Beyond the Valley of the Dismemberment Plan
We speak to one of the pioneers of indie about, well, everything.
Travis Morrison is fearless. Long before so-called “poptimism” was fashionable he defended the likes of Avril Lavigne and Vanessa Williams, and this is a guy from a DC punk band. Well, a DC punk band that referenced “Midnight Train to Georgia” and did acoustic covers of Jennifer Paige and Ludacris so, well, OK, maybe they’re not a punk band after all. Who knows what the Dismemberment Plan are, besides frighteningly original and early adopters of everything from dancepunk to Dirty South rap in an indie scene that was far behind accepting much without guitars at the time they broke out. In 1999, the Plan released an acknowledged classic, Emergency & I, full of new wave keyboards, prog tempo changes, emo-but-funnier lyrics and the energy and speed of DC hardcore. Oh, and they got funky too. Imagine a David Byrne with the arch curiosity replaced by hormones and you’re sort of there. It’s a hard sell; Pitchfork infamously gave a 0.0 to Morrison’s solo debut Travistan, which snowballed into a reputation somewhat akin to an indie-rock Music from “The Elder”. If you’re being totally truthful, it was only slightly wackier than his band material. The twist is that the Plan is reunited now, and preparing to release fifth album Uncanney Valley in October—their first in 12 years. It’s a much bigger departure than Travistan—the record consists of a dozen They Might Be Giants-esque pop songs, several about domestic bliss (Morrison, 40, recently got hitched), that have very little connection to their hardcore beginnings. Morrison spoke to me about D-Plan's new album, avoiding the trolls, and why Jay-Z's writing techniques failed him.
First, I've got a question about a question. Would it annoy you to ask about the title and the “e”?
No. We just liked it.
Because I've got at least three interpretations of it right now.
It was a typo.
That’s so R.E.M.
Uncanny Valley didn't really move me that much, but it was in the pot. I used it for placeholding for the art, and the typo happened—and instantly, it became a small town in southwestern Virginia, and I loved it. “My brother, he livin’ in Pidgeon Hollow, down past Uncanney Valley...” I mean, I guess that's the rationale. We tend to not have very many good rationales, as a band, for anything.
A friend explained what the "uncanny valley" is to me, and it made me think (because I'm a critic) that it was a sly reference to being the band people knew, but different—good for a reunion album.
Yes, and so much like us, not really us, that it makes people uncomfortable. I love that: “What's... wrong? Why does this creep me out?” That's awesome.
There’s a bunch of love songs here. Was that intentional?
I mean… Not plotted out, just kind of how it shook out. We're pretty follow-our-noses. Love and family and ambition do seem to be the themes—why not? At our age, it’s not sex and loneliness anymore. Sex folds into love, and loneliness is like, c'mon man. But I have to look backwards at it like everyone else.
Did the old albums' lyrics—the less “openhearted” ones—reflect your state of mind accurately at the time, or did you just have trouble translating your happier side to the page?
That’s how I was. I was one uptight young bro, it appears. I had a sense of humor about it, at least.
You were one of the first musicians I discovered that didn't have a “guilty ‘til proven innocent” mentality about pop music.
Oh, right. Well that's totally gone now, isn't it? It would be like explaining chastity belts to a kid on Haight-Ashbury in 1967. No one cares anymore.
I’m not sure. I feel like there's always going to be some kind of music that's never going to get respect. Like Juggalo music.
Well, Music People.
Oh, them. Yes. Well, they're like zombies—they are contagious but move slow. Just don't let them corner you.
I feel like every cycle or so, some genre ducks back under and has to prove itself again to the culture at large. Like, rap-metal is probably due.
I think musicians respect proud marginal success stories. Ween, They Might Be Giants, Phish, ICP.They’re like, “Jesus, at least someone got fans...”
They just have to stick around for 20 years. Was there ever a time when you felt self-conscious about your taste?
Not really, no. I don't know why. I mean, I don't think musicians think like that. Musicians tend to have appetite where Music People have taste, if that makes sense.
I know nothing of the DC scene you guys started up in but it always seemed rigid, from reading about it.
My relationship with music has always been really personal, to the extent that I don't often pick up on what's going to be a big hit. So either things give me tingles or not, I guess.
Is there any kind of music that you've just tried and tried but straight up cannot get into?
Kind? No, not really. You get tired of some devices. Coming from where I come from, I still have not regained my appetite for furious banjos and wailing high-tenor harmonies. Heard a lot of bluegrass.
But it’s beautiful stuff, so much of it. Who knows when I'll be like "I’m ready, Earl Monroe!"? Maybe next year.
Was 2008-2012 the longest period you've gone without writing songs? Or was that constant even without record plans?
Yes, it was the first break I've ever taken. It didn't really last very long though.
I’ve said it before, but I truly hate the way the solo records were treated. I think they're both Plan-level and a natural progression. Did the reception affect that hiatus for you?
I think it made sure it happened, and thank god for that. Like Richard Linklater says: “I wish the industry would just say to you: Richard, don't make a movie this year.” The cosmos has its way of speaking and will gradually raise its voice. It’s quite soft at first.
Yeah. As a life plan, it seemed to pay off—I just think people were genuinely nuts about the records. Has the band ever discussed doing arrangements of those? Or co-opting them into the canon?
Nah. I mean, why? I can go play some damn shows on my own if I want to do that stuff.
I think the new album is further from old Plan records than those were.
