It’s possible that Travis Morrison could hit the high notes of “Barracuda”. Although his voice doesn’t come close to reaching the stratospheric power of Ann Wilson’s, he’s slipped into falsetto on plenty of songs in The Dismemberment Plan’s lean catalogue. But those moments always came off as comically demented (“I Love A Magician”) or dementedly comical (“The Ice Of Boston”), neither of which seems to be the aesthetic for what the band is about to play.
We’re at the headquarters of The A.V. Club in Chicago, and The Plan is plowing through the Heart single for the site’s Undercover series. While longtime fans of the group might expect an unhinged version of the song complete with schizoid time signatures and nerve-addled keyboards, things stay surprisingly meat and potatoes. Morrison keeps his voice mid-range as he and lead guitarist Jason Caddell chug in unison. Bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley focus more on momentum than jazz-minded theatrics. They all face each other and grin during Caddell’s second solo.
The conviviality goes beyond just the band members, as they already have some pretty chummy ties to The A.V. Club. General Manager Josh Modell wrote the liner notes to the 2011 reissue of Emergency & I, and Undercover’s theme music is “Someone Has To Die” by Axelson’s post-Plan band, Maritime, which he broke off from in 2006. After “Barracuda” ends, the applause from a small huddle of staffers, as well as the song’s classic rock nature, makes the small room feel like a basement, or, as Morrison would most likely prefer, a bar.
“There’s a particular southeast bar rock tradition that includes something called beach music,” he tells me a few weeks prior over the phone. He explains that beach music is a loose umbrella term that covers any rock band from the Southeast with an emphasis on soul, jangly hooks, and social gatherings. It includes everyone from R.E.M. to Hootie & The Blowfish, lesser-known acts like Guadalcanal Diary, and yes, even The Dismemberment Plan.
“It’s just a rock ‘n’ roll thing,” Morrison elaborates. “Throughout my travels, I’ve realized that rock ‘n’ roll in a bar is a southern concept.”
If you categorized The Dismemberment Plan as a Southern rock band, most music critics, and maybe even some fans, would probably scoff. After all, Morrison and co. didn’t garner a feverish cult following in the late ’90s and early aughts for any sort of twang or grit. Instead, the Washington D.C.-centric terms of post-punk, post-hardcore, math rock, and experimental rock got thrown around until the band’s initial breakup in 2003. To be fair, the first incarnation of The Plan was most certainly all of those things. Yet Morrison insists that Southern rock, or, as he likes to put it, “Southeastern rock” has always been “a little part of what we do, although it’s not always that obvious.”
The rootsier part of their sound might be more evident to listeners on Uncanney Valley, their fourth studio album and first in 12 years. Mostly removed from Plan 1.0’s focus on dealing with and surviving quarter-life crises and isolation, the new record exudes an openness that’s unprecedented in their catalog—”Lookin'” is an earnest love song, “Go And Get It” is a simple anthem about positivity, and “Let’s Just Go To The Dogs Tonight” is, according to Axelson, about Morrison’s wedding to Katherine Goldstein, an Innovations Editor for Slate. “It’s like a warm bath, sonically. With bubbles,” Morrison confirms, adding that it focuses on “putting things aside to enjoy each other.” It’s a statement that could also apply to the band’s extended, long-awaited reunion and even longer-awaited new LP.
“It happened pretty quickly, which was actually pretty moving to me, the depth of those relationships,” Caddell tells me as I help Easley load his drums into The A.V. Club freight elevator. “It was immediately evident, even after 10 years, that whole thing about chemistry is true. Some bands really thrive on conflict. Their art is inextricably driven by that sort of tension. We’re not that band. There’s no way to go back and be accurate about the past, but I do wonder that if we had been able to take some time off, if we could have extended the life of the band originally. Who knows, and to a certain extent, who cares? We’ve all had great lives in the interim.”
Later on, Easley echoes his friend and bandmate’s sentiment as we sit at a picnic table in The A.V. Club’s kitchen, waiting for the rental van to pull around out front.
“You spend all your time worrying about silly things, and it’s like, you’re only going to get to be alive for 10 minutes anyway,” he says. The Dismemberment Plan clearly live by this easygoing ethos. Throughout the entire day, the only thing even remotely resembling a conflict is a polite discussion about how they should ship a keyboard to their next show at Denver’s Riot Fest. Easley is against going through UPS, since he used to work there in high school. He warns the rest of the band about the disgruntled veteran employees who had “contests to see who could throw shit as far as they could.”
“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.”
