Q&A: The Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison On The Change Reissue, “Shake It Off,” And The Band’s Future
Today the Dismemberment Plan reissue Change, their fourth album and, until 2013’s reunion effort Uncanney Valley came along, their last. Originally released in 2001, Change was a coming-of-age record. Steering the band’s spazzy, rainbow-colored dance-punk into moodier, more muted territory, it marked their transition into something like full-fledged adulthood and served as a sighing finale of their first arc as get-in-the-van indie rock lifers. They didn’t announce their breakup until 2003, but in retrospect, Change was the writing on the wall.
Thirteen years later, it stands as one of music’s finest documents of fitfully aging out of your party years. The Travis Morrison of Change might have responded to the magic invitation from Emergency & I highlight “You Are Invited” by staying in for the night. Yet even as Change fully embodied the role of a “mature” latter-day release, its music was as lively and inventive as anything the Dismemberment Plan kicked out while exploring the terror and elation of young adulthood. The songs overflow with thoughtful reflection, inspired music, and rampant, unmistakable quirk.
Morrison called from his home in Brooklyn a few weeks ago to reflect on Change, the critical reception to Uncanney Valley, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” Coachella’s “alcohol ghettos,” and what the future holds for the Dismemberment Plan.
STEREOGUM: How did the gears get into motion to reissue Change?
TRAVIS MORRISON: I don’t know. I don’t know, it just started happening. We’ve been working with Partisan Records, and I think they asked about it. At that point there were the kinds of bands who were very much vinyl bands. But if you weren’t a vinyl band, it didn’t make any sense at all to put out vinyl, and we were not vinyl people. We never got the thrill of holding a 12″ vinyl in our hands, [but] it’s very gratifying.
STEREOGUM: Have you gone back to the record very often during the interim between when it first came out and this reissue?
MORRISON: If we’re playing shows and we want to play a certain song but I can’t remember a certain riff, I’ll listen to that song. But I hadn’t listened to it in full for quite a long time, probably since we finished it.
STEREOGUM: How did it strike you when you returned to it? Did anything stand out in particular?
MORRISON: It’s very heavy. Sometimes musically heavy and almost always vibe-wise heavy. Almost gothy. I’m not sure what that’s about. I like a lot of goth, but we are not a goth band. It was pretty dark and heavy.
STEREOGUM: What do you attribute that darkness to? Obviously the end of the band came a couple years after that. Does that play into that, the this-is-going-nowhere kind of feeling?
MORRISON: I think there’s a certain kind of rock and roll made by bands who are approaching 30 — maybe 30, but not too much further past 30 — that almost deals with kind of that hangover feeling you get as your young adulthood is over. And sometimes it can be kind of gloomy. I think the best late-20s record of all time is Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd. They were young then, but they weren’t that young. They were 28, 29, I think at that time, which for a long time, was considered ancient in rock and roll. Not anymore. Older people make rock and roll now. But I remember at that time the ethos of “If you’re 28 years old, you’re ancient” was still very much a part of rock and roll. So I think there’s a certain kind of record that rock and rollers make when they’re at that phase in their life. I think The Suburbs by Arcade Fire is also in that vein. It’s just that zone when you realize college isn’t coming back — really, college isn’t coming back — and you’re grown up and it’s fucking weird. I don’t think Change is as good as The Suburbs or Dark Side Of The Moon. It’s good, but it’s not that good. But I think it’s the same slot, and I think frequently those records tend to be heavy. You’re getting a little tired. You don’t know from tired! You’re about to get a lot more tired. But you start to feel the first inklings of being a grownup-to-be, and it hits you like bricks. Like, “Oh my god.”
STEREOGUM: I’ve heard “The Face Of The Earth” is your favorite Dismemberment Plan song. It’s one of my favorites too; I’ve put it on a lot of mix CDs over the years. Why do you like it the best?
MORRISON: I feel like it’s the song where everyone in the band did what they were good at to the utmost. Jason is still a great explorer of tones and interesting sounds. I think he was a real pioneer of using samples in rock and roll, and the song is driven by that sample. I think Eric and Joe just played this most amazing groove. And then I think that it fit into a certain kind of story I told pretty often, but did it well. We weren’t a very centered band — we still aren’t — and a lot of our songs for better or worse had a plaid-on-plaid quality, these interesting elements that clashed willfully. Sometimes that was very exciting, and sometimes it sounded bad. There’s something about “The Face Of The Earth” that is extremely eccentric and yet it has a unity to it. You’re never fully aware that there’s this Pearl Jam-inspired big rock chorus and what I think probably what our version of what DJ Premier used to do, or Wu-Tang with the Asian instrumentals. With a lot of our songs, you were acutely aware that there were two different things happening, or maybe four. I think the song does not have a plaid-on-plaid quality even though it has very different elements. The elements sound like a unified whole, which we didn’t always achieve. I find that very gratifying.
