All words: Bryce Rudow
I occasionally get told that I “William Miller” a bit when I write about music.
For those tragically unaware, William Miller was the name of the main character in “Almost Famous,” a semi-biographical tale of a teenage music journalist who follows around a band that he grows to love, hate, and then love again. To “William Miller,” by loose definitions, is to let one’s fandom leak into their journalistic objectivity.
But it makes total sense to me.
People listen to music because they like it, but people write about music because they love it. It’s why there are a bazillion bloggers out there doing it for minimal things like plus-ones and merchandise giveaways.
Because we all want to feel a little closer to that thing that makes us feel alive.
I got the chance to chat with Travis Morrison of The Dismemberment Plan, a band I was introduced to in high school and a band with which I continue to have a musical love affair. Their music has been a major part of the unofficial soundtrack of my life. It’s backgrounded the beautiful moments and the tragedies, the exhilarating thrills and the mundane boredom, the monumental occasions and the routine day-to-days. Shit changes, but albums like “Emergency & I” and “Changes” have always been an unwavering, comforting constant for me.
But when I was given the opportunity to speak with Travis, I at first thought I had to bury my gratitude as a fan as best I could in order to be as “professional” as possible. I was a journalist; he was a musician. I had questions; he had answers. Simple.
Only it’s not.
I was never going to be able to just sit down, ask a few random questions about how their new album “Uncanney Valley” reflects their current lifestyles, and casually be on my way. I was getting the chance to do something that I probably once could only dream about, and it seemed silly to feel ashamed about being grateful.
So when I called Travis, I let him know outright how big a fan I was. I may have even accidentally told him that I could kiss him on the mouth for “Spider in the Snow” alone…
I was a bit embarrassed having thrown my cards on the table, but then, after an immediate “aw shucks” kind of laughter, he composed himself, took a quick second to really emphasize his next point, and casually but humbly just said,
“That’s why we did it, man.”
And in that moment, I felt just a little closer to that thing.
BYT: Now that my journalistic integrity is out the window, I guess we can get started…
I fully knew I was going to admit to being a big fan when I spoke with you, but I’m sure I can’t be the only member of the media that’s interviewed you and fanboy/fangirled out. Have you noticed that, and is that a change from how the media dealt with you say 10 years ago?
TM: Oh, because there are people that grew up with our music where back in the day I would have been just another chump? Hahahahahehe [He has an almost giddy child kind of laughter that is immediately endearing]. That’s awesome. We can always create that dynamic if you want…
That’s fine. I do have other shit to do today. I could just make up your answers… [This was one of those terrible, first-date kind of jokes that make phone interviews so pleasantly awkward at first.]
You know, I never really thought about that. I wouldn’t say it’s the exact same as before. Yeah we get people that are aware of our old stuff and will say things like, “I’ve been a big fan of your work,” as they say, and all that, and that’s really great, but I think generally once we get talking it’s like, “You’re a writer about music and I’m someone playing music.” It’s not some kind of crazed worshipful tone carries across the entire time. I think by the end they’re like, “Ugh, what is up with this guy?”
You know, along those same lines, one of the more interesting angles I’ve seen covering the band’s re-emergence actually came from your then-girlfriend, now-wife Katherine’s article for Slate in which she talks about discovering that her computer programmer boyfriend was secretly a rockstar. In the 15 months since then, has she adapted to it all a little better?
Yeah. Not to just hand myself Husband of the Century award but the main thing is that our relationship comes first, and she’s very supportive of the things I want to do, within mature reason, which means we communicate about the things I’m doing and I take her advice and things like that. Playing rock and roll doesn’t mean an escape from real life. I think that’s a common notion that art is an escape from real life, and I don’t think that’s the case. But yeah, the day comes when I say, “I want to go on a three month tour, and I don’t want to have to call you” may be the day we have something to talk about, but I don’t see that happening.
A quick aside that I found really interesting and wanted to bring up: In that Slate piece she recounts that you said the only Dismemberment Plan album you had a copy of was “Emergency & I” and that she would have to buy the rest. Why is that and is that still the case?
I don’t hang out and listen to my music, and on the rare occasion that I do, I use streaming services. And I’ve been a streaming person for a long time. I had been using a Napster subscription since 2006 or 2007, and now I use Spotify, but because of that, I just stopped buying records.
But isn’t there a baby book of old albums somewhere?
If there is one, I lost it or I don’t know where it is, or I forgot I have it. You’ve actually raised a good question of maybe there is one, and I forgot. I do have a baby book or CD book of live CDs people have given us over the years and stuff like that, but I didn’t actually keep a compilation of our output, I never did that.
Interesting. It’s funny you said the one album you did have was “Emergency & I,” which for all intents and purposes is kind of your high-water mark as a band. Looking back at it almost exactly 14 years later, what do you think it is that makes that album so special?
