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Ever the warriors, the Plan is once again out on the road in a van, crisscrossing North America with their oddball brand of rock, playing to five hundred people one night and twelve the next. After an overnight in St. Louis, LAS managing editor Eric J Herboth sat down with guitarist and vocalist Travis Morrison for brunch, where the topic of discussion ranged from singers to authors and back again. Transcribed here you'll find a few insights into the entity known as the Dismemberment Plan, and their brush with rock superstardom.
LAS: So this is it, the interview.
Travis Morrison: Yes, it seems so.
One of the first things I wanted to address is the record, Emergency & I. It's the only record I can think of that I haven't heard a negative review of. Have you guys heard anything bad about it?
No. I mean, there was a pretty priceless review on Amazon, just one of the customer reviews, and the criticisms were so fantastically nerdy that it ended up being positive. It had criticisms like "the fake synth/string sound on one of the songs is interesting, but weak when compared it to its use on a Tangerine Dream record from 1974." That is literally what he said. It's so good.
You've read High Fidelity, right?
It's totally like that annoying kind of stuff, that review. But, overall it has been really good. We usually polarize people and I'm waiting for that, but it hasn't happened yet.
Don't get me started on the whole High Fidelity thing... it hits home and whatnot. But, if you don't mind me saying, I don't think you guys are creating any new musical ideas with what you do, but the huge amalgamation that your music is, comprised of so many sounds both contemporary and obscure, I find that pretty amazing. I find it pretty hard to believe that you guys just sit down to write songs and they come out so...
I think that the hodge-podge quality comes from the fact that we have roots as a garage band and garage bands are not good at dotting their I's and crossing their T's. Another Steely Dan reference, but we're not two guys sitting at a piano making sure everything is polished and smooth and seamless. J Robbins kinda made us do that on the last record, and not always to our pleasure. We're grateful now, but our usual sound of hodge-podge comes from just being lazy garage guys that didn't really try to bring our ideas together as well as they could have. At times we did have that horrible Zappa kind of sound, jumping from music style to music style, but I think we're learning now. We're ambitious, but we learned with the new record that we're going to have to do our homework and cross the T's and dot the Is or it is going to sound coarse.
So how do you feel about the record? Are you as satisfied with it as the general public seems to be?
Yeah, I am. And I think it was a major educational process for me because I hated it at first. So did the rest of the band. We didn't enjoy the process of it at first because J Robbins put our noses to the grindstone. Don't just wing it and go in and see what happens when the tapes are rolling. Know your part and know it while you're playing it. It kind of made us feel like less of musicians. Then I got away from the album for a little while and it started to make the rounds to our friends and I realized that we had made a record of songs, as opposed to a record of us playing our instruments. It was an enormously maturing process and, like all maturing processes, it was very humiliating. But now I'm incredibly fond of it.
I think it's amazing that the record has done so well, because no one seemed to get you guys before.
I think there are a lot of factors. This record can kind of serve as a Rosetta stone for our previous records because this album is so bare bones, what the songs are and nothing more. And maybe that helps people see some of the things we're doing. Some people could always kind of see through the fog, but a lot of people just wouldn't deal with it, even form an opinion about it. But now maybe the cleaner sound can lay over the other stuff like a template. I don't blame people for not getting what we were doing before, and I think we were asking a bit much before. It was like someone trying to explain an interesting idea while hyperventilating.
Maybe not so relevant, but did you guys end up getting everything straightened out with who owns the record?
No, we got it sorted out, and we have an incredible situation. We got the record, and we got our money. We got like a major chunk of change because they dropped us at an inappropriate time, for them. There is one juncture when we could ever have anything on them contractually, which is between the two contractually guaranteed records. So I think after a while they were just tired of it and they just wanted to get everything out of the way, and I'm sure that going through tax time with us on the books was a real pain in the ass and I'm sure that made them realize that just giving up on it and letting it go away would be a lot easier to clear up the record books. In the long run [begins to laugh]...
From what I understood you guys really made out like bandits there. Something for nothing. I mean it sucks that your record got dicked around.
We lost time, but that is something we can make up.
Have you started planning for the next record yet?
The label thing is kind of like dating lightly after a really crazy relationship. The idea of another big relationship again just makes you kind of tired. I know that dealing with Interscope and dealing with that whole culture is something I don't think I would want to do again. No, what am I saying? I TOTALLY don't want to do it again. I love Kim [Coletta, of Jawbox/DeSoto Records] to death, and I hope she keeps doing the label, but she has her own life outside of it.
Do you have any idea what the concept of the next record is yet? The new songs that I've heard are great. "Time Bomb" is amazing.
Thank you. I guess if I can gauge, and I never know, I think... uh, I seem to be working with more sophisticated vocal melodies, we're testing out more of what we can do with a sampler. Emotionally, I have no idea. There are a few things I would like to work towards, but I just have to kind of follow my nose. If I try and force myself it doesn't work at all. I think it'll be a fairly adult record. The lyrics seem to be going in the direction of getting over yourself... [laughs] As everyone has to do when they get older. Figuring out why you do what you do or giving up and enjoying the ride. But I think a lot more sophisticated, a lot more experimental with other directions in music. I mean, I love Elliot Smith and Steely Dan. I love great stuff, sophisticated and harmonically ambitious, and I want to see if we can combine that with our roots in Jawbox and Run DMC and all of that other stuff.
How old are you guys?
28 and 26.
Ah, that's not that old. You haven't hit the three-oh yet.
It takes a long time to get good. It takes forever. And I've never been one who thought that you had to give up music at 30. That's when you should be getting really good.