STEREOGUM: I’ve always enjoyed how you have the straight-up chiming chord part and the more funky off-kilter part and they come in and out. Even though it’s primarily those two main forms, it never seems to repeat itself much either. You don’t sing over the chiming until the end.
MORRISON: There’s a lot of very asymmetrical structures on that album. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t. But that’s a very good point that the song is very much not verse-chorus in its structure. But it makes sense. It works without particularly seeming like it was tooled.
STEREOGUM: You talked about it being a heavy record emotionally and sometimes musically. And I guess probably “Time Bomb” is the one I think is the heaviest on both counts. Do you agree with that assessment or am I misreading that song?
MORRISON: It’s great musically. It’s very well-written. I’m a little embarrassed by that song now. I think there’s something to that. It’s the most melodramatic, I’d put it that way. I actually find some of the other songs heavier just in terms of, like, “Dude, wow.” Like “Face Of The Earth” is pretty existential, and I guess “Automatic.” “Time Bomb”‘s just a little silly. [laughs] Sometimes, live, the only way I can get through it is by singing it in a howling metal voice. I feel like I’m singing it as Mac DeMarco. I mean, there’s fun in that. It’s like taking a warm bath in your chocolatey bitterness. [laughs] But there are a lot of songs of ours that reveal more to me as I play them as a 41-year-old. I can’t really tell you that when I sing “Time Bomb” like, “Yeah, this has more.” So yeah, it’s a little adolescent. And it’s great, it rocks. Luckily it’s a great melody, the arrangement is fantastic, Jason Caddell totally killed it on the song. It’s great musically, it kicks ass, it’s fun it play live, I love it. But there’s something about the song that now gives me a problem taking it seriously. Does that make sense?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, absolutely.
MORRISON: I hope that doesn’t totally bum out your perception of the song. I think of it as the kind of song you could yell at karaoke, and if you can yell a song at karaoke, then it really isn’t that heavy. I mean you wouldn’t yell “Automatic” at karaoke, and that to me is the heavy. “Time Bomb” isn’t heavy because you can imagine a bunch of people with PBRs yelling it at karaoke. That’s cool though, I like that. I don’t know, it’s weird. Asking musicians what they think of their own music is a recipe for disaster, really.
STEREOGUM: I’ve always been intrigued by “Sentimental Man” and your line about “I’m an Old Testament type of guy/ I like my coffee black and my parole denied.” Is that supposed to represent you, or is that supposed to be a character? What was that getting at?
MORRISON: That’s probably who I think I am, or have thought I am more than who I really am. I think there’s a little bit of a reach. I’m not at all like that. But I can identify with it. I wish I was like that. Like, I read interviews with rock stars like Radiohead, and they give these hostile, monosyllabic responses. And I wish I was more like that. But I’m really not.
STEREOGUM: Do you know the whereabouts of “Ellen And Ben” these days?
MORRISON: Ellen, no, but I think I could ask. Ben, yes. We’re Facebook friends. Although the story is not them at all. Well, I don’t know, maybe it was, as prophesied in the work of Change, what happened to them. But I don’t think so. I just liked the way the names sounded together. I haven’t seen Ellen in many, many years. Wow, probably 12 or 13 years. This is probably a situation where I could just go through Ben’s Facebook friends and find out. It’s so sad how you can find shit out like that now. I’m friends with Ben, and I could probably go through his Facebook friends and find Ellen in a snap. But yeah, I think Ben commented on something I said on Facebook just today. It’s terrible! Terrible that now people don’t just get to, like… I just worry that millennials will never know the feeling of, you know, when I was growing up, 90 percent of the people you ever knew, you had no information about ever again. And that’s gone now. Now it’s the 10 percent that you’re like, “Where are they? What happened to them? Are they dead?” When I was a kid you were pretty much consigned that anyone you ever known could be like, “Are they dead?” There’s no way. You would have to hire a PI for everyone you’ve ever known. And now they’re all there. You know, I ought to fucking delete my account.
STEREOGUM: Then everybody will think you’re dead.
MORRISON: Yeah, right? “What happened to Travis?!” [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Total non-sequitur here, but I’ve been meaning to tell you, I used to really not like the cheerleader breakdown section of “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift. Then I realized that I could kind of imagine it being a Dismemberment Plan bridge, and it totally clicked for me and I started to like it.
MORRISON: That’s the thing with Taylor Swift songs: You just have to imagine that they’re Dismemberment Plan songs. [laughs] And I don’t know how many records you could sell if you could just get everyone to try that one weird trick.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, her work would suddenly snap into place for the world at large.
