The Dismemberment Plan exploded through the mid-Nineties indie-rock scene with all the subtlety of a battering ram. Their style was bold, silly, slightly schizophrenic – built on spidery guitar spasms (courtesy of Jason Caddell), prog-funk rhythmic propulsion (courtesy of bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley) and the plainspoken-yet-surreal approach of frontman Travis Morrison. The band refined that singular style across four studio albums – including the 1999 landmark Emergency & I and their 2001 swan-song Change – before splitting in 2003.
Solo careers, side-projects, and day-jobs shortly followed. Along with the unexpected: When Barsuk Records reissued Emergency & I in 2011, the band reunited for a brief tour; then, through a process Morrison describes as “weird and passive-aggressive and mystical and strange,” casual jam-sessions led to the unlikely birth of Uncanney Valley, their first album in over a decade.
“One of the things about the Dismemberment Plan is that we’re inspiration-based,” Morrison says. “If the magic’s not there, it’s out.” But the magic was there. Jams produced musical fragments, which triggered Morrison’s “lyrical flashes.”
“When it starts firing that mode – it’s not lyrics, but visions,” he continues. “When I’m having weird flashbacks to times in my life that are inspired by pieces of music, that’s probably the point when something has a chance.
“Generally, there is a strange point where we kinda treat a new song like a new friend who may or may not be cool. We call them and say, ‘You wanna get pizza?’ And you hang up and say, ‘I guess we’re friends.’ We don’t communicate very maturely with our new songs. We tend to leave them hanging, and we don’t keep them in our loop or tell them anything. Sometimes we never call them again. But sometimes they just join the family. They hang around long enough – so it’s like, ‘You’re still here?'”
Uncanney Valley isn’t a radical departure, at least at first glance: “No One’s Saying Nothing” opens the album with Morrison’s trademark lyrical lunacy (“You hit the space-bar enough and cocaine comes out,” and “I’m like a fat nun on drugs, drowning in hugs”); “Invisible,” meanwhile, juggles eerie orchestral samples with spastic synth-bass and droning guitars. But the band gradually drops their guard as the album progresses, in a process Morrison calls a “gradiation of color.”
“Side two is very much like, ‘The chit-chat is done. It’s time for some real talk,'” he says. “It’s like speed-dating with the Dismemberment Plan. ‘Where do you work?’ ‘What are your hobbies?’ And then after awhile, it’s like, ‘Let me tell you about my mother.'” The bittersweet “Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer” is the band’s warped version of an open-road classic-rock anthem; “Lookin'” is the closest thing they’ve ever written to a straight-up love song, as Morrison romanticizes his wife’s transfixing gaze over a borderline-country jangle. Though the frontman wasn’t searching to write a more “mature” album, he admits that he was “yearning for a certain directness – just songs about real life stuff.”
“You have to watch what you mean by ‘mature,'” Morrison says. “It’s a super-touchy word. Sometimes when I see what people mean by ‘mature,’ I’m like, ‘Hell no! I’m not doing that.’ But to me, a super-mature artist is Tom Waits. There’s a guy who’s gotten better literally with every record for his entire career. And I know this because I listened to his entire catalog a few years ago, so I listened to every song he recorded. He’s a screamer and a joker and bashing on pots and pans. To me, that’s what maturity is all about.
“You definitely have to question, ‘What is maturity?'” he continues. “I think you do reach a certain age where either you’re gonna be self-centered for the rest of your life or you’re gonna realize, ‘Reality always wins.'”
Morrison still loves his band’s early songs, but he’s also aware of how exhausting and demanding that music often was.
“Listen, I don’t know what the fuck I was talking about,” he says, before adding a lengthy cackle. “Talking Heads called one of their early albums Fear of Music for a reason. You want so bad to have immediacy and intensity – I like it when artists go over the top and out of control.”
“I hate to say it, but it’s like that line from Tropic Thunder about ‘Never go full retard.’ That segment is amazing – they should show it in every art school and in Julliard. You just want to do it; you want to be so ‘this’ and so ‘that.’ So much so that the end product is over-thought. I wouldn’t want to eradicate ‘Roundabout’ by Yes. That’s a titanic achievement. Sometimes the right thing to do is to try too hard. Exhaust yourself and fully go berserk. It would be a miserably poor rock & roll world if that kind of thing wasn’t happening. But if there was a hole to be filled in our catalog, I guess that was the number one hole: opening up and singing.”
Channeling that openness became easier for Morrison over time. An unexpected influence came from a church choir in downtown Manhattan, where he’s been singing since 2006.
“I love the un-technicality of it,” he says. “You just show up. Singing in rock and roll can be neurotic, and being in a choir requires a very un-neutoric relationship between the person leading the choir and the singers. The director of the choir wants to hear this pronounced this way this loud, with the emphasis on this word. It’s not like, ‘I don’t know, man – how does that feel?’ It was liberating to have someone like a choir director, who’s like a football coach: ‘Drop down and give me 50!’ With all the neurosis that comes with being a rock & roll singer, it was so key to have that kind of dispersed with somebody standing over me saying, ‘What is the most important word in this line?’ ‘Umm . . . glory?’ ‘OK, sing that the loudest.'”
Morrison took some risks on Uncanney Valley – this is the most vulnerable, least cerebral album his band has ever made. But those are risks he’s excited to start taking.
“It can be scary for rock & roll artists to deal with reality,” he says. “I think a lot of musicians mistake that reality for depression. And never make it back! But I can’t hide within myself. Your youthful illusions are not around anymore, but there is poetry to be found in reality.”
9/14 – Detroit, MI – Laneway Festival
9/15 – Chicago, IL – Riot Fest
9/21 – Denver, CO – Riot Fest
10/18 – New York, NY – Terminal 5
10/19 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
10/20 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
11/2 – Boston, MA – Paradise
11/3 – Philadelphia, PA – Union Transfer
11/9 – Atlanta, GA – The Masquerade
11/10 – Austin, TX – Fun Fun Fun Fest
12/7 – Seattle, WA – The Neptune Theatre
12/8 – Portland, OR – Wonder Ballroom
12/10 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
12/12 – Los Angeles, CA – The Fonda Theatre