When indie rockers the Dismemberment Plan first came together 20 years ago, they took their name from a random line in the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. Even today, frontman Travis Morrison says the band is still taking inspiration from Bill Murray, this time in its M.O. "He tells people that he's retired and anything he does is just coming out of retirement," the singer-guitarist says from his Brooklyn apartment. "That's totally where we're at: We're retired, but we'll do anything that's interesting."
Luckily for fans of the group, which broke up in 2003 but reunited for live performances in 2010, the thing that interested them this year was writing and recording a new album. Uncanney Valley, the Dismemberment Plan's fifth album and first since 2001, finds the group playing a more refined interpretation of the upbeat and catchy rockers that earned them cred during the Clinton Administration. Moreover, this year has found the band interested in touring again, after taking a couple of years off. Beginning with a New York City gig on Friday, the band will tour U.S. off and on through December. From that point on, though, whether planning a new album or the next tour, Morrison says the group will fall back on the Bill Murray Principle.
"We're going to wait and see," he says coyly. "We're going to wait and see if the jams are there, the energy is there, the schedule is there. All this stuff has to come together, and we have no idea."
In a way, it's a minor miracle of scheduling that the group decided to come out of retirement to make Uncanney Valley. Since disbanding, half of the four group members drifted away from their Washington, D.C. base. Guitarist Jason Caddell moved to Virginia, where he produces and records bands, and Morrison moved to New York to work in web development in 2009. The two D.C. denizens, bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley, work in marketing at Capital One and in aerospace engineering at N.A.S.A., respectively. As a result, the time the group has to work on music or rehearse for tours is limited.
In the case of Uncanney Valley, the songs evolved from small jams at the end of rehearsals. Over time, those moments congealed into three songs. Then came the realization that they should commit to writing even more. "It takes a while to acknowledge the fact that you're making a record," Morrison says. "It was like, 'Come on! Let's admit it.'"
When the Dismemberment Plan finally did accept the fact they were writing a reunion album, they began piecing together songs that have a distinct through line back to their cherished late-career albums like 1999's Emergency & I and 2001's Change but still sound like the works of seasoned songwriters. "White Collar White Trash" shows off Morrison's penchant for tongue-in-cheek juxtaposition amidst garage-rock guitars, while Valley's lead single "Waiting" harkens back to the synthy pop the band was experimenting with toward the end of its first run. That track, according to Morrison, also reflects his current passion for choral singing, which he does with the Trinity Wall Street Choir. "The main riff comes from a classical piece," he explains. "There are licks and chord shapes all over the record that come from hymns. Any musician is just looking for licks."
One area of the Dismemberment Plan's songwriting that's wholly original, though, is Morrison's lyrics. Whether he's being funny, corny or precocious (even for his 40 years), the singer always has something to say. Perhaps the album's poignant song is "Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer," a swooping, almost countryish ditty about a father who gave up a part of his life to become a parent and a son who feels uncomfortable with that fact. Although Morrison's dad was indeed a competitive dancer in the Fifties, he says his inspiration for the song didn't come from his life, but from Brian Eno's.
"I read an interview with him, where he talked about how his dad was a drummer before he was born, and he didn't find this out until he was, like, 40," the singer says. "He was like, 'Why didn't you tell me this? I'm Brian Eno. How did this never came up?' And it just got me thinking, you don't know who your parents were before you were born."
Still, the Dismemberment Plan are taking this next step in their music career one month at a time. "Everyone says it's crazy that we're doing this at age 40, but I do it because I feel like I can," he says. It makes sense to be a little more discerning right now. If making another record is something we do, I think that would be real cool. But we're going to wait and see."