MORRISON: I wasn’t into the video. I kind of blew it off. I respect her a lot, but I don’t really track her. Well, I don’t know if I respect her, I just don’t track her. But then I had this horrible day at O’Hare airport, just miserable, trying to get my bags back. And I got in a minivan just ready to kill. I was too tired to kill, actually. If I wasn’t completely fatigued, I would have killed someone. And then I turned on the radio, and that song came on, and it was like I took five Percocets. My physical reactions to music really mean something to me, and I was like, “Oh! Yeah! I feel better already!” The music of that song is really, really excellent. The sound of it, the way it’s put together, it has exactly the effect — it does and sounds what I guess the pitch of the lyric is. Which is interesting because a lot of music that tells you to feel better feels coercive. Like, “No, actually, fuck off! I don’t want to feel better. Fuck you.” But that song genuinely made me kind of fuck shit up, which was a little shocking. But it was weird. I heard the song, I watched the video, and I was like, “OK, that was a pop star doing some things.” I didn’t have an involved media opinion about it at first. But then in that situation, it totally caught my attention.
STEREOGUM: I saw you guys at Coachella when you were up against all those big acts, and I figured that must have been kind of shitty to have all those mega headliners up against you. But I thought you guys pulled off an excellent set anyway.
MORRISON: Thank you, that’s very nice of you. I really like Coachella, I really enjoyed that. I know it sounds strange. We just played for like three times as many people in a Baltimore club. But you know, like Chris Rock says, it can’t always be the Purple Rain tour. When you do this long enough, you’re always in situations that are unusual, that seem a little — like, if you evaluate them in terms of the body count or foot traffic, it’s like, “Oh, looks like you’re losin’, dude!” I enjoyed the whole Coachella experience. I enjoyed being out there. It’s so West Coast. And I don’t have too much West Coast in my life. I’m not that familiar with it. It was fun to go to an event where, like, alcohol is totally shamed. I think of that as totally Cali. Like, it’s just not alcoholic. They like their pot. They like their abs. That’s great! If I had a six pack I’d be walking around showing it off, I can’t front. But you know, like alcohol was sequestered into these alcohol ghettos where you’re drinking but you can’t see any of the bands from where you are. “You want to go get a Knob Creek? Well you’re going to have to walk three miles!” Which is so not East Coast, or Midwest even. And I discovered Courtney Barnett. I just walked into the tent, and immediately I was like, “This is fucking awesome!” I didn’t know anything about her, and I thought her set was amazing. It’s nice to have different experiences.
STEREOGUM: I think that set really brought me to a new appreciation of the Uncanney Valley songs. Because I hadn’t loved Uncanney Valley like I loved the other albums. I feel like seeing them live really unlocked them for me in a way that I could return to them and appreciate them.
MORRISON: Did you write that dad-rock diatribe?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, that’s me.
MORRISON: Oh, that’s awesome. Well, what can I say? It’s easier to make songs sound exciting live. It’s louder and all that. That’s good to hear though, I’m glad you like the songs more now.
STEREOGUM: Maybe I was just able to hear them for what they are instead of approaching them with all these expectations of what the album was going to be.
MORRISON: I guess it’s our own damn fault for waiting 11 years to make a record. You end up with the Chinese Democracy thing where it’s just overthought. So yeah, that did seem to be kind of a thing with the record. But I think in our media cycle, a lot of stuff is judged at the time, and that’s it. But I think the question is, two years later, do you still want to play four to six songs off the record live? Do they join the family? Do they join the body of work? Because if no, you’re not going to make a record that somehow wipes out the history of the band previously. I think maybe that was something people didn’t understand. I think because we hadn’t been around, I think they were listening to the record as alienated from real people with real lives and that continuity. And I think maybe once people were hearing the songs next to “You Are Invited,” they were like, “Oh, OK.” Which to us, that’s how we were viewing it the whole time is just us doing more stuff. But I think once people saw it all together, they were like, “Oh this isn’t so weird. What was our problem?” At that point it was too late, though. Oh well! That’s how it goes. But you know, we could put out another one, and people could slam it and say, “Man, this is no Uncanney Valley!” [laughs] That’ll be great!
STEREOGUM: Are you going to put out another one? Is that in the cards?
MORRISON: I don’t know. That’s a good question. We have no plans, but we’re not full-time. We’re incredibly low-key toward planning ahead. We’re incompetent at it. I think if we ever did actually plan a record, we would make a terrible record. We’re kind of a perpetual weird chaotic group, just like the music. We’re never centralized, and we’re never quite sure what we’re doing. So we basically don’t have answers to questions like that. We always have answers like, “Why yes, we just made one!” But never “Yes, we’re going to make one.” It kind of just happens or it doesn’t. But I think the more germane thing is to say we have no plans to not make a record. That actually counts for a lot with us. We have no plans to not make a record, but also no plans to make a record.
The Change reissue is out 11/4 on Partisan. Pre-order it here.