o back when I was a college sophomore, just getting heavily into music and discovering new bands by the day, I stumbled across this band called the Dismemberment Plan—eclectic, fun, often bizarre, and always unpredictable, their albums were a gateway for a young mainstream rock fan into the uncharted realms of all kinds of other musics. Needless to say, when I was given the opportunity to interview the Plan’s lead singer Travis Morrison, I was both excited and terrified. Considering that it was my first interview ever—and my questions were correspondingly terrible—Travis was remarkably patient and talkative, discussing at length the creative process and history behind his band.
With the Plan— this institution in modern indie rock— disbanding, this interview is a look back on the band over a year ago, on the verge of releasing what will now stand as their final album, Change.
Ed Howard (STYLUS): I guess you could start with, for someone who’s never heard of the Dismemberment Plan before, how would you describe your sound to them?
Travis Morrison ( TM ): Well, if it’s my parents’ friends or something, I just say it’s rock. People my age, or my peers... probably something along the same lines, or just say it’s kinda loud kinda rock combining a lot of things, like R&B... uh, R&B, jazz. Depending on who it is, it gets more and more specific. A lot of times, when people have somewhat of a clue, I’ll just kinda try, I don’t know, Prince and Fugazi. Or, I don’t know, like Prince and Rage Against The Machine, or something like that. Uh, I don’t know, there’s a million different ways I could answer the question, and it totally depends on who I’m talking too. I guess, with the median, the median awareness of music, I’d say Prince and Fugazi.
STYLUS: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. It’s a pretty hard thing to describe, I guess. What would say the biggest influences on your music are?
TM: The biggest influence on our sound from day to day is what we’re listening to at the time. I think for me—I think for all of us—there’s people who were early developmental influences... They’re all different for all of us. For me, that short list would be, David Byrne, Talking Heads... like all the members of Fugazi, there’s a lot of stuff that predates their work with Fugazi.
STYLUS: Oh yeah, like Rites Of Spring and all that stuff.
TM: Sure, yeah. Paul Simon was another one, he was with Simon & Garfunkel, and then he went on to make really great records with all kinds of people in various situations. So, you know, I think there’s people that at an early age we could tell in our own worlds, growing up, were the real deal. In terms of what we sound like now, yeah, it’s kinda just what we’re listening to from day to day and what we’re touring on day to day, and that stuff changes dramatically over days, months, years, or hours.
STYLUS: Oh yeah, of course. Where do you usually get the ideas for your words? I find they’re usually very personal and about emotional things; are these real experiences or is it more fictional?
TM: Uh, generally, it’s been years since I’ve tried to write out something that’s happening right then and there. You know, that generally translates as pretty bad lyrics, because you really don’t have any kind of perspective on what was happening. Um, I would say that generally, the best songs come from a pretty mysterious combination of melody and a phrase that just kind of pops into my head, and it just kind of leads in a general feeling or emotional direction and, all I have to do is follow it. Um, it doesn’t happen every time, but that’s generally where the best and most coherent songs come from. I kinda just find them, and uh, let it happen. And I suppose if... You know, deeper than that, I don’t really know. You know, there’s subconscious, there observing people around me, I just sort of watch people I know, people I don’t know. [laughs] That’s always good, it’s better to write about other people’s problems than to write about your own. But yeah, it’ll just kind of, I don’t know, it’s some kind of emotional cycle crystallized behind some melodic and lyrical fragment that just popped into my head. I don’t really know why it happens... I should probably go get it checked out. [laughs]
STYLUS: You know, uh, I saw an interview with [D-Plan producer and ex-Jawbox member] J. Robbins this morning and he called your song structures “exponential,” where it like builds up to a climax, and it’s not verse-chorus-verse. What do you think about that?
