We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Brian Schanck was 15 years old when a friend played him Emergency & I, the third album by The Dismemberment Plan. “The music was euphonious and the lyrics hit home,” he says, recalling the D.C. indie rock band’s oddball pairing of funk rhythms and emo narrative. He dug it.
When Schanck turned 18, he tattooed the album’s cover art—abstract cartoons doodled by the band’s singer, Travis Morrison—on his ribcage beneath his right arm. He started playing bass in bands in the Tampa, Fla., area.
Schanck, now 24, has since made some regrettable decisions—he’s currently serving a three-year sentence in a Florida prison for a drunk-driving conviction—but he stands by his ink.
“[I liked] how diverse and eccentric they were,” he says, answering questions sent via Facebook and posed over the phone by his parents. “How intriguing the time signatures were, how Travis sang, and how amazing they were as musicians. They had no barriers, [the music] seemed crazy but created comfort.”
He cites his favorite lyrics, from “Spider in the Snow”: “The only thing worse than bad memories is no memories at all.”
An album’s legacy can’t be measured in permanent ink alone, but more than a decade after its release, it’s clear that Emergency & I struck a special chord. Since the group disbanded in 2003, the record has accrued cult-like adoration—the kind of indie-kid love fest otherwise reserved for bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Pixies. People remember where, when, and who they were with when they first turned it on. They climbed in vans and followed the band on tour, Grateful Dead-style. Fans didn’t just love it; they lived it.
And for some reason, now there are more of them than ever.
To commemorate the release of a remastered, double-LP version of Emergency & I, The Dismemberment Plan is getting back together for a string of concerts. After seven years of relative inactivity—they reunited for a pair of benefit shows in 2007—the band will play to capacity crowds in venues it might have struggled to fill in its peak years. In 2003, the Plan could pack one night at Chicago’s Metro. This time around, two shows there have already sold out. So have gigs at the Black Cat on Jan. 21 and the 9:30 Club on Jan. 22 and 23.
Emergency & I’s appeal is easy to parse. It’s a high-energy and high-emotion record—an album that softened mid-20s angst with self-deprecation and noodle-dance-ready beats. It also showed up at the right time. Released in 1999, Emergency & I caught the music industry at a crossroads—it was paid for by a fading major label, yet popularized, at least in part, through the explosion of music culture on the Internet. Jimmy Iovine wrote the checks. Napster and Pitchfork got the word out. The band, which had long toiled at the margins, finally got some fans.
The Plan formed in 1993, and its sound congealed from contradictory impulses. The rhythm section—Eric Axelson on bass and, eventually, Joe Easley on drums—skewed funky. Guitarist Jason Caddell played fuzzy and jittery riffs. Morrison spit out lyrics like post-punk’s answer to the Micro Machines man. “We felt kinship with bands like Brainiac, and Enon after them,” says Caddell. “Any band that was trying to take a bunch of different music streams and see how convoluted they could twist them together.”
In a landscape populated by dour men with giant amps, the band stuck out. “They had this Technicolor, DayGlo, ultra-colorful sound that contrasted with gun-metal-gray tonalities of the time, particularly in D.C.,” says Beauty Pill founder Chad Clark, who co-produced Emergency & I.
By the time the band released The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified, its second album, in 1997, it had built a modest following. Major-label ears perked up and, around that time, the band signed to Interscope. It was able to record for three weeks at a pricey studio—Water Music in Hoboken, N.J.—and hire Clark and Jawbox founder J. Robbins to produce.
But it became clear Emergency & I was not a huge priority for Interscope, which was then being batted around amid a series of corporate mergers. “‘Ice of Boston’ was the main hook for Interscope,” theorizes Clark, who says the label pushed for the song, which was already on Is Terrified, to be included on the next record. “The banana-in-the-ear, wacky, zany, alt-rock hit was a viable way to get a band noticed back then. My feeling was they were dismayed by increasingly serious character of the Plan’s music.”
Interscope dropped the band, which got an unusually good deal—the label returned the master tapes and let the Plan keep the advance. After a year of waiting, Emergency & I came out on D-Plan’s longtime indie home, DeSoto, in 1999.
It wasn’t an immediate smash. Emergency & I gradually percolated into popularity through traditional means—fanzines, extensive touring, some print write-ups. But the record was also among the first wave of indie records to see tangible benefits from the Internet.
Emergency & I arrived in the year of Napster, which made MP3s of the record easily available to college students who had noticed the buzz. The band maintained a presence on the then-newfangled MySpace and frequently updated its website. Fan-run sites like Knerd (now defunct) also posted—unbeknownst to the band—a few free, downloadable bootlegs of concerts. “We benefited from being on the cusp of the first true Internet generation,” says Caddell. “Kids who from childhood were conversant in the language and used it as an intense cultural resource.”
Emergency & I didn’t get much traction with glossy music magazines, but indie-oriented music sites paid attention. “Now get ready—I’m gonna gush because I’m embarrassed I didn’t put this on my top 10 list and because they deserve it,” wrote Sarah Zupko in Popmatters. Pitchfork Media gave the record a full-bore super-endorsement. “I could spend pages examining this record,” wrote Brent DiCrescenzo. “Everything down to the art is stunningly unique and perfectly appropriate.” He published a more direct review at the top of the page: “If you consider yourself a fan of groundbreaking pop, go out and buy this album right now.” The website named it record of the year in 1999. (Disclosure: I’ve written for Pitchfork since 2007.)
Web hype, however strong, doesn’t account for Emergency & I’s long-term resonance. The songs sold themselves. “It’s too simple to say songwriting got better,” says Josh Modell, editor of the Onion AV Club, who compiled an oral history for the vinyl release. “They calmed down. The weirder, goofier elements balanced out with serious lyrics.”
Morrison edged away from straight-up wackiness and applied his playful, self-effacing sense of humor to more adult themes. Songs like “A Life of Possibilities” captured the free-flowing aimlessness of post-college doldrums. “The title sounds bright, but it’s a dark and surreal story,” explains Clark. “It’s a life of possibilities, but one of those possibilities is that nobody gives a fuck about you.” It’s a coming-of-age record set halfway between Shudder to Think and Jimmy Jam.
Morrison is a little self-conscious about the lyrics now and laments their unambiguity. “You know on ‘Once in a Lifetime,” where David Byrne is singing, ‘There is water at the bottom of the ocean,’ and you’re, like, ‘Why is he saying that?’ There aren’t a lot of those moments,” he says. “But at least the single entendres are fully felt.” Morrison cops to listening to a lot of pop country at the time, keying in on the songwriter’s ability to generate a linear narrative. “Country is not interested in the sublime at all. The story is told and you relate to the story,” he says. “Nobody was writing stuff like that in our context.”
That much is true. But The Dismemberment Plan, thankfully, did not play sad songs and waltzes. Part of what sells Morrison’s über-earnest songwriting is the context—“Memory Machine,” with its foreboding, angsty vibe, is presented not as singer-songwriter mulch, but atop an odd time Meters-informed bass hook.
“It was like going to a party and they’re playing four different stereos,” says Robbins. “One guy is DJing Daft Punk, another Stevie Wonder, and another Radiohead. The synthesis worked, even though there were a lot of times where the right hand had no idea what the left hand was doing.”
Photo courtesy The Dismemberment Plan/Illustration by Brooke Hatfield