Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison Talks Zeppelin, Outkast And Indie Rock

The Dismemberment Plan has already gone down in history. The D.C.-born band is perhaps best known for its 1999 album “Emergency & I,” a near-instant indie classic that introduced electronic and R&B sounds to a guitar-driven, punk-inflected milieu. It is widely credited for instigating, or at least encouraging, the dance-punk movement of the early aughts, which in turn inspired the new wave cadences of today’s indie-pop.

The Dismemberment Plan broke up in 2003, two years after the release of the well-received “Change.” Life went on. Drummer Joe Easley covered his house in solar panels and went to work for NASA; guitarist Jason Caddell became a sound engineer; bassist Eric Axelson started teaching public school; and lead singer Travis Morrison worked as a computer programmer at the Washington Post and the Huffington Post before launching his own startup.

“Emergency & I” was reissued on vinyl in 2011, reminding both fans and the uninitiated of its raw, transforming power. Even years later the album’s frenetic energy and wry lyrics ring fierce and true. Now, a year after the release of The Dismemberment Plan’s comeback album “Uncanney Valley,” the band is touring in support of the vinyl reissue of “Change.” They will perform at Brighton Music Hall in Allston on Dec. 31.

I recently caught up with Morrison to discuss the genius of Led Zeppelin, the magic of Kate Bush, and The Dismemberment Plan’s New Year’s Eve anthem “The Ice of Boston.” Read excerpts from the conversation below.

I’ve always wondered what compels a band to reunite after they have decided to put it on hold or end it. And I know it’s been a few years for you guys, but I wondered what the impetus was originally to start touring and gigging and even recording.

Travis Morrison: Well, it was very much one shortsighted decision after another. I guess myopia is the main thing. We had a major record, “Emergency & I,” rereleased on vinyl, and the label asked if we would play some shows to promote it, so they could sell them all. And we all kind of went “Uuuuuh” and looked at each other, and said, “OK!” So that was shortsighted decision number one. Really you can follow them all back to where we started in 1993 if you really have the time. And then while we were rehearsing and playing, we started having more and more jams appear. .... By the end of the shows for the “Emergency & I” reissue, we were pretty routinely coming up with four or five great grooves at rehearsal, spontaneously. And that really is the health-check of a band, is whether or not you’re doing that kind of thing.

It’s interesting that you mentioned jamming as a sign you might have a few more songs in you, another album. Was that always how you wrote, jamming and piecing together what comes out?

Yeah. There’s bands like Led Zeppelin, they’d come in and be like, “I’ve got this riff,” you know, and then they would go from there. And then there’s bands like The Beatles: “I’ve got lyrics, and I’ve got chords, and let’s do this.” And I’d say that genetically as a band we’re closer to Led Zeppelin. But yes, I did sometimes write songs.

When you’re composing together, and sort of crowd-sourcing, as it were, the melodies and structure, how do you guys come to agreement? I mean, do you find yourselves with the same tastes, even years later?

Boy, I don’t know. You mean, like if I’m not totally happy with what someone else is doing? I mean that happens, and then you just go at it night after night, and some of us do it for years. I don’t know. C’est la vie, I guess. I don’t know. I tend to prefer bands—the hair bands tend to be crazy or more collaborative-sounding things, where you kind of thought everyone had a little bit of willpower or stubbornness. Like, Led Zeppelin is probably my favorite band. You can really tell from the music that there wasn’t one person going, “You do this! And you do this, and then you do this!”

Why is Led Zeppelin your favorite band? Besides that element of it, I suppose.

Boy, I don’t really know. I just think that it’s really aggressive, but it’s not overbearing. Like it’s also very beautiful. And also I think their records are more eccentric than people think. I think people tend to think of them as like AC/DC. But there’s a lot of oddness. It’s surprisingly quirky music, but it’s not quirky for the sake of quirky. It’s always in this athletic and beautiful shape. Yeah, I don’t know. I really love Robert Plant, and I think he actually is a little bit of an underrated lyricist. I think he doesn’t write things that read as “literary.” But that doesn’t mean—there are a lot of lyrics that aren’t literary, they’re just awesome lyrics. And I think he’s funny. I think he knows that he has a bizarre voice. And he really leans into it, which I think is just pretty much what you have to do.

That idea that they have eccentricity but it’s sort of hidden or not apparent to a lot of people—I would say maybe even is true of your band in a lot of ways. But the attitude is different, which is why I was surprised.