You know, 2001-2006—weird times in America. Weird times in my life, I know that. Those reviews, they seem like products of a very strange and uncomfortable time. That kind of stuff was happening a lot. Weird times for rock and roll.
People talked about the death of the album for a while when iTunes became the norm.
Yeah, well, it's so back. With streaming.Look at the sequencing of the Vampire Weekend record. No one was worried about leading with an uppercut there—it's a discursive first 10 minutes, which is great. Thank god.
That whole album flows really patiently. I had to be patient to start liking it.
Yeah, it's great that way. I squeezed the video singles and couldn't get any juice, but when they were contextualized, I was like, “Ohhhhh.”
I think Uncanney Valley kind of crests to this peak in the second half too. It starts flowing like a dance record toward the end. But there's a lot of build.
Yeah, it kind of does the old school thing of getting serious at the start of side two. Synchronicity.You have to get through a few songs about dinosaurs and mothers. Bands used to do that. That wasn't really intentional, but that's where it ended up.
And I assume it was also unintentional that there's zero dissonance on the record? Although I guess Change didn't have any either, really.
No, just angst. Well, putting on my harmony hat, there is unquestionably dissonance in “Mexico City Christmas”: there is a flatted second, and you can't take that away from me! What there is less of is something I call “furious stasis” from our old days. Like a cracked-out man pedaling on a stationary bike.
I can't really imagine how the musical process of doing something like “Girl O'Clock” or “Gets Rich” even begins, so I can't imagine how the desire to do those goes away either.
Well, you do enough… I mean also, there's questions of inspiration. There was Hello Nasty and Soul Coughing around in the late ‘90s. Key records.
Do you think you've fulfilled the desire to scream?
Nah, these just weren't screamy songs.
I like when you can hear bands pushing their physical limits, like when you're stuttering on Girl O'Clock” or Corin Tucker all the time. Rappers do it a lot.
Yes, I love that too. Hearing a singer adjust to their exhaustion in real time is thrilling. It makes you root for them. You can drop dead in time to the music!
How exhausted are you after shows?
Very. And also totally wired. I'm a weirdo and I just want to sit in a corner with beer and junk food. I don’t feel human after gigs at all.
The first time I saw you guys was 2003, like three or four shows before the hiatus. You did about two songs, then all requests for an hour, which blew my mind. Was there anything you had to turn down or weren't prepared for?
Definitely. Probably half the first album.
That’s the only one with songs that are like retired forever right?
No, they all do. I really don't know why we would ever play “Automatic” at a show. God. I think it's OK to let some songs go away.
I remember when you were making this album there seemed to be kind of a hidden goal to upstage Change.
I need to watch my mouth! Some people love that record. It's rude.
I don't have to put this into the interview if you don't want, but as a fan I never quite got what you disliked about it.
I just wish we'd written more good songs. It's got four, and then it really sags.
“Sentimental Man” has one of my favorite couplets ever, the Old Testament thing.
I don't know. I think I can just hear my butt clenching really tight by that point.
You wrote the lyrics in your head for that album?
Yeah, out loud. Thanks, Jay-Z. Look where that got me. Actually, that was great in that I’ve never really needed lyric sheets while singing.I just got better about knowing them. But I write with pen and paper sometimes. It's not, like, part of my personal branding now.
Are there any reactions you fear for the new one?
Seriously, man... Can you imagine me having any further things to fear from reactions to my music? I mean how would that be possible, as a person? Is it possible?
I don't know really, I worry about you becoming one of those artists people have a really abusive relationship with, like Nas or Weezer. Nas or Weezer are just not allowed to do anything. Their so-called biggest fans want them to give up.
I mean, literally, you tell me that the leading rock publication gives me a completely null review, and everyone reprints it, and everyone agrees with it, and it's like... oh, really, that happened again? Maybe bodily violence? That’s literally what would have to happen. Remember, I really dropped out for a few years, joined church choir. Remember those Music People. I know for a fact music exists outside that sphere. I know it, I feel it. For real. So... But also, please remember, I just totally love making music and performing. I love music and attention.
If you were giving advice, what would be the best place to absorb music to get out of that online feedback-loop trap?
Oh, I don't know...
Church choir's obviously an excellent one.
Yeah. I mean, I don't know... That's a funny one. Boy, I don't know. I'd have to think about it. It's kind of like asking how someone obsessed with food critics should find something to eat. At White Castle? Look, I mean, there actually isn’t anything wrong with intellectualizing art forms. Some stuff is just media-cycle creations.
Are there any wacky promotion plans in store for this album?
Yes! But top secret.
Oh, man. Anything Daft Punk level?
No. They do not fuck around. I wish we had an ounce of that.
That Boards of Canada scavenger hunt deciphering thing was insane.
Right. That’s not really us. That’s great for mysterious bands, but we're pretty forward.
This has been a good year for wacky promotion in general. Steve Buscemi did the Vampire Weeknd thing.
Well, there's kind of a resurrection of the old music industry dynamic, but, like, in the cloud. Buildups, critical buy-in. It’s like everyone has agreed to do it the old way because it was actually a lot of fun. No more blog blips. Interesting to watch.
Really quick, do you want “top secret” or the Change semi-bashing not in the Q&A?
Nah. As long as you include that fact that I acknowledge that it isn't very nice of me. I saids it; I lives with it.
Dan Weiss is a proud citizen of Travistan. He's on Twitter - @kissoutthejams