"I Was Taken Off the Menu": The Travis Morrison Interview By Alex Rawls
Travis Morrison is an unlikely star. As the front man for indie rock heroes the Dismemberment Plan, he seemed to approach the world and its issues emotionally open and genuinely, intelligently curious. He distinguished himself with clear, plainspoken vocals and a stage presence that was almost abnormal in its normalcy.
The Washington, D.C., band became an indie cause celebre in 1999 when it released Emergency & I (DeSoto) after having been dropped by Interscope Records after one EP. That album and 2001's Change showed them to be equally at home with frenetic rock, shimmering melodies and funk -- whatever the song called for.
The band broke up in 2003, releasing The People's History of the Dismemberment Plan, a CD of remixes of the band's songs done by fans. It's an entertaining appendix to the band's career and underscores its audience's close identification with the Dismemberment Plan, but the album isn't the place to discover its music.
Morrison released his first solo album, Travistan (Barsuk) in 2004, an album that shows him trying out directions. He worked with a keyboard-heavy lineup at one point looking to move toward electronica, but that didn't work out. Instead, "Born in '72" sounds like a Change outtake, and "Che Guevara Poster" could be a Dismemberment Plan track, but without its Police-like rhythm section.
In a now-infamous review at Pitchfork.com, a writer panned the record and particularly, "My Two Front Teeth, Parts 2 and 3," writing, "Travis Morrison got his ass kicked. He tells the whole story here, about the random beatdown he suffered in front of a Gap, a humiliation so surprising he couldn't fight back. Even cracking jokes about it to friends doesn't disguise his embarrassment, or hide the hollow in his mouth where his teeth went missing." Unfortunately, the critic missed the song's 9/11 allegory, and so did many others who similarly found Morrison's confusion and uncertainty uncomfortable.
During a tour stop in Milwaukee, Morrison talked about this situation and other subjects with more humor than his earnest onstage persona might suggest.
On the Dismemberment Plan:
For most of our lives, we were weekend warriors. For one thing, we weren't very popular until the last two years. We were kind of part-timey about [touring]. Before Emergency & I came out, for 16 months, we had one month of touring just because no one knew what was going on with the record.
There were, as happens in young bands, life agonies which probably contributed more to the demise of the band. Not so much that people knew what they wanted to be and do and wanted to go do it, but they wanted the time to face the fact that they didn't know what they wanted to do. And the band gave them a false sense of wrong destination. [laughs]
Young middle class white people tend to feel really sorry for themselves and see [touring] as this huge trial, but our parents are getting to retirement age, and what do those people do? They hit the Winnebago and they vanish! My girlfriend's parents tour much harder than I do, and they really enjoy it. I think my girlfriend's parents are at Mt. Rushmore today.
I gave myself 18 months to f--k around, which you're not supposed to do in indie rock these days. You're really supposed to be thinking about your career, which is so melancholy. The phrase, "indie rock career" is one of the saddest phrases I've ever heard.
The record was made during a period where, like, if you know someone who's dated the same person from 3 years old to college and they don't get married, you know how those people flip out and sleep with everything that moves? I had an Alfie period musically and did all kinds of stuff. I thought it would be fun to make the process public and it really wasn't. People were really uptight about it, which was a bummer. Travistan was a part of that process, and about September of last year, that ended and I got a band together.
It holds up in my mind better as a very fun and free period in my life than a statement or something that expresses a coherent point of view. I have memories of making it that are better than the memories of what was actually said.
On the Pitchfork review:
What's been amazing is how seriously people take it. I've come to realize indie rockers don't like music per se. Not to be a dis, but they're more into a subculture and they want to know what's on the menu for the subculture. I was taken off the menu with that review: "No, we're not eating that today." It was a little Children of the Corn-ish and spooked me a bit. That caused a bit of a problem; this has been my year of going around hearing, "I heard [the album] was bad." I'm processing that slowly. The fact of the matter is, we play a show and it takes until the end of the show for people to decide, "OK, I like him again."
I wouldn't trade this for the world because it has kept the trip interesting observing all this, but stores refused to stock the record -- unbelievable stuff. I wasn't going to speak about it publicly until it started happening to other bands, but it happened to Pedro the Lion when their album got trashed.
When I first read the review, I thought it was funny because I think they thought of me as a rock star, therefore someone who could use a little ad hominem bashing. You get enough good press and you're due for a little smack around just to make sure everyone's on the ball. If you read the review, I know what problems are on Travistan and they don't get them right. It's like they hadn't heard the record and started teeing off on this guy they thought was an untouchable rock star.
On noticing good lyrics while writing them:
I do, but I distrust that feeling because I don't like my brain waking up while I'm thinking about stuff and going, "That's a good line." It makes me think it's a capital G capital L good line. I don't give a rat's ass about good lyrics, which is weird considering what I do, but I don't like noticing that a writer has really flexed his skills. I love it when I get those good lines, but I don't trust it because I think, "Oh, you're clever, Mr. Morrison."
Lucinda Williams -- Live @ the Fillmore (Lost Highway): What is happening to Lucinda's accent? Where is she living that her drawl has become so exaggerated? It's disconcerting at first, but after a few listens it makes musical sense. She's always had a gift for finding the edges of notes for added emotional nuance, and here she phrases words to similar effect. On "Ventura," her longing for peace is more powerful because she sounds so in need of a break, while on a stomping version of "Changed the Lock," she sounds feral, like the wildest woman in the trailer park and the last lover on planet Earth you ought to cross.
Typical of Williams' career, she does things her way, down to structuring the album. In this case, that means starting slow, rocking in the middle, and then slowing it down at the end. You can quibble about song selections -- her affection for "Bus to Baton Rouge" remains perplexing -- but again, the logic behind her artistic decisions is so personal and so often correct that questioning it seems a little presumptuous.
There are few versions here people will listen to instead of the studio versions, though the rawer "Pineola" here gains gravity for the rasp in her voice. Live @ the Fillmore documents what a live performer Williams has become. She often seemed uncertain onstage, but she's clearly in complete control here. More than that, though, the album ties the last few years of Williams' career together, making studio albums that sounded distinctly different seem of a piece with the rest of her output. It suggests that a musical vision that seemed to drift with Essence and World Without Tears has remained consistent, if anything maturing as she does.
Robert Gordon -- Satisfied Mind (Koch): When Robert Gordon recorded Robert Gordon and Link Wray and Fresh Fish Special in 1976, he connected Sun Records-era rockabilly to New York punk and garage rock. He performed versions of songs that have since become standards with style (he provided) and bad attitude (Wray's guitar provided) at a time when no one else was playing rockabilly.
Time hasn't been kind to Gordon, though, as multitudes have strolled and shimmied through the door he opened, and many of them are better singers. Conceptual musical daring no longer carries the day, so what we're left with is a pretty good bar band (with pianist Johnny Neel the lone standout) matched to a decent singer who gets oddly mannered when he reaches down for low notes singing a pretty good-but-not revelatory set of covers. Nothing wrong with this but nothing special, either, and it's all probably more fun live.