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The Dismemberment Plan: “Finding the poetry in what's real”

The Dismemberment Plan: “Finding the poetry in what's real”

16 October 2013, 16:00

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?

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The-Dismemberment-Plan-Uncanney-Valley

Do you find yourself writing from a different lyrical standpoint? Given than it’s been 12 years since the last Dismemberment Plan album, there have been kids, marriages… a lot must have changed since the last time I saw you.

To a certain extent, but my values are still the same. I still want to write stories about things that are on my mind. I like storytelling in songs, I like details, I like humour. I have almost country and western style song writing values; a beginning, middle, end.

I do think more about how I love for other people to be able to sing the songs now. I think our old songs are extremely diaristic, which I think is a beautiful, beautiful thing in its way – I still listen to Bright Eyes, which is super diaristic music, he makes us look like Gertrude Stein. It wasn’t a real conscious thing, but I found myself thinking ‘whoa, what if I wanted to write a song that not only would I want to sing, but I wouldn’t feel bad asking Beyonce to sing, or The National to sing?’

But you don’t want to go too far down that road, the trick is to write things that resonate with you and then you don’t feel like a total ding dong showing them to somebody else. I’d say that’s the only different thing, but for the most part it’s just getting up every day and writing reams of stuff you hate. Just books and books of it! Sometimes I think the only difference between people who get these things done and those who don’t is just how much badness you’re willing to put out.

Is that kind of process referenced in (Uncanney Valley standout) ‘Mexico City Christmas’?

Ha! Yeah, probably a little bit. That song is pretty much a depiction of the romantic art stream just totally falling apart. I actually really love that song.

It’s my favourite on the record.

I look at the lyrics for it and I’m like, ‘damn, I can’t believe I said that in public!’ In as much as that song is about, ‘wow, the old life style is not working any more’, you can make the connection to actual artistic processes. And yeah, when you get past a certain age of being engaged in the creative arts, you have this voice in your head nagging you, saying ‘you shouldn’t be doing this, it’s time to put away your childish things’. Sometimes the voice is totally right! But sometimes the voice is wrong, sometimes it’s your super ego going out of control, but you never really know the answer until you pursue it.

Lyrically, the new record seems quite brave to me, quite matter of fact in comparison to your earlier albums, especially on something like ‘Looking’ where there’s absolutely no veil to what you’re saying. Was it at all scary writing in that way?

Yeah, a little bit. But I was never the most evasive guy in the world, things were pretty out there, but I think I’d tend to use these core metaphors which would usually have some kind of sci-fi edge.

Maybe there’s a little bit more of a John Lennon thing now, like on ‘Jealous Guy’. That guy made the exact right move after The Beatles. Plastic Ono Band isn’t my favourite record in the world, but I think it’s the bravest record I’ve ever heard. Imagine that guy, after The Beatles, making that record. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.

Not to compare this record to Plastic Ono Band… because it’s better, really…. Haha! It’s definitely better… but it’s scary, because you do just want say what you feel with no artifice or poetry, but you can’t do that, it has to resonate somehow. It has to have some lyricism to it, even if you don’t find value in romantic style lyricism. I think finding the poetry in what’s real is the looming challenge that gets ever more looming as you get older. And it’s hard, but it’s a lot easier when you’re in love with yourself.

Now that Emergency & I seems to be regarded as a classic of sorts, I was wondering what your relationship is with it these days?

TM: It’s good. I really like that record. I think it’s a great record. I think it’s got a lot of colour, a lot of focus, it kind of reminds me of Zep, in only one way, in that it takes very unusual, potentially brainy…

I lost you just as I think you were talking about Led Zeppelin, I think…

TM: Oh well, yeah, it’s better than Zeppelin! This is what the British media is in to right, feuds? I’m starting a feud with Lennon, and he can’t say anything!

Anyway, it’s really colourful, it takes all these elements and turns them in to really visceral, satisfying rock and roll. It’s a little unrelenting, and it’s extremely compressed, emotionally. I listened to it maybe a year ago and when I finished I was like, ‘wow, that was something’. I think I heard the sound of a band who were a little afraid to shift down in to third or fourth gear occasionally. But if I could get in a time machine and talk to a 25 year old Travis Morrison, that’s not the first thing I’m going to tell him. It’s pretty far down the list of things we could discuss.

What about your relationship to the earlier stuff, do you ever listen to (1995’s debut) ! much?

I listened to it the first time in 14 years recently, because I was writing down the lyrics to put on our website. By track four I was crying with laughter. It was so demented; there’s some really amazing guitar interplay that literally sounds random. We had no idea what we were doing; we were just hitting the guitars like monkeys. Which was great, you know. We can’t recreate that feeling and it’s not the only feeling to achieve, but it is really special. The first record, it’s cute, but most of the songs I never want to play again.

I do really love the second record (1997’s Is Terrified). I feel like with a good producer who would have told us to write a few more songs, a little more time to record it, and someone to help me out vocally a little bit, that record actually really could have been better than it is. The energy of the rock band, of us playing at that point, is really out of control, it’s amazing. The first record’s very cultish, but the second record is just popping wheelies all over the place. I love the raw rock and roll wildness to the second one. I don’t put these things on around the house, I’m never like, ‘let’s listen to me!’ But the second one, I have a real affection for it. I can see a real band starting to get it together.

Let’s do Change then, let’s have the whole set.

Unfortunately I can feel where we ran out of steam as a band halfway through writing that album. It’s a pity because before we ran out of steam we wrote some absolutely amazing songs. The record is half really amazing songs, and half kinda… meh. I seem to have been in a really bad mood at that point; I’m not sure what was going on there.

I can actually access the earlier stuff a little more easily now that I’m older compared to the later stuff, emotionally. The later stuff gets in to whiny territory, whereas the early stuff is just like crazy kids. For whatever reason, I can relate to that better now than I can to the whiny stuff, I don’t know why that is.

But I think ‘Following Through’ is one of the best things we ever did, I think ‘Face of The Earth’ is one of the best songs we ever, did, ‘Time Bomb’ is fantastic, ‘Ellen & Ben’ is really great… they’re four songs I’m really bummed we don’t play live every night because I just think they’re amazing. The rest of it, I can kind of hear the blinds going down on The Dismemberment Plan halfway through writing that record. The ones that are really good were written at the start of the process.

But it’s a good record. I mean, an album with four great songs, what more do you want? What do you want, people?

Uncanney Valley is out now on Partisan.

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