The Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison

The Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison

“Here’s to another goddamn new year,” Travis Morrison speak-sings on Dismemberment Plan live staple and crowd-favorite “The Ice of Boston.” Here’s to it, indeed. On Jan. 20, The Plan will perform on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon before embarking on a short tour—its first in more than seven years—that will include a series of shows on the East Coast, two in Chicago, and a week in Japan. The trek begins shortly after Barsuk’s deluxe reissue of the Plan’s Emergency & I, which gets vinyl treatment for the first time, complete with a handful of bonus tracks and extensive liner notes that include an oral history of the band compiled by The A.V. Club’s own Josh Modell.

Morrison, who proclaimed himself retired from music in the summer of 2009 and now works as a web developer with The Huffington Post, spoke with The A.V. Club in late December about reneging on his retirement, cringing at his old songwriting, and playing in his new band, Time Travel.

The A.V. Club: In July 2009, you posted on your website that you had retired from music. It said, “no shows, no records, no band,” and it still reads that today. What’s changed?

Travis Morrison: Well, I’m gonna play shows with The Plan, and I play music all the time anyway. I play with people here in New York City all the time, and I sing for a church choir in downtown Manhattan, Trinity Episcopal. I think I just didn’t have any plans for any solo music, and I just think I thought it sounded funny to say I was retiring. Because, you know, I’m only 36. [Laughs.] But to say you’re retired is just kinda funny. I mean, it seems more fun than to say, “I have no plans.”

AVC: In 2003, you said that you guys weren’t career musicians, that if you reached a point where you couldn’t make records, then that was it. You didn’t seem to be into the idea of being a band like Grateful Dead or The Beach Boys—a band that just plays shows. I take it that mentality still stands?

TM: Yeah, it seems so.  We’ve all had rich lives post-Plan, all of which involved music, but our drummer [Joe Easley] does robotics for NASA, I work at The Huffington Post as a developer, Eric [Axelson] works Rock The Vote, Jason [Caddell] is a sound technician, and we’re all still involved in music. And obviously we seem to be going at a pretty steady rate of getting together to play every three and a half years. [Laughs.] That’s a similar frequency to high-school reunions, but I’m not actually a high-school student when I go to my reunion. So yeah, I think it seems like it does still stand.

AVC: When did the idea of releasing Emergency & I on vinyl for the first time come about, and what was the thought process behind that? 

TM: You know, I think we wanted it to come out on vinyl in the first place, but that’s when that medium was really on life support commercially, and so were we. [Laughs.] We did not sell that many records, you know. It was a very particular type of indie-rock band that could release a 12-inch vinyl and not have it just be a financial bloodbath, not have someone lose thousands of dollars over the idea. And we used to play chicken with people occasionally, where they’d ask us if we wanted to do it, and they’d be generally fly-by-night new labels, and we’d say, “Sure!” and then we’d kind of make clear that we didn’t have the cash to pay for printing or vinyl, and that would generally be the last we ever heard of the idea. But you know, a few things happened. Our catalogue didn’t die—it’s not the David Bowie catalogue, but we have some hits in it—so that sustained, and then vinyl just came back from the grave.  I think we always yearned to have vinyl releases of our music. I mean, CDs, I think, in time will go down in history as the worst media ever. [Laughs.] I mean, nothing about them was cool; they were awful. I look at them now and I think, “God, what a disgrace of engineering.” The package? The packages are so unpleasant, and of course we always wanted to see a 12-by-12 version of the art and a big black disc and hear the sound—which, we heard with our own ears, is much better.

AVC: Can you say a little bit about the bonus tracks?

TM: They are all things that have been released partially before, but some of the—I’ll say commercial is real sketchy. “Since You Died” was the B-side of a vinyl 7-inch of “What Do You Want Me To Say” that came out before Emergency & I was recorded, totally separate version. There was some debate about putting that 7-inch version of “What Do You Want Me to Say” on there instead of some of the other tracks. I was against it, but I still go back and forth, because it is striking to hear 8-track cassette version of it as opposed to the recorded version. Then “Just Like You” was released on an EP compilation, a charity record. “The First Anniversary Of Your Last Phone Call” was recorded at the Emergency & I sessions, but then got left off the record and ended up as a B-side of a four-song CD Interscope put out as The Ice Of Boston, which was our second Plan record. The marketing logic then and now escapes me on that one, but it is what it is, because obviously that was not an earth-shaking release. And then probably the most readily available one is “The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich.” It does have a digital release that’s already out there, it’s part of a split CD we did with Juno. We put one of our own songs on there and then both did a cover. So that’s the one that’s like, “Really, guys? How bonus is that?” [Laughs.]

AVC:  Eric Axelson, when talking about the initial reunion announcement with the Washington Post, mentioned that you guys had played together around that time in Joe Easley’s basement. Can you walk us through that night, how that happened?

