Remembering dismembering: A conversation with Travis Morrison

Last year, Travis Morrison announced that his old band, The Dismemberment Plan, was reuniting, and next month the group will be touring Japan. When they disbanded in 2003, their penultimate show was at Shibuya O-Nest, a headlining capper to a tour supporting their old pals Quruli. It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to, and several hours earlier I had interviewed Morrison for the Japan Times. You can read the article here. But after the jump is the full transcript of our chat, which covers shoelace touring in Japan, the “reality” of being in an indie band, the agony of long goodbyes, and Mary J. Blige.

…this tour has been mostly with Quruli, which is kind of a sushi lifestyle. The last time it was more of our tour, and that was by van. And traveling by vehicle in Japan is not easy.

The bullet train is expensive.

It’s expensive just to wake up here.

Some indie groups come here with nothing and have to scrape to just get around.

The three-onigiri diet. You can find cheapies. I’ve found great udon and unagi-don for less than five bucks. It can be done. I can’t imagine doing it without a label here. We’ve been lucky to have the patronage of Quruli. I remember before the first time we came, we were getting e-mails from Japanese kids saying, ‘I want to see you very badly but your show is sold out,’ and I thought, wow, we’re hot stuff. And then we get here and get to the venue, and it’s like an 1,800-capacity place, sold out. And it dawned on my by the end of the show that we were like on tour with Wilco, and Wilco had asked a band from Brazil to open for it. If a band like that invited you to open for them in their backyard, it’s pretty good. You don’t say no. That’s why I say it’s ‘patronage.’ They’re our hosts. We’re charmed, to be honest. Other bands ask us how to get over to Japan, and I say, ‘Man, you don’t want to talk to me.’

I’ve been trying to get labels here interested in Spoon.

It’s always difficult to know how certain bands will come across in a different culture. The bands that blow up in Europe are just bizarre. The big band in Europe right now is Calexico. Europeans get freaked out with contemporary American culture. We never did that well there because they think, ‘Do they like ze rap?’ But Calexico are this dusty American group, and they’re stars on the continent. In Britain, the dialogue with the U.S. is more contemporary. Craig David had hits in America, the Streets are doing fairly well. American bands go over there. But once you get to the continent, they have a whole other mental construct of what America’s about, what Americans think about, and the sound that comes along with it. I understand why, because Calexico sounds like soundtracks to spaghetti westerns. I mean, they’re not a band that easily identifiable but they’re stars. They’re huge in Italy. You never know who’s going to cross over from culture to culture. It’s random.

Why did you choose Japan for last? Or did it just work out that way?

Yeah, it’s how the schedule worked out. They asked for a time frame and we wanted to come back. Unfortunately–and this is something I’ve had to learn to deal with–over the years when bands break up a certain amount of Kremlinology starts up, where people are trying to figure out the significance, and the one thing you can’t say is, ‘I don’t know, it worked in their schedule.’ Why Japan last? There’s no rhyme or reason to it at all.

Were people upset?

No, there was just a mystification. When bands go abroad, especially in the indie rock circuit, there’s a little bit of ‘oooooh,’ and when they go to Japan, it’s ‘OOOOOOOOOH!’ People don’t understand how lucky we are to have these people here who call us up and say, hey, you want to come over and visit? It’s like Quruli just wanted to see us play.
I’m truly happy to be here. I still can’t believe when I get off the plane at the airport. Wow, it happened again. I don’t think I could conjure the gratitude for being here. ‘The show was bad.’ I mean, you’re playing in Toyohashi. Good, bad, go have some udon.

Are you sending stuff back to your website?

I may write an extended article for a website, but I’m not into tour diaries.

But you did that one about the European tour after 9/11.

Yeah, I was really proud of that one. It was a pretty good piece of writing. But I’m not going to write something like, ‘July 5: show was pretty good. Went out and had dinner with the guy who did the show beforehand.’ People think our lives are so exciting. I don’t want to disabuse them of that. But when Pitchfork approached me about that article I thought about it, and I thought the last month-and-a-half have been pretty weird. So I should be able to mine something from that. So I’m not into tour diaries but I’ll probably write an article. People are very curious: What happens when you go over there? You leave for two weeks, you come back, you’ve been to Japan. What happened?

But you’re based in DC, so you have a local following.

Three of us grew up in suburban Virginia, near DC. One guy grew up in tobacco country, southern Virginia. People dispersed to Virginian stage colleges. I knew one guy in high school, Eric. We stayed in touch and started playing together. As college wound down, we gravitated to DC. When we started playing together we were at various colleges. I was at William and Mary. You can probably say we’re just from Virginia.

Maybe it’s another indie myth, but you tend to think that bands are located in a particular scene.

Of course, it’s the town where we know the most people, so it’s fair to say.

So that’s why you’re doing that one last show there the day after tomorrow.

