By Travis M. Andrews
Writer’s Note: This whole thing here, writing about a band that’s kind of broken up, is because they have two shows this weekend: One in Baltimore on Friday and one in Fredericksburg on Saturday. Of course, the shows are utterly and totally sold out and have been since a few minutes after being on sale. Nonetheless, it’s The Dismemberment Plan, and we’re Brightest Young Things. It was kind of an imperative. So I’ve written a far-too-long, probably-gushing-at-times, self-indulgent essay about a band that meant and continues to mean so much to this area, to me and so many others personally and to music in general. I apologize in advance. For everything.
For those who don’t know, The Dismemberment Plan was a DC-based rock band that’s pretty hard to put into a genre. There were traces of punk, post-punk, jazz (in the drums at times) and even hip-hop. At one time, the band led the DC music scene and its 1999 Emergency and I is considered by many to be one of the most important albums of the past couple decades (see: Pitchfork’s review) To many, they were the band that did it all. In 2003, after 10 years, the band broke up. In 2007, it played a one-off reunion show, and the band’s frontman Travis Morrison promised the band wouldn’t get back together. In 2010, the band got back together but only for a tour. Now only to play shows sometimes, with no record planned.
Also, for those who don’t know: you should probably check out really anything these guys released. Now, onward!
At this point in time, writing about The Dismemberment Plan feels a bit like blasphemy. What is left to actually say? To a certain segment of the population, this band represents the pinnacle of what rock music was about. To say it had/has a cult following is correct insofar as the fans it has are almost rabid about it.
More than anything, the band always seemed like a band of the people. A band for the fans. It’s fitting: one of the band’s albums is A People’s History of The Dismemberment Plan, which, as a bunch of fan favorites remixed by said fans, it makes it a band of the fans. The Plan’s shows often include covers of Top 40 songs and the fans rushing the stage. Even frontman Travis Morrison’s lyrics are often about the life we all experience. In an email chain with friends about the top five albums that have “stuck with you,” I wrote this:
1. The Dismemberment Plan – Emergency and I - This album is one of those ones that is always there when you’re in a hard spot, at least for me. Job stuff, breakup stuff, family stuff, generally feeling down on life stuff: the lyrics remind you of all this shit and that everyone’s going through it. I mean, how many albums have a line like “Trash goes out on a Tuesday now. Gotta make a note about that,” and somehow packs emotional intensity into it? Plus, the music switches constantly from skittish anxiety to calm acceptance to sorrowful heartbreak to balls-to-the-wall celebration of life. As Morrison says, “Happiness is such work, and it’s harder every day. And it can kill you, but who wants to be that tacky about it?” you know it’s true, you know you agree, and you know you don’t want to be that tacky about it. Plus, that closing line: “You’ll always be my hero, even if I never see you again.” Yeah. Fuck. I’m going to go listen to this now. [sic]
So I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I finally got to interview Morrison, someone I’d admired from afar for so long, that we’d talk about desktop publishing, the differences between my hometown (New Orleans) and my adopted home (DC) and how the Internet changed being able to see The Walkmen in Baton Rouge. Yet, it is.
Morrison, who’s worked for The Washington Post and currently contracts for the Huffington Post (both in a digital media capacity), is a regular guy. His wife even thinks so. It might seem weird but isn’t, in a weird way (yeah, I
reread that sentence): I’ve yelled to his songs, bawled my eyes out to them, got drunk as hell to them, danced myself sick to them. Found solace in them when solace was found nowhere else. Yet the dude behind them works in my industry. It almost makes sense. “There’s a lot of crossover between media and the arts,” Morrison points out.
He’s right, of course. But that doesn’t change the dichotomy inherent in his band: the wild, spazzy, drunken dance parties that make up the shows and the everyday life he’s often singing about during them. But then, I guess most young people can put on a suit and sit in an office, sipping shitty coffee, then find themselves on a dance floor until 3 a.m. on a weekend. So the band isn’t that different from us anyway.
Neither is Morrison. He laughs at himself throughout our phone call and seems thoughtful at every question presented. He seems both cool and professional.
Even when the Plan was at is height, he always kept a different job. He credits his father for giving him a way to make money while starting a band. “My dad gave me very good advice. Get a trade,” he says. That trade was desktop publishing, which allowed him to make good money and get home at 2 or 3 p.m. “to work on songs.” From the beginning, he was in offices and on stage. That dichotomy seems, at least to this writer, to somewhat define the band. I mean, think of any band in Washington, D.C. The underground art world is carved somewhere in a world of political
systems, of suits and graduate degree. The two are like oil and water, but oil and water that’s being constantly shaken. It doesn’t want to mingle, but it has to.
Keeping a job always keeps him sane. “I can’t think of it 24/7. When I do, it gets unhealthy.” Having other interests keeps him interested. Makes sense, and you get the feeling Morrison is the type who always needs to be trying something new. Hell, just listen to the music: all the spazzy beats, the anxiety found therein. His music always felt like that panic channeled into something enjoyable and danceable, the way Little Miss Whiskeys or the 9:30 Club fills up with young professionals on the weekend, trying to escape the monotony of daily life, even if they thoroughly enjoy those lives. Maybe that’s what make someone go home and write an album that includes a line about taking out the trash and another about brushing his teeth. “I can see how … you had to think the guy writing [Emergency & I] had a real life. I’m not going to say the person writing it needed a full time job to write it … but it definitely help to separate from the guitars, separate from the songs.”
This mindset also might account for his move to New York about five years ago. He says he wanted to get “knocked around a bit.” “Everyone told me how cold and mean and competitive New York is, so I was like, ‘let’s try it.’” It’s the same spirit that might have been the reason the Plan broke up at a height, played reunion shows randomly then “reunited” completely with plans of just playing some shows whenever they feel like it. Nothing set in stone. Nothing certain. Whims allowed. It might account for the radically different solo albums he put out to extremely harsh critics when the band split.
And it’s not like he doesn’t miss DC. He admits to missing “being able to bike anywhere,” the green spaces, the etc. “Sometimes I miss the manners and stuff like that, but I definitely don’t miss the passive-aggression.” Well, makes sense. The anxious music begs for someone to look him in the eyes and say “I love you” or “Fuck you.” Just a straightforward statement. Think of “The Jitters”: The whole song seems to be about trying to interpret what people say.
Of course, that musical persona or possible mindset doesn’t make him unenjoyable to speak with. He’s completely affable, laughing throughout and actually seeming to enjoy conversation with someone he’s never met. We chat about how the Plan came up just before the Internet was ripe with critics (such as Pitchfork. And us!), whose power he now thinks is lost to YouTube (damn!). “I would say we’re in the era of videos — YouTube –and direct social media contact,” he says.
Times are changing. Gone are the days “you could go see the best band in the world and no one was there. You could go to a show, buy a ticket and nobody gave a fuck.” Of course, the irony is now his band posts on Twitter that tickets are going on sale, and the shows sell out in a snap.
Irony or not, that’s how it is. He doesn’t know when more shows will be, if more shows will be. But that’s not really any different than the past seven or so years. And it seems like kind of the point. Only one thing’s certain: for two nights this weekend, and extremely lucky set of people are going to experience something they probably never thought they would again. They’re going to disappear from their office jobs and brushing their teeth and figuring out who their friends are and taking the trash out on a Tuesday now and trying to get to the other side, and they’re going to sweat
and scream and dance and drink and laugh and and sweat and dance and drink and dance and sweat.
Monday morning, they’ll all be back at work, Morrison along with them.