City Paper is not for tourists
The Dismemberment Plan does not have time for this shit.
“Are we also doing an interview?” vocalist Travis Morrison asks politely. “It sounds like you want an interview.” His eyes are beady and tired, but his tone is playful, as if he’s found the nice way of saying, hey, maybe a real deep conversation could be done via phone or Skype or Google Hangout or something later on, because you seem like a swell guy and all, but once this photo shoot wraps up, we want to grab some tacos and then rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, because we’re all here but we’ve got to go home and, like, work this week.
It’s a sticky Sunday afternoon in early September, and The Dismemberment Plan has gathered in Meridian Hill Park for a photo shoot and only a photo shoot. Only two of them live in the D.C. area these days, so on this weekend—a few days before their first fall tour dates and slightly more than a month before the release of Uncanney Valley, their first album in 12 years—the four members have a lot to cram in: On Friday, journalists invaded their rehearsal space; Saturday, they taped an appearance on NPR’s Morning Edition; and Saturday night, Morrison’s other band The Burlies, featuring a different lineup of old hands from the D.C. scene, played a show for about 75 people at Velvet Lounge. Twenty minutes of chit-chit notwithstanding, the interviews can wait.
The Dismemberment Plan is a band at this point only because Morrison, guitarist Jason Caddell, bassist Eric Axelson, and drummer Joe Easley feel like being in a band together. They don’t do what they can avoid doing. That’s not to say they can’t play the game: They have a record label, a professional publicist, and a marketing campaign for Uncanney Valley that’s so far tapped all the channels one ought to tap when promoting ecstatic, polyglot, genre-hopping indie rock.
Still, all of this media-blitz stuff—de rigueur in an era in which indie rock has become really, really professional—is clearly weird for a jocular, constitutionally laid-back band that was “big” back in an era in which its genre was relatively small. Plenty, maybe too much, is being stuffed into this weekend, but when you’re grown-up dudes with day jobs and separate lives, that’s how it has to go.
“That was a busy weekend,” Caddell says over the phone about a week later. “But we’ve been at it like this for a while—the level of commitment has been substantial.” Axelson says that The Dismemberment Plan, which broke up in 2003, briefly reunited for a good cause in 2007, and came back together for a handful of shows in 2011 and 2012, “feels like a part-time job right now.” Morrison quips, kind of darkly, that’s there is “no way out” of The Dismemberment Plan. “There’s an ungodly amount of email to answer,” Joe Easley says. “I can’t believe how much email there is every day.”
The members all hover around 40. Morrison is married, and Easley has kids. Morrison, a former Web programmer for the Huffington Post, lives in Brooklyn and currently co-runs a music technology start-up called Shoutabl, a Web platform that assists musicians with the nonmusical elements of being a band in 2013, like social media maintenance and website creation. Caddell is an audio engineer for corporate and political events in the D.C. area. Axelson, based in Richmond, is a marketing content manager for Capital One. (“Basically, I edit copy for the website,” he says.) And Easley is a robotics engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt.
During a break between photos, Caddell and Morrison huddle for some musician shop talk—not because it’s anything sensitive, but because they’re old friends who need a moment. I can’t help but overhear one phrase from the conversation: “just playing to play.”
It’s modest talk coming from a band that’s a few days away from sharing a bill with a reunited Replacements, a reunited Pixies, a reunited Guided by Voices, and a reunited Blink-182. But “playing to play” feels like a pretty good mission statement for The Dismemberment Plan in 2013. Or at least as close to a mission statement as possible for a band whose “comeback” has felt so uncynical—to the point where it’s been downright messy.
No one would’ve suspected that the Dismemberment Plan that debuted with 1995’s !—the exclamation point of the title basically said it all—would nearly 20 years later be the toast of the NPR set and a reliable sellout at the 9:30 Club. But over the course of four albums, three EPs, and a couple of singles, the band transformed from a furiously nerdy noise-making anomaly to innovative indie-rock heroes.