The one last show was supposed to be a week-and-a-half ago and it was at an outdoor venue. It kind of got rained out. We played about 40 minutes, and we did that because people had flown in for the show. It wasn’t lightning and thunder. There was no reason to chase everyone away. It was a question, at 9:30 we have to leave: Maybe we’ll play, maybe not. We’re down for the count, so we’re going to hang out, see if it stops raining. And about 45 minutes before the curfew it stopped raining. But that’s not how we wanted to end it. So we have one more show at the 930, and then the long goodbye will be over.

Does it feel like a long goodbye?

Yeah, but we stuck to the program. Everything we said we were going to do in the time frame we were going to do it in, we’ve been doing. It’s weird that people are saying, ‘It’s been going on for so long.’ We said there would be two tours, and Japan. We really like playing live.

Any second thoughts?

No. I mean, the thing that happened was that we were starting to get away from the original energy of the band, which is just to make noise and have a laugh and go out on the road. Ten years down the line, I think most of us had not processed the idea of being day-in-day-out professional musicians in a vacuum. They simply know that this is the social organization that they were…

Vacuum?

I mean their lives. Personally, when I wake up in the morning, I want to be a musician. I want to play music. It’s what I do. If I was on a desert island I would do it. For a lot of people in garage bands and rock bands it’s not so. They got into a rock band because they could play and they enjoyed it and they liked being in a band. They enjoyed being with their friends. That eventually will start to pall for many people. We got to place where we did have day jobs and stuff like that. But I don’t think there was ever any collective processing or collective lust to really have music be your day job. No matter how much you didn’t like the day job you had.

Do the other members have vocations, or other avocations?

Yes, but nothing they were pursuing at the same time as the band. Joe is really into model helicopters and is now going back to school to study aerodynamic engineering. Jason has always been an arts and craftsy type of guy, especially with wood, and he’s been getting into furniture making. Eric and I were the guys who wanted to play music as a kind of Platonic ideal, what you want to do with your day the most. And he and I will continue to play. I’m doing solo stuff and he’s playing with guys in the Promise Ring right now. So I’ve enjoyed these last eight months a lot more than the year previous to that. I think there was some fundamental lifestyle issues that we were avoiding about where we all wanted to be.

Eric said he wanted to do things that were precluded by the lifestyle of a touring band. What kind of things?

Being an aerospace engineer. Being an aerospace engineer doesn’t preclude being in a band and going down to the local bar every so often and playing a show. But being in a band full-time and doing interviews, etc., precludes being an aerospace engineer. That’s a really well-turned phrase. It’s not a question of “because I play guitar…” Just being in a band…

Most people may think, as you said, that being in a touring band in always a lot of fun. You have to give up a lot.

Right. What you’re saying describes basic adult life. A lot of people get involved in music in order not to make adult choices. And when they come along they’re stunned. I don’t mind the drudgery days myself, because I like the great days, and anything you do there’s going to be drudgery days in space engineering, too. It’s just a question of where you choose to deal with those days and plow through them in the name of something that you enjoy in the long-term. I enjoy traveling and I enjoy meeting people every day. I enjoy having strange experiences, which is something that being in band allows you to do. I roll the dice with the day. The other members don’t mind getting a five or a seven, but I don’t mind getting a two because it can be a twelve some time. But the main reason this has been so enjoyable is because it’s been getting back to the original spirit of the band and it’s acknowledging that we weren’t all in the same place we wanted to be in terms of our lifestyles.

Did you start your solo project?

Yes. I started making a record in April in San Francisco with Chris Waller of Death Cab for Cutie. I’ll be going back to his studio, probably not with him, in Seattle starting Sept. 15. That’s 65 percent done. Making a solo record is different from band, because a band exists, you just try to document it. You run out of money, it’s done. With a solo record you just go wandering. You’re not sure what it is. It’s more time-intensive. It’s more you-intensive.

Do you miss that editing thing you get with a band?

But I was always the editor, anyway. We didn’t have a dynamic where I wrote a song and the guys would play it. They would never have accepted that. It was more like we would jam and jam and pieces would come flying out, and I would see pieces and bring them together. Probably my real skill is coherent lyric and melodic vision. So in that regard, I had a real role in editing, where I played traffic cop. Actually, I don’t really miss the creative dynamic of a band (laughs). I miss the social aspect of it. But a lot of times with a band, it’s like: ‘I won’t try that, because, I bought this instrument, you see. So I’m going to play this one.’ That kind of assertion fire is good, but it necessarily limits the amount of permutations that you can put the pieces into because the pieces aren’t going to shift very much.

What I always liked about DP was the element of surprise, which may come from what you’re saying. I think a lot of groups try to do that but because they all want to get along they probably don’t do it as much as they could.

Groups are dangerous in that you’re working too hard to make a consensus and all the really wild ideas just get thrown out.

When you have to work to be original, you really can’t be.

