Washington D.C. legends The Dismemberment Plan released four hugely influential albums in the burgeoning indie rock scene of the late ’90s and early 2000s, earning vast critical praise for their unique blend of calculated math-rock rhythms, dexterous instrumental skills, and quirky, off-beat tunes about disconnect and confusion in a rapidly changing world. They’ve also proved to be one of the most influential bands of its era, along the way influencing everyone from Death Cab for Cutie to At the Drive-In.
Their final studio album, 2001′s Change, was a fond goodbye for a band far under-appreciated in its own day, but 1999′s Emergency & I has stood as their landmark masterstroke, still cited by many bands and critics as a turning point in the evolution of indie rock. It’s the sound of a band exploding its previously bottled-up potential—guitars scurry with demented effects, chiming odd patterns equal parts catchy and harmonically disorienting; drums and bass unite in a fusion of restrained density, punching through the mix with precision but never fully ascending into excess; frontman Travis Morrison sings his alienated existential rants about life and love and depression and parties and the universe in a beautiful yet alien sigh, rotating between a lazy spoken-word approach and a cathartic, melodic yelp. In short, 12 years later, it still sounds decades ahead of its time, as if the rest of the music world is still playing a failed game of catch-up.
This has been a good 2011 for DP fans—not only has the band reunited for some selected shows, they’ve also re-issued Emergency & I in a deluxe package that includes a detailed historical essay, limited-release vinyl, and a handful of excellent, further illuminating bonus tracks. Glide recently had the chance to speak with Morrison in-between reunion shows (and after the band’s epic performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), and along the way, we discussed the reunion, the re-issue, and Morrison’s plans for future music.
Why re-release this album now? Is there any specific reason? How did the whole idea come about?
We always wanted to release the album on vinyl; we yearned to release it on that format. But when we broke up, vinyl was basically dead, and in the last eight years, it’s really come to life. We had a few tantalizing offers to do it, but we finally got an offer from Barsuk that was really appealing where we got the chance to make it really interesting and make a really nice package out of it. We did think about it for years at a time, and we would stay tuned to when anybody would suggest an idea, and finally an opportunity came along that was really appealing.
Looking back at the album now with this re-release, writing the liner notes and everything, have you re-evaluated the music? If so, has your opinion changed in the near decade since its release?
I think I like it a lot, but I think it’s really satisfying. I think it’s limited and could be—I won’t say better because I think it’s who we were at the time—but as a songwriter, I listen to it and think it’s a little one-note, that the lyrics are a little obvious. I think it’s not the greatest thing ever made—you should own other records along with this one! (laughs) I do love it a lot, though. For better or worse, it’s incredibly intense, and it never lets off the accelerator the entire time. I think there are some awesome songs on there and there are some not-so-awesome songs on there, but I should stop being such a grump. (laughs)
Is Emergency & I the best album you guys made?
I do. I think it’s the apotheosis of what we were doing at the time. I think it’s cohesive. I think it’s musical. I think it’s fun. I think it’s well-crafted and has the most experiments coming to fruition. And I think all of these qualities existed on our other records but not in as high concentration as on that record—you’ve got the experiments and the pay-offs, the musicality and the energy. There’s a balance of a lot of different things that were bopping around in our art that were very satisfying. So yeah, I think, of the four, it’s the most fully-realized and represents us the best.
Obviously, you’ve all changed and grown as both people and musicians since the album came out. But if you were to re-make this album now, how would it be different?
Do you mean like how Alanis Morissette re-recorded Jagged Little Pill?
Sure. Let’s go with the Alanis analogy.
Well, there’d be a lot more xylophone! I don’t know—hopefully, what we would do is approach the music the way we are now and who we are now. And it wouldn’t sound anything like that record because that’s the way it goes. We’d be dealing with the things that are reality now. One of the things that I like about the record is that it really sounds like a time and place without a lot of bullshit behind it. We were just using music to kind of figure out our own lives, so I would hope that would be the operating principle, but it wouldn’t be like, "So now we’re making another Emergency and I." And even at the time, the last thing we wanted to do was make the last record we’d just made.
How have the reunion shows been? What’s been the high point and low point so far?
The low point is that the other guys—Joe and Aaron were really sick. The high point has just been that we’ve been playing great and seeing old friends. We’ve only played Washington D.C., so it’s been pretty easy—there’s been this cloud of love carrying us along. I think that cloud of love will disappear when we get to New York City. It’s been really fun, a celebration, and it’s really meant a lot to us. People have been coming to the shows, and it sounds awesome. It’s just been really awesome.
