Music Festivals

Dismemberment Plan's Travis Morrison on the similarities of making music to programming

The Dismemberment Plan formed on New Year's Day 1993. Although the act hails from the Washington, D.C., area, it wasn't really affiliated with the legendary DIY punk scene fostered by Dischord Records, but its eccentricity was embraced nonetheless. In its early years, the Dismemberment Plan truly explored a broad range of sounds and ideas, and that adventurous approach eventually led to a coherent aesthetic that didn't quite fit in with much of anything going on then -- or even now, for that matter.

See also: The complete Riot Fest Denver 2013 schedule

Inspired by everything from the Talking Heads and '80s underground rock to go-go and pop and whatever strangeness struck its fancy, the band became one of the most respected and critically acclaimed bands of its era. The group's classic 1999 album Emergency & I was a brilliantly eccentric, experimental rock album that was clearly informed by sounds and ideas well outside of the standard rock canon.

The outfit's 2001 swansong Change showed even further artistic growth. In 2003, the act invited fans to remix songs from its albums for release called A People's History of The Dismemberment Plan, and that September the outfit performed its final show. During ensuing years, the group was coaxed into playing the occasional one-off, but those shows led to the members realizing they were enjoying playing together without the pressure of producing anything new, as singer/guitarist Travis Morrison tells us below.

Just the same, the band has a new album, Uncanney Valley, slated to come out next month on October 15. In advance of its release and the group's appearance at this weekend's Riot Fest, we recently spoke with Morrison about the Dismemberment Plan not fitting in with the DC scene until later, his love of Talking Heads and how making music is a lot like computer programming.

Westword: Why is Harry Nilsson such a special songwriter for you?

Travis Morrison: I think that he was the guy who could bring different voices into rock and roll, voices that aren't usually associated with rock and roll, which is something I have a soft spot for. I used to DJ at the radio station in college, and I would play that stuff. I think he had a real talent for bringing things from the American songwriting tradition into a rock and roll framework. It was rock and roll, emotionally, but I think he cast a wider net.

You mentioned being a college DJ. What kind of music were you into before you went to college, and do you remember the bands that opened your eyes a little bit more at that time.

That's a good question. When I left for college I listened to a blend of rock, a D.C. funk style called go-go, and a strange assortment of the alt-rock legends of the day -- mostly English, a few Americans; I really liked R.E.M., but most of my heart was with the Smiths. I also love New Order and some of the emerging Manchester stuff. I think senior year in high school, I really wore out the Stone Roses's [first LP]. The tapes on the floor of my car were like Public Enemy, the Stone Roses and Trouble Funk. That's definitely where I was at seventeen. I was just learning about the more interesting things that were going on in hardcore and punk.

I didn't care for hardcore. I didn't like the politics of it or some of the messages I heard. But Fugazi came along and between that, Trouble Funk, the Smiths and hard rock, that was the most amazing thing I had heard. By the time I got to college, I I started listening to Fugazi and stuff like that, and then I kind of let down my guard, and my friends started playing me records I was super impressed with. I went to Virginia State College and that's when I got really into D.C. punk -- ironically, when I went away to college in Virginia.

It's hard to say if I really got into that stuff because I opened up my social network, because I was friends with hardcore kids, but I just didn't really care for Minor Threat at the time. A record that was totally off the radar of the DC punk stuff that I was starting to get into was Liar by the Jesus Lizard. That blew my mind. I liked hard rock, but I didn't like grunge, and I didn't like sludgy hard rock. I really liked AC/DC and Guns 'N' Roses and Nirvana had a lot of incredible rhythms. And Jesus Lizard had the most demented hard rock grooves. It was so amazing. So, that, and a band called Nomeansno with the record 0 + 2 = 1 -- that really blew my gourd.

The Dismemberment Plan seemed very different, even early on, from what was happening around D.C. or anywhere in the beginning; did people accept you right away?

No. No, it was really slow. We were just so strange. We didn't fit in in any way. I think there were people who had a lot of affection for us. We weren't rednecks or anything like that. We were middle class kids. But we came from either straight up small towns in Virginia or distant Fairfax County. I was kind of the city slicker because I had grown up in Alexandria until I was thirteen, and then I got moved to distant Fairfax County.

We were educated and all that but we didn't quite come from the rarefied cultural circuit that a lot of the D.C. punk rockers did. I mean we're talking kids of ambassadors and stuff like that. We came from a cultural disadvantage. We were a little uncouth. We hadn't really learned to hide the fact that we loved Fishbone. Some kids were faster on that hiding your original [inspirations]. But we weren't smart enough with our branding.