Yeah, it’s true. I mean it’s weird. It’s funny. ‘Cause actually sometimes I look around and I’m like, “Am I in a bro band?” I look at our songs and I’m like, “Is this bro?” And then my final conclusion is, “Kiiiiiiind of.” ... [We’re] pretty much four straight white males making music. But then on the other hand it’s not macho, and has this taste for color, I guess. I mean yeah, we’re better than Zep! Let’s just cut to the chase.

Do you find yourself writing about different things now, or writing differently—lyrically speaking—than you did before?

Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I mean, the basic approach is the same, where I just write pages and pages of garbage, and then finally I get one line that for whatever reason I’m like, “Yes, that’s how I feel!” And I don’t even know what it means. And then I get a couple of lines that seem to triangulate some kind of thing, and then, “Yeah let’s go!” And then my conscious mind can kind of take it over and it’s like a crossword puzzle, [I] just fill it out. But the basic approach of having notebooks and notebooks of the worst sh-t. So terrible.

And then in terms of the themes? Yes, I’d say so. I think there’s themes that fade away and themes that come forth. But I’m not like—I’m a huge Neil Young fan, and for some reason I was like, “I wonder what that ‘Greendale’ record is like.” He made a concept record about being in a small town. And I listened to it and I’m like, “How did this man sustain this kind of focus on this idea for 55 minutes?” It’s just crazy. [Laughing] I don’t think I’ll ever be like, “Here’s my song cycle about Greendale.”

Do you find that you have different taste now? Over the years has your taste changed for what you like in music?

Changed. Boy, that’s a really good question. Yes, but not always in the direction you would think. It’s funny, a couple years ago in my mid-late 30s, I got really into hardcore. And I’d say for the second time, but I wasn’t really into hardcore in high school. So it was a little weird. I was like 36 years old and I was like “Yeah, Minor Threat’s incredible!” And then I was like, why does that happen? That was really strange. And it settled down. But there’s a couple—if I’m in a bad mood, nothing clears out my sinuses like Bad Brains. There’s nothing that just resets the brains like Bad Brains.

But then I heard an interview with—I heard a Marc Maron podcast where he talked about how he couldn’t stand people in their 20s. Like he couldn’t relate to them. But teenagers he was really able to relate to a lot. Like he always gets letters from 16-year-old boys that are like, “Dude, I totally know how you feel.” I think he was kind of positing that there’s a bell curve. You’re like, “I’m 25, I can’t be listening to Minor Threat. I’m twenty-f—king-five. I need to impress people, I need to get a wife.” You know. “I gotta look good.” You know. And then you reach a certain age and all of a sudden you despair all over again, just like when you were 16. And maybe that’s why I got into hardcore. Like all of a sudden I just wanted to hear the rawest, most pissed-off, aggravated stuff.

Do those tastes even affect your own taste for the music you want to create? Or is that an entirely separate part of your palate?

You know, yes and no. I think, like I’m always monitoring. I’m really interested in how songs are constructed and how lyrics—like I can just obsess about the construction of lyrics. And even pop hits are really—like the “I don’t care” song [“I Love It” by Icona Pop] is just brilliant. The “’70s but I’m a ‘90s b-tch” line was amazing because it was ambiguous. ‘Cause it’s a 20-year gap so it’s like, do you mean an older person? Like “I was born in the ‘70s, but I grew up in the ‘90s”? Or going out with an older guy? What are you trying to get at? I just thought that Icona Pop song was just incredible, the lyrics. Even though it seems like kind of a silly thing, it’s really, really good lyrics. So I do that kind of thing. In terms of sound ... I don’t listen to a record and think, “And now I shall make dubstep.”

I’m a musician, but not full time. … My tastes have gotten weirder and weirder, but the music I make isn’t really weirder at all.

I always love when—I was watching this documentary about Kate Bush, who I worship, and kind of at the climactic moment, where they were talking about “Running Up That Hill,” the expert testimony came from Big Boi, from Outkast. Who just appears, like, “Oh, hi, Big Boi!” And he’s playing “Running Up That Hill” on his phone just nodding his head like, “Aw, it’s so beautiful.” And you know—I think that sometimes—I mean you may not make music that sounds like Kate Bush, but you can be like “I’m going to bring that Kate Bush energy to my speed metal.” And it kind of does make sense. There’s a certain intensity that you’d like to match even if the sonic signifiers are nothing like your own. I think that’s pretty common actually. That’s a better energy to access than “I’m actually going to imitate Kate Bush.” That never goes well.

Why do New Year’s Eve in Boston?

You know how sometimes, you do something long enough, and you’re like—an embarrassingly obvious idea seems fresh? I think that might be it. After 20 years of having “Ice of Boston” around: “Hey, you know what we should do?”

This article was originally published on December 26, 2014.


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