TM: Um, yeah, it’s interesting he says that, because I think, actually, I think we’ve kind of been laboring under the system the Pixies set up for practically every band in the world fifteen years ago, uh, the quiet verse, loud chorus thing. Which is, I mean, the Pixies really changed popular music for me in a way that goes beyond the sound of any of their voices or anything about them. It’s a basic structural template where, I mean, Limp Bizkit uses it. It’s the same formula as “Gigantic,” or you know, any of those other Pixies songs, where they just go all-out on the chorus. And I think, over the years, we’ve kind of halfheartedly tried to fight that, but I think we’ve also really excelled in that framework, and I think we’ve written some really good songs with that kind of, the Pixies direct formula. But particularly with the new album, I think we’re all kind of yearning to get away from it, to see if there’s anything else out there. I mean, there must be. ‘Cause you know everything these days, the chorus is just so like, super-high-energy, in your face, this is what the song’s about and don’t you forget it, ‘cause I’ll be back in thirty seconds [laughs], and I’m gonna hit you just as hard as I did here. I mean, it’s kind of more interesting to have songs where it’s just like, I don’t know if that guy’s coming back to get me. You know, maybe somebody else is going to hit me. Uh, yeah, it makes me happy to hear that [J.] said that, because particularly with the last half of our new record, we’re endeavoring to make songs that are satisfying, you know, coherent, and natural, without, you know, necessarily dropping the bomb every 45 seconds in that format that everybody uses now. It’s a great format, you know...
STYLUS: Yeah, I guess he probably was talking about the new stuff.
TM: Yeah. It is pretty sophisticated. There are times when we’ve been a little nervous about it, but a lot of it, we keep writing these songs and really kind of... start to end, and all linear. Well, they’re linear, but they’re not cyclical. Or, they’re cyclical, but not directly cyclical, like things reappear, and they’re in new harmonic spaces, or, you know, there’s a new cast to them... If a song works live, you know it works, which is why bands tend to stick with the Pixies formula, because it’s very difficult to execute songs that don’t rely on the broad stroke and the big chorus, live, like it’s tough, people get distracted, and leave. And, much to my relief, a lot of the new songs that are as tricky as they are, they are well-received by audiences. Uh, most of them, I should say... uh, some of them, they may need to hear the record first. Uh, so yeah, it’s tough, it’s a little worrisome, but that is the direction we’re going in. Where is the interview you saw?
STYLUS: It sounds like the new album [Change] is going to be a pretty big departure. I saw on your Web site, you called it a “late-night album.” What’d you mean by that?
TM: Um, you know, you don’t pop on the Pixies late at night, you know. [laughs] Uh, I have a really good example actually. I had a friend tell me—this was a little too much information, but, you know, I appreciated the honesty. My friend told me that they had a dub cassette, and on one side was Odelay by Beck, and on the other side was our second record, The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but it’s like a—
STYLUS: —it’s kind of out there.
TM: Yeah, it’s out there, and it’s uncompromisingly, it’s not as melodic... it’s the least melodic record we have, it’s the most dedicated to hip-hop record we have. It’s very confrontational. You know, if you don’t like it, you really don’t like it. I mean, we knew that was where it was going, and that was fine with us. But a friend told me, they were... [laughs] he was having sex with his girlfriend, and they were listening to Odelay, I can see that, that’s an alright booty record. But then the tape flipped over, and the record started, and it just completely ruined everything, they had to stop, and he had to like, lunge for the stop button, because there’s like this chattering, yammering, shrieking out thing over in the corner from the box. [laughs] Well, I enjoyed that story, you know, ‘cause yeah, that’s the vibe of that record, that’s what we achieved, and we certainly achieved in spades. At the same time, I think late-night records tend to, they have much more carefully modulated dynamics, they tend, whatever the dynamics are they’re not trying to beat you over the head with a point. They’re trying to provide a space you can kind of enter and roam around a little bit. And, uh, yeah, that’s what I think of when I think of late-night records. Like Court & Spark by Joni Mitchell, or any Portishead, or Kid A—I keep telling people, the things I listen to a lot—Kid A by Radiohead and Voodoo by D’Angelo, those are really good examples of records that just don’t strangulate you in the first 45 seconds. You can ignore them if you want... but, you know, once you go in, once you dive in, it’s like through the looking glass with those records. Or Remain In Light by Talking Heads, another great late-night record. Um, you can either completely envelop yourself in it, or you can let it kind of burble away in the corner and do your thing—uh, usually I kind of opt for the former, ‘cause they’re so compelling. But they’re challenging records to make, ‘cause they may just bore everybody, it’s quite possible.