The Dismemberment Plan formed in 1993 with original drummer Steve Cummings, who had attended Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Va., with Morrison and Caddell. After Cummings’ exit in 1995, Easley joined the group. When the band—named after a throwaway line from Groundhog Day—first arrived, it had a lot to do with D.C.’s jagged punk sound, especially the plateau-jumping intensity of Jawbox. At the same time, the Plan was mining something fusion-oriented and inexplicable that would later drive other D.C. bands like Q & Not U and Black Eyes: a frantic, dance-friendly sound that was punk chiefly in attitude.
Each Dismemberment Plan full-length wandered in a new direction, shaking off art-rock influences and scooping up even more esoteric ones. Just as interesting were the pop influences. The Dismemberment Plan could sometimes sound like jazz, but not necessarily cool jazz: They were more Weather Report than Ornette Coleman. When they sneaked in some disco, it had as much to do with Kool & the Gang and Giorgio Moroder—you know, real disco—as it had to do with the funky punk of Public Image Limited. They toured nonstop.
1997’s Is Terrified was a big ball of nerves and eccentricity, from the absurdist dork funk of “Bra” to the rock-show joshing of “Do the Standing Still” to “The Ice of Boston,” a downcast and hilarious live-show favorite that exhibits Morrison’s ability to be both nihilistic and lightheartedly quirky. (In one verse, he reconsiders Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia”: “And I thought to myself: ‘Oh, Gladys, girl, I love you but, oh—get a life!’”)
For a moment, the band wandered onto a major label, repackaging “The Ice of Boston” for a 1998 EP on Interscope. When the company merged with Geffen and A&M, The Dismemberment Plan got the blessed boot. They took their third full-length back to indie DeSoto Records, which was exactly the right context: 1999’s Emergency & I was an early sign that indie rock was about to get more open-eared, wide-eyed, and optimistic. It’s an album on which textures matter as much as everything else, and on which the guitars don’t always sound like guitars. “You Are Invited” escalates a Harlan Ellison-like story about a magical invitation into a full-on fist-pumper. “The City” is rousing and devastating at once, an anthem of early Millennial placelessness.
Subdued and often pleasant, 2001’s Change was aptly titled, which nearly every review pointed out. Even the firecrackers, like “Time Bomb,” a simmering blast of rage, knew when to dial it back. Opener “Sentimental Man” has one of Morrison’s best couplets: “I’m an Old Testament kind of guy/ I like my coffee black, and my parole denied.”
All along, The Dismemberment Plan developed into one of indie rock’s fan-friendliest live bands. On stage, Morrison indulged a hammy, postmodern showman shtick, but you would never call the band condescending crowd-pleasers: They were gleefully unpredictable. At a 2003 Black Cat show, Morrison interrupted the set to tell the audience he was pretty disappointed in The Matrix Reloaded. “The Ice of Boston” was an invite for as many people as possible to climb onto the stage while the show detoured into full dance-party mode. The people at Plan shows were obsessives, but they were also transformed by the band’s attitude: Strangers talked to one another. People didn’t scoff or stare at their shoes. They said “sorry” if their enthusiasm got the best of them and they elbowed you in the eyebrow. When you saw the Plan, you mainlined their spirit, which was bright-eyed and positive even during the hopeless songs. A Dismemberment Plan show was a safe and cathartic space. No one—no one I remember—did the standing still.
When The Dismemberment Plan announced its breakup in 2003, it had knocked out, by Easley’s approximation, more than 800 shows. It was a full-time job, and they were successful to the extent that if they toured their asses off, they could pay their rent. But when they tried to record a follow-up to Change, it wasn’t happening. “We don’t know how to make a record unless we can write music that excites us,” Caddell says now. And the new songs The Plan was coming up with weren’t exciting them.
A July 28, 2003 show at Fort Reno that was supposed to be The Plan’s American send-off was cut short by rain and thunder. They played the 9:30 Club on Sept. 1 to make up for it. Their final release was A People’s History of the Dismemberment Plan, an offbeat compilation that was an early experiment in fan-sourced remixing.
In 2004, Morrison put out a charming, low-stakes solo record called Travistan that was maligned by Pitchfork, which awarded the record a “0.0” five years after naming Emergency & I the top record of 1999. He later formed the Travis Morrison Hellfighters. Caddell produced records for D.C. peers and formed Poor But Sexy, a strange bedroom-vibes group that, had it arrived a few years later, might’ve been considered “alt-R&B” along with current buzz acts like Inc and How to Dress Well. Axelson joined Maritime, a group founded by former members of The Promise Ring, and taught high school English. Easley went back to school, eventually becoming an engineer at NASA, and drummed in the group Statehood with Axelson. They all kept in touch.