I think one of the reasons for that is that it’s hard work if you’re not taking in new information. When you’re 20, you’re buying records left and right, you’re sopping up information, you know more musicians. You’re part of a dialogue, even if you’re in complete disagreement with it all. People get to a point where they stop hearing the chord changes, they stop hearing the voicings. Most importantly, they wouldn’t necessarily do but they may see parallels in their own work. To the end, we were always inquisitive musically. When the band broke up we were excited about the nexus between hip-hop and avant computer stuff like this guy from San Franciso named Gold Chains. He was blowing our minds. And stuff like Kid606. You don’t want to become a dilittante and run around from genre to genre: now it’s time for my computer record.

Neil Young’s pre-midlife crisis.

But it would be more interesting if Neil Young heard Kid606 and said, ‘What does that mean to me?’ What does it mean to a guy with an acoustic guitar? I think it’s a major problem. You’ve got people who are playing music but they’ve lost interest in music.

Some musicians are quite grumpy about music.

Yeah, the wonder is totally gone. There’s a sense that ‘the pop music dialogue doesn’t talk to me any more.’ But at the same time they aren’t going to go out and be Arvo Part or Shostakovich and expand their musicial skill-set and do something beyond the pop framework. So they’re making pop records with no energy.

But would that be pop?

Right, making pop records without any interest in what’s going on in the larger world is a real strange endeavor.

There’s now a clear split in pop, crap or challenging, but the crap is OK, too.

The problem with a lot of Americans is that they have a tough time understanding when black people are smart. The fact is that Timbaland is enormously challenging, and even strange. But it’s closed in a visceral, immediate sheen. I think it’s a remarkable moment right now when people are tuned into the R&B and black pop broadcasting. I think Missy Elliot is a major cultural event. Funk hasn’t been this freaky since Prince. The white intelligentsia and funk have not been talking at all since Prince, but now they are. Have you heard the new Pharell Williams song, “Frontin'”? It’s really Stevie Wonderish. [hums a verse] but it’s two octaves above that. But it’s Stevie Wonder at his most out. The lyrics are just about frontin’, but the music is really ambitious and rich. A lot of those guys are pushing envelopes. The rhythmic envelopes have been destroyed since Timbaland. I can’t believe what he gets away with. There’s stuff still out there. There is a question if the lyrics hold up to repeated scrutiny. Will there be a Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye. I’m still not tired of the Beyonce song.

Have you heard the new Mary J. Blige? The New York Times panned it because she’s not depressed any more.

My Life is one of the most depressed albums I’ve ever heard.

I think the songs aren’t as good as those on the last two albums. Maybe because Puff is back in her life.

He’s a great delegator. The rock press is terrible about giving credit to delegators. There’s an obsession about every little bit having been crafted by you, unless they’re white males. David Bowie’s OK. But people are still suspicious of Madonna, and I can’t tell David Bowie and Madonna apart. They represent the exact same working model. They get the juice out of people and then they discard them. It’s a rare skill. I gotta get some of that.

What about the people who did the remixes?

Most of them I’ve never met. Given the time frame, it sounds as if we and Cornelius did the same thing at the same time and didn’t know. We just thought it would be funny to put zip files of the solo tracks on the website. We were enormously unhelpful about it. Here’s some mp3s. Please don’t e-mail us with questions. We don’t care if anyone doesn’t do it. So we received about 170. I have them all on my laptop. And they’re all spectacular, but spectacular for different reasons. Some are rudimentary, my first remix, and it’s exciting to be part of that. We’re a funny band in that we’re very tech savvy. We were hackers as kids. We have faith in the anarchy of punk and the anarchy of the market of ideas. I’m still not sure if there is enough anarchy of ideas, so we thought we should make a statement. I think a remix album of submissions make a cool statement. And it’s fantastic. I can’t believe what some kids did. We only know 3 of the people, and Shigeru did it on his own. We didn’t ask him. The only one we asked were dialec.

‘Superpowers’ catches you off guard.

Isn’t that astonishing? He flips it upside down. That song had these incredibly dense chords, Billy Strayhorn-style jazz modulations. It was off-putting when we first played that song for people: the chords. The harmonic thicket. Now, hearing the song with no harmonic thicket, just the major chord, like a rock song, the lyrics became completely different. I’ve been trying to think who it reminds me off. A little bit of the Zombies but frankly who it now reminds me of is John Denver. His music has a certain amount of loneliness in it. Really sunny Colorado folk rock, but there’s hurt and wistfulness in it. He totally turned it into a really good John Denver song. That was the kind of juice I loved the most, where someone took the song and completely flipped it upside down. It was definitely a challenge to what we did. Why did you make it that way? And the guy who did “Face of the Earth” had never heard the song before. This is one of the best things we’ve ever done. I am enormously proud of this project. It’s better than most of our albums. On most of our albums we essentially slid into third base. This one’s definitely a home run.
In America it’s only one CD. Repackaging here is a little cooler than it is in America. We would have been pilloried in the U.S.

Japanese listeners are clinical. They demand it.

I wish we were playing a bigger club. Japanese fans aren’t into walkups, they buy their tickets when they go on sale.

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