STYLUS: Yeah, it’s the balance between something than you can just not pay attention to, but something that you wanna pay attention to anyway.
TM: Yeah, also, it’s like a conversation... it’s a conversation that isn’t just you sitting there listlessly or you babbling away, you know? Leaving just enough space for people to kind of take a breath. That kind of pacing is very difficult over an album. You know, if you do this over any length of time, you also have to start thinking about doing albums, as opposed to songs. And you have to do both, but, writing albums is not what comes naturally to bands, ‘cause, you know, you came up writing tunes in the garage. It was never about composing a 45-minute suite of music like—that’s what Yes did [laughs] and look where it got them.
STYLUS: Yeah... I know this is probably like a sore spot, but what can you say about your time on Interscope? I know it didn’t work out great, but what was it like while you were with them?
TM: No, it worked out great, I think it worked out fantastically. I, you know, we didn’t really have any time with them. It’s kind of like, meeting some girl, and you start dating, but you’re just, you’re on vacation, like you’re at the beach, and you have this hot little week, and then they go back home and you go back home. And you kind of have this long-distance relationship, and then you break up, and... you’re never gonna see them again. You may have been upset about it at the time, I mean, but really when it comes down to it, you only saw them a couple of days, you didn’t know that person. Um, yeah, you know, when we signed to Interscope, you know, it was a really fascinating opportunity. Uh, there aren’t many major labels we would’ve signed to, um, or even talked to, but Interscope was really weird... One of the only labels around that really had some sort of oddball vision of their own, and that’s exciting, you know, that’s interesting to deal with, whether it’s a label, or anybody or anything, on a small local level or a big national level. They had everyone, their roster was insane, they had everyone from Drive Like Jehu to Dr. Dre, they had Primus, and Ron Sexsmith, and, um, I mean, everybody was completely weird. And they had a really unusual and effective corporate structure, and everyone knew each other there, it was a small company, and it just seemed like the company was at a really special place in time. It just struck us that it would be really interesting to work with them. [laughs] Unfortunately, their moment in time ended pretty much at about the second that we signed on the dotted line, little to our knowing, and really, honestly, to nobody’s knowing at the company. Um, nobody had any idea. And I think we got signed, I mean the people that knew about what was going on were the ones that signed us. I think they signed us thinking, “this band would be really good for the old Interscope, I don’t really know what’s going to happen now.” And I have to say, they let us slip away, it’s quite obvious to me now, we just kind of wandered off and did our own thing and forgot about the whole deal, and they never raised a hand against that. So, I mean, in the long run, we got some dough to pay off some of our debts, we got a fantastic opportunity to really spend some time on a record that we made [1999’s Emergency & I]. Uh, it was educational mainly because we saw that the main thing we pay for in the studio is time, and... you’ve got all the time in the world when you’re making a record before you go into the studio, you really learn how to do all the work before this record is definitely going to take off. No, I can’t say I even have remotely any regrets... I would never sign to any major label as exists right now, it would have to be a revolutionary company with a completely different way of doing things, and they would probably be eaten alive by the other labels. It just wouldn’t be worth it to me, I know that the contract is worth absolutely nothing. But I mean, look at the really velvet landing I had, I mean most people who learn the things I’ve learned are bitter, and they feel they got screwed. And I was really lucky, I got to learn these lessons, and continue on with not that big a blip in my musical life.
STYLUS: Yeah, it is good that they let you go like that, ‘cause you hear a lot about bands who sign to major labels and then get screwed over with the labels taking their albums and stuff like that.
TM: A lot of people that get screwed... you know, we come from a world, we have people, we have a set, we have an underground. Interscope is just one relationship in our musical life, and punk tradition has issues, but one nice thing about it is how people keep an eye out for one another, and there’s more to all of this then getting the paycheck and trying to make a career out of it. Um, a lot of the people who feel they got screwed over, quite honestly, are people who were looking to their labels for a lot more. I think they were... I mean, they weren’t being unreasonable, but I see how, given my background, I can just kind of wander on back to the punk underground and go play basements, like, you know, my life continues. But there’s people with far more eggs in the basket of their relationship with the major label. And those are the people who have it hard, because we, we just put our work out anyway, to be quite honest, we didn’t even care what they do. But there’s people out for more from the major labels, that’s a grave error. That’s a completely grave error in any area of your life. So the people who really got screwed over were the people who really had no social, emotional, or musical recourse, and we did. We had an outside life, so the landing wasn’t so rough. But other people—like the guy from School Of Fish who killed himself, that’s terrible.