On your recent Fallon performance, you were totally playing around with the vocal melody from "What do You want me to say" and adding silly vocal adlibs. Are you bored with any of these songs at this point? And is that just a way to keep the songs fresh?
Actually, I think any of my bandmates will you that I’m fucking around a lot less on-stage than I ever have! I mean, we’re generally a pretty improvisational live band, and sometimes I just totally go off the rails, almost like I’m not singing the song. People have shown me clips and been like, "Travis, you need to get it together," and I’m like, "You’re right; this is terrible; this sucks!" I’ll always do curly-Qs and screw with the rhythms, but I usually try to leave the lyrics untouched—unless someone in the audience is doing something funny and I can kinda improvise a line based on that. But no—no, no, no! I’m not bored with the songs at all! I mean, how could I be? We haven’t played them live in years! It would be really weird if I were bored with them now—I mean, in 2002, I was pretty bored with them. I’ve actually been the soul of discipline and professionalism, and I’ve actually been singing with the melodies as close as I ever have.
The bonus tracks on this re-issue are pretty great. Any favorites?
"Dismemberment Plan Get’s Rich"–I love that song. I love all the music, all the crazy sounds. I love all that stuff. It’s just great. It’s so much fun to sing, and the thing was that we wrote it right after we had all these troubles with this major label. And back in the day, there was this kind of dichotomy between being on a major label and an indie label. All that’s dead now, which is awesome. You don’t get bonus points for being on an indie label because there are no major labels. The world has completely changed, and that’s a beautiful thing. But back in the day, we were just saying, "We’re saying the exact things whether we’re on an indie or major—we’re the exact same people. Our art isn’t based on the label we’re on"–which is the way people actually thought. We saw it all the time in our hometown and with Dischord Records—that it signified something about the music you made, and it made me insane! It was kind of consumerist, in a way. So we came out of that whole experience with this really funny song about how we were the multinational corporation running Interscope! (laughs) And, to this day, I think it’s awesome! I think it’s hilarious that we did it. It’s a fun song that puts it all in the right perspective. I kind of feel like it’s the last high energy rock song we ever wrote. We’d kinda gone into this sort of gothy period and then broke up…But this is one of my all-time favorite Plan songs.
With the bonus tracks, what is it that kept them from making the final cut? Did you feel that they just didn’t gel with the others?
Well, some. Some of them were really written when there was no album in play. With "The First Anniversary of Your Last Phone Call," there’s still an argument within the band to this day about whether or not it should have been on the record. I’m personally glad it wasn’t, and much to my relief, both the producers have been like, "Yeah, that’s a good b-side. That song wouldn’t have fit on the record." With "Just Like You," we actually did attempt a track for the album, but we wrote it right after we put out our second record, and we put it out on a mix CD that a local label put out—like a benefit CD. So then, by the time we tried to track it again, it was a little stale. It was the oldest song of the 14 we were trying to record, and we were all just like, "Ehh."
Sometimes with bands, some really good songs—it’s the timing that does them in, especially if they get some kind of oddball commercial release in those downtimes. So when it comes time to make another record, it’s kind of like, "Sorry, buddy, you were too early." It just happens with some really good songs, and that happened with "Just Like You." "Since You Died" was like that, too—it was a seven inch b-side, and we didn’t even try to track that for Emergency & I. It was just like, "Oh, it had its chance; it had its moment. It got put out as a b-side for a seven inch." And there were other songs that were newer and fresher to us. So it’s fun to give them a little time in the sun. The only one of the four that was seriously a contender to be on the album—and, like I said, we still bicker about it to this day—was "The First Anniversary of Your Last Phone Call"–that was actually in some sequences of the tracklist, but it eventually ended up on the sidewalk."
I’ve read in your recent AV Club interview that you’ve been messing around with a project called Time Travel. Could you talk a little about that? I know you mentioned you don’t have any current plans on putting out an album, but you definitely have to have some interest in releasing music! What’s the next project you anticipate that you’ll put? Will it be a solo album, a Time Travel thing, a DP thing?
Time Travel will make an album. We’re actually playing a few shows with my Time Travel mate’s main band, The Forms. We’re definitely going to finish it—we’ve got some really good tracks laying around that are really cool. We both feel strongly that we’ve gotta make one manifestation. But right now, it’s a little on ice since they’re doing some shows and I’m doing this stuff. So probably sometime in late February, when this stuff’s really on cruising altitude, when we just have a couple more scattered shows to go, then we’ll really start digging into that whole thing again. But before 2011 is over, we definitely want to finish it and make it right because we really like the stuff we have laying around so far. It’s pretty unique and interesting music!