Though I’ve been nuts for The Dismemberment Plan since 2000’s Emergency & I, and was even one of three people who danced on stage with them at the Exeter Cavern Club back in the day (23rd October 2001, to be precise), I’ve never actually heard Travis Morrison speak from anywhere other than a stage until this phone call, conducted between my London bedroom and his place in New York City.
It’s like talking to one of their records – the forty year old just as forthcoming in a discussion with a total stranger as he is in the heart-on-sleeve songs he sings to, well, total strangers that litter his band’s bloody good comeback record, Uncanney Valley. That album, out on Partisan this week, is the first since Change – an album that was until recently assumed to be their swansong – a dozen years ago. In this interview, in amongst a host of other pretty hilarious crap, Travis talks about how it came to be, the band’s breakup, and their future – if indeed they want one.
I saw you guys just the once, twelve years ago, the last time you were in the UK. I was 16…
Travis Morrison: You’ve changed, we’ve changed. We’ve all changed.
I’m certainly a lot fatter.
But you’re wiser. Wiser and fatter.
I hope so! You were one of the first bands where I remember being gutted when you split up. But you seemed on really good terms when it ended, with all the farewell shows and the remix album and what not. What was behind the decision to call it day?
I think you’re right. We were a little tired of each other, but we handled it like Southern gentlemen. There was no situation where we were immediately going to start suing each other or anything tragic like that. As much as we all needed 18 moths way from each other’s faces, it ended fairly well, all things considered. It’s not that we were on great terms, but as bands breaking up go, it was on good terms.
But that’s not why we broke up. At that point we’d been a band for ten years. We were doing fairly well, but I think there are some rose tinted glasses in place in terms of how popular we really were at the time, in retrospect. We did OK, but we were not as big as say Sleater-Kinney, or Modest Mouse or anything like that. It didn’t seem like things were going anywhere. Touring was starting to be a bit of a treadmill, and most crucially the songwriting was starting to kind of get stale. We didn’t have the resources to take time and recharge because we were touring just to stay alive. None of us wanted to be in our 30s and putting out uninspired Dismemberment Plan records, and touring a lot just so we could put food on the table. That just sounds horrible. I think that’s pretty much why we called it a day.
You say you were never as big as Sleater-Kinney or Modest Mouse back in the day, but the reaction to Emergency & I getting reissued was rapturous. Why did you decide to make a new record, rather than say, just take that one on the road?
As we were practicing for shows, we started to have these spontaneous creation moments where we would just jam, making these loops, licks and eight bar phrases that we’d play over and over again. That’s kind of the true temperature of a band, whether or not they’re in spontaneous creation mode despite themselves whenever they get together – if it doesn’t really have implications for the marketplace, it’s just like they can’t help themselves. And for the first time in a long time, when the four of us would get together, we would just go in to that mode, start improvising and have spontaneous stuff that we really liked. Most of it never amounted to anything, but it just felt good. So when the reunion shows were over we just thought, hey, we should keep getting together and jamming with no real commercial goals, just to get together and see how it feels. And those jams turned in to songs, and turned in to a record, and now here we are.
There’s been quite a legacy built in your absence, perhaps not one that’s even of your making. Did you ever worry about damaging it by making a new record that might not live up to it? If you’re not Dinosaur Jr, post-reformation records can be quite tricky…
Well, that’s no way to live. In the end, you can only really look in the mirror and ask yourself if you’re proud of the stuff you’ve done, and we are. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in terms of the public perception of what I do. And frankly, it didn’t start on an ‘up’ – The Dismemberment Plan were something of a laughing stock; we were seen as jokers, kind of ridiculous. You should listen to our first two records! People were like, ‘Who are these clowns? This is like They Might Be Giants or something’ – which is funny in retrospect, right? But in the end, it’s a journey, and either it comes up with moments that will resonate with people now, or later, or never. That stuff is totally out of your control, and you can only enjoy it for what it is in the moment. But we’re going to take Dinosaur Jr. down! We’re gunning for them. We’re going to disrupt their shows with our anti-Dinosaur Jr. street team.
They always seem on the verge of hating each other anyway, it might not be too hard.
That’s true. We’ll just stoke the fires! To say I’m a fan of Dinsoaur Jr. though, ‘fan’ doesn’t do it justice; they’re an amazing, amazing band. Sebadoh too, is an amazing band. I’d love to meet them someday; I’ve never met any of those guys.
You mentioned public perception of your work going up and down, and it got me thinking about the 0.0 score Pitchfork gave to your solo record. You gave a big interview to Pitchfork recently, and played their festival in Chicago. Was there any apprehension there?
At first I was like, ‘is this the right thing to do?’ And then I thought about it like an avant-garde playwright who gets an incredibly hostile review from The New York Times because the critic is in a bad mood, one that actually causes that playwright career problems. But then, 20 years later, he’s actually asked to be on a panel about the legends of avant-garde playwriting, for The New York Times. Now that’s a perfectly imaginable circumstance right, with how the media goes? But does that person say ‘no’? No, of course not, that’s the dumbest thing ever; they go and speak on the panel. They wanted to put things out in the world, and it was a rough ride, but it always is.
In the end I was like, ‘hey, it’s a show’. I suppose it’s got the same brand name as the people who ran that review, but that was 10 years ago, I don’t think the guy who wrote it is going to be introducing us or anything – although that would be quite exciting! In the end, it’s the arts man, it’s a weird business. I think one thing I’ve learned since I’ve passed 40 is that I really like weird businesses, and this is one of them. I just take it as it comes and see where the adventure takes me. It’s fine if there are ups and downs.
Do you see Uncanney Valley being a one off, or will there be more Dismemberment Plan records to follow?
I don’t know. You get to a certain age and you’re not really working in the mode of ‘we’ve gotten back together’, like it’s a college romance or something. I sing in church choirs with professional musicians of a very high level, and when you look there and at the jazz world and the classical world, they all make records with each other but they’re also like free agents. They combine to do things, but they each have three gigs a day with different people. With pop music and rock and roll, there’s very much the college romance aspect to it. Your band actually is a college romance for people, and they expect the band to have a college romance with each other. And I get that, college romance is pretty exciting. I’m not immune to that, I understand. But if we’re going to continue, it’ll be because we’re in a different place, and because we just want to make another record as four adults who enjoy being together and still have a creative rapport. It won’t be the continuation of a narrative of people who are together and will stay together despite their doomed passion for each other, you know. All that stuff is great fun, but it’s not the energy that got Headhunters by Herbie Hancock made, those are just guys who got together to play. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat; maybe we’ll transform in to that kind of creative model, or maybe we’ll be like ‘that was fun’ and stop. I don’t know yet.
Your wife wrote a great article about what it was like being married to a rock star around the time of your reunion shows. How is she with things now that band’s a studio outfit again, and touring the world?
I think she would let me know if it got out of control. As you can see, she’s a very communicative and opinionated woman, and that’s great. So far she hasn’t been like ‘yo dude, over here!’, you know?
It’s a family affair now. The drummer has two kids, everyone’s got long term partners. But you make your partner part of the trip; she’s coming to some shows, she knows everywhere the Plan is going, she has access to a calendar with all the press and stuff like that. You just have to handle it with some accountability – you’re not on the road by yourself anymore – and as long as you do that it makes it not only easy for a partner to come along on the ride, but it makes it easy for you to accept the support of a good partner. So far, the signs are good, I think we’re going in the right direction.
I’m pleased. I didn’t want to get all ‘relationship counsellor’ about it.
You know, I don’t know what to tell her man, can you talk to her?