STYLUS: So is it good being back on DeSoto now? How is that a different experience?
TM: Well, you know, [DeSoto Records co-owner] Kim [Coletta] is a great friend of ours. She was actually our manager during the time we were on Interscope, and it led to her quitting the music industry entirely for a couple of months because it was so, such a buzzkill for her. Uh, going back to DeSoto, it’s not like that. Kim’s just like, [attempts a Kim Coletta voice] “oh, well I guess I’ll just put out this record now,” you know? We were always, I talk to Kim every day, I talked to Kim every day the whole time we were on Interscope, it wasn’t like we were away for a couple of months and then we came back. I mean, Kim Coletta is one of the engines of American punk rock, and has been for like ten years. And we’ve ridden that engine quite a bit, and it’s really gotten us some places. So, she was always involved in our lives, it wasn’t like something that we left and came back to. I can see why it would look that way, though.
STYLUS: So do you guys have any plans for the immediate future, any touring coming up after the album, or before the album or anything?
TM: We’re gonna take it easy this summer, before the album comes out in October. We do have a bunch of shows coming up in the Midwest, and I believe in the Northeast... And, uh, yeah once the album comes out, we’re hoping to go back to Japan and I’m certain we’re gonna go back to Europe, and uh... Yeah, just hit the road again.
STYLUS: Uh, speaking of Europe, I know you guys opened up for Pearl Jam on their European tour, that’s pretty big. How did you get that job?
TM: They just e-mailed us, they’re fans.
STYLUS: Did you find that their fans could really get into you? Do you think you converted a lot of people?
TM: Uh, I don’t know about converted. I’d say there was four categories maybe, and uh there were a lot of people, the diehard music fans, of which there were a lot of the kind of growing Deadhead-ish contingent that [Pearl Jam] have, they tape the shows and they’re there everyday, and they’re actually fairly knowledgeable music fans. Um, they were great with us, they were so good to us, and we really hit it off with them, and a lot of them became fans. And then there was... [laughs] uh, that was kind of a small category, to be frank. Then there was the people who were like, “Oh my god, I like this, this is fun,” but honestly were never going to think about it again, because they perceive music in a different way than people who are aware of our every move from dingy club to dingy club, you know. Unless we show up on MTV, they’re never going to think about us again. But the vast majority were completely neutral, and weren’t paying attention either way, buying a pretzel, and talking to friends, and they were, you know, 200 yards away from us, they probably didn’t even know our names.
STYLUS: Yeah, I guess it’s like that a lot at big shows like that.
TM: Yeah, and that’s the predominant chunk of people. Then there’s the malcontents and the booers. Actually, everyone on the program agreed that the booing was pretty much neutralized during those sets, probably because we were so bizarre, and our set was only half an hour long, so they couldn’t get it together to boo us until we were done. [laughs] I think also in Europe, the booing is not as big as it is in America. I think in America people just boo ‘cause, you know, they’re American assholes. Um, but yeah, there were some people who were converted. Ironically enough, it seems like the show that we got the most people to follow us was from Milan, which was an incredibly confrontational show. That was where group four had their shit together, and they were not into us at all, they were booing, they were throwing things...
STYLUS: Wow, that sucks.
TM: Yeah, and actually we were playing really well, and I think some people were impressed at the end of the set because we looked like we were having a really good time, even though the crowd was hostile as shit. So yeah, we made all these fans by far the most in Northern Italy from the Milan show, which is where I was really like, OK, is what I’m doing safe? Should I be up here? So you never know with that stuff.
STYLUS: Uh, is it true that your mom comes to a lot of your shows? What does she think of your music?
