The Long Goodbye
For now, for the next few months, the Dismemberment Plan lives on. There is a pair of North American tours to wrap up, as well as the Washington, D.C.-based band's hometown farewell, at Fort Reno on July 28. Then there are a few dates in August in Japan, a surprising stronghold for the group, left on the schedule. And after all of that, on September 22 DeSoto Records will release The People's History of the Dismemberment Plan, a remix album (mostly) culled from the work of fans who downloaded individual tracks (guitars, vocals, beats, whatever) from the band's Web site (www.dismembermentplan.com) and did whatever they wanted with them. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much how the Plan arrived at the originals. So it's not over, not yet.
But it will be, and soon. Everything that remains adds up to little more than funeral arrangements, a dismemberment plan for the Dismemberment Plan. That's why the band's front man, Travis Morrison, is at Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla's Hall of Justice studio in Seattle, hip-deep in a fresh start. Morrison already refers to the band in the past tense. As in:
"I really liked being in the Dismemberment Plan. I really liked being in a band. I liked the band's energy. There were skills I would have liked to exercise more. One of those skills is seeing an arrangement of a song through soup to nuts. With a band, you have to let everyone be them. You have to let the collective subconscious explosion come out. Now, you know, it's all my fault." He laughs. "It's not like I was sitting in the van, staring out the window thinking, 'Why are they ruining my songs?'"
While bassist Eric Axelson is also moving on (he's teaming with former Promise Ring members Davey vonBohlen and D.J. Didier in a new project, In English), drummer Joe Easley and guitarist Jason Caddell have said they are done with music as a career. For the most part, it falls on Morrison's shoulders to carry on the band's legacy, a role he's comfortable in. But then, he's at ease in almost any situation, the perfect party guest. He's polite to a fault, political to a point, pop-culturally literate and passionate about whatever he's discussing. It doesn't matter whether the topic is the Dallas Mavericks ("When Popeye Jones is out there, no one wants to go near him--he looks like an alien") or A.F.I. ("All I know is that I saw a couple of recent press photos for A.F.I., and the singer has turned into Frances McDormand") or whatever else crosses his radar screen. For a bit of this, check out his essay on media consolidation--titled "Turn on the Radio, Nah, Fuck It"--that appears on his Web site, www.travismorrison.com.
There is another item on his site that speaks to his comfort in carrying on after the Plan. Three, actually. They are MP3s of new songs--"Sixteen Types of People," "Checkers and Chess" and "Song for the Orca," respectively--tracks that will sound both familiar and foreign to followers of the group, Morrison's vivid voice nestled among compositions that are more straightforward without being completely streamlined. They are definitely not Dismemberment Plan songs. Sometime next year, most likely, Morrison will set himself further apart when he makes his solo debut with the as-yet-untitled and as-yet-unfinished disc he's been recording with Walla and an ad hoc group of musicians in Seattle and at San Francisco's Tiny Telephone.
"I really like it, but I'm me," Morrison says, laughing. He's in the studio today, but he's not working. Well, he is, if you count talking on the phone all day, answering the same questions every 30 minutes. It's harder than you'd imagine. "I think it's great. It's really high-spirited, really tuneful. It uses a lot of acoustic and natural timbres, like there's a lot of piano and acoustic guitar. I've really had a blast making it. It's been a really, really fun time. And I think Walla, in particular, has kind of stepped up. I think in the last couple of years he's really been getting his skills together, and you can really hear them on what he's doing here."
Walla's appearance on the record doesn't come as much of a surprise, especially since his band hit the road with Morrison's last year on the serendipitously named Death and Dismemberment Tour. But beyond that, the duo has plenty in common musically. Morrison's bittersweet vocal turns on "Come Home" (off 2001's Change) and "You Are Invited" (from 1999's Emergency & I) wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Death Cab record. And Walla's résumé as a producer (Hot Hot Heat, Camden, the Thermals) would have made him a prime candidate to helm a Dismemberment Plan album, if there had been another one. At the simplest level, however, their strongest connection is that both are huge fans of music, no matter the genre or the maker.
"I always kind of had one eye on him, because I thought the Death Cab for Cutie records were sounding better and better," Morrison says. "The rate of improvement was shocking, and the way Death Cab for Cutie's albums are constructed is incredible. They're really meticulous and really well thought out pop-rock records. And just, you know, talking to Chris, he knows about the most crazy music. The guy blew my mind when I mentioned this old jazz-country-blues guitar maniac named Danny Gatton, who killed himself about eight years ago. I didn't think anyone knew who he was outside of Washington. And he was like, 'Oh, yeah. I have a CD by him.' And he does." He laughs. "He knows Danny Gatton's songs. The guy's knowledge of music is encyclopedic. His knowledge of the tricks and the tools and the stuff that you can pick up from different records is encyclopedic. And the record sounds phenomenal. Sometimes I just sit here watching him."
Morrison didn't spend any time watching the people who remixed his soon-to-be-former band's songs for The People's History of the Dismemberment Plan. For the most part, they were anonymous fans, people who took advantage of the band's willingness to watch them detonate its own work, even going so far as to provide the fuse and matches. Morrison couldn't be happier with the resulting explosions.
"They're exactly what I had in mind, which is kind of rewriting the song," he says. "We don't really need to hear, like, my vocal over a house beat. Like, ha ha. One step above that is hearing my voice over a drum & bass beat. Ha ha. But what was really exciting were some of the ones that had nothing to do with dance music and were simply replayings of the songs with different arrangements. A guy [named Parae] did 'Superpowers,' and it basically sounds like John Denver...He subbed out almost all of the instrumentation and put in an acoustic guitar and kept the keyboard. It's just this really sunny, charming, folk-rock song now. It blew my mind. Like, I never thought of the song that way. That was the kind of juice that we were after."
The band also received a handful of remixes that fell into the increasingly crowded mash-up category--someone put the vocal track from "The City" on top of the strings from "Eleanor Rigby," and another click-and-drag jockey spliced "You Are Invited" into a wide variety of songs, including Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love." That, as it turned out, was not what Morrison and the band were looking for.
"I don't really understand the excitement about the mash-up," Morrison explains. "Because haven't DJs been doing that for about 20 years? I'm kind of a little perplexed. I guess this is what happens when smart white people act like they made it up."
If nothing else, Morrison has a future in music criticism.
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