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The Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison Ponders ‘Change,’ Track By Track

An in-depth look at the D-Plan's most reflective album to date

This week, heady D.C. post-punks the Dismemberment Plan are reissuing 2001’s Change, their fourth and most aptly titled album, which was also their last full-length before going on a nearly decade-long hiatus. In the 13 years since, frontman Travis Morrison, now 41, has undergone plenty of changes: He’s weathered backlash after putting out an infamously low-rated solo record, he’s gotten hitched, and the D-Plan has reunited and issued a follow-up to Change, last year’s Uncanney Valley. But back at the turn of the century, he was just psyched to have an audience listening.

Change was the first record we ever made where anyone was curious,” Morrison recalls over the phone. Two years prior, the Dismemberment Plan wowed critics and fans alike in 1999 with Emergency & I, an unclassifiable triumph of a record that outgrew the emo and indie circles it initially attracted, despite (or because of) its fearless appropriations of Talking Heads-style funk, jazzy hardcore, programmed synths, and brain-trolling dry humor. “I lost my membership card to the human race / So don’t forget the face,” Morrison sang on Emergency & I’s “What Do You Want Me to Say,” sounding cocky and nervous all at once. But on Change, the band took a more groove-oriented approach informed by ?uestlove’s production work, and also wrote riffs influenced by then-trendy nü-metal and Pearl Jam, whom they opened for on tour.

“That was the beginning of the era where Spoon would get dropped by a major label and it wasn’t the end of the world,” Morrison says. (Emergency & I itself was funded by Interscope but they dropped the band before releasing it.) “You know that was the first sign of the death of the major-label era, that you could go on living and show your face in public and speak to your friends and feel proud of yourself for making another record even if you were dropped by a major label.”

Change received almost as much acclaim as Emergency & I, though fans couldn’t help but notice Morrison’s softer singing and a marked decrease of screaming and post-hardcore signifiers. “People have a weird relationship to the word maturity,” the singer says. “It gets kind of kicked around some and the thing in rock’n’roll is that both immature is bad and mature is bad. A song like ‘Time Bomb,’ it’s a little camp. I dont know if this is going to ruin it for anybody but like, as a singer I can recognize the attraction of climbing inside of it, and I can do donuts with it. But you don’t actually live in the parking lot, you know what I mean?”

In honor of Change’s re-release, SPIN spoke with Morrison about the stories behind each of the album’s 11 tracks. Find his track-by-track commentary below.

“Sentimental Man”
Good song. How frank are we getting here? I can give you like, how I treat them, as my own worst critic. Beautiful instrumentally, wavy lyrically, kind of irritating vocally. The vocals are kind of messed up but whatever, it’s fine.

What led to your softer vocal cadence in general on this album?
I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it. [Laughs.] I don’t know what was going on there, that strange falsetto thing. When I play it live, I just go for it. J. [Robbins, producer] must have used some sort of effect that made the track get really interesting, like this weird half-time echo on the drums that’s really cool.

“Face of the Earth”

I’ve heard that this is your favorite Plan song.
Uh, yes. I mean, when the question comes up, sometimes I want to say [Emergency & I’s] “Back and Forth” or one or two others, but mostly I would say it’s my favorite song. It’s just the most confined to a unified theme. Sometimes in our songs it would be cool to have that kind of contrast, garishness. Those were the risks we took I guess. But “Face of the Earth,” as bold as it is, it also coheres and you don’t get those very often. And that’s really satisfying. I think everybody did what they do uniquely the best on that song.

“Superpowers”
Actually, I like that song. The record-making could have been better, but people really like that song.

You have a lot of songs that do this, but this song’s chorus crashes the verse’s party and changes the whole direction.
Yeah, that was interesting musically. We should play that one, we’re better players now. We would play that song live and kind of botch it. We were just too close to being… kids spazzing out at the Black Cat [in D.C.] you know? We want slick. I bet if we played it now, we’d kick the shit out of it.

“Pay for the Piano”
It’s one of those tracks where you’re like, “Oh I can’t wait to hear this live.” I loved playing it live. That cool riff I play is really awesome. It’s not “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” but it’s good. Actually, it is as good as “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” [Laughs.]

I’ve pondered over the lyrics.
I dont know, really, what that was about. A lot of times with songs that don’t seem to make sense, when you actually find out what’s behind it, you’re like, “Well, that’s dumb.” It’s a weird thing about abstract songwriting because a lot of times they have less to them than [Dolly Parton’s] “Coat of Many Colors.” So let’s just make it a nice little nonsensical hard rocker and leave it at that.