Earlier in the car ride over to WBEZ, Morrison and I discuss some of the other performers at Riot Fest: Against Me!’s overall kickassery, Bob Mould’s “pulverizing” yet charismatic set, and The Replacements’ appropriately scrappy reunion. To my surprise, Morrison found the most stimulating act of the weekend to be Pierce The Veil, another band who often gets saddled with the post-hardcore label, despite sounding nothing like The D-Plan or any of their 90s-era contemporaries. At 40, Morrison admits that even though he was unable to connect to PTV’s screamy histrionics, he was still floored by the unbridled energy and stage antics of the young San Diego group.
He explains: “Their stage show was beyond killer. It was kind of crazy. They had this super-wild, winging-the-guitar-around athleticism. Both the guys on either side had these stands that were maybe about a foot high, and they would basically use [them] for stunts and to do flips.”
I ask if the crowd went apeshit.
“I went apeshit!”
We approach Navy Pier, the arched glass of the Chicago tourist monolith becoming bigger in the windshield. The conversation shifts to the darker elements of some of The Plan’s own songs. I ask if being older and feeling a little more centered has made it hard to relate to anything from their first four albums. Morrison thinks for a moment.
“There are some rather morbid things on those last two records, particularly Change, that aren’t really on the table anymore. I can’t really relate to “Time Bomb,” so it’s just kind of fun and gothy [to play].” We discuss the band’s performance of the song at Riot Fest, made extra gloomy thanks to an onslaught of pouring rain and the formation of a sludgy mud pit in front of the stage. Morrison mock screams some fake lyrics to “Time Bomb” as we pull from the Lake Michigan sunlight into the darkness of the parking garage. “I am the destroyer of worlds!” he cackles. “At least it’s a good song musically.”
While we’re parking, I bring up one of my favorite Plan songs—and one of the least world-destroying—”Ellen And Ben”, also from Change. Anchored by a bubbly bass line from Axelson and some spazzy synth effects, the album closer traces the rise and fall of a melodramatic relationship, as viewed by a casual friend of both parties. I tell Morrison that the ending has always seemed ambiguous to me, especially the lyrics “I’m doing fine/ I’m staying busy hanging with my nephew/ And trying to keep my eyes on the prize.” I ask if we’re meant to believe that the protagonist is gearing up to pursue Ellen romantically, but it turns out the true meaning is something much more grownup, even if Morrison didn’t realize it until years after he wrote the words.
“I didn’t really think about it until the reunion tour. The song was written in my twenties, and I kind of got the sense that the singer had dated Ellen, but it wasn’t a big thing. Maybe they had gone to college together and hooked up a few times after college. I know that some people kind of suspect that the singer is jealous, but I just kind of got a sense that other things came into their life. At 28 or 29, shit gets serious for a lot of people. You don’t really care about your friends’ love-life problems. You’re on your own.”
As much as this newfound “maturity” has affected a great deal of the songs on Uncanney Valley, at least half of them go back to the southern thing, in a way saluting The Plan’s geographic origin or at least reflecting on it. It’s something Morrison has spent some time thinking about since moving to New York City five years ago.
“Living in NYC, I became acutely aware of where I’m from. I don’t think of myself as much as being from D.C. as I think of myself as being from Virginia. We played D.C. maybe 200 times, but we probably played Richmond 115 times.”
They also frequented Charlottesville to play University of Virginia’s Sigma Nu, an “alternative fraternity,” as Morrison describes it. He adds, “Dave Matthews Band played there. A band you loved, a band you didn’t love, a famous band, a not so famous band. All sorts of bands played in that fraternity basement.”
These memories most fully manifest themselves—at least instrumentally, if not lyrically—on “Daddy Was A Real Good Dancer”, arguably the centerpiece of side two of Uncanney Valley. On Sound Opinions, Morrison explains to interviewer and Chicago critical stalwart Greg Kot that the song deals with how we never truly know what our parents’ lives were like before we were born.
“[It] really pulls off staking a claim in that tradition of southern rock,” Morrison tells me over the phone, later confessing that he’s “fantasized about Brad Paisley covering [the song], or at least The Drive-By Truckers. Maybe Jason Isbell.”
Even “Invisible”, the track most reminiscent of Emergency & I or Change-era D-Plan, references the south in the middle of an alienating subway ride through The Big Apple. “Southern manners living city life,” peeps Morrison from the center of a crowded train car.
