Travis Morrison talks Tiki Barber, Death Cab for Cutie and why it canâ€™t all be â€˜Purple Rainâ€™
In 2002, I was helping to promote my college’s concerts, at Northwestern University; that May, the Dismemberment Plan was on our annual music festival bill. I was beside myself: “Emergency & I” had been on constant rotation ever since I’d heard “You Are Invited” on one of those CMJ Monthly CDs. “Change” – which later was revealed to be their swan song -- had dropped the previous fall.
It was one of those shows that gave you temporary vertigo. The set had been moved indoors from out due to typical Chicago weather instabilities, and the collective equilibrium of students and stragglers was swimming in excessive levels of merciless bass. I remember drummer Joe Easley’s hair doing its own dance on tracks like “Ok Jokes Over” and breathless “Gyroscope.” Jason Caddell worked his guitar around the elbows and knees of odd time signatures.
Frontman Travis Morrison – taking advantage of the band’s few stable instrumental breaks – would oscillate between articulate banter and what could be described as fissures of reality. During one of these, he closed his eyes and, in his falsetto, urged “I’m a cheerleader” in a feverous chant, while running his fingers up the sides of his own ribs and “cupping” what I suppose was this cheerleader’s imaginary bustier. Perhaps it was on “Bra.” The show was silly, and mostly magnificent.
About a year later, the Plan split. Morrison released his solo debut “Travistan” in 2004, and “All Y’all” in 2007 under the name Travis Morrison Hellfighters. His bandmates formed new projects, like Eric Axelson’s group with former Promise Ring members, Maritime. But the band couldn’t stay away from each other for too long: they reconvened for two “one-offs” in 2007, and they embarked on a proper tour this past January to promo the vinyl reissue of “Emergency & I." The stint took them all the way to Tokyo, where they recorded 23-track “Live in Japan 2011,” D-Plan’s very first live set. It will be out internationally tomorrow (June 1), and available digitally.
“Our live show was so much a part of our rep, so it’s nice to have a statement that presents and explains that,” Morrison tells me, before going into self-deprecation mode. “But it’s like Chris Rock said in an interview once: ‘It can’t always be the “Purple Rain” tour.’”
[More after the jump...]
Fast forward from 2002: Travis and I became friends with the common bonds of sarcasm, pop cultural references and mutual friends, after he made his move from Washington D.C. to Brooklyn three years ago. It was more than a minor thrill to see he and The Plan take the stage once again this winter at one of many consecutively sold-out shows, to witness that trademark stage chatter to crowd capacities larger than those from the band’s heyday.
“It was really fun and really special telling people, ‘I cant come into work tomorrow because I have to be on "Jimmy Fallon,"'” says Morrison, 38, on the shift from touring indie rocker to his current act, as a tech director at Huffington Post. “Unfortunately, getting any kind of music success creates the stressful, unartistic dialogue about your career path and what your next steps are, and what success is. “
Travis’ larger “rock career,” he’s told me, is over, but that hasn’t kept him from writing and gigging in other capacities. He sings in the choir at Trinity Church downtown on Sundays, for instance, and has picked through some songs with former Forms drummer Matt Walsh. He helped with a recent tribute night to Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets.”
Below is an abridged Q&A we did in anticipation of the live release, on the future of the Plan and pocketing money from Pitchfork.
What did you personally get out of these reunion shows? Were you worried once you got started that old, bad feelings would come back?
I think we played great, it was great to be with the guys again. And playing to multiples of people that ever saw the Plan to begin with. It brought me back in contact with all kinds of freakazoids that were part of the Plan family. I’d say 90 percent of the songs didn’t embarrass me to sing again, with a nice cluster of, like, “Godd***, these are good songs.” I mean, it wasn’t the David Bowie catalog, but it was nice to know that I wasn’t fakin’ the bacon. I was still able to tap into those emotions, and we could still be funny and right-on. Some of them definitely, though, felt like they were written by a much younger person.
I was gonna say -- “Emergency & I” is such a personal record, and now it’s a dozen years later.
A lot of my songs had this sort of skepticism or remove, and that gave them a protective shell when they entered into the whole vacuum of time. There’s some stuff that is just embarrassingly overwrought.
Which ones embarrass you?
Some of the more popular ones even… like “Time Bomb” is just absurd, because even though it was written later, it was so much more immature than most of the rest of the band’s songs. But some of my lyrics are kind of like a little old man and weren’t so sentimental. They had a kind of a skeptical edge, so that kept the emo at bay.
Which ones stick out to you?
Like “Spider in the Snow” had this awareness that I was gonna be 22 years old, and what 22 sounds like. And now I’m able to sing it as a memory of myself. It’s a good strategy, that remove. I think that’s why Velvet Underground has survived the test of time. They’re a little mean, and they don’t buy into people’s bullsh*t.
You must’ve felt some difficulty returning to the band and now, again, preparing to let go.
