit to how much people can laugh, and you have to respect that, you can’t just make their stomach hurt. Emergency & I kind of goes into fifth gear immediately and stays there, except for “The Jitters,” but then it goes right back to it. I think people find that thrilling. Change is a little more gothy, a little darker, and that might explain it. I don’t know, I have no idea why one record sold more than the other record, believe me. [Laughs] If I understood it, I probably would’ve sold more.
The Dismemberment Plan has always seemed to have such disparate influences.
What kind of music was really inspiring the band back then?
That was an interesting time. Very varied, wild disparity. We were not a band who drove around with headphones on. We were very much a record club — someone would put a record on and we all would listen. Some bands, there’s like four people, all with headphones on, staring out the window, but we were definitely like a family listening to a record.
That was when Voodoo by D’Angelo was blowing everybody’s mind. I think to a certain extent, we had a weird [desire to do] something like what he did structurally. There’s not that many choruses on Voodoo. Sometimes there are some blank spots, sometimes the hook is the groove, sometimes there are non-repeating patterns. I think we wanted to open up our structures, and I think we got that from Voodoo. We weren’t gonna make an R&B record, but I think Voodoo had that formal influence on us.
Our tour with Pearl Jam influenced us a lot. We soaked up a lot having been on that tour, watching them night after night. Certain songs, heavier songs like “Time Bomb” and “Secret Curse”, I can hear the Pearl Jam element. We were never hard rock. We would make hard rock moves, but on that record there’s actually like big, monster rock ‘n’ roll, and that was, I think, a result of having been [on tour with Pearl Jam]. So, somewhere between Pearl Jam and D’Angelo, I guess, is that record. [laughs] That’s actually not that far off.
You guys parted ways just two years after Change was released. Was there any sense while you were making it that it might be your last record?
No, I don’t think so. We were in uncharted territory because we signed to a major and then that had totally failed. I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone that it was a stopping point, the situation was too dynamic and fluid. There were a lot of questions to resolve. It didn’t have that autumnal feel where you can see where something is going, you know, the leaves are gonna fall off the trees. By the end of all the Change touring, maybe things were a little autumnal; our popularity stayed the same, we were all starting to turn 30, we were making lower-middle-class incomes, we had been at it for a long time. But at the time, making the Change record, no, the situation was fluid, it was dynamic. There were still a lot of questions about, “Where is this gonna go?”
Are you satisfied with that stage of your career?
Yeah. It is what it is, we were who we were. Maybe we could’ve sold a few more records at the time, but we were very unusual. I think we were rewarded in the long-run with a lot of respect for having been so peculiar and singular, and honestly, at this point in my life, I’ll take that over a lot of success then, and then being seen as something that happened then but isn’t valid now. To a certain extent, all you really know to do is make a record, write a song, and go play a show, you know? And we got to play some great shows, write some great songs, and make some great records. Those are the few things that are under your control as a musician and we did them to death, so I’m very satisfied with that.
Uncanney Valley kind of returns to that optimism that was on Emergency & I. Did you set out to make an album that was more upbeat after coming back?
No, it was all pretty natural, it was kind of like following our noses. As a lyricist, there’s kind of lyrical goals and then there’s the music stuff. I try not to get too conceptual, but I was starting to see patterns in stuff I was writing. I was in a very dynamic part of my life; I had just moved to New York City, I was between relationships and then I found a relationship with my now wife. I think it’s unusual for someone in their late-30s to suddenly be in the tumble cycle again like that. There were some revelations there that I wanted to talk about, some themes that I wouldn’t have really been able to touch eight or nine years ago, but it wasn’t enormously premeditated. You kind of try to put the blinders on and just go with your subconscious and try to find thematic unity. Sometimes the unity is no unity at all. Themes showed up with the making of Uncanney Valley, and once they appear naturally, it’s good to just go in that direction and finish it off. We got there naturally. Six or seven songs in, I was like, “Aha! I see what we’re doing.” Other themes kind of fall to the side, and you’re like, “Screw that, that’s not for this record.”
That album also seems really inspired by those big reunion shows from 2011. Were you trying capture that kind of live energy with the album?
Yeah, I think so, emotionally. The song “Let’s Just Go to the Dogs Tonight,” which is my favorite song on the record, is literally half imagery from my wedding and half imagery from our reunion shows, and I didn’t even notice it until the song was done. You have to put emotional things first. You stop putting things through ideological filters, political filters… it can be a little sketchy for artists because you lose your artistry, you lose your lyricism and sense of metaphor, but if you kind of harness it, good things can happen. You do start to see the world not so politically and ideologically, you just see it as organic things that mean something to you that could go away tomorrow, or in ten years, or in thirty years, so you should enjoy them while you can. Our shows were very enjoyable and I think they definitely worked themselves into the mentality, certainly of the lyrics — again, not consciously — but I think you’re right that they were there.