It took awhile but there's always room in D.C. for the eccentric. There's a really strong tradition of that in this town. There's a band called 9353, a legendary art rock band. They played with everybody. They played with Fugazi. They weren't on Dischord, for whatever reason. But they were D.C. legends -- the freakiest band in D.C. There was Unrest and the Teenbeat thing -- very eccentric, very unusual, very other-earthly.

So D.C. is a place where actually you can be fairly eccentric. Some people think the Dischord thing lorded over them and oppressed them from expressing themselves. We were never on Dischord, but we always felt that the message of Dischord was that you can kind of do what you wanted.

So that's what we did. Nobody ever threw shit at us or booed us or anything like that. I think it was a while before we spoke to any social context that made sense. There were a couple of years where we were just straight up random, and no one could understand what we were doing including us.

Many people became clued into the Plan when Emergency & I came out. And some people compared the band, and that record especially, to the Talking Heads.

I loved them. Actually they were the one American band...actually they are my favorite band of all time.

Oh? What is it about them that you loved?

It was the music and the words. No, it was. What a great rock and roll band. So much rhythmic energy. With the Talking Heads, it was a mixture of a white beat, a black beat, an American beat and it emerged with some funk styles. But they were a great, straight ahead rock and roll band. They just wanted to make music that had propulsion.

I made this compilation of Talking Heads songs on Spotify, and you listen to it, and it's just frenetic, and the music is just incredible. There's so much unusual color in the instrument choices and all of that. You can't do any better than that, really. They also had visual flair and they had ambitions of going toward the art world and that made it better but to me it was just they were a great rock and roll band.

That's really lost on a lot of people who might see it as just some weird art project that somehow became a kind of pop band.

I think so. I think people tend to see it as some sort of art form thing. I just think it's rock and roll.

Listening to the scope of the records the Plan put out, there's a big difference in the character of the material of the early records from those that came later. Was there an interest that triggered that shift or was it more organic?

It was super organic. We tried many things and got tired of this and did that.

You had some interesting album covers. Did someone in the band design those? You have a background in graphic design yourself.

Yeah. That was me. For better or for worse.

The cover for Emergency & I reminds me of the animation for Fantastic Planet.

Oh, absolutely. That's really dead on. That's a conscious influence. That's exactly what it was supposed to be like. I love that movie. I saw it as a little kid on a local TV station. They were showing it at eleven o'clock at night, and I was never the same.

Why do you feel that aesthetic suited that album?

I don't know. I think the record kind of [deals with a time in life of existential] crisis and, at that age, you're dealing with issues of alienation and finally admitting to yourself that childhood is over, which is unbelievably terrifying, but you've got to do it. I think I used cartoonish elements to communicate states of high anxiety.

As a computer programmer these days, you've probably been doing it long enough to see the changes. Did you keep up with that all along?

There was a bit of a transition. I had been doing programming at the dawn of the web for the band and as a job. Then I went on to be a professional musician for five years, and in those five years, programming just exploded. When I came back to it, it was fairly unrecognizable. It's so much more complex. So there was a period of nine months before I landed a job.

Did you get started with that as a kid?

I did. In the '80s the new thing dicker with -- if you're a dickerer, if you will -- was computers, and my dad really enjoyed learned playing around with them. He wasn't a red neck. He was lower middle class, and so he had a bit of a tinkerer background, so I guess I got a little bit of that.

Other than it being your home town, what makes D.C. such a special place for you?

DC is a very intellectual town. It's a scholarly town. It's serious-minded. So much rock and roll is kind of about desires and about the sell. It's very interesting because the community aspect of D.C. punk rock is very unusual.

You have a new album coming out in October. What was the catalyst in getting the band back together?

Barsuk put out Emergency & I on vinyl, and they asked us if we would do some shows to promote it. We tend to take these shows one at a time, and we had no motivation and no rhyme or reason, and when they asked us we said, "Sure." Then, as we were practicing, we were noticing we were doing more and more jam, if you will.

And that's really how every band works. No matter how they get real songs out into the world they need to have a flow. That started to happen again. Eventually we decided to follow up on that, and we did. We really tried to take care of it not being goal-oriented like, "We have an album." Before we knew it, we had another album.

Why did you want to use the phone line to share "Waiting" with people?

Oh, it was just a fun thing to do. We didn't really have a rationale.

What do you love about computer programming contrasted with being a musician or do you feel that in some senses they have a similar appeal and way they come together in your mind?

That's a very good question. I'm not sure it contrasts, actually. I think they're both mathematical systems that you can use to create. There's a lot of mathematics involved with music and with programming. Harmony, when you get down to it, is mathematics. The mathematics of acoustical energy. I feel like it's very related.

Do you feel like you're able to be creative as a computer programmer as well?

Sure. It's always creative when you're trying to figure out how to do something with lines of code.