Not Career Musicians: An Interview With Travis Morrison About The Dismemberment Plan And Life Afterwards
by austin ray
Conducted via phone on May 8, 2003
Sometimes it seems like the old clichť rings true: You donít know what youíve got Ďtil itís gone. Although The Dismemberment Plan was around for just over 10 years and put out four nearly-always excellent albums, it still feels like the band was taken before its time. Alas, thatís the way the indie rock cookie crumbles. This interview was conducted right before the Plan headed out on its farewell tour. Travis touches on emo, Vietnamese food, Life of Brian and i-tunes. We also got around to talking about more pertinent things, such as his solo career and that whole breakup thing.
Where are you today?
Right now Iím in San Francisco at Hall of Justice Studios. Itís Chris Wallaís hovel. I am doing work on the solo stuff. Chris has a Death Cab For Cutie meeting right now and I have you. I donít exactly have my hands on the faders, but yeah, thatís why Iím here.
Lot of interviews today?
This is the third. I got my coffee and that made things a lot better.
Well, I wonít be as worried that youíve had the same questions a dozen times already, then.
Just ask me about me emo. Actually, it seems like that moment is over. No oneís asking about emo. What happened to emo? I feel bad for emo now.
Maybe people finally figured out itís a worthless word.
Right. Maybe people figured out weíre just not.
Theyíve been asking why the Plan is emo, or...
Well, actually, what theyíd ask me is, ĎHow do you feel being called emo?í It was a weird cycle. No reporter ever actually claimed Ė because theyíd either be a lunatic or would have never listened to our records ever Ė that we were emo. They talked about how I felt being called emo. Have you ever seen Life of Brian? Thereís this scene where heís got these followers and they keep calling him the messiah and heís like, ĎIím not the messiah.í And they keep saying, ĎThe messiah denies his holiness.í And so finally, two-thirds of the way through the movie, heís like, ĎAll right, I am the messiah,í and they go, ĎHe is the messiah!íĒ (laughter)
Well, donít give in. Please donít accept that youíre emo.
I am emo! (laughter)
Thereís really no way to segue into it, the breakup. Maybe you could just...
We hate each other. We totally hate each other. Thatís it. The end. Fuck them! Iím taking all the money.
Maybe you could give a little background. What events led up to it?
The main thing that drove the decision was that our songwriting and arranging energy was running low. We were always a very collaborative band, which I canít get through peopleís heads. We werenít a band where there could be one crazy genius, one career musician who helps out in production and then a couple guys who were along for the ride, enjoying the booze and traveling around. We were all in it to win. When the last record came around, the energy wasnít there in the rehearsal space and it was starting to become a situation where I was writing songs and dictating them to everybody. Who needs that, you know?
The shows were getting better and better and we all agreed we were going to miss playing. We definitely talked about continuing to play a once-a-year free show in D.C., too, because itís just so good to be on stage. But we also had to make records. We had no visions of ourselves being a band. We reached a certain point where we said, ĎThe songwriting catalogue ends here.í Bands have done great things with that model, I think the Grateful Dead are an example of that, but itís just not for us. We werenít four people who wanted to be career musicians. You get to a certain place in life where there are other things you want to do. Youíre not really interested in hacking your way through creative quandary.
Did someone just say, ďHey, this isnít working anymore?Ē
We didnít have heaving fights. That stuff was kind of emotional and private, so Iíd rather not get into how the conversation went down. I will say that what forced the soul-searching and the eventual honesty from people in the band about who we were and what we should be doing was the search for a new label. We had great, great offers from so many people and I think it was kind of weird because we were trying to figure out why werenít that excited about it. The reason was that we werenít really that excited about the band.
Itís funny, because afterwards, I went to chill out a little bit at my favorite Vietnamese cafť in D.C. I was sitting there eating lunch at the buffet and it was totally empty, but who comes in, but Joe Lally of Fugazi, with his daughter, and he sits at the table next to me. I donít know the guy at all. So thereís Joe, and heís in this band thatís been together for 16 years and hereís me, and my band that literally decided to break up two hours ago and weíd been together for 10 years. I know it was a sign, but I still canít figure out what it was. Maybe it was like God telling me I was doing the right thing. Then again, Fugazi is great, so maybe it was God telling me I was really fucking up. Who knows? Maybe Joe was just hungry.
Now, do you see this as a permanent sort of thing, or do you guys foresee possibly doing something again?
Never say never, but yes. You have no idea whatís going to happen in the future. You really never do. There was some talk about going on the time-honored Ďindefinite hiatus,í but fuck that.
Bands never get back together after that. Itís just teasing people.
Yeah. Marriages never get back together after separation. Thereís a reason they separate. We had talked about continuing to play free shows, which would be a nice way to emphasize what weíre all about, and thatís trying to rock crowds in D.C. Thatís all we ever really wanted to do. Everything else was gravy. I definitely suspect there will never be another Dismemberment Plan record. But the shows, weíll see.
