Music Interviews
1:18 am
Mon October 14, 2013

The Dismemberment Plan Returns, To Its Own Surprise

Originally published on Mon October 14, 2013 5:38 am

A second chance at stardom is rare in the music world, but this week, one band is getting another shot. The Dismemberment Plan never had a radio hit, but the rock quartet did develop a cult following — which really took hold after the members parted ways years ago.

On Tuesday the band will release Uncanney Valley (the misspelling is intentional), its first album in over a decade. The new album is heavy on the kind of witty lyrics that music critics and fans fell in love with in the 1990s. Take this verse, which kicks off a track called "Invisible":

Waiting around for the 7 Express
New York was a bet, Queens was a guess
I thought I'd be working in Midtown, a winner
Now I'm biting my nails and I'm calling it dinner

Lead singer Travis Morrison wrote those lyrics about leaving Washington, D.C. — where the band was formed — and moving to the much bigger city of New York a few years after the band broke up.

"I really liked having this fresh start, knowing a few people but not too many," Morrison says. "But, yeah, still, it's 'Invisible.' It's like I'm slipping through the shadows for now."

When he arrived in New York, Morrison was just a low-profile computer programmer. But long before his band split, The Dismemberment Plan had developed a reputation in the D.C. metro area.

In the nineties, the D.C. rock scene was better known for hardcore punk. Bassist Eric Axelson says The D-Plan, as they're sometimes called, didn't really fit that image.

"I remember a show in Baltimore," Axelson says, "where I think one of us had a Grateful Dead T-shirt on, one of us had a Fishbone shirt on, and Travis came from work in khakis and a button-down."

The nation's capital was a more dangerous place back then, and Morrison lived in one of the city's rougher neighborhoods. One night, he was mugged at a payphone near his home.

"Luckily, I was broke, so I didn't have any money," Morrison says, though he notes his troubles didn't end that night. "They took my checkbook, and then for a year, I had this problem with my checks being used to buy huge amounts of pizza from Domino's Pizzas across Washington, D.C."

But Morrison did get something out of the deal: a song. "13th and Euclid," named for the street corner where the mugging happened, wound up on The Dismemberment Plan's first album, which turned some heads in the music industry.

After releasing a second album, the band was signed to a major label — and then promptly dropped in a merger. But the quartet returned to the indie world with a finished third LP in hand.

Emergency & I, released in 1999, became the first record to be named Album of the Year by Pitchfork. And it included a song that's now a fan favorite, a lonely anthem to urban living called "The City."

The Dismemberment Plan put out one more album, but as Morrison explains, the band was getting exhausted with life on the road.

"We were all turning 30, and we were touring to stay alive," Morrison says. "It wasn't apparent that there was any way out from that. So where was the inspiration going to come from?"

One of the songs on Uncanney Valley, "White Collar White Trash," sheds light on the fatigue that led to the group breaking up: In a passage about remembering a life of nightly shows, Morrison sings, "You know I miss 'em day and night / But I could see where that road would lead me."

The members of the band began to focus on other careers. Travis Morrison has worked as a computer programmer for The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. Guitarist Jason Caddell has produced albums for other artists, and has worked as an audio engineer for political campaigns as well as last year's G8 Summit. Bassist Eric Axelson became an AP English teacher and later worked for the nonprofit Rock the Vote. And drummer Joe Easley went back to school and got a degree in aerospace engineering; he now works at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as a robotics engineer.

Everyone in The Dismemberment Plan moved on professionally. And it might have stayed that way, Caddell says, if not for one thing.

"At the risk of being glib," Caddell deadpans, "the Internet."

Reviews on music websites brought a new generation of fans to The D-Plan. Some of those new fans began downloading their music (sometimes illegally). Record labels took notice again. One wanted to re-release Emergency & I on vinyl, and asked the band to go on a reunion tour.

The members agreed, and when they took the stage in 2011, they were astonished at the turnout. Caddell says that re-energized them.

"We have a bond that is singular," he says. "The product of that bond has so captured people's attention and emotion that it has brought us back together."

It also reignited the band's creativity, albeit with a dose of perspective. Morrison points to a moment in the new song "Mexico City Christmas" that expresses envy — the kind you feel when you're getting older and noticing your peers are becoming more successful than you:

Les Paul Juniors hang from the wall
Family portraits line the hall
House-sitting for more successful friends
The moon glitters off an S-Class Benz

"So, clearly, this person used to play in bands, and now they're doing real good," Morrison says, laughing. "And someone is still playing in bands, and taking care of that person's house. Oh boy."

If The Dismemberment Plan can create yet another generation of fans, playing in a band might be about to pay off.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Between 1993 and 2003, The Dismemberment Plan released four albums. The indie rock band never had a single hit song on the radio, but they developed a cult following on the Internet after they broke up years ago. The band spent much of that time apart pursuing other careers. Reunited, The Dismemberment plan is putting out its first album in over a decade, it's called "Uncanney Valley."

NPR's Lindsay Totty has more.

LINDSAY TOTTY, BYLINE: The new album from The Dismemberment Plan has the kind of distinct melodies and witty lyrics that music critics and fans fell in love with in the '90s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INVISIBLE")

THE DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: (Singing) Waiting around for the 7 Express, New York was a bet, Queens was a guess. I thought I'd be working in Midtown, a winner. And now, I'm biting my nails and I'm calling it dinner...

TOTTY: Lead singer Travis Morrison wrote the lyrics for this song, called "Invisible," about leaving Washington, D.C. where the band was formed, and moving to the much bigger city of New York, a few years after the band broke up.

TRAVIS MORRISON: I really liked having this fresh start, knowing a few people but not too many. But yes, still, it's invisible. It's like I'm slipping through the shadows for now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INVISIBLE")

PLAN: (Singing) Invisible, yeah that's me. If you look then you'll see right through me. Someday I'm going to make my move. What do I got to lose?