Over the phone, Morrison recognizes that not everyone would view the band’s background, and by extension, their music, as southern. “Anyone from Mississippi would be like, ‘That ain’t the south.’ But it is, in many ways. We grew up in this kind of hazy band that cuts through Virginia, and sure, the line is slowly moving down. The line used to be right under Washington. It kind of spelled Yankee, but it also spelled southern. It’s part of our DNA.” He provides a breakdown of some of these regional distinctions: “Virginia is large. There’s a north versus south divide, but there’s also the west versus the east, which is kind of seaside culture and the mountain Appalachian culture, which is very distinct. A lot of the mountain folks are just from like a place out of time.”
The singer takes on the tone of an enthusiastic professor when talking about his home state, even more so than when he’s talking about his music. But he takes just as much pleasure in offering criticism. “Virginia [also] has its hilarious obsession with its own history. It’s a very pompous state. It likes to say, ‘Well we only fought in the Civil War because it was the best way to uphold the principles of the constitution.’ [Their] attitude towards the Civil War wasn’t that we were rebelling against anything. Virginia thinks, We’re America. This is where Jamestown is. This is the center of everything. We’re the center of American thought and tradition. We’re American. We weren’t rebelling against anybody. It’s so goofy. It’s so crazy, especially if you go down to Charlottesville. It doesn’t really have soul food, which is really odd. In the east, it’s got crab, and in the west, it’s got whiskey. And that’s not really a diet.”
The song with the deepest roots in the Old Dominion soil is “White Collar, White Trash”, where Morrison rattles off a laundry list of “slightly northern but Bible Belt” Virginia communities that feel half suburban, half backwoods. They’re the places where the working-class stiff of the lyrics likes to cut loose on the weekend.
“I couldn’t help myself,” he laughs. “The inner ring of Virginia—those are all pretty civilized places. But you get outside of that area…Fairfax County, Prince William County…” He stops for a moment, speaking almost to himself. “I didn’t mention Sterling. I should’ve mentioned Sterling.” He snaps back into the conversation and continues. “..Fredericksburg. It’s all these cities that are 20 miles outside of D.C. Every major city has these. I visited family in Rockford, Illinois, and it’s the exact same thing. It’s like 80 miles outside of Chicago, and it’s educated. It’s not redneck. But it’s not a city either. The city’s a far ways away. And that doesn’t just happen in the south. That happens everywhere. [The song’s] a celebration of the exurbs.”
The song also name drops Morrison’s childhood stomping ground; he, Easley, and Axelson all grew up in Fairfax County, while Caddell was raised farther southwest in Lynchburg. Unlike the town and country duality of Fairfax, Morrison considers Lynchburg to be “real Southern.” Coincidentally, I was there a few weeks before meeting with The Plan, and Caddell and I discuss the merits of The Texas Inn — referred to by Lynchburgians as “The T Room” —a late-night greasy spoon whose signature item is a burger smeared with cheese, relish, and egg.
Morrison and I are on the phone again a mere four days before Uncanney Valley‘s release. I ask if he’s nervous, excited, or both, regarding the long gap between records. He equates it all to the feeling you get at the front of the line of the DMV, where you’re thrilled to be getting your license, but first you have to actually get it. He says some of the anxiety drifted away when he received a vinyl copy of the album in the mail.
“I’m kind of in charge of the art, although I had crucial, real graphic artists help this time around,” he explains. “That made all the difference. I haven’t listened to it yet, but it [looks] so beautiful.”
He expresses a hint of dread about the forthcoming reviews.
“Reading about myself isn’t fun,” he contends. “Usually, the problem is most are reviewing it from this position in the marketplace. The occasional reviewer is savvy enough to review it from the place of a musician’s journey through time. And that can be useful. But when it comes to ‘Buy this, don’t buy this. It sounds like this, it doesn’t sound like this,’ that’s almost separate from me. It’s not that useful.”
One critic he has found easy to read is Robert Christgau, both for his brevity and because “he seems to understand musicians.” He adds with certainty, “I think some critics are kind of horrified by musicians.”
I ask if he thinks there’s another record on the horizon, and whether it’ll gravitate toward a more straightforward “southeastern” sound. Morrison says “We’ll see how it goes,” and that, while the band now places a bigger priority on storytelling over numerous time signatures, “it’s not like we’re going to make a bluegrass record.” He quickly adds, “We will definitely save you from that.”
Until then, it’s just a rock ‘n’ roll thing.
Dan Caffrey is a senior staff writer for Consequence of Sound. He is also Artistic Director of The Tympanic Theatre Company, Associate Artist at The Side Project, and an Editor at Groupon in Chicago, IL. Follow him at @DwCaffrey.
Photography by Meghan Brosnan. Artwork and titles by Steven Fiche.