Quit Your Day Job

Quit Your Day Job: Travis Morrison

For one happy decade Travis Morrison fronted unpindownable D.C. stage-crashers The Dismemberment Plan. After the quartet bowed out with a finale at the 9:30 Club in 2003, Morrison moved onto a solo career, releasing Travistan in 2004 and touring extensively with a backup band as Travis Morrison and the Hellfighters who, incidentally, are releasing a record All Y’All on Barsuk sometime in July.

Offering a blast from the not-so-distant past, The Dismemberment Plan just played two reunion shows this past weekend at the Black Cat in D.C. The two-night stand (fingers crossed for more) was a benefit for Callum Robbins, the son of Jawbox guitarist/vocalist J. Robbins and wife Janet Morgan, who was born with the “genetic motor neuron disease,” Spinal Muscular Atrophy. (Robbins was a regular D-Plan producer and DeSoto, the label run by two of Robbins’ Jawbox bandmates, Bill Barbot and Kim Coletta, released the band’s four studio full-lengths, etc.)

And remaining as various (and hyperactive) as his musical output, Morrison’s also currently a member of the Washington National Cathedral choir while holding down a day job as “lead JavaScript programmer for advertisements for the Washington Post website.” I had no idea what the latter meant, so I thought I should ask him some questions about it.

STEREOGUM: So, what does “lead JavaScript programmer for advertisements for the Washington Post website” do, exactly?

TRAVIS MORRISON: I’m in charge of commercial production and programming for WPNI, which is the internet wing of the Washington Post website. So it’s all over the board, from production of small sponsored websites that are within our domains (called micro-sites!) to the (at times) complicated JavaScript that communicates with our ad servers and finds an ad you’d really like to see.

STEREOGUM: Can you explain that last part? Based on what a user’s reading or what they click, the JavaScript generates the next ad?

TM: What they’re reading, what ad they click, what they’ve put in their registration information … there’s really involved targeting. Not everyone sees the same Subaru ad on the same page. The JavaScript is the programming language that runs in a web browser that, upon arrival at the client’s computer, takes that personalized information and sends it to the ad server, which will then do jaw-droopingly fast processing of a million different variables to decide what ad to send.

STEREOGUM: How’d you learn JavaScript? Is it something you tackled in a school situation or on your own?

TM: On my own. It didn’t exist when I was in school.

STEREOGUM: Why’d you decide to give it a go? Was it tough figuring out?

TM: Well, I’d been involved in internet programming in one-way or another for a long time. And I was a computer hacker when I was a kid and the basic structure of computer languages come very easily to me — like folks that are good with foreign languages.

STEREOGUM: How long have you held your current position as “lead JavaScript programmer for advertisements”?

TM: A year.

STEREOGUM: What did you do prior to this?

TM: I was doing freelance programming. It was more HTML stuff and a little server-side Active Server stuff, which is Microsoft’s server-side language.

STEREOGUM: You’re doing some production work, too, right?

TM: Some. Not very much. That’s a brutal way to make a living. The burnout rate is so very high. If the band and the mood is right, and I feel like I can add something, I’m game, but I really have to be approached, and then find the whole thing totally inspiring and a gas. And honestly, if that’s the case, the band must be so good then I’m just sitting there eating popcorn and watching!

STEREOGUM: Do you see your day job working itself at all into your music? Is computer programming at all like making music?

TM: Yeah, there’s some. It isn’t a clear parallel, but there are similarities. I think songs, or any piece of music, are organic things that operate on their own internal logic. So is a program. And both involve abstract, mathematically rooted languages that you are trying to employ in the name of something useful, enlightening, exciting, or otherwise relevant to the human experience. And furthermore, the more deeply rooted the language is in your instincts, the more fluidly you can speak in it in real time. So that’s like music, although that last aspect more resembles the art of the improviser than that of the composer.

There are other elements that aren’t at all like music, though. I think art requires a faith in the power of the perverse or inexplicable, and inexplicable perversity is just a drag in computer programming. The more your ducks are in a row, the better.