I don’t know. I think with most records like that it’s a right-place/right-time kind of thing, and I don’t think there’s any explaining that. I just don’t think you can. I couldn’t even begin to figure it out.
I think it’s emotionally true; it still sounds emotionally true to me. It expresses the truths of that time with enough perspective that I am still able to access the songs and empathize with them and I don’t find it, “Who is this annoying 25 year old talking about his life in the subway? Oh my God it’s me.” I don’t have that “hey kid get off my lawn, and then I realize I’m talking to myself” feeling when listening to this record.
I think one of its gifts is it has some emotional perspective. I don’t think it’s a perfect record, but I think that’s one of the stronger aspects of it.
It’s not a bad haircut you’re looking back at?
It’s not a bad haircut. Bad haircuts are a little more painful, but you’ve gotta love your bad hair cut moments. You’ve got to love your long-on-top, shaved-on-the sides moments.
I had the ski jump…
That’s a classic. You might want to go back to that. Do you want a love life? Because if you do, you have to go back to the ski jump. Or go for the Brian Eno Bald Eagle. Do you want to be great or do you not want to be great? That’s what it comes down to.
This is good, I’m learning things… Getting back to present day, there is a real cliche sense of “getting the old back together” in a lot of the articles discussing this album and this tour; I really enjoyed Wired’s take on Joe’s life at NASA and his kids. Do you guys ever sit down and talk about the surreal aspect of deciding to forsake the nine-to-fives again for another record and another tour?
No. It’s not that much of a dichotomy. Art is lifelong. And there’s a sense out there that you judge a musician by whether they have a day job and you learn, especially when you don’t have a day job and you’re just a musician, you learn very, very quickly that that’s just poppycock. Not having a job doesn’t define you as a musician. You know, we were all still involved in the arts, we were all still performing in bands, and all still really enjoying it, so there didn’t seem to be any reason to not do it. It’s not like we didn’t have to go buy guitars or anything.
[I do a bad impression of a caveman discovering a guitar that I refuse to transcribe here…]
Oh yeah, a guitar! I remember this… Yeah, we were all still playing music and involved in the performing arts, so because of that it was still in the continuum. I think it’s much, much less of a binary state for us than for people looking at us from the other side, the commercial divide. They see shows and they see records and they say, “Oh, they’re on again. Wow. They fixed up the QE2 and it’s sailing again. Look at that old hunk of rusting steel.” On our side of the marketplace, it’s much more a part of our lives and a part of a continuum, and I’ve given up on people understanding that.
Music is a life continuum; it’s not a job that you have or don’t have.
First you guys did the reunion tour and that whole thing, but was there ever that actual dichotomous moment of “Are we going to make the leap? Are we going to start making a new song? Are we not just jamming?”
That’s a much fairer question. No, but that’s a question that’s much more routed in artistic realities.
We got together to continue playing songs because we had all these promising jams from when we were rehearsing for shows to promote the vinyl re-release of “Emergency & I,” and we decided let’s keep jamming. And it didn’t necessarily mean let’s write new songs or let’s make an album, it just meant let’s keep jamming. And if it just means we make synthesizer noises in the basement and we never finish a song, well than that was fun, and we’ll have beer and pizza afterwards. And I would say about four months in, we were all able to cop to ourselves, we had a couple songs done and we said, “Let’s commit to this. We’re doing this.”
So there’s a little bit of a Jedi Mind Trick on ourselves: just keep it undirected, keep it creative, don’t start thinking about some product you have to put out there and just see how it goes.
Speaking of the product, we can move on to actually discussing the new album. Fairly or unfairly you all have a certain clout or esteem to back up this release… I mean, there’s a reason why it feels like every blog and website and jumped on the “Dismemberment Plan is Back Together” bandwagon, but what are you hoping is the reaction once “Uncanney Valley” is released. Was there ever a part of you that was worried that you were, to keep this DC-centric, pulling a Michael Jordan and coming back to the game too late?
No, not really. You hope that people relate to the songs. The number one reason I’m excited about these songs is getting to play them live. That’s not a hope, but it’s more like when on your calendar it says, “Friday you’ll be eating ice cream in New York. Saturday you’ll be eating ice cream in DC,” and then it doesn’t feel like a hope. It just seems like something to look forward to.
The process of people deciding they like or don’t like a piece of art, especially rock and roll, is so based on factors outside of your control that it’s a little hard to really know what someone will like.
There’s always the Pitchfork goose-egg we can bring up… [I meant this as a joke because I don't know what a joke is.]
Yeah we can…
Oh fuck, no I actually don’t want to bring that up.* Let’s keep it positive.
Ok all right… But yeah you put music out in the world and you kind of don’t know what the fuck is going to happen. Some stuff you can be really confident about and no one loves it, and other things people flip out over and you’re like, “That dumb song? Really?” The main thing is to just feel it yourself, and go out in the world, and play the songs. And I can’t wait to get on stage with these.
