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Travis Morrison, ex-frontman of the Dismemberment Plan, is prepping himself before a show. Normally, Morrison might spend this downtime drinking in the audience with friends. But today, he sings warmup scales, rehearses new material…and dons a robe. Alexandria’s Del Ray United Methodist Church is a venue that Morrison is still getting used to.
Mostly older churchgoers watch as Morrison appears in the church’s choir loft with mostly middle-aged choir singers. Morrison, 33, waits for the choir director to give the signal. Then he joins the rest of the singers with “Soon I Will Be Done With the Troubles of the World.” The spiritual reverberates throughout the sanctuary, Morrison’s sweet tenor lingering under the vaulted ceiling.
“I think we brought the house down on that one,” Morrison says later. “The congregation at Del Ray is used to a straight diet of Masterpiece Theater stuff, and we sort of gave them Sister Act II. We were just haunting and grizzly.”
Del Ray might seem a long way from the Dismemberment Plan, the jittery dance-punk band that reigned from 1993–2003. But when the musicians called it quits after releasing their aptly titled album Change, Morrison had an awakening. No, not a religious one: a rude one.
A year after the breakup, Morrison released a solo album, Travistan. On it, the singer departed from his normal sound and subject matter—typically love and the anxieties of post-undergraduate life—to rap about former presidents. Travistan earned Morrison a 0.0 rating from Pitchfork, a blow the online magazine has served to fewer than a dozen other artists.
Touring after Travistan was a little difficult. “Everywhere I went, the local papers would regurgitate the Pitchfork review,” says Morrison. “I could tell that the audience wasn’t sure whether they should be there.” Thinking he could just wait it out, Morrison started working on the follow-up to Travistan. But six months went by, and people were still talking about the 0.0. Morrison found that he was having a hard time booking shows. “Pitchfork gave Liz Phair the same rating, but she can still go to shows and play that 6’1” song,” he complains. “I didn’t have that luxury, because I had gone solo.”
Feeling “a little paralyzed” and “like every single move I made would be shredded,” Morrison decided to take a break from performing. He all but stopped doing shows with his new band, the Hellfighters, and got a programming job at Washington Post–Newsweek Interactive in Arlington. Morrison tried, whenever he wasn’t working, to soak up as much music education as he could, including lessons on classical Indian singing. It was during this period of wounds-licking and experimentation that he saw a $35-a-week gig for choir singers advertised on Craigslist.
“I don’t know if my logic is kind of sad and yokel, but it just seems like a good way to sing,” says Morrison, venting frustration at what he calls the repetitiveness of rock. “Some rock ’n’ roll is back to the start, played the same way. My tolerance for that is slipping….I knew there were other ways to keep music moving and fresh, and I found it in these hymns.”
“I’m not really that concerned about the glory of Jesus,” he clarifies.
Since joining the choir, Morrison’s been learning the four-part harmony of Methodist hymns. It’s quite different from dance punk—the sound flows, with no great leaps. “It’s an incredible way to learn music and how it is constructed,” he says. “You have to be one voice within a whole, not just shrieking over guitar chords. You can’t be the whole guitar—just one string on the guitar.”
Choir director Stephen Klyce says Morrison has also formed an a cappella group among the singers to practice black spirituals. Getting “Soon I Will Be Done With the Troubles of the World” into the hymnal lineup was Morrison’s idea. Klyce says Morrison hasn’t mentioned to him that he was once a minor celebrity on the local rock scene. Rather, he knows him as the guy who, “during our prayer requests…would ask us to pray for his basketball team,” the George Mason University Patriots.
The scenesters, however, have taken note of his new project. Morrison says he gets a blank response whenever he tells one where he spends his Sunday mornings.
“I know some indie kids are doing double-takes and thinking, What the hell is this guy doing?” says Eric Axelson, former bassist of the Dismemberment Plan. “It’s a smart move for him. I’ve been to most of the [Hellfighters] shows, and his sound is smoothing out, taking the edges off. It’s a lot closer to the Steely Dan and R&B we listened to in high school.”
Although the Hellfighters write their songs as a group, Morrison’s “sacred 101 stuff” has been asserting itself. “We sit and think, Well, what other ways can we play this chord?” Morrison says. “When we’re fucking around at practice, we sometimes sing in four-part harmony.” Morrison also says the church singing has been seeping into the band’s debut record, All Y’All.
“It has a very stripped-down soundscape. You could say it’s a little Stop Making Sense by the Talking Heads. One of our drummers thinks it sounds like Curtis Mayfield.” He pauses. “It’s very melodic and very funky. Yes, that’s what I’ll say. Very melodic and very funky.”
That record was originally slated to come out in February 2006, but Morrison is taking things slowly, allowing time for the band to rewrite some songs and find a producer and a label. “It’s not Chinese Democracy or My Bloody Valentine or anything dramatic,” he says about the delays. “But it’s been beset.” For now, Morrison is content to spend his days programming, playing a few local shows with the Hellfighters, and plotting the upcoming choir season.
“Next fall, I think I could worm my way into the third or fourth tenor in a much bigger venue,” he says. “I saw a poster for a Bach recital at one of the churches in Judiciary Square, and I thought, Yeah, that’s where I want to be.”CP