Is Change more abstract than your other records?
Umm… maybe! There’s no abstraction at all on the middle two. Some on the first one. I was typing up the lyrics first time I listened to ! in 13 years and some of the lyrics I was like, “What are you talking about?” Total nonsense. Like At the Drive-In’s sci-fi weirdness. I don’t think I’m very good when I’m figurative, I think I’m better when I’m almost prosaic with weird details. Change gets a little more oblique but not too much.

“Come Home”
I don’t listen to my music very often but… sometimes when I hear “Come Home” I go into a time machine and do some lines and get myself into trouble because it’s very whiny. I mean, it’s touching, my dad shows up in it. He had died a couple years ago previously. I don’t know, it kind of plods. I like Eric [Axelson]’s bass a lot on that song. I’d been going through heavy personal stuff, and you feel like there’s such an emotional pudding and you need to bake it into a cake artistically, and you’re going to get down on yourself for that, and other people are like, “Aww, that song is just raw pudding.” You’re like, “No, no, I never put it in the oven! No, please, if you want pudding, I’ll give you pudding!”

“Secret Curse”
Actually, that’s the one I really turned back and listened to and thought, “That’s a good song.” The songwriting kind of reminds me of Jack White a little bit. The way the chords start where there’s no bass and the drummer’s just furiously going… it really implies like, running off a cliff a little bit. I don’t think that one is that abstract at all. It’s kind of witchy, but it kind of had that Nick Cave, you know, like gothy. It’s gothy! [Laughs.] It’s about the hex. And I think like the singing really matches the feeling of the song. If someone made our greatest hits, I don’t think it would be on there but as an album track I think it rocks.

“Automatic”
Yeah, I don’t know what that is. I dont know. I like the first verse a lot, and then the second verse doesn’t seem…. actually, it’s also gothy. It’s got like, a good, Leonard Cohen bluesiness, but it’s not quite written well enough. A song that’s got a heavy what-the-fuck kind of feeling. We won’t be playing it at shows but it’s kind of an amuse bouche in the middle of the record.

“Following Through”

“Following Through” is probably my favorite.
I’ve had a lot of people tell me that “Following Through” is their favorite Plan song. A lot. Yeah, it’s great. Incredibly economical. Also pretty bitter but it seemingly… um, earns it. Also, in England, “‘Following Through’ means when you think you have to fart but instead you shit.

“Time Bomb”
It is what it is. It’s a good, evil, hard rock song.

It could’ve been a hit.
Yeah, that could be. I tell people that I do think one environmental issue on that record was the rise of nü-metal. I like some of it! I loved System of a Down. I still love Toxicity, what an incredible record. I like Deftones. I like some Tool. This was at the time that Tool was on the radio, that [sings the riff from “Schism”] “dun, dun, dun, something about the pieces.” Their song titles are always like, weird Latin words. Mars Volta were out there doing their Mars Volta thing. It’s easy to laugh at it, but Braid’s Frame and Canvas — great record. Alkaline Trio’s Maybe I’ll Catch Fire, great record. Nothing Feels Good, great record. You know the genre, there’s all these great records. That’s why people started talking about it in the first place. I remember saying like, “What’s wrong with prog? What we want to do is progress, why not be progressive?”

“The Other Side”
That’s just a really good song. Good arrangement. Fully influenced by an obscure song by a local band named Lake Trout, called “Little Things in Different Places.” Joe [Easley, drummer] and I went to go see them and they played it, and we both looked at each other like, “Let’s make something like that.” It’s a little embarrassing how much we ripped off the song. So, um, yeah, that’s the genesis of it. That’s all it is, you hear something good in a club and you just want to go home and imitate it.

“Ellen and Ben”
Well, the story is fully made up. They’re just names of people I knew. I’m friends with Ben. Ben and I are Facebook friends. But I haven’t talked to Ellen in many, many, many years. I should find her on Facebook. I bet Ben’s friends with her. It’s crazy now, you can get in touch with people you can’t like, imagine, but yeah, that’s a great, great song. It came from a jam and I told the guys it was a great song,  and I was intently focused to make it a song.

At some point, Joe was like, “All right Travis, I’m starting to see it.” I was totally stuck with the story about them in the last verse, and I was like, “I don’t have anything more to say about Ellen and Ben.” Then I was on a bike ride down the GW Parkway down the Potomac River and I was like, “Oh, I know. The last verse will be about a singer being like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what’s up with Ellen and Ben, I haven’t talked to her in a while.'”

I think that really fit the emotional center of the album well, and was kind of a goodbye to all that feeling — like, a couple years ago I was living in a group house, and they had sex and then they were fighting. You know you’re not living a group house life anymore or that kind of intense, in-other-people’s-grills-all-the-time kind of thing. So Ellen and Ben are kind of faded out of the songwriter’s consciousness, and yeah, I was always secretly extremely really proud of that. I’m glad you called me so I can brag about these things.