It feels like the paranoia and unease that were kind of a constant theme in your previous releases have kind of dissipated in the new album. Was that a conscious decision or is that just a reflection of where you’re at in your life now?
I think the songs are less about fear of the self. I think that’s what paranoia is in the end. I think it deals with very, very serious topics, but they’re not internal. Well, they are internal, but they’re more external than ever. Like the song Mexico City Christmas is about watching something fall apart. It’s not paranoid, it just more “Damnnnnn.”
I’ve been using the phrase “less neurotic.” That’s the impression I get off of it. And maybe less anxious; but, you know, anxious doesn’t mean serious. Anxious can be shallow as hell…
I mean “Girl O’ Clock” is an incredibly shallow song…
Hahah. Hey! I don’t think “Girl O’Clock” is shallow. I think it touches on a very important, classic theme… [The first lines of this song off E&I are: "If I don't have sex by the end of the week, I'm going to die."]
I’ve heard people say the album feels more contented, and I think it lets the light shine in a few moments.
It breathes a little more. It’s not throwing itself at you
Exactly. It’s less hyperventilating. It doesn’t hyperventilate. I learned what hyperventilating means to people artistically, and I love a lot of hyperventilating music, but we did not hyperventilate. Do people want to hear The Dismemberment Plan on a non-hyperventilating record? Well, we’ll going to find that out, aren’t we?
You say you’re excited about playing this live. Since I only care about your two shows at 9:30 Club, could you describe your ideal homecoming show? What will it be like?
The main thing playing the hometown is that the crowd is going to bring some weird behavior. It’s not going to be people buying tickets and popcorn. Some kind of freak show will interrupt and we’ll be the least interesting thing in the room. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does happen, it’s great.
Some times you go up, play the songs, play them well or not play them well, but if there’s one thing you can count on from a homecoming show it’s recognizing faces, recognizing behaviors. It’s that familiarity where people feel really comfortable to do some crazy shit. That’s what you really hope for from a homecoming show.
What are your thoughts on the transformation DC has gone through and very much continues to go through?
It is intense. Honestly that is the only word for it. I can’t believe it. All the bars are filled. I’ve never seen a town where the nightlife industry has a supply problem not a demand problem. You can’t get into any bar. You can’t get into any club. I mean, it’s crazy. It’s crazy! And that’s a great thing to see.
There were some disturbing signals in the press from the local music scene about frustration about how rock and roll in DC is going in the last couple years, and that made me sad. And DC has always been about figuring out its own thing and that was unique to everybody else, whether that was DC punk or Go-go. From what I understand, I feel like in DC, people are starting to innovate again in this new environment, which is very different from 1996 or 1989 for that matter. Hopefully DC will keep that uniqueness and adapt to changing times, adapt to the internet era, adapt to a time when, pretty soon, DC is going to be an upper-middle class white city and that literally was not the city I grew up in. It doesn’t mean it has to stay the way it was when I grew up forever, absolutely not, but it’s going to change and the rules are going to change. Hopefully as those changes happen, DC art and DC music will continue and adapt and mold to the new circumstances.
What’s the one thing you miss about Old DC?
It’s less of a Southern city now. DC was right at the edge, in that fuzzy band that cut across Northern Virginia that was kind of the line of Southern culture and Northern Culture, and I think DC is quickly becoming a non-Southern city. And I miss that a little bit. I miss the manners and the pace. The town has sped up.
The thing that I miss about DC that is still there are the great paths. There is nothing like that in New York City. Running down the Potomac, you can just run and run and it’s so beautiful. Here you just go round and round in circles in Prospect Park until you die. I miss the greenness about Washington. And it’s still there. A lot of the great things about DC I still miss.
Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It’s been an honor.
Thanks a lot. I appreciate that. See you soon.
* It’s here that I should have grabbed my balls, been a good journalist, and celebrated the chance to talk to Travis about Pitchfork giving his 2004 solo album Travistan a legit 0.0. Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for you all, SPIN’s Jordan Sargent did prod him about this, and got a great answer out of him:
Your solo album, 2004′s Travistan, was infamously given a 0.0 by Pitchfork. Thinking back, what would you rate it?
I would probably give it an upper five, lower six. I think there are a couple of super excellent songs I’m super proud of having written. I think it’s extremely tentative, as it should be, because I was starting again, and I had a lot to learn, I think. I love some of the fireside theater, hippy-radio comedy aspects of it. I will always love that about records. That doesn’t really make a record, but I like skits. I like little weird humor moments. I would say it lacked urgency. The songwriting was pretty good. Better than, say, the first Dismemberment Plan record; not as good as Emergency and I. If I was a critic and wasn’t in Destroy Mode, I’d be like, “Okay, he is getting his ya-ya’s out…. 5.9. He can’t make four of these, but this is a healthy thing for an artist to do in his position.” But that’s not what happened. That’s not what happened at all.