In 2007, The Dismemberment Plan returned for one show for one reason only, according to Morrison: “To help J. Robbins,” the former Jawbox singer who had co-produced several Plan records, and whose son was born with spinal muscular distrophy. To help with Robbins’ health-care bills, The Plan agreed to play a (Washington City Paper-sponsored) benefit show at the Black Cat. It sold out quickly, so they added another one. That was it. In 2009, Morrison, now living in New York, even announced his “retirement” from music.
In 2011, in support of the 10th-anniversary vinyl rerelease of Emergency & I, the band went back on the road. By this point, the Plan had been gone long enough that demanding music nerds were ready for a comeback, and 13 shows, a spot at the Pitchfork Music Festival, and a Jimmy Fallon appearance made it clear that, eight years after hanging it up, The Plan was a much bigger band than it had ever been. Some shows followed in 2012, including a slot at the Virgin Mobile FreeFest. They fleshed out their nostalgia-trip set with eight new songs.
Performing again, Caddell says, “shocked the band into an awareness that we didn’t have before.” Quite a few people were still interested in The Dismemberment Plan. And those new songs sounded very, very good.
J. Robbins’ Magpie Cage Studios is a freestanding box of a building in midtown Baltimore, not far from the Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of Baltimore. It’s a three-minute walk from a swanky yoga studio and a Starbucks, but it also sits near the boarded-up parts of Baltimore that too easily reminds outsiders of The Wire. The Dismemberment Plan recorded Uncanney Valley here, but in shifts. They have lives now, after all.
Long before J. Robbins took over the spot, it was a studio called OZ. It’s where Jawbox recorded 1994’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart; another Plan favorite, Shudder to Think’s Pony Express Record, was recorded there too. “We were aware of [Magpie Cage’s] storied history and excited by that,” Caddell says, before adding, with a Ron Swanson-like stiff-upper-lip affect, “Not to mention, J. Robbins. That man is family to us.”
These days, The Dismemberment Plan’s members are simultaneously serious about the band and disarmingly unsentimental, which may be why, when interviewed separately, their explanations for how they ended up making a new record don’t quite cohere. Morrison jokes that the group’s slow return resulted from events a little bit outside their control, which he says is “how it always is” when The Dismemberment Plan embarks on anything. About the only thing they “decided to do,” says Morrison, “is not say, ‘We are making a record.’”
New songs sprouted out of rehearsals of the old material, and the band left it at that. “Every time we’d get together to practice, we would play the old songs until they were making us crazy,” Easley says, “and then we’d have little jams or a bit that Travis might bring in, and we taped all that shit.” Axelson remembers distilling those recordings into loops to study and consider. “We had all these song ideas!” Axelson says. “So, finally we decided, ‘Let’s get together and just fuck around for a weekend.’ And we did that.” They considered bundling the new songs into a series of EPs. “But once we talked multiple EPs,” Axelson adds, “then we were just like, ‘Fuck it, we’re halfway to a record.’”
Reigniting the songwriting spark they thought they’d lost after a 12-year break was daunting on its own, but when they decided to commit their new material to tape, there were practical challenges, too. (For starters, the band is spread across the Mid-Atlantic.) It was “a tall logistical mountain to climb,” says Caddell, who ultimately produced the album.
The Plan recorded Uncanney Valley in 10 days. Taping began President’s Day weekend this February. Over those three days, the rhythm section of Axelson and Easley laid down their parts. Later that week, Morrison and Caddell came in and recorded guitars, keyboards, and vocals. Each night, Easley and Axelson drove back to Magpie Cage to provide an additional set of ears. The impressively unobtrusive mixing was done by Paul Kolderie, who has worked with the Pixies, Radiohead, and others.
Two-at-a-time isn’t the ideal way for any band to record, but it was the most convenient. At one point, the band considered recording in multiple places as a full unit, but slowly, Morrison says, “reality set in.” Robbins puts it like this: “They might never have made the record if they didn’t just go ahead and make the record.”
