Sights & Sounds: Travis Morrison of The Dismemberment Plan

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After a long summer break, I’m so excited to brush the dust off my Sights & Sounds column and welcome it back to Design*Sponge. As passionate as I am about design, I am equally passionate (and obsessive) about music. Before I discovered my first Metropolis Magazine in high school, I was decoupaging band photos onto my notebooks and teaching myself to play Nirvana songs on my electric guitar. Music has always been my first love and remains such a huge and integral part of my life. The same way that the smell of certain foods takes people back to a moment so clearly, songs bring me back to moments in my life almost instantaneously. And if there’s one band whose music does that the most, it’s The Dismemberment Plan.

Growing up in Virginia, any band from Washington, D.C. seemed like the coolest. It was the closest big city we had near us and it seemed full of energy and anger and political musicians who weren’t afraid to speak their mind. I instantly befriended anyone who wore a Fugazi shirt in middle school because I felt it was a sign that we understood each other and shared the same pent-up anger. As I got older, I was constantly on the hunt for other great bands from D.C. and that’s how I discovered The Dismemberment Plan. I will never forget the first time I hear lead singer Travis Morrison‘s voice. It was like someone shocked me with a live wire. It was wild, unhinged, almost jangly and anxious with its energy and I would soon discover it was accompanied by one of the most exciting live performances I’d ever (to this day) seen.

After 12 years, The Dismembement Plan has reunited to put out a new studio album, Uncanney Valley, and will be touring to support the new music. If you’ve never seen a Plan show, please treat yourself to a truly one-of-a-kind show. You will not be disappointed. Thank you so much to Travis for speaking with me today about the new album, their music and the way art and aesthetics have informed the band over the years. xo, grace

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Design*Sponge: It’s been 12 years since your last studio recording with The Dismemberment Plan. This fall you’re releasing a new album, Uncanney Valley. What changed that made you want to get back together and start writing and recording again? (Editor’s Note: Of course we are SO happy that you did)

Travis Morrison: We started rehearsing for shows we played in 2011… to promote a vinyl reissue of one of our records… and by the end of the whole cycle we were consistently having good jams. Bands are all about the jams. Even if 99% of them never become songs, they need to have that kind of spontaneous collective creation going. It was a trickle at first and by the end there were a lot of them. So then we decided… not to make an album, but to just continue to have fun and be creative and hang out and see what happened. After a while, damned if real songs didn’t appear.

D*S: Had you and your band mates been playing together over the past decade, or did you need a complete break in order to start again?

TM: Very little but yes. We played a benefit show in 2007. Jason Caddell produced one of my solo records. Eric and Joe played in a band called Statehood. So the network existed. But for that time, the spontaneous creation was not happening with any real vigor.

D*S: For me, the Plan was always so connected to everything that made DC what it was. From really intense punk roots to political discourse to the pleated-khaki-pants-crowd that fill the city. All those things shaken up and mixed with an art school angst remind me of how Plan songs (and shows) felt. Now that you’re not all living in DC, how do your new hometowns inspire and inform what the band feels like now?

TM: Well dunno what Richmond has meant to Eric but I can talk about NYC… I guess the best way to put it is that D.C. is superego-dominated and New York is ego-dominated. D.C. is civic-minded, New York is individual-minded. D.C. puts a high premium on not doing the wrong thing; New York puts a high premium on doing something, anything. So, I went from a bookish, critical, communal environment to an assertive, permissive, individualistic one. Both are valid. What D.C. has to offer is part of what makes its native rock and roll so special. It’s a very unique place from which to make music.

Anyways I would say that the move liberated me to be a less neurotic artist. I really needed help there. I’m pretty neurotic.

But I would never want to lose that sense of plain questioning that is the unusual gift of the D.C. punk rock tradition. That would be a major spiritual loss.

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The Dismemberment Plan “!”