Why a farewell tour? Does that go back to the live aspect?
We like playing live. Hereís the best way to put it: We were talking about making a record with Chris Walla and he was aware there was some malaise within the band and that we werenít really feeling very excited about working through it. The way Chris put it is that heíd love to make Abbey Road with us Ė he would love to make one final, joyful, giddy, last-day-of-school document. What he didnít want to make with us was Let It Be. Like, where people are down and not really into it. The way we all saw it was if we made a record, it would be Let It Be, but a final tour would be Abbey Road. And the shows weíve done since have borne that out. Weíre playing with a new level of commitment, a new level of awareness of whatís going on and a new level of generosity. The crowds are amazing. You have to keep things special somehow. You canít just ho it out to everyone all the time. (laughter) Itíll definitely be our Abbey Road. This tour will, Iím sure, be one fantastic show after another.
Did you think, 10 years ago, that the Plan was going to last as long as it did?
Yeah, actually I did. We talked about how we didnít want to be a band that broke up after one record. Itís a real pain in the ass to keep a band together Ė I wonít lie. It was definitely in the cards, one of the goals. It was higher up there than economic domination, thatís for sure.
I think so, yeah. There was some artistic stuff we took a stand for when it was a weird time to do so. Thereís been a gradual opening up artistically of the rock underground. Especially after Nirvana, everyone was very uptight and very conservative. It was a combination of half wanting to be famous and half wanting to be cool, neither conducive to being a good artist. I donít think we flipped a switch and all of a sudden everybody was doing weird stuff. It wasnít us. We were a part of something. Look at the Touch & Go roster, now Ė itís crazy. Blonde Redhead, Calexico, Black Heart Procession, Enon, itís mind boggling, the scope of it. I do like to think we were part of an initial wave of bands. We took inspiration from bands that came before us that got nothing for it. The world forgot about Trenchmouth. The world kind of didnít forget about Braniac. You always have antecedents. That being said, yeah, I think we were one of twenty bands pushing for stylistic scope in a world that wasnít really psyched about it at that point. As long as we were a part of that, that would be a pretty cool legacy for me.
That goes right into my next question. What do you want the Plan to be remembered for?
Unfortunately, the thing that I would want us to be most remembered for I canít really claim, because we signed to a major. We actually gave up. In 1998 we said, ĎThe underground is not where the cool artistic stuff is happening.í I mean, Odelay won a Grammy for best album. That album is so brave artistically and out there, and he won. Drive Like Jehu was on a major label Ė the same label as Dr. Dre. We didnít really stick with the underground, so Iím trying to claim something I canít. But we ended up back in the underground anyway due to business problems and then we saw that maybe there were more interesting and fruitful tasks to take as a band there. We kind of got out lives handed back to us. While I donít think weíre as brave as say, Ted Leo Ė someone who couldíve made a million dollars on a major, but chose to stick it out on smaller labels Ė I would love to see that we were a part of an expansion. That you can be a boundary pushing, take-from-anywhere band in the mode of Blur, David Bowie or the Beatles, on a one-person label. That maybe people will come to you. Hopefully weíll have a little bit to do with that. Hopefully that will continue to happen, too.
On the subject of Ted Leo, I was just about to see him last night in St. Louis, but the day before he axed his tour due to vocal problems.
Iíve seen him like 15 times. Heís great. Heís amazing. Never miss him. Itís disappointing because everyone just now wants to know what Ted Leoís up to Ė they finally got it through their heads that Tyranny of Distance is a classic.
Letís talk some post-Plan things if you donít mind.
A friend of mine insists that you should team up with Conor Oberst and Cex to make an indie sad guy group. It made me wonder though, would you ever consider some kind of side project or super group?
Not a sad guy super group. It alarms me deeply that Iím seen as one of the sad guys. One thing about my solo career is when I turn out not to be a sad guy, people are going to be all, ĎEh...í
I wouldnít worry too much.
Well, weíll see, I donít know. Iím really excited about this phase of my life because, well, the way John Vanderslice described it is that I just got out of a long and earnest, but somewhat misguided marriage, and now Iím at the Playboy mansion trying to decide what bunny Iím going to sleep with next. (laughter) Itís kind of true. Iím going to be musically promiscuous. I want to work with crazy, assorted people. Dismemberment Plan was really insular Ė we didnít collaborate with a lot of people. Iím going to get out there, communicate with other artists and play a lot with different people. See what I learn from them.
Are you considering starting a new, serious group that would be your full-time thing?
Iím going to follow my nose in terms of what I want to do, and as far as the classification, the taxonomy of it, I donít know. The records from here on out will always be my accountability. It will be my job to make them as good as I possibly can. Iím not messing around with collective responsibility anymore.
What about the other guys? Iíve read there is some school, some carpentry and some other things going on. Do you think any other bands or solo project may be forming from them?
