“You hit the space bar enough/ and cocaine comes out.”
This is how Uncanney Valley begins. “It’s a pretty funny way to kick off our first record in over 10 years,” chuckles Morrison over our first phone conversation. “You know, I worked at The Huffington Post, which is all about super fast response. We all basically live like that, so maybe that’s what the cocaine in the computer is about. Sometimes the lyrics…they won’t explain themselves. They won’t. It’s like a black box.” I point out that many of his songs feature strange, potentially dangerous devices: a memory machine, an invitation that gets you into any party, a cocaine computer. “That is a perfectly valid, Jungian analysis,” he says. “I’d imagine that it has to do with my childhood love of science fiction. I tend[ed] to go toward more social realists. I wasn’t reading Phillip K. Dick when I was 10, but Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. Their literature was fairly realistic, but set in technologically advanced situations. I rediscovered Ray Bradbury at some point in my twenties.”
He then wonders if the cocaine imagery comes from somewhere a bit more sinister. He mentions the 1986 death of Len Bias, an All-American basketball forward at the University of Maryland who died two days after being drafted by The Celtics. “The night after the draft, he did a bunch of lines of cocaine, and his heart stopped, and he died. It was tragic because Boston is already the best team in the world. I know that more than one kid my age in Washington is afraid of cocaine because of that. There’s nothing like your sports hero dying of a drug overdose when you’re a kid to make you not want to take that drug. So I have a phobia of cocaine that if I even touch it, my heart will explode.”
Despite the twisted first line, much of the lyrical content on Uncanney Valley has to do with the band’s currently stable nature, both in their personal and professional lives. All four are in relationships and have very adult day jobs: Morrison—a freelance graphic designer, web developer, and regular at his local church choir—just launched the music technology startup Shoutabl, Easley is a robotics engineer for NASA and a father of two, Axelson is a marketing content manager for Capitol One, and Caddell is an audio engineer for corporate political events. “I’ve done a fair amount of campaign work,” Caddell continues. “…for presidential campaigns in particular, not always for people I agree with. Sometimes not by a long shot. But I still value [the leveling effect of] that experience.”
While we’re lounging around a control room at WBEZ, waiting for The Plan to do an interview and set on Sound Opinions, I ask them how their non-musical careers have informed the latest batch of songs. Easley believes that having jobs outside of the band makes rehearsing, touring, and recording “even more of an escape than before,” referring to the short period when they all did the band full-time. Axelson remembers how “the writing actually slowed down” when The Dismemberment Plan became a 9 t0 5 commitment, and Caddell—who forces himself to take a break from admiring WBEZ’s John Hardy preamps (“bench-made American electronics,” he gushes)—relates their experience to playing Riot Fest Chicago the day before.
“I didn’t feel like it was every second of the day this weekend,” he says. “But there were definitely times where I was sort of looking around at the festival—seeing what was going on—where I was super duper thankful for having a life outside of music.”
Morrison, however, is quick to acknowledge that although leading double lives works for them (the choir has given him “straight-up musical ideas”), it doesn’t necessarily work for all musicians. “It all depends on the people. It all depends on the type,” he clarifies. “I have friends who have just made it their whole life focus. It doesn’t mean they’re going through spiritual crises any more or less than I am. The last thing I would want to say is people should live their lives like me. That’s the last thing I’m trying to represent here.”