Photo by Shervin Lainez.
The Dismemberment Plan are a bunch of nerds.
This should be apparent to anyone who has ever listened to one of the band’s records. Their lyrics exemplify a certain set of neuroses most people experience in their mid-twenties, all emoted alongside images of memory machines that will “wax our hearts to a blinding sheen” and post-apocalyptic stories of significant others being inexplicably flung from the face of the earth. The music itself sounds frenetic, equal parts anxious, confused, and excited, sort of like what a computer might feel if it suddenly became sentient.
This fascination with the technological and futuristic is not just limited to their music. Recently, I had the pleasure of sharing some phone time with lead singer Travis Morrison and drummer Joe Easley. In our forty-minute chat, I learned that the allusions to not-yet-invented gizmos and science fiction are not merely metaphoric, but in fact a fundamental part of the genetic makeup of the band.
“We’re not Bon Iver,” said Morrison. “We’re not chopping wood. We’re just very technologically inquisitive people and so it just shows up in our music and our lyrics and our lives. But yeah, it’s pretty on the surface, isn’t it?”
After ten years together, the Dismemberment Plan broke up in 2003. There didn’t appear to be any bitterness, no hidden animosity among the four band members – it was simply time. A final series of all-request gigs, dubbed the “One Last Slice” tour, was planned, allowing fans to scramble to their local venues and participate, for what we all thought was the last time, in The Plan’s consistently incredible live show. The band was officially declared dead on September 1 of that year after playing a hometown show at the 9:30 Club in DC.
Though there have been other musical exploits for the band members over the years, including bassist Eric Axelson’s involvement with the band Maritime and Travis Morrison’s solo career, the dismembered quadrants of The Dismemberment Plan largely returned to more low-key lifestyles. But their preoccupations remained the same.
“I still look at that telescope in his house and I’m like, damn, Joe built that.”
After the band dissolved, Morrison focused his energy on web development. For six years, he was in charge of the advertising technology behind both The Huffington Post and the Washington Post. Today he is working with a former HuffPo colleague on a start-up called Shoutabl, which will assist musicians in making their own websites as well as connecting their bands with others with whom they can they play shows.
Meanwhile, Easley returned to college to obtain a Bachelors of Science in Aerospace Engineering. He now works at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, writing software for industrial robots that will hopefully go on to service satellites in space. “I actually get to spend a good portion of my day driving the robots around with joysticks, which is every person’s childhood dream, right?”
When I asked them what they obsessed about outside of their day jobs, Easley told me about the time he built a Newtonian reflecting telescope by himself. To do this properly, he had to join a mirror-grinding club that met on Friday nights in a basement in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
“Wow, man, the humanity,” he said, in awe of his own experience. “They are all awesome people and they know what they’re doing… but it’s just a bunch of nerds in a basement grinding away at these mirrors for weeks on end basically. But at the end, you have a really awesome telescope!”
Morrison also seemed impressed. “I still look at that telescope in his house and I’m like, damn, Joe built that.”
For his part, Morrison’s nerdiness focuses–unsurprisingly to anyone who has kept up with his career or his blog posts–on music. “I don’t buy a lot of records,” he said, “because I kind of remember how they sound when I hear them. It’s a little twisted – I kind of listen to them in my head.”
After a series of charity shows in 2007 and a longer tour in support of the re-release of their classic album Emergency and I, the band realized they had a bit more to do together. In the latter half of 2012, they announced that an unexpected album was on its way and a few live performances of new songs, like “Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer” and “White Collar, White Trash,” found their way, as these things do, to YouTube.
'Uncanney Valley' had both a technological unusual edge to it and then it also looked like something from my childhood
The new album is named Uncanney Valley. When I inquired about the name and the hypothesis it references, Morrison and Easley seemed not entirely certain how it became their album title. Morrison insisted it was Easley’s suggestion, but Easley wasn’t sure. “I’m struggling to remember why that one came up,” he commented. Morrison followed up, saying, “It’s kind of like our band name. It was just there at the top and we’re like, oh, that one’s good.”
The one thing they were confident of was that it was Morrison that misspelled it, perhaps in an unconscious attempt to find a new home for the tragic “e” that was dropped from his new business’ name. The extra letter was added when he was designing the album cover, which was just released to the public yesterday, and was using the album title as a placeholder. “I don’t know what happened, but I looked at it. And I was like, I love this album title now,” he said. It went from being just another suggestion among many, to being evocative of his youth.
“I grew up in Virginia,” he explained, “and for me, uncanny valley, once it was misspelled, looked like one of the town names in southwestern Virginia. And when it looked like that, it had both a technological unusual edge to it and then it also looked like something from my childhood.”
To promote Uncanney Valley, The Plan has decided to straddle both past and present technologies. Since they hail from the DC punk tradition, it’s always been important for the band to communicate with and respect their fans in a very immediate way. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, this impulse manifested in listing the band’s AOL screenname, ThePlan99, in the liner notes of each album. Now, it means interacting with fans via Facebook and Twitter.
“There are some bands that are engaging and there are some bands that just aren’t, and that’s cool,” said Morrison. “We’re just naturally engaging artists. We talk to people at the shows and get into funny jokey tweets. Back in the day, if people IMed the Plan, I would respond. Why not?”
But for the Luddite, there’s also The Plan’s new hotline, which you can reach at 252-64-DPLAN. When the number was originally revealed a few weeks ago, all a caller could do was listen to their new track, “Waiting." Since our conversation, however, the hotline has been updated so that callers can also leave voicemails sharing their favorite D-Plan memories in an attempt to win tickets to an upcoming show.
“It wasn’t really our idea,” Morrison said. “But when it all played out, I see how it’s so perfectly Dismemberment Plan, it’s crazy. My favorite part about it is how, in a way, it’s just like Jay Z – you can hear our music on a phone - but you know, not.”
Towards the end of our conversation, I selfishly tried to steer away from our primary focus to ask a question that I’ve always wanted to know the answer to: does The Dismemberment Plan actually enjoy the ritual that comes with playing their song, “The Ice of Boston,” live? I’ve always worried that it was only fun for the fans and a little frightening, if not dangerous, for the band members themselves. (For those not in the know, watch the video below.)
Video from The Dismemberment Plan's YouTube account.
Both Morrison and Easley emphatically insisted that they love it, but even here, it was hard to stay away from the technical side of the discussion. While Travis’ only qualms with the stage dancing were the number of male fans pinching his butt (“I turn around and I’m like, dude, please, I’m busy”), Joe is just a little concerned with the actual physics of that many people hopping around on a stage.
“There’s a lot of structural engineering I’m exposed to in my day-to-day life and those stages are not fucking equipped for that kind of shit,” he said. “But it’s kind of the best thing ever. Everyone has the fucking best time.”
And in that moment, Joe pretty much summed up what I and many other fans have come to love about The Dismemberment Plan: great music and a fantastic live show, served with a delicious side of nerdiness and worry.