TM: I think there’s other mothers that do more. [Bassist] Eric [Axelson]’s mother is definitely the leader in that regard. Um, my mom, if she comes to shows, mainly she comes to the outdoor free shows that happen every summer... in DC. Uh, you know, clubs—especially now that there’s actually people at the shows—it’s hot and sweaty, and my mom’s like 5’2” so it’s kind of a drag. But yeah, she comes occasionally. I don’t think she pops the records on, but I didn’t she’s proud that I work at it and stuff. Um, she thinks mom things, you know? I think particularly now, honestly, particularly now that I don’t have a dayjob and stuff, I think she’s pretty impressed by that. She was a little, like, “I don’t know about this music thing” at first.
STYLUS: Yeah, so now that you’re making a living at it...
TM: Yeah, yeah... I think it’s like, I have health insurance from the band [laughs] and that really impresses her. I mean, it’s funny, because the most press we ever got, was when we had the Interscope problems, and we were actually on the front page of the Washington Post as a human lead-in to a story about the record industry’s changes. My mom kept telling me, I’m so proud of you, I’m so proud of you, and I’m like, mom, the story is about how I’m getting taken up the ass by like, corporate America. [laughs] This is not the story I would like you to be proud of. But, you know, parents are just like, “there he is on the front page of the Post,” you know.
STYLUS: Yeah, she’s just thinking, “he’s famous!”
TM: [laughs] Right! You know, maybe I’ll go like, masturbate in a movie theater, or do something else to get in the paper, you know, if that’s what you like.
STYLUS: Do you have any favorite books? Do you find you read a lot?
TM: Yeah, somewhat, when I get a chance. I think literature has kind of gotten into an uninteresting place in the last couple of decades. People have lost track of stories, and it’s become very expository, very inward-looking, and just dull as shit. I mean, people tell me a book is great, I try to read it, and I’m just like [laughs] this sucks. You know, and people force themselves to read things, but there’s a reason you want to put it down. Uh, I read Watership Down [by Richard Adams] a lot at a certain time, I read it like three times between the ages of like seven and fifteen. Uh, I love John Le Carre, like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Um, I like, there’s a lot of poets I like: e. e. cummings, Philip Larkin, and Robert Frost, I just adore Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot. I like a lot of the better sci-fi and fantasy stuff, like not the embarrassing stuff, but I like Ray Bradbury and the way he works. It’s really feverish, he’s really intense and fiery, like you don’t expect it, but I bought a book of his short stories on tour about a year ago, and the guy was not fucking around, like it’s pretty visionary, and there’s really notes of anger about things, like really here and now anger.
STYLUS: You mentioned a lot of poets in there; do you ever use that in writing lyrics? ‘Cause it seems like it might be pretty similar.
TM: It’s a different craft. I really, I get a little tense when people tell me, “your lyrics are great, they’re like poetry.” ‘Cause what that says, it basically says that once a lyrics gets to a certain level in quality, it ceases to be lyrics, and then it’s poetry. And, I know that “poetic” is an adjective that means “good,” and I think they forget that they’re saying a different word, but there’s great, great, great rock lyric-writing that looks terrible on the page or isn’t even meant to be printed on the page, but it’s meant to be sung, and that’s what lyrics are. And that’s why a lot of underground punk rock lyrics suck, because people are more concerned with writing something that makes it look like they can write than they are about writing something that can express tonality and expresses something in music. Like, it’s songwriting, it’s not ramming words to half a tune. Like, I think, a lot of poets I really like I can hear to music, like “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, I always thought that was melodic for some reason. I could imagine someone reading it to Jesus Lizard or someone like that. But, to a certain extent, uh, not really, because I think poets and lyric-writers just have different objectives.
STYLUS: Alright, well what’s your favorite concert venue? What place do you really like to play at?
TM: Oh, Black Cat [in Washington, D.C.], definitely.
STYLUS: Why is that?
TM: Oh, I love this place. Terrible sound, not the greatest sight lines, and I love it. That’s how it is, nobody can diss on it... Every time I walk into that place, I’m reminded of why I was attracted to living a rock life, you know. You walk in, and it’s dark as shit, and they’ve got all these Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling, and there’s a dark long room, and you’ve got a glowing stage at the end. You’re just like, here I am, in the nightlife, and there’s people trying to forget about their troubles... But certainly the reason why I dig the Black Cat, is the reason that it always reminds me of why I like what I do.
By: Ed Howard
Published on: 2003-09-01