Man with the Plan

The Dismemberment Plan's Travis Morrison talks about major labels, modern R&B, and...Steely Dan?

Travis Morrison should be at work right now, drinking bad coffee and building Web sites for the Consumer Electronics Association. But he's not -- he wasn't there at 2 p.m., and almost an hour later, there still isn't any sign of him. A few phone calls and a few more hours later, it doesn't seem as though he's going to be there anytime soon, or even as if the singer-guitarist for The Dismemberment Plan has ever been at the phone he's not picking up. After all, it's someone else's name and voice on the outgoing message. Morrison might be at the end of a phone somewhere in Washington, D.C., but it's definitely not this one.

But 24 hours later, he is, apologizing for yesterday's disappearing act. He thought the interview was scheduled for next week, or last week, or something like that. The problem, he explains, is that he doesn't do many interviews, and even the ones he's supposed to do usually never happen. "When I don't blow it, they do," he says. "It's really inevitable. When I'm here, they never call."

It's not much of a surprise that Morrison wasn't at work yesterday. He goes in only when they have something for him to do. Sure, he needs the money, but he would rather be at home playing his guitar than sitting around doing busy work just to pick up a check. That's why he continues doing temp jobs, even though he's had plenty of offers for steady work.

The Dismemberment Plan, otherwise known as the indie-rock R&B band, but without, like, R&B
George Chase
The Dismemberment Plan, otherwise known as the indie-rock R&B band, but without, like, R&B

"Getting a full-time job with somebody -- doing what I do -- would be like working as a mechanic for one rich guy and his 40 cars," Morrison says. "You know, it's kinda cool, and you get to go out to his estate and stuff, but it's more fun to work on other people's cars."

Maybe that's why Morrison has never had to worry much about publicity, because he and his bandmates -- guitarist Jason Caddell, bassist Eric Axelson, and drummer Joe Easley -- haven't ever gone out of their way to publicize themselves. They'd rather just work on the music instead. Though The Dismemberment Plan has recorded a trio of eclectic, electric albums (1995's !, 1997's The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified, and last year's brilliant Emergency & I, all on DeSoto Records), the group has never been paid much attention -- that, or it has been overshadowed by better-known peers in its hometown, or dismissed as simply too strange, too ambitious. And while Morrison sees that point, he'd rather worry about the people who do understand the Plan.

"You know, we never pick our directions," he says. "We never know where we're gonna go. People ask, 'What's with this new direction?' and I'm like, 'What was the old direction?'" He laughs. "It's kind of all over the place. I think it made it a little hard to follow over the first couple of years -- even for us -- but we've definitely gotten to the point where we've garnered a couple of core fans that are like, 'What have you got next? What are you guys gonna think up now?' They're worried and interested.

"I mean, a lot of our dream has been, 'Yeah, we can combine, like, Jawbox and Sade,'" Morrison continues, laughing a bit. "A lot of people don't think that's a good idea. There's a lot of people that are gonna be like, 'Don't do that!' But I think at this point, all the kids that would turn us on and just be like, 'What?' I think they got the point a long time ago that this was not what they wanted to listen to."

The group's inventive nature may not appeal to everyone, but it has produced a rabid following in its hometown, including a pair of fans who regularly show up to Dismemberment Plan gigs in costume -- everything from French detectives to cardboard boxes painted blue with the word "pubes" scrawled on the front. "Sometimes, I wanna be like, 'Come on, guys, calm down,' Morrison says, referring to the pair of fans, one of whom did a drum 'n' bass remix of one of the songs off Emergency & I that's posted on the group's Web site (www.dismembermentplan.com). "But that's just lame."

A couple of years ago, it appeared as though the band was on the verge of inspiring other fans around the country to don Hamburglar disguises in the name of The Dismemberment Plan. The group signed with a major label, Interscope Records, and began working on its third album. But the relationship never amounted to much, even before the band got caught in the crossfire during last year's major-label pissing contest.

Interscope quietly put out 1998's The Ice of Boston, a four-song EP culled from previous releases and demos, and cut the group loose less than a year later with even less fanfare. But, as Morrison says, the group's brief tenure on Interscope's roster did have one positive result: Emergency & I, the group's most scattered and cohesive record yet.