But you have to wonder about these guys playing in basements and sleeping on floors when they're 35.
Those people have to ask themselves if it was really a good idea in the first place. I don't remember who, but there is a write who had this quote that I loved. He said that after your initial creative rush, which is basically fueled by youthful narcissism, you have to sit back and figure out why else to be creative. And if you don't, people are going to know. You'll be making really bad, really dishonest and juvenile records.
Time makes a ton of difference. I read things now, short stories and screenplays and stuff that I wrote even when I was 19, or even younger, and I was writing about heartbreak and all of these things... and I really had no idea what I was fucking talking about.
[laughing] I know! You had no idea!
It's obvious now that I was talking out my ass.
Yeah, you start to realize real problems. The white, middle class angst gets tired. You realize that you weren't born in the Sudan, that you have a really good thing going on. And that element you have to grow out of. Jack Kerouac. He's dead, so we can't shoot him, but we should revitalize him just to shoot him for the legacy he left behind. "On the Road" has made more people think that they're doing something worth while when... people think it's okay to write 250 pages and document every little thing about how glorious they are. IT'S NOT OKAY!
Kerouac had some developmental issues. I know exactly what you mean. So, anyway, you have this new split with Juno coming out in Spain...
Yeah, that is really cool. I don't know what song of theirs they're using, but it'll sound a lot different than ours.
"The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich."
That song is so funny, how self-indulgently us it is. It's exactly how a song would sound if someone wrote a song to parody us. It's ridiculous.
There certainly won't be much continuity between side A and side B.
I'm amazed that Juno even has a song that will fit on one side of a 7". They have some long ass songs. And then on the other side there'll be (makes high pitched squabbling noise) for a minute and a half.
So that brings us to...
To me... I just chuckle every time I think about it. The Dismemberment Plan and Pearl Jam.
Well, we've had such a weird story. We've always been... I'm worried that this is going to have a "nobody understands me" tinge to it, but we've always been a band on the fringes, even by the standards of punk rock. Just the oddball band that was always off in left field, and a lot of very strange things have happened to us over the years and people just kind of catch wind of it. "The Dismemberment Plan did WHAT?!" To me, for good or ill, this is the weirdest and best yet. "They did what?! They're going on tour with Pearl Jam?!" We've just had the weirdest life, as a band, and I really savor that aspect of us. Next Joe will probably get his arm cut off in a freak accident or something. We're just this band with a really comic, epic history, and this is just the comicest, epicest thing yet.
Inside I'm sure you're thinking "We're just going to have fun and not have any expectations" but what are you really expecting it to be like, day to day, touring Europe with Pearl Jam?
You have to remember, I've toured Europe and played stadiums as many times as you have. Actually, you've been all over Europe, so you probably have a better idea than I do. I would imagine that there will be some crazy people up front and a massive sea of indifference. There will be maybe 800 people near the front and you can do anything, they're not really listening, but they'll freak out anyway. And then thousands of people going to get their hot dogs.
Do you think anyone is going to give a shit about you?
I don't know, if you've got ten thousand people, five percent of that is still five hundred folks, so it isn't too bad. And I think some people will pay attention. It brings me back to college, when a bunch of my completely straight college friends went to see U2, and I asked them who opened. They were like "it was some terrible band. They were completely stupid. I don't know, there was a chick, but she wasn't singing." And it turned out that it was the Pixies, and this was towards the end when the Pixies were pretty big. So, when I think about that, I know there will be a massive amount of people who will look at us and just think NOT PEARL JAM.
What about the band themselves?
They seem like a pretty mature group. From what I've heard of their music it seems like they've gone pretty much the same way that Fugazi has in exploring what punk and hard rock mean to people, in being honest about being 35. To me that is what the last Fugazi record was all about, like glam rock for adults. So I sense that Pearl Jam are a really dignified bunch.
Have you met them or talked to them at all?
Eric, we think, met Jeff Ament and didn't know it. [laughter] He came to see us when we played Seattle, and the management company called us, and he talked to someone there. Eric said some tallish guy came up to him and started talking about music, and Eric asked him if he played and he said he played bass in a band from around there, talked about his custom 8-string bass. At that point I'm like "Eric, haven't you seen the fucking videos? He's got that freaky bass with all of those strings on it." And he was just like, "No, I haven't seen that at all."
Well, I wouldn't know who he was without the hats either. But I really think that, since it's such a big deal now that come August touring with Pearl Jam will just be another day.
Yeah, but actually, we're playing in some two thousand year old theatre in Italy. Everything is so old there that they don't build new places, they'll just take a coliseum from the days of Zeus and put a PA in it. There's no FedEx dome or whatever. Days like that, I think there is no way we can get tired of it, tired of being the Dismemberment Plan.
After settling our tab, Morrison and I drove back to the Snowshoe Haus in my decrepit Volvo. He didn't seem to mind - after all, he'd certainly seen worse during the past half a decade touring with the Dismemberment Plan. But still, the Volvo was a death trap, its creaking frame made all the more terrifying when it slammed into a car parked in front of my house. I tried explaining to Morrison that it was a long story, that the parked Delta 88 we'd just plowed into belonged to my roommate. That the Delta had seen worse. He feigned understanding, then quickly scrambled out the passenger door, the battered sheet metal howling on its hinges. Not long after the rest of the band arrived, quickly inserting Morrison in the van and heading off to another show. A few weeks later the Delta, which perpetually sat along with curb, unlocked with the keys in the ignition, was grand thefted. It would be a few more years until the Dismemberment Plan, like the Volvo, would finally expire. SEE ALSO: www.dismembermentplan.com
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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