Well, Iím not them and Iíve been out of the city for months. Theyíve all said no. Joe and Jason have gone on record saying they wonít be doing visible music anymore. Eric is playing with the guys from The Promise Ring. We havenít really gone into any analysis or shared what weíre doing. I can only really speak for me and tell you what the other guys said. I have a feeling Eric and I will be the ones with the most likelihood of continuing like that.
Along those lines, letís talk a little about your solo album. Whatís it like recording at (John Vandersliceís) Tiny Telephone Studio?
Well, one problem is that John Vanderslice is always around (laughter). No, itís a great studio, itís really funky, itís in a cool neighborhood. The studio has kind of accumulated Ė it wasnít built from an original plan. A lot of really nice studios have what they call Ďamenities.í That ranges from anything from a hot tub to simply a cable TV, a PlayStation, some magazines and a kitchenette. I think amenities are terrible, because they keep you out of the music. You start to get into this numbed-out place where youíre not paying attention to your record. That stuff drives me crazy. I really like Tiny Telephone because he (Vanderslice) spent all his money on great sound gear Ė thatís his priority.
Heís quite a sound buff.
He is. Heís a complete maniac Ė more maniacal than I am. I donít know what the hellís going on with sound. But yeah, itís a great studio and has JVís thumbprint all over it.
And howís it coming along? Do you have most of the songs recorded?
Iíd say itís about 70% done. I think maybe in another month itíll be done. Iíll leave here with four or five good mixes and another seven songs that are waiting to be completed. Itís like the closer you get to your destination when youíre making a record, the slower it goes. Weíre at a point where weíre getting closer to the finish line, so weíre slowing down more and more.
(Timeliness note Ė Though itís close to a year after this interview, there is still no Travis Morrison album. However, there are currently five mp3ís posted on his site, www.travismorrison.com.)
Do you have a title yet?
Yeah, itís going to be called NTWR. It stands for No Taxation Without Representation.
Do you know what label itís going to be on?
No idea. Iíve been label-less for over a year now. In the Plan, there was so many business decisions to keep track of and I got tired of it. Itís cool, but I wanted to let my inner 14-year-old come out and make songs without worrying about a deal. I had money to pay for it and Iím in dialogue with people who can put it out. Iím not worried about that. I just wanted to make a record and say, ĎWhat do you think? You want it?í
How would you say it differs from the Planís material?
I think itís smoother, more cohesive, certainly much different instrumental colors. Thereís a lot more acoustic guitar, not a lot of electric. Lots of piano. The rhythms are less jumpy and abrupt. Yeah, I donít know. Those are all qualities that describe it. Thereís something, to me, thatís kind of childlike about it. Itís very tuneful. You know, I have two nephews now and when you have kids around, you start to think about... Itís definitely a record you can put on for little kids and theyíd start dancing around. Itís rollicking and innocent sounding. Change is such a tortured, woe-is-me record, so I really like the idea of doing something different.
Just a few more random questions and then Iíll let you go. I love the ďtop ten songs of all timeĒ on the website. I was wondering if you could give me your top five records of all time, at this moment.
Greatest hits of Hall and Oates, Greatest Hits of Sonny Boy Williamson, Anti-Pop Consortium, the new Ry Cooder record and the second record by The Band.
If you had to pick a favorite punk band, who would it be and why?
Either The Clash or Fugazi. Probably The Clash. No, no, probably Fugazi. I actually think Fugazi was the logical extension of the punk ideal. They kind of walked the walk that The Clash and Sex Pistols talked, but didnít really walk themselves. Yeah, I think Fugaziís it.
Whatís the weirdest question youíve been asked in an interview?
There was somebody who thought one of the lyrics from ĎTime Bombí was, (singing) ĎIÖI am a pork rind, and IÖí No, Iím serious, they totally saw it as part of the lyrics Ė the idea that you could suddenly become someoneís snack (laughter). Yeah, I didnít really know what to tell them.Ē
You just have to burst that bubble.
I wanted to change the lyric. Genius! I am a pork rind? I donít have what it takes to sing that lyric.
What are your thoughts on file sharing?
Great. I donít know what everyoneís problem is. My old band was a child of file sharing. People say how itís terrible for careers; weíre making comfortable livings. The main thing is your accounting Ė knowing where your money is going. A lot of artists and labels donít want to think about that. I think file sharing is fantastic. Hopefully i-tunes will be a good deal, even though you canít get it for PC. Personally, I would pay to download these songs if it were guaranteed to be good quality, fast connections, all that stuff. Barring that, if they canít get it together, I just want the songs. So yeah, I love file sharing.
OK, last question. When you think of todayís pop music scene, whatís the first thing that comes to your mind?
I donít know. Literally. Itís almost too big to describe. Pop music reflects whateverís going on in the country. At the moment, I canít even begin to... Iím just not smart enough.