If you happened to click on to D.C. indie rockers The Dismemberment Plan's Web site last week, you'd have found yourself looking at a photo of journalist Daniel Pearl, murdered by Pakistani terrorists. The image was accompanied with a simple message by Dismemberment frontman Travis Morrison to the effect that this sort of "senseless act" shouldn't have happened. Morrison also reveals himself to be the offspring of journalists. As for snappy news bits and clever anecdotes about the band's "Death and Dismemberment tour" with Seattle's Death Cab for Cutie, or blurbs lauding the band for their new DeSoto release, Change, well, those concerns took a backseat to the Pearl tragedy.
Morrison's lineage explains his interview style: funny, helpful, dry, self-deprecating and info-packed. He doesn't simply answer questions; he tastes, chews carefully, then delivers his verdict. With the band's previous release, Emergency and I, the sometimes emo, oftentimes-experimental art-punk band found themselves opening for Pearl Jam on a series of European dates and landing on critics' year-end lists. Talking to Morrison via cell phone--he explains that he's moving "into the ether" (i.e. storing his stuff in boxes in anticipation of his upcoming tour schedule)--he discusses the band's evolution and its brush with a major label (Interscope).
"Yeah, that deal was great for us," Morrison admits, pooh-poohing any idea of selling out. "You know, they paid for our record. At the time, everyone really wanted to write stories about how we were Luke Skywalker and they [Interscope] were the Death Star: It was a pretty simple-minded view of the world.
"The fact of the matter is, the band wouldn't exist if it wasn't for an infusion of cash from somebody. I mean--I can't believe we were able to keep things going as far as we did."
After being dropped by Interscope, the band kept doing what they'd always done: quietly chugging along. Only this time, the critics took notice.
They also put out a split single (with Juno), cheekily titled, "The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich." The song claimed that the band's whole major label deal was meant to distract people. "The suffering indie-rock band thing was actually a front for a multinational corporation," quips Morrison.
"What had seemed to be bizarre self- satisfaction [on the band's part] suddenly became like, 'Wow, they're really self-possessed; they really seem to be in charge of themselves. We suddenly became heroes to people to a certain extent," he says, wonderingly. It didn't hurt that Emergency and I was The Dismemberment Plan's best record they'd made up to that point.
"If that record had just sort of tumbled out of Interscope on time, I don't think it would have meant the same thing to everybody," he says.
Perhaps it was just that the band's time had come. Morrison, especially on the group's early releases, was likely to swoop into a funky falsetto mid-song, or break into syncopated screams while the rhythm section went math rock (or at least dropped/added a beat). Occasional flights of guitar fancy were interspersed with the jagged chording and angular melody lines, a portent of the band's performance on Change, their most accessible album to date.
"I'm a big believer in the fact that bands come along and serve moments in time for people, and 'the band' is kind of interchangeable, which is why people need to get off The Strokes' back ('Poor little Strokes. Poor little rich, empowered Strokes ... they can do anything,' he adds, laughing). "The fact of the matter is, when I hear 'Last Night' on the radio, surrounded by all the nü metal guerillas, [you realize] there's a need for it. We didn't really scratch anybody's need. We just scratched people," he quips.
Morrison insists that the band was always viewed as "arty oddballs" by the rest of the D.C. punk scene, the sort of band that--if you were a fan--might do something to embarrass you.
"The thing is, even with Terrified, there were all kinds of suspect little maneuvers ... there is humor," Morrison states. "We didn't seem particularly unhappy with the world, which pretty much rules you out for the hardcore crowd. I remember at the time feeling like it would be best for us to do something in reaction to some of the general emotional standbys that were dominating underground rock at the time," Morrison says, going on to insist that Fugazi, contrary to their rep, are actually a very "funny" band.
"The humor in Fugazi--it blows my mind," he says, enthusiastically. "Things like, 'You'd make a great cop, you pig' have these mordant little moments."
Even though The Dismemberment Plan was and is as earnest as anyone else in the D.C. camp when it comes to their music, they never grandstanded, never wore disenfranchisement as a badge of honor.
"Let me put it this way," he says. "A lot of the anxiety-by-numbers bands or angst-by-numbers bands--they've all vanished. All the bands from that era whose records have lasted had a full emotional scope; that's why their records clung on."
With the eyes of the critics on them (for the first time, Morrison jokes), the band chose their latest album's title in a rather, uh, unhelpful fashion.
"We had the picture [cover photo] and also, this is the first album where we knew that 'everyone' was listening. So it seemed like a good idea to find an album title that would fuck with people.
"I got so tired of emo, super-long, inside-joke album titles--I wanted to have something like Rumours [laughs]. To title the album Rumours, when all the members of their band are breaking up their coke-fueled relationships--that takes balls of steel," Morrison says. "I thought about stuff like that--there's kind of a 'nyaa nyaa' quality to it. [laughs]. There's many things you could read into Change, but that's why we picked it."
Lyrically, there's plenty to find in Morrison's dead-on character studies. Change is a series of songs that chronicle detachment, from girlfriends who literally vanish ("Faces of Earth"--inspired by an anecdote Morrison read about Michael Jordan) to a rather mean-spirited revenge piece, "Time Bomb."
"The Jordan story caught my imagination 'cause it sounded like a really weird circumstance. His girlfriend of several months literally washed out to sea, never to be seen again," Morrison says. "And it was funny, 'cause the way he kind of capped off the story was, 'Now ain't that something?'" [laughs in wonderment].
"Time Bomb," a song Morrison refers to as "an adolescent eruption," is a warning of sorts against justifying one's own rotten behavior.
"There's been different times in my life where I had to stop myself, like I had to say, 'I could turn into a not class act here if I don't watch myself.' I think most people have been in that situation where they've found themselves justifying their actions with other people's actions.
"I try not to do confessional stuff, 'cause who cares about me, y'know ... who wants to hear about my rough life. You have to be able to bring some analytical power to bear on it [songwriting] or it's not going to last--it's not going to be anything that anyone's going to be able to access. I mean, real emotion involves some amount of laughing at yourself or not feeling anything at all. You have to have a full picture.
And fans must be getting the picture because Change is doing well and Emergency and I continues to sell and attract a new audience. This is just fine with Morrison.
"I'd like to do this for a long time. I really envy people like Lou Reed, the guy still has people finding out about his first band."