TM: Well, I came down on the train, and we played in Easley’s basement, which is in upper northwest D.C. It generally takes us forever to start playing. There’s usually hours of throwing around Frisbees and kicking soccer balls and bullshit, and now Joe has a kid, so we play around with him for a couple hours. Not to say that Joe’s kid is bullshit. [Laughs.] You know, the things we kill our time with. And then we played. We found out that we didn’t remember a fourth of the songs, we didn’t have the technical pieces in the other fourth, you know, got through another fourth and it sounded bad, and then the final fourth of it was like, “All right! This is awesome!” 

AVC: You make it sound kind of spotty, but how did it feel?

TM: Oh, it felt great. It wasn’t that spotty. It’s just like taking notes on the things we have to retrieve either technically or this or that. There was a certain amount of playing songs and saying, “Well, do we really want to still play this?” And then some others you play just to embarrass yourself, and you’ll be like, “Oh, that one’s pretty good!” So I think that’s another part of it, vetting what still feels okay, what songs—without getting too precious—we can access emotionally and what songs kind of feel like BS, or maybe just not related to who we are now. Those change over time. I mean, I personally find the kind of super-crazier, younger punk-rock ones earlier, I find I can relate to more than the later period, kind of the baroque stuff. It’s weird, but the earlier wild and crazy stuff, I’m like, “Yeah! All right! Kids being kids!” And then maybe some of the more baroque stuff later on, I personally find a little bit of a bummer.

AVC: Do you kind of cringe thinking about how you wrote that? What’s a bummer about it?

TM: It’s some of that. Some of it is just like, “I would not say this now. I would not say this.” And I mean, the miracle of a lot of it is that, for a lot of our catalogue, I actually can say it without feeling like a total asshole. There’s a couple of songs that are mostly concerning like romantic frustrations, and I find them juju now. There’s some that are very humane and the ones that are nicer about that stuff, I’ll really still relate to and sing. There’s a couple that are kind of more accusatory, and that definitely is a time where I’m like, “Really? Come on, dude.”

AVC: Do any of them make you feel like you want to start writing with these guys again?

TM: I mean, the urge to write with people is not really results-oriented, it’s lifestyle-oriented. When we wrote those songs, we didn’t have those songs to inspire us to write those songs. We were just together, you know? Kind of living the same lives, also very different lives. Always in the same town, all hanging out a lot, so the urge to write again, no, it wouldn’t come based on hearing stuff we did in ’98. It would come more from us living the same lives again to relive it, which is never impossible. But I live in New York City, Joe’s got a kid, and also we did it for 10 years. I mean, how much more do we have to do? [Laughs.]

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AVC: It’s been seven years or so since The Plan played regular shows together, and you’ve put out a couple of solo albums in that time, but what else have you been up to? 

TM: I am working for The Huffington Post. I’m the director of commercial development, which means I’m the computer programmer that makes the ads work. I’ve been living in New York City for two and a half years. That’s an incredible trip. So enjoyable. It’s so enjoyable that you can kind of put all productivity aside and just live life here.

AVC: What part of the city do you live in?

TM: I live in Bed Stuy. Geographically, it’s the part of New York City that’s the most like Washington D.C. It’s just an amazing city. I tell you what, one thing about New York City that’s really incredible is in the ’90s, things weren’t great for New York underground rock ’n’ roll. In the late ’80s through the mid-’00s with a couple of unusual exceptions. But there’s just a torrent of good bands here. I mean, it’s crazy. Even the mediocre bands are really good. I mean the bands that nobody goes to see. There’s all kinds of bands. I mean, I can go see These Are Powers with like, 35 people and have my ears blown off. You can kind of whine and complain about the hipsters in Williamsburg if you want, but I mean, the facts are that there are so many interesting bands here right now, so it’s been a great time to just be a fan and go to shows.

AVC: Are your coworkers at The Huffington Post aware that you play music?

TM: They are. I mean, you have to kind of port the ratio of the general populace who are aware of anything I’ve ever done and give it a little boost given it’s in the liberal East Coast media, and still you’re talking about a fairly small percentage of my coworkers who have any idea that I’m involved with anything in the public eye. But yeah, there’s a couple. Got a couple guest list requests. But it’s not like the whole newsroom started shrieking when I walked in and updated our Twitter feed. [Laughs.]

AVC: Have you been working on any solo music?

TM: There’s a fella I do get together and write and play with, and we do have enough songs that I think we might go play some shows. I am pretty certain that I will never again have the entrepreneurial fire that I did when I was in The Dismemberment Plan. I knew I never wanted to associate music with the program Quicken again. [Laughs.] I got really good at Quicken. It might have been the skill that was most honed when I came out of The Dismemberment Plan, my abilities at Quicken. I have a feeling that that will probably remain the rest of my days. It’s hard to imagine that suddenly at 43 I’m gonna be like, “We gotta MyTime this shit! We gotta make a record, I have to burnish my legacy!”

AVC: But you can still put out a solo album without doing all that.