STEREOGUM: Is there room in advance programming for improvisation?

TM: Well, in some ways. I mean, you end up running into bugs in whatever platform is running your program, and you have to hack it or figure a way around it, and frequently, you come up with a solution that seems counterintuitive, but actually it’s totally intuitive. Most things that are called counterintuitive are usually the soul of intuitive, because you wouldn’t have thought it to be so, yet it was. And those kinds of counterintuitive situations are more readily grasped or dealt with if you have a deep enough knowledge of the language (musical, computer, whatever) to grasp the scope of all the possible weird things that you could try, absent of any real logical reason to do so. And that’s like improvisation in music. You could say that bop throws buggy chords at soloists and says, ok, here, these chords are broken, you can forget about playing a nice melody over a I-IV-V sequence – can you still come up with a beautiful melody on the spot over these? That’s definitely like my average workday!

STEREOGUM: Do your co-workers know about your solo work or The Dismemberment Plan?

TM: Yeah, they do. I keep it on the down low, to a certain extent, but I’ve always done that. I’m glad to answer questions about it.

STEREOGUM: What do they ask?

TM: Well, the classic question, from interns to CEOs, men to women, 21 to 61, Atheists to Mormons, is: “Do you have groupies?” Any musician can tell you that. They just want to know if you get laid. It’s a healthy reminder of what, deep down, people want in their musicians — that they are living for moments and sensations. Not really just to get a lot of tail, that’s a simplistic view on it — just getting a lot of attention and pleasure, from whomever and whatever, and hopefully giving it back.

STEREOGUM: Is the job cool about you going on tour?

TM: Yeah. I mean, they don’t care what I do with my vacation time. It’s not like they’re like, no, you have to go to Cancun!

STEREOGUM: You don’t anticipate any lengthy tours for the new record?

TM: Not like epic At The Drive In five-year things, no. I’m definitely going to do some national touring, I just have to be strategic about focusing vacation days on west coast stuff and saving stuff I can drive to on the weekend for then.

STEREOGUM: Have you ever existed without a day job?

TM: Yeah, the last three years of the Plan I didn’t have a job.

STEREOGUM: Did it feel weird, or was the band busy enough at that point?

TM: We were busy, but you can disappear up your own ass, and you end up marketing yourself a lot. The single biggest reason I like having a day job is because I’m back in contact with a lot of people who haven’t gotten any kind of memo that I’m a golden god. I really do like that. I’m just this brown-haired 5’9″ dude that’s coding in the corner. Also, it makes you more disciplined about working on music, because you don’t have oceans of time. Although honestly I was always pretty good about that.

STEREOGUM: How’d the reunion feel?

TM: Great. Turns out we wrote some really great songs, and none of us stopped playing music, so we sounded better. Especially the second night of our shows, I was just feeling it like I never have.

STEREOGUM: This is old news, but I’m curious to know if you’re still dealing with the infamous Travistan Pitchfork review. When focusing on work and musicians with day jobs, something like a “0.0” resonates…

TM: Well, of the 200 people at my job, maybe five people know Pitchfork exists. So I never hear about it there. I dunno, I’m glad the whole thing happened. The memo I got from the whole experience was that if I wanted to make a living in clubland rock, I was going to have to somehow make the person who wrote that review — and more importantly, the fun-loving people like him — happy with the music I make. Go back and read it with that in mind (seriously, do it) and I think you’ll be like, man, no wonder he sings in church choirs now, and no wonder he likes his day job so much!

STEREOGUM: A bit off topic: You’re a big Washington Wizard’s fan; they were just swept out of the first-round of the playoffs by Cleveland … Are you bummed?

TM: No, not really … the team was so decimated … I mean was Jarvis Hayes really going to take them to the next level?

All Y’All is out sometime in July on Barsuk. For a taste of the record, stream “Catch Up” at MySpace.