Plan of Attack
As much ink as underground rock acts waste bemoaning the constraints that genre-geared fans and media inflict upon them, many still fall into forms that readily lend themselves to easy definitions. For every hundred bespectacled Jawbreaker wannabes who stamp their feet and cry about being called emo, or Mohawked crust punks who bristle at being dismissed as another Exploited sound-alike, there's one, maybe two, rockers who truly make the break from imitation and into realms of their own music.
With a style that draws liberally on everything from soul to punk to newfangled electronica, the Dismemberment Plan is one such band. What emerges is not the clumsy, look-what-I-can-do clamoring of genres that was so chic in the '90s, but rather a unified whole, blended with the precise elegance of an old master.
"I think we probably let our tastes in music rise closer to the surface than most other bands," says singer/guitarist/keyboardist Travis Morrison as he reflects on his band's style. "I think other musicians have much larger areas in their listening tastes that aren't accessed by their playing. I think we are fairly unusual in the intersection of our listening tastes and our playing decisions. Most people listen to all kinds of music; it just seems most bands don't reflect that in what they play."
Morrison's assessment of the varied influences in his work is dead on. On last year's Emergency & I, released on D.C. hipster imprint DeSoto Records, Morrison and his crew (Jason Caddell on guitar, Eric Axelson on bass and keyboard, and Joe Easley on drums) pluck bits and pieces that are as varied as the back catalogue of a free-form radio station. Emergency plays up the tension between disparate musical directions: "What Do You Want Me to Say?" is a palpable struggle between melodic, sing-along indie pop and the precise coldness of math-centric rock; the aptly titled "Back and Forth" is a musical tug-of-war between Motown mojo and the insurgent desperation of punk rock. Over its seven-year career, the Dismemberment Plan has consciously developed its style-colliding craft. In the early days, the band soaked up the punk history of its hometown of Washington, D.C., though the Plan players, like everyone else, also adopted some of that city's predictable, pervasive garage-rock tendencies. It also began experimenting -- with funk, with soul, with bluegrass. (Morrison's high, lonesome vocal delivery just begged for it.) Some people didn't get it then, Morrison says, and they don't get it now.
"They seem to psychologically put various types of music that they listen to in a box, and they don't dig in that box when it comes to their communication through their instrument with other musicians," he complains. "A lot of times, people think influence is supposed to be a directly traceable stylistic quirk -- like if you're influenced by bluegrass, you have mandolins."
Morrison, who is prone to digressions on everything from classic songwriters such as Lennon and McCartney to the intersection between hip-hop and less urban forms of music, is a student of pop culture. His love of mixing genres, then, seems motivated as much by a desire to commune with the spirits that drive his own songwriting as to tear the house down with a screaming set, something the Dismemberment Plan is known to do in a live setting.
"I think that for me, music is about communication between the crowds that come see our shows, my other bandmates on stage, and, quite honestly, between me and the music I listen to," he says. "Am I talking to somebody who died fifty years ago when I sing something? No, not really, but I'm in some ways singing because I synthesize my influences in a certain way deep down in my subconscious, and I am singing to things I've heard."
Though the Dismemberment Plan's music is steeped in a respect for rock, Morrison is anything but a traditionalist. Many of the band's songs use audio technology in addition to conventional rock instrumentation, a facet that gives the Plan a distinctly modern sensibility. Through its employment of keyboard-triggered samples and electronic elements, Emergency & I indulges deep, rumbling low ends ("A Life of Possibilities"), tricks out violins to get haunting, ambient tones ("Spider in the Snow") and finds cold, almost Kraftwerkian vibes ("You Are Invited"). Yet while Morrison and company aren't going to shy away from the gadgets with which modern science provides musicians, they do avoid the quick-fix mentality that frequently accompanies easy-to-use technology.
"You can kind of cough it up," he says. "Not even cough it up. You can get the machine to cough it up for you. A sampler is like anything else; you can use it for good or for ill. You can use a sampler for all kinds of things nobody ever thought it could do, but you have to kind of get in there and play it, and mess with it like you'd mess with a guitar or a bass. Let its imperfections rise to the surface and turn imperfections into strengths.
"I think as big a fan of hip-hop -- and as enthused -- as I am about the creative possibilities of sampling," he continues, "I think this is a pretty weird era for us. Because at an unprecedented level, people are able to recombine ideas and sounds and rhythms without them having to go through any messy or organic filtering, which our influences used to have to."
Unsurprisingly, the Plan's use of both samplers and good, old-fashioned groove lends itself particularly well to booty-shaking. Morrison is quick to distance himself from the idea of delving into the dance world, however.
"When people talk about dance beats, it's reducing music and rhythms to the little buttons you get on boards from Radio Shack," Morrison says. "Ideally, you don't just press a button and get a rock beat or press a button and get a disco beat. Hopefully you are messing around with rhythm as much as with harmony, melody and lyrics and all that stuff."
After a long stint in the D.C. underground, the Dismemberment Plan has finally found an audience for its own "messing around." In 1998 the band released The Ice of Boston EP, just months before the Polygram-Universal merger sent bands packing en masse. Though the Plan was subsequently released from its contract, the short foray into the major-label leagues caught the attention of both indie stalwarts and more mainstream listeners. The band even found an unlikely ally in Pearl Jam, which took the Plan along on its most recent European tour -- the same marathon that saw nine fans trampled at Denmark's Roskilde Festival and provided Pearl Jam with the material for its recently released, sprawling series of 25 "official" bootlegs.
The opening spot on any major tour is the Holy Grail for an indie band, and the Plan jumped on the opportunity to partake in a slice of arena rock. Predictably, some of the band's more indie-pure fans raised their eyebrows at the thought of a D.C.-based underground band chumming it up with bona fide rock stars. Doubts about the Plan's ability to keep its indie roots don't faze Morrison, however, as he has nothing but praise for the experience and the Pearl Jam organization. He does admit, however, that the life of the international rock star wasn't quite what he expected.
"The first show was absolutely terrifying, and then, to be honest, by show five, it was less scary than a club show, because I couldn't see what was going on," he says. "In the footlights' glare, I see the first twenty rows, then just blackness. In some ways, it was just like playing to the mother ship as it landed. After a while, the fear went away, and sometimes it was isolating. After a while, it was disappointingly unscary."
The Dismemberment Plan's days of serenading legions of European grunge fans are over, however, as the band's latest tour puts it back into small clubs. Morrison welcomes the return to this dirtier world.
"It's the difference between talking to someone face-to-face and talking to someone a football field away with megaphones," he jokingly says. "It could be done, and you may actually have kind of a laugh doing it. There's an intimacy to club shows, and for us, it's been a slow process garnering our friends."
Garnering friends doesn't come easy for a band with a sound as individualistic as the Plan's. While any bunch of yahoos can throw together a by-the-numbers punk, metal or emo act and be ensured at least a lukewarm welcome from the scene's built-in audience, there's no safety net for the Dismemberment Plan. In some ways, that's a mixed blessing: While its audiences are in tune with exactly what it's doing, the Plan has never had the luxury of a ready-made fan base.
"We've never had the interest of a scene that received us as a soundtrack to a lifestyle or a larger set of people, so if anyone comes to our shows, it's because they really want to hear those songs," Morrison says. "They know who we are, they know what we are about, and they're down.
"I have no idea how to account for the world's reaction to the music we're going to make," he adds. "I make music to fill holes in my record collection and to try to communicate to other people who have similar holes in their record collections. I know those people exist, and they get us. Not everybody has to get us."
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