Recording the disc on Interscope's dime -- "By DeSoto standards, it was a lot of money, [but it was] very modest by the standards of most major-label contracts," Morrison says -- the band was able to spend more time on Emergency & I. The product is a dozen songs that stick the landing every time, from the trouble funk of "8 1/2 Minutes" to shout-along anthems such as "What Do You Want Me to Say?" to the roller-rink pop of "Back and Forth." Morrison says it wasn't just the time and money that made Emergency & I possible -- maturity and producer J. Robbins had just as much to do with it.

"There's a fantastic quote from [Steely Dan's] Walter Becker about their early recording efforts, and how frustrating they were," Morrison says. "The way he put it was that, 'We would just go in, and we wouldn't be able to play it, but we'd play it over and over again, hoping that it would miraculously come out right once.'" He laughs. "Young musicians definitely tend to do that a lot. I think the main thing the money afforded us the opportunity to do was really go after it, see how tight and well-crafted and sculpted we could make it.

"It wasn't fun," he continues. "At times, it was enormously trying, and we all completely resented J. Robbins for it while we did it. Now, of course, my thoughts about it are totally like the thoughts you'd have about an old Jesuit teacher. Like, 'Thank you for rapping me on the knuckles. You made me so much better.'"

And it shows on Emergency & I. The songs may be all over the place, but that's exactly where the band wants them to be; seven years of playing together has allowed the members to tame their influences without completely containing them. You can still hear all of them at times, yet they are just another part of the Plan now, long since absorbed. Emergency & I is a little bit of the Talking Heads, Fugazi, Stevie Wonder, Public Enemy, Devo -- even some Steely Dan -- smashed together until the ingredients all look and sound alike, which is to say, different from almost anything else out right now.

Taken separately, the songs on Emergency & I fit together like pieces from 12 separate jigsaw puzzles, yet it all works somehow, mainly because of Morrison's panic-attack vocals. He's the smooth crooner on "Back and Forth," the manic street preacher on "8 1/2 Minutes," and somewhere in between on "The City" and "Spider in the Snow." Every song is a study in opposites and how they combine to make each element stronger. Like the way the sing-song chorus of "You Are Invited" detonates out of nowhere, since the band lulls you to sleep by surrounding it with little more than a drum machine and Morrison's push-pull verses. Or how "A Life of Possibilities" breaks in two at the end, as the band re-imagines the song as a next-wave rave-up after spending the previous two minutes resting all of its weight on Axelson's heartbeat bass line and Morrison's creepy falsetto. Even when the band plays it straight -- the get-up-and-dance "Gyroscope" -- the end result is laden with ice-cream-truck keyboards and a bridge that sounds as though Morrison's luck ran out at a dunking booth.

It all adds up to the most daring record of the previous year, a disc that feels a lot like a masterpiece. But Morrison isn't content with Emergency & I. He wants the band to top itself, come up with something that's equal parts off-the-wall and Off the Wall. And he's not looking to rock and roll for ideas. At least, not anymore.

"I think modern R&B, popular R&B, has gone into a fascinating period," Morrison says. "I think there's a lot of people responsible for that, from anyone like D'Angelo and Lauryn Hill to that guy Timbaland, who just does the most bizarre stuff. It's really weird, and not only do people like it, people dance to it. I think probably one of the least interesting areas of music right now is rock and roll. Even a lot of indie rock, it's like...I don't know." He laughs. "I feel like there's not that many freaky visionaries. Even a couple of years ago, you saw Shudder to Think, and they were really different.

"But in modern R&B and hip-hop, they're aggressively experimental, in the name of, like, making money and dancing and having fun," he continues. "But they turn out to be more experimental and boundary-pushing than the bands in what is viewed to be an art underground, like indie rock."

But more than anything else, Morrison just wants to make a record like his heroes -- who, in this case, aren't exactly what you'd expect.

"I love Steely Dan," Morrison says, not at all sheepishly. "I think they're one of the best bands ever, in terms of a catalog that I can dig through and just find classic song after classic song. It's really interesting. If you wanted to appreciate 'Peg,' you could appreciate it as disco fun. You could appreciate 'Peg' as a really creepy story of a guy being obsessed with a teenage model. You could appreciate it from the level of being harmonically ambitious. They worked on so many levels, and I just love that.

"I love it when bands are in the public eye, and they're popular, and, if you want to, you can appreciate them on a really freaky and complex level -- if you want to," Morrison says. "But you can also, like, turn them on and be like, 'Peg, it will come back to you...'" He laughs. "You can't ask for anything more than that, because so many bands only work on one level or another."

The Dismemberment Plan doesn't have to worry about that.

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