TOTTY: When he arrived in New York, Morrison was just a low profile computer programmer. But long before The Dismemberment Plan split up, his band had developed a reputation in the D.C. metro area. In the '90s, the D.C. rock scene was known more for hardcore punk.

Bassist Eric Axelson says The D Plan, as they're sometimes called, didn't really fit that image.

ERIC AXELSON: I remember a show in Baltimore, where I think one of us had a Grateful Dead T-shirt on and one of us had a Fishbone shirt on. And Travis came from work in khakis and a button down.

MORRISON: I feel like we could have been bigger pariahs than we were.

(LAUGHTER)

AXELSON: We didn't try hard enough.

MORRISON: We were not as pariah-ish as we deserved.

TOTTY: The nation's capital was a more dangerous place back then and Morrison lived in one of the city's rougher neighborhoods. One night, he was mugged at a pay phone near his home.

MORRISON: Luckily I was broke, so I didn't really have any money.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "13TH AND EUCLID")

PLAN: (Singing) (unintelligible)

TOTTY: There wasn't much that Morrison could do except write a song about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "13TH AND EUCLID")

PLAN: (Singing) And the phone hangs between us like a hangman. And I feel like my number is up. Yes, I feel like my number is up...

TOTTY: This song is called "Thirteenth and Euclid." It's from the band's first album. And it's named for the street corner where that mugging happened. Morrison recalls that incident with his band mates.

MORRISON: They took my checkbook. And then for a year, I had this problem with my checks being used to buy huge amounts of pizza from Domino's Pizzas across Washington, D.C.

(LAUGHTER)

JOE EASLEY: They got groceries, too, right?

AXELSON: So they were stoners

MORRISON: No, that was another mugging.

TOTTY: That was no help to the struggling young musicians. But their sound did turn heads in the music industry. After releasing a second album, they were signed to a major label and got to work on a third. But the label dropped them after a merger. The Dismemberment Plan returned to their old indie label and brought with them the finished record, "Emergency and I." It came out in 1999. It was the first record to be named Album of the Year by the popular music web site Pitchfork Media. And it included this fan favorite, it's called "The City."

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "THE CITY")

PLAN: (Singing) So I'm not unsympathetic. I see why you left, there's no one to know. There's nothing to do, the city has been dead since you been gone.

TOTTY: The Dismemberment Plan put out one more album. But as Travis Morrison explains, the band was getting exhausted with life on the road.

MORRISON: Yeah, and we were all turning 30. We were touring to stay alive. It wasn't apparent that there was any way out from that. So where was the inspiration going to come from?

TOTTY: One of their new songs, called "White Collar White Trash," sheds light on the fatigue that led to their breakup.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "WHITE COLLAR WHITE TRASH")

PLAN: (Singing) You know I missed the rock and roll kids but rock and roll was killing me. You know I miss them day and night but I could see where that road would lead me...

TOTTY: The members of the band began to focus on other careers. Travis Morrison has worked as a computer programmer for The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. Guitarist Jason Caddell has produced albums for other artists, and has worked as an audio engineer for political campaigns as well as last year's G8 Summit. Bassist Eric Axelson became an A.P. English teacher and later worked for the nonprofit Rock The Vote. And drummer Joe Easley went back to school and got a degree in aerospace engineering. He now works at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as a robotics engineer.

EASLEY: When we started actually getting tools that we have currently like on the International Space Station, I was able to test those tools at Goddard and participate in the actual flight operations for that stuff.

TOTTY: Everyone in The Dismemberment Plan had moved on professionally. And it might have stayed that way, Jason Caddell says if not for one thing.

JASON CADDELL: At the risk of being glib, the Internet.

TOTTY: Reviews from music web sites like Pitchfork Media brought a new generation of fans to The D Plan.

CADDELL: Pitchfork and others planted the reputation of the band as a flag on the mountain that is the Internet. And that flag stayed there, even after we broke up.

TOTTY: Some of those new fans were downloading their music, sometimes illegally. Record labels took notice again. One wanted to re release "Emergency and I" on vinyl and asked the band to go on a reunion tour. They agreed. And when they took the stage in 2011, they were astonished at the turnout. Caddell says that re-energized them.

CADDELL: We have a bond that is singular. The product of that bond has so captured people's attention and emotion that it has brought us back together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TOTTY: And reignited the band's creativity. In this new song, "Mexico City Christmas," Morrison's lyrics express envy - the kind you feel when you're getting older and noticing your peers are becoming more successful than you.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "MEXICO CITY CHRISTMAS")

PLAN: (Singing) Les Paul Juniors hang from the wall. Family portraits line the hall. House sitting for more successful friends. The Moon glitters off an S-class Benz...

MORRISON: You know, when you're involved in the arts, it's a pretty cold moment in your early 30's. You're like: Am I doing this forever? The thing about those lines is when it talks about how the people in the house have, like, guitars up on the wall, so clearly this person used to play in bands.

(LAUGHTER)

MORRISON: And now they're doing real good and someone is still playing in bands, and taking care of that person's house.

(LAUGHTER)

MORRISON: Oh, boy.

TOTTY: If The Dismemberment Plan can create yet another generation of fans, playing in a band might still pay off.

Lindsay Totty, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "MEXICO CITY CHRISTMAS")

PLAN: (Singing) Pull out the wires and shoot out the lights...

GREENE: Lindsay Totty, a man of all trades. He did that story and he's directing the program this morning. I'm looking at him through a window.

The Dismemberment Plan's new album comes out tomorrow. You can hear it at NPRMusic.org today. It's part of our First Listen series.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

I'm Steve Inskeep.

(LAUGHTER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.