Uncanney Valley isn’t the album The Dismemberment Plan would’ve made had it continued after Change, but the new record sits comfortably on the shelf with the rest of the band’s material. For the most part, Morrison’s lyrics maintain their typical strange mix of sincerity and satire (“You push the spacebar enough and cocaine comes out/I really like this computer!”), while the more deeply felt songs are penetrating and straightforward. The open-hearted love song “Just Lookin’” feels like Morrison echoing his wife Katherine Goldstein’s moving Slate essay “What It’s Like To Marry a Rock Star.” “Daddy Was a Really Good Dancer” is a complex familial reminiscence that finds the band taking familiar mortality lessons from a less me-centered point of view.
And there are plenty of shouldn’t-work-but-totally-do musical quirks: a marching band sample kicks off “Waiting,” in which a screwed-down voice also declares “Kill me!” “Invisible” has wobbling, decaying strings, framing a song about the rugged ins-and-outs of living in New York City; its urbane paranoia recalls Emergency & I’s “The Jitters,” but now the narrator has grown up, and his depression has as much to do with his exterior surroundings as his interior condition.
For all of Uncanney Valley’s eccentricities, it feels far less self-impressed than The Dismemberment Plan’s previous work. Life hasn’t gotten any less complicated in The Plan’s cityscape of urban anxiety, but the lessons its characters draw cohere into an album that’s strangely, satisfyingly at peace with itself.
Caddell first suggested the title “Uncanny Valley.” The term refers to the concept that the closer technology gets to replicating the human face, the more those replications creep flesh-and-blood humans out. At first, Morrison thought the title was “too on-the-nose.” But when he accidentally misspelled the phrase, adding an “e” to “Uncanny,” he loved how it looked on paper. “Once I put that extra ‘e’ in there, it looked like an English, Appalachian name,” Morrison says, dipping into a country accent, “‘Outside of Blacksburg is the Uncanney Valley.’”
The misspelled title could also work as a commentary on the idea of bands getting back together to recapture their faded magic. All the elements are there, but something, somehow, isn’t quite right. That just happens to be the ideal awkward place for The Dismemberment Plan.
Put down this article for a moment, pull up YouTube, search for “Dismemberment Plan Princeton,” and click on the Feb. 6, 1999 clip of the band performing “The City” in Princeton, N.J. At this point, The Plan wasn’t quite a cult band yet, but they were already in their weird, goofy sweet spot. Morrison sports dress pants, does a quasi-Moonwalk shuffle, and looks like he’s about 11 years old. There is a lot of sweat behind his ear. Easley is intensely, obsessively focused on his drums. Axelson vamps on the keys, adding a sad-sack video-game melody to an already lonely song. Caddell grinds out a riff and, in a white T-shirt, looks like he could beat up everybody else in the room.
And the audience! Most of these kids are wearing mom-bought-this-for-me dress shirts unbuttoned to reveal band tees. They’re mostly fans (and mostly dudes), rocking gently to a ragged, already cathartic version of what would become an Emergency & I highlight. It is beautifully and delightfully uncool.
This was years before the indie-rock-industrial complex had made room for bands to play festival stages while singing about feelings and sounding like Prince—and then made that shtick boring. But there’s something in this 14-year-old video, something truly generous about the band, that still carries through today, grounding Uncanney Valley as a mature album but not an old-dude one.
You see it in the bandmates, too. Back at Meridian Hill Park, Axelson and Morrison are, for some reason, debating the 1981 Stevie Nicks/Don Henley duet “Leather and Lace.” Suddenly, Axelson is doing a strong Henley impression, while the others grin. They’re not on stage, but they might as well be bantering between set numbers. They vibe with goofy electricity when they’re not thinking about the boring logistical parts of being in a band.
“This feels very much like a new beginning,” Caddell tells me later. Then he slows down to make sure he doesn’t suggest anything definitive about the group’s ambitions following the fall tour. “And that’s not to be coy or to preload questions about the future, because none of us have any answers to that, at all. But it really does feel like a fresh part of our relationship.” Once again, The Dismemberment Plan’s plan is that it doesn’t have one. It’s been that way for 20 years.