D*S: Visually I’ve always associated Plan albums, merch and posters with a intense graphic look and feel that remind me of the urgency you see on art school flyers. I bring up art school again not because it feels naive, but because there’s this sense of youth and passion and intensity (and sometimes anger) with your music and the accompanying artwork. How have you made the choices you’ve made in terms of representing the band visually?

TM: Well, lack of budget, pretty much. We had very little money and it went into the music and the records. So it would fall to me to come up with something for $0.00. And like at art school, like in punk, when kids have no money but are very clever, they can conceptualize on the fly and really come up with good stuff that papers over the lack of resources and training with sheer ingenuity. And then it becomes a trademark of sorts.
Of course it becomes a trap over the years because you can start to think you are “too great to be good,” if you know what I mean, and then the limitations you worked against so brilliantly ultimately become excuses for not growing.


D*S: Plan shows always feel like a wild party to me with bits of time that almost feel like performance art to me. Was that something you were mindful of- injecting that level of creativity and energy?


TM: Yeah, definitely. But you know, most really good parties have some part that approach performance art. I’ve been at drunken revels in Spotsylvania County with some straight-up country people where people just do really weird stuff. Know what I mean? Just pointless stupid shit. The line between a drunk redneck with a tube sock stretched over his head and Marina Abramovic might be rather thin…

D*S: Are there artists or performers that have informed you, aesthetically, as a band?

TM: Well, I like bands whose album covers seem to announce the discovery of an entire new planet every time out. Like The Beatles. Talking Heads. Lungfish. I respect the jazz-label model of visual consistency from album to album… or The Smiths, that’s a good example of that, I adore the Smiths’ album covers… but in the end, my favorite artists are the ones who shock you every 2 years.

D*S: How did you choose the artists you worked with for album covers and gig posters? And what was that process like? Do you typically give artists direction or do you let them come up with a concept inspired by the music?

TM: In terms of finding artists to work with… I’ve always been an enthusiastic follower of art of all types and things just catch my eye. I really don’t give a rat’s ass as to what is popular or not, so if something tickles my fancy and the person is accessible and within our price range I just go for it. I should have been an A&R person.
I usually give a loose, executive, sometimes kind of daffy idea, and they go uhhhhh-kay and we take it from there.
I REALLY try to keep it loose when collaborating while also providing structure. If you aren’t in someone’s sweet spot creatively you won’t get anything out of them. Giving good notes is such a difficult discipline. I love a line from Lena Dunham to the effect that she hates it when people say “ok, whatever you want, you’re the boss.” I hate that too. You want to keep people pulling on the other side of the rope when you collaborate.
I will also do a mock and sometimes the mock is just it. Like with music. Sometimes you should just put the demo out. The demo is it. But if the demo isn’t good enough, I need help. I am usually maxing out my skills with the demo.

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The Dismemberment Plan- Emergency & I

D*S: I’d love to know more about the Emergency and I album cover. Who did that artwork and how did it represent the accompanying music to you? (Editor’s Note: I blew this artwork up to an alarmingly large size and had it over my bunk bed at William & Mary.)

TM: I don’t know what was worse move for your love life, that or going to William & Mary.

That was a funny thing. We were recording the album and I brought my Mac PowerPC up and was just sketching in Illustrator on my downtime… and I drew the cover. I was like, hey guys, what would you think of this as the art? And I mean, what do you even say? People were like, uhhh, yeah maybe? And then they would go do a guitar overdub or get lunch.

So I got into the idea and thought it should be like a comic strip and drew two more. Then I was utterly fatigued because, as I’ve said, I’m not really a skilled visual artist and I was totally maxing out my skills, and just went for three.

It was line art originally but I decided I wanted it to look hand-drawn, so I got tracing paper, traced it, scanned it, and then filled the areas with coloring. It was EXCRUCIATINGLY SLOW with late-90s computer technology. Thinking about getting it right… what an ordeal.