You’ve said that writing Uncanney Valley was a very collaborative and improvisational process. Is that how the band has always worked?
It was always a part of it, but it was growing. I hope that, if we make another record, it will continue to grow. Traditionally, there would be a 50/50 split of, like, “Travis songs” and band jams that I write lyrics into. In fact, on every record, there are fewer of “my songs,” and I’m pretty excited about that. I would love to make a record where we use none of the “singer-songwriter ideas,” just go in and jam like late ’70s Miles [Davis]. We’re great at it. We have tons of jams working on Uncanney Valley, some of which I really think are like late ’70s Miles: awesome community, electronic, rock ‘n’ roll messing around, super loose and open. I would love for us to make a record like that, where we just go into a studio with a producer and they’re like, “you guys go into the room and run. Make some noise and we’ll figure it out with technology later.” We’re a very improvisational band, and I think that’s just older musicians. Younger bands all wear the same clothing and it’s a very kind of militaristic and organized thing. You get older and you loosen up and everyone develops their own identities, but you can still have musical intercourse. I think we’re well suited for it. I would love to make, like, a late-Talk Talk record. I think that would be killer. Much better than me just writing songs. Ugh. [laughs]
So you feel like the band is still developing?
I do! Yeah, I really do. I really feel like there are new working methods, new challenges that would be really exciting if we all just did it. It’d be really cool.
You personally have spoken out in defense of Spotify and other internet-based music delivery methods. Do you find that the Dismemberment Plan has benefited from those kind of music discovery systems over the years?
Yeah, I think so, but we’re the kind of band that is gonna benefit from it. Artists have to do what’s right for them. That really is the bottom line. It worked with the Dismemberment Plan because we’re one of those kind of “mystery bands” where you’re like, “You know, I never really did check them out,” and you listen to it and you’re like, “Woah! This is really weird. [laughs] What’s going on? It’s kind of like straight-forward rock ‘n’ roll but it’s not at all. There’s something kind of wrong with it.” There are certain bands who make a couple records but never get a big cultural moment going, they’re just always off to the side and then people will come and check them out later. For a band like that, it’s great to have Spotify because you can just go in and say, “Alright, let’s check out this Dismemberment Plan, what the fuck?” That’s great for a band like us.
I think for other bands it makes more sense not to be on streaming media. Any band that has a lot of songs on the radio, like, don’t put it on Spotify! Sell it! Put it on iTunes and fancy vinyl repackaging! That’s what I would do. It really benefits us as a little bit of a mysterious band or a strange, unresolved equation from back in the day that was never really a part of the pop culture to have all 60 of our songs available to someone to hear and get into our crazy mind-space and kind of sit with it. Maybe a few people are like, “That’s the last time I’ll do that,” but maybe they’ll be like, “Where have these people been all my life? This is so awesome.” But again, that’s us, that’s the kind of band we are. Everyone wants it to be a one-method solution, like, “Amanda Palmer does this, but U2 does that, and the Dismemberment Plan does this, but what about [Dr.] Dre?” You know? Every artist has to figure out their own path through the culture and through the business.
How do you feel about being a musician in the industry today as opposed to a decade ago?
I had a rough time of it after the Plan broke up. I kind of got kicked out of the business a little bit, which was very painful at the time. But it was a little like getting kicked out of a building that then collapsed. There were a couple years where what I was mostly doing musically was singing in church choirs. And I feel like our culture has really changed. It’s so much more participatory, and the line between expert and amatuer is so much thinner, kind of like it’s not there anymore. I actually feel like I was really lucky, like I took my medicine in the last ten years in terms of, like, a reminder of the value of volunteer music and amateur music and respect for the people who go every week to sing in their church choir. They don’t make music for money, they make music for the glory of it and for God and for the things that they care about. I luckily escaped from the industry before it fell on my head, and I feel like that empowered me to have a much more flexible and dynamic approach to it, now that I’m 41-years-old. I feel very fortunate. It sucked at the time, but I feel very fortunate now that it happened.
What does the future of the Dismemberment Plan look like?
We have shows this fall, and that’s kind of all that’s on the template. We’re playing New Years Eve in Boston, and that’s gonna be a lot of fun. We’re playing New York, Philly, D.C. We’re playing with a great band called Priests from D.C., the hottest thing that’s come out of D.C. for a while, really, really cool punk rock band. And then 2015 is kind of a big gaping void in our schedules. [Drummer] Joe [Easley]’s having a baby, and that’s always consuming. I think we’re probably gonna talk about it this fall. We don’t really have many concrete ideas, but we were never much for planning. [laughs] Planning was never really our strong suit.