TM: Yeah, that’s true. I can come into an interview like, “Okay, no press release, no touring, I don’t care about any of that shit.” Yes. I mean, I play with Matt Walsh, who is in a band called The Forms and runs this studio out in Queens. He just recorded a solo album by Nat Baldwin, who’s the bassist for Dirty Projectors—it’s really, really good—and he and I go up to his place and we have this crazy two-piece. It’s really weird. It’s called Time Travel. It’s kinda like if the White Stripes were inspired by Beyoncé or industrial hip-hop instead of Blind Lemon Jefferson.

AVC: That sounds fun.

TM: It is. It’s actually a lot of fun.

AVC: You call yourselves Time Travel?

TM: Yeah. We’ve been together about nine months, and we’ve played I think three shows. We kinda have a wave of material we really, really like, and so we’re gonna keep working on it. No real plans for an LP, I just kind of want to get nine awesome songs done so we can go play at the clubs in New York and feel awesome about it. And he runs the studio, so making a record isn’t too complicated. And the church choir thing. I just love being in the tenor section of a beautiful choir. That might be the thing that’s nearest and dearest to my heart, musically. You learn so much about music just from being inside a choir.

AVC: Looking back on your two solo albums, did you learn something from that part of your career?

TM: Yeah I did, I learned a whole lot. I learned that I was in debt and I had to go get a job. [Laughs.] I did. I learned a whole lot. I think the main thing I learned was that I was going to love playing music for the rest of my life. I think I learned that I kind of needed to take control of my inspiration and if that meant not touring, then that was fine. Or if it meant telling people I was retired, that was fine. Whatever gives me the thrill is good enough, and if being in the church choir at Trinity Episcopal gives me the thrill every week, then that’s pretty great. So I think that was probably the number one thing.

AVC: Are there any hard feelings still there about the infamous Pitchfork 0.0?

TM: There never were, really. I mean, they’re just rock critics. Stuff like that was getting written all the time before Pitchfork. I also think it’s not so much of a reality anymore. But at the time, it was derived of blog discussion of music and it was derived of Internet thieves and it was more novel than music in general, if you know what I mean. It was a new technology, it was crazy, and I think there were a couple of years there where literally every conversation I used to have about music was basically in the context of like, “There’s this one website that gives you a good review and then you get to go on tour,” and it seemed like going to work for the man, so I went to go sing in a church choir. I mean, I can’t put it any other way. You know what I mean? Like I got into rock ’n’ roll because it was supposed to be kind of like an adventure, and that just seemed like waiting for a report card. But I think things are much different now. I think it’s a much more heterogeneous environment. I don’t get the impression that the people I talk to who are involved in music seem to be slaves to like one source of information. So I think that was just like a certain two-and-a-half year period in terms of the landscape of how people process music, or at least like a certain brand of intellectual rock ’n’ roll. 

AVC: Along those same lines, you do seem to be embracing social media.

TM: Yeah, I love it. I never really thought blogs and comments were very fun. I always thought it was kind of a drag, and I thought they were being kind of structurally unstable about it, because virtually every comment thread devolves into a claim war. There’s something about comments that are not an awesome medium. I think that just a statement and a single column of comments devolves into something really bad. It’s kinda like CDs. [Laughs.] I think Twitter is fascinating. I can’t get enough of Twitter. Twitter’s amazing.

AVC: Do you like it more because it’s more of a conversation?

TM: It’s shorter. You don’t get anywhere by strafing people because no one can see the strafee. No one retweets someone’s slam of somebody else. I mean, maybe they do, but it’s very hard to follow a back-and-forth. It’s also a little more accountable because it’s your account. There’s a little bit more presence, you know? It seems more fluid or dynamic. I started playing with Twitter really early. I wasn’t into MySpace, either. It seemed like a place to shill yourself. It’s hard to know what to do with MySpace creatively, and I’m glad to see it’s dying a little bit. [Laughs.]

AVC: You only announced a handful of shows and there are all kinds of rumors about more gigs coming up. Will there be more shows for people who don’t live on the East Coast or in the Midwest?

TM: I’m not being disingenuous; we literally don’t know. We’re feeling it out. We don’t know. We would love to play everywhere, but there’s a lot of factors that go into it, not the least of which is our current lives. We’ve got kids, professional duties, Joe has a robotics project that may or may not be in the last space shuttle, and it literally dictates how the next five months of his life will be. If they get it, they have to go into mad acceleration mode because being on the space shuttle is the number one way of getting shit into space. Like, if you can’t get that, then you have to call some weird gray market people in Russia or something like that. 

AVC: That’s pretty insane.

TM: Yeah, right? And I don’t wanna be like, “Well, what about our tour?” [Laughs.] That’s so fucked up. So all kinds of factors like that. I just listed a few reasons that point it at Joe, and that’s completely not even the start of it. I think the bottom line is, we’re slowly extending them by difficulty and seeing where it goes. Europe almost surely—well, let’s just say no, we won’t go to Europe. West Coast? I don’t know. It’s really hard. Really hard. We’re waiting to see where it goes.