The typography was definitely a chlidhood’s-end thing. That’s 70s, hippie-cookbook, Whole Earth Catalog style lettering. I grew up with that. I am actually really fond of the type setting on that record.
It’s funny, it’s a bit iconic now–I’ve seen quite a few tattoos–but at the time people responded like my bandmates. just like… uh… yeah ok, that’s cool. A little weird.

I think it probably serves as a nice parallel to the themes of that record. It’s come to be a pretty definitive quarter-life-crisis album, and what says that better than a hand drawn cartoon of an alien stuck to the ground in a bleak landscape and being attacked by grey lifesucking robots? I mean we’ve all been there amirite???

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The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified

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Dismemberment Plan- Uncanney Valley

D*S: Your new album takes its name from a theory of human aesthetics that explains how people are repelled or repulsed by human features or human movements that almost, but not exactly, life-like. How does this concept connect to the music on the album or your live performances?

TM: An interviewer from Vice’s new tech vertical noted that our lyrics have lots of gizmos that don’t really exist that do emotional things. I find it an incredibly accurate and depressing observation. I guess we’re still in that space… the augmenting/translating/diminishing of human emotional conditions by technology.

But it’s funny… we’re not THAT high tech a band. I think we like to exist in a place of humanity, surrounded by the tech. We don’t really do much sequencing, or processing of my vocals. We don’t want to BE robots, like Daft Punk. We want to be humans, but robot-positive.

D*S: What is in the immediate future for The Dismemberment Plan? Touring, writing, recording? And how do your dayjobs (if you have them) fit into this new schedule of being back together with the band?

TM: Right now it’s all about the shows. We have a bunch coming up. And yeah we have jobs… you just have to plan ahead and not be spacecases. Which is hard, because we’re musicians by nature. Every ounce of planning skill I have I have fought for. If I could get paid to live in the moment I’d be a zillionaire.

Molly

Thank you Grace! I love The Dismemberment Plan and I’m so happy to see them on Design*Sponge!

Darren

I love this blog so much for design ideas- you guys always knock it out of the park, thanks for doing what you do!! But just a thought as I’ve looked through the playlists that have been on this blog recently, and now reading the intro to this post- I have yet to see any of my favorite music blogs offer design tips, and they may be people who really love great design. It’d be so strange to see an RSL post sponsored by, say, West Elm. Just some encouragement to stick with what you do well, as that’s what really shines and keeps your readers coming back.

Jocelyn

The Plan is associated with D.C. in general, but, to make you feel better – founded in Virginia. I went to high school with some of them and Statehood, and saw Travis and friends play a pre-DP show at a 1990 or 1991 house party. Don’t worry, teens there consider it cooler to be from D.C. too.

Thuy

Loved this interview, I learned so much! I totally agree about you about their sound bringing back instant memories. Mine is driving around at night in the ‘burbs with my boyfriend (now husband) in high school. Ah, those were the days. Can’t say I had their album cover over my bed! :)

Beth

Oh man, I’m excited to hear the new album! The “farewell tour ” show I saw them play in 2003 where they just took requests the whole night remains one of my all time favorite shows. So much fun.

amanda

ahhhh love this. makes me feel 22 again. i miss the indie rock/hardcore/emo scene circa 2002 so very very much.

Candice

I only recently tripped over this blog, but I’ve been having such an awesome time with all the other posts that I’m thinking this one won’t be any different :)

The Dismemberment Plan sounds like my kind of shtick.
Gonna check them out.

Melissa

Love D Plan! Nice post – love the background on the album covers!

Sharon

Thanks for bringing the Dismemberment Plan to Design Sponge! I didn’t blow up the Emergency and I cover art over my bed in college, but the D-Plan’s music definitely plays a prominent role on this DC girl’s life playlist – got to do the “standing still” listening to them as an angsty high school gal, saw them play while living abroad in Berlin, met my husband at an amazing show at Kenyon College, etc.

Point is: I’ve been following these guys for a long time and I definitely learned something new reading this post. Thanks, Grace! For those new to the Plan: Check. Them. Out.

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