Ha, well it made me a lot more money. There were thousands of shrieking people at the shows. I don’t know. It was time for me to go. Doing that whole thing -- with hustling in a music career -- is pro-athletic. With very very few exceptions… I don’t think many rock bands moving along into their 40s and 50s are remotely justified in doing it. It’s a young person’s game.
I think of [former NFL running back] Tiki Barber, who probably thought of what would happen if he got hurt at 30. I mean, sure, he could rehab, that puts him at 32, but for a pro-athlete, it’s an awkward age in that spot. And so he’s like, f*ck it, I’m gonna retire. [Note: Just for the sake of argument, Barber announced this spring he’s returning to the NFL. But I’ll be damned if he puts on that NY jersey.]
We were not on track to be pop stars. We were on track to be club lifers. I know the people who have managed to make that jump, and we are so different from them genetically. I think that I just got this injury -- and it didn’t have to be career-ending -- but how much longer did I want to go after?
Yeah, you had a very rough go with your solo career, a lot of negativity after the breakup.
Yeah, it was the changed dialogue about bands, a compendium of everything said. With music journalists and criticism… I don’t think I reacted to it well, I couldn’t shut it out. The joy can really get sucked out of it incredibly easily.
And when you are a “cult” act, there’s a lot of pressure to make moves to freshen things up – but not too much, y’know? There’s group of people who want very specific things from you. Musical achievement was one element of the conversation, but then all of a sudden it’s the only thing you talk about all day. It’s nice now to have this real life and then making music and these shows just being one aspect of it. It’s not a double life, an aspect, its an ideal. It’s like the most emotionally satisfying element of the entire Dismemberment Plan story, that now all fits into my life.
The shows felt like an incredible gift to celebrate that period of my life but I think it brought even more focus to my trajectory. 2004-2007 was a No Story. And I didn’t feel the need to reverse that. All this actually validated the transformation.
What does that mean about the Plan now? Are you guys writing? Do you want to make another album?
We are in a deeply energy-inert era of passivity [laughs]. We are receptive to anything – album, writing, hanging out -- and we’re not doing sh*t to make any of these things happen. I know it’s frustrating for fans… but there’s zero executive energy. Everyone has to have a real desire, so y’know. Never say never. We jam, and there’s chunks of new songs I really like.
So any more shows after these two?
I think that with shows... either the show has to be interesting culturally or remunerative for us to play it: Money of increasing stupidity or travel-slash-cultural options. Like, sure, we’ll play Sardinia. Or someone could give us a million dollars. Or we’ll do the MoMA or score films.
You’re playing the Pitchfork Music Festival this summer. They gave the “Emergency & I” reissue a 10.0 but they also famously gave “Travistan” a 0.0. You must have some mixed feelings, now that you’re sending them an invoice.
Hey, I’ll take the money.
It’s the arts industry. In rock ‘n’ roll for a long time we all thougth that major labels were the Evil of the Industry. Fans and musicians all felt like if we could get the businessmen out of the way, we could all have an arts-positive circle jerk together. But in other circles of music and the arts, it’s the critics closing the show -- in drama, musicals, opera, jazz, classical, books, literature, you name it. So Pitchfork closed my show. All my friends in these other artforms, people, they were like “Oh, man, sorry, I hate it when that happens.” Historically, in rock ‘n’ roll, there’s been this obsession with with large corporations, like, blame on them. But it seemed nobody read rock album reviews, or at least it seemed like they didn’t at least until 2004.
You feel like that was the advent of Pitchfork, and blog tastemaking, in a peer-to-peer new world order?
Yeah. And I happened to be bending over at the exact wrong moment.
It is frustrating, it is but it’s the f*cking arts… It’s just the biz, y’know? I’m a musician, I play music, that’s how that business works. People can trash you and then praise you to high heavens.
But then that’s not pure evil. That’s just a necessary evil.
It is a little strangely un-normalized, like, How can one person be that good and that bad? There’s these cycles of public interest and then disinterest.
So you can enjoy the interest for now.
Yeah. I always knew one problem with me was that I don’t care about sales or how many fans come and go. It’s kind of bad. Genetically, I’m like the guy who sang for Faith No More. I have a feeling I have a constitutional incapabilty of maintaining a brand. I have friends who can and have and have found great success
Like Death Cab For Cutie. I look at them, and I just don’t have that at all. What they’ve accomplished is incredible and they stuck with it.
Brands and general album cycle machinery lead back to your point about labels. If you made music again, would you be on any sort of label again?
Everyone know you don’t have to be on a label anymore. It’d be cool for there to be a label equivalent of HuffPo, like a label that iterates constantly, putting songs by the bands up on the website at all times. Basically keeping the stream steady, and doesn’t really bother with albums. It’s like we’re still having the conversation thath that would be the death of the music industry, but it died six years ago. I mean, I would love to get back into the music industy circa 1974, y’know. With Ahmet Ertgun, while we’re at it. When I was [a full-time musician], it just kinda bummed me out. Everyone’s a f*cking Eyeore. For me, now, with this arrangement, it’s wonderful.