To most, reunion shows from The Dismemberment Plan won’t register as an event of any significance. Those people I pity. Following an unexpectedly short signing with Interscope records (which lasted just long enough to fund the recording of the ‘Emergency & I’ album), it was eventually released in October 1999 on DeSoto Records to mass critical acclaim. A groundbreaking album, it tied together influences as diverse as Brainiac, Prince and Talking Heads into twelve songs of jazz-licked structures that still remain undeniably catchy. It’s a journey of boundary pushing pop music that ranges from anthemic melodies (‘You Are Invited’) to organised chaos (‘I Love A Magician’).
During their initial ten years, The ‘Plan released four incredible albums of diverse sounds so sonically removed from any counterparts of their era, yet still instantly identifiable. Spectacular enough to demand the attention of anyone who thinks Fugazi are the only good thing to come out of D.C., the fluid and distinctive back end of Eric Axelson and Joe Easley contain the wildly ambitious ideas of Travis Morrison, creating an exciting tension. There’s also no denying their pop sensibilities that make each song far catchier than it ever would seem on paper. Their commercial success didn’t quite match the buckets of praise emptied upon them by critics, but their influence is undeniable in many artists since, arguably spurring on the dance-punk scene of the early 2000s. The individual members have remained musically active since, with Travis Morrison releasing two solo albums, Eric Axelson and Joe Easley performing in Statehood with Clark Sabine before he passed away in 2009, and Jason Caddell now a full time producer.
However, nothing since has matched the strengths of the combination they once had and it seems the allure of performing together again proved too strong. Seven years after the original split, the band announced a few reunion shows to coincide with the vinyl release of the seminal ‘Emergency & I’. Due to the original dates selling out within four minutes, those few shows expanded to ten US dates, four in Japan and even an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. During their recent two New York shows at Webster Hall, the band played sets lasting almost two hours drawing predominantly from their last two albums, with the tightness as though they’d never stopped. They are no longer trying to prove themselves: Joe works for NASA, Travis writes for The Huffington Post and these songs were written at least a decade ago. Instead, they’re celebrating the incredible music with fanatic audiences who have travelled far and wide to see them, including a significant proportion from other countries. DIY caught up with Eric Axelson and Travis Morrison backstage before their second New York show to find out more.
DIY: What’s it been like being back on the road after so long since last going on tour?
Eric Axelson: It’s feeling more and more normal again. It is pretty surreal, it’s something that’s hard to compute sometimes when you’re on stage and then there’s a thousand people out there. We’ve all been musically active since the band stopped, but not at this level where you have all these crazy sell out shows and people traveling in. It’s been good, it’s just getting used to the process. It’s like in Boston, something happened on stage where it really sort of kicked home what we were up to, it feels good.
Has the reaction to the reunion so far tempted you to take things further?
EA: As far as what we do after these shows? Seven years ago we were still selling out a lot of shows, but it wasn’t everywhere we went and wasn’t as fast, but this all happened pretty quickly. We talked about doing three to five shows, and this turned into ten shows in the States and five in Japan. I think we want to get through a chunk of the shows and then kind of talk about it. We haven’t really made any decisions at all, it’s more like “let’s play some shows” and then see if we hang out for a further four years and do it again, or do we not do it again, or do we continue? There’s been no discussion on it, we haven’t had any sit downs at this point, but I think everyone’s keeping an open mind. Besides people getting sick, it’s been a blast.
People getting sick?
EA: Yeah, I had the flu all last week and now Jason’s got it, I don’t know if you can hear it in his voice, he’s had like the fever, throat cough thing, so hopefully he’ll be better before we fly to Japan next week.
A consequence of the sleeping arrangements and lifestyle?
EA: Yeah, though when I had it we weren’t sleeping in the same place, but I think it’s just that you’re in the same location a lot, and we’d been driving up for Fallon and back. You try to be smart and not share things, but somewhere along the line you…
Travis Morrison: You make out.
EA: [laughs] “Sorry man, I gave you the flu”.
Speaking of Japan, you played some dates there as part of the Farewell tour originally. What’s the link between Japan and The ‘Plan?
EA: The Japanese link? We’ve always had a lot of fun there, I don’t know. I mean we like Europe also, and this was a matter of how much time we had. We had European offers but there wasn’t a whole lot of time also and Japan - I think the first time we all went there we found it kind of magical. For a while, Travis was learning a bit of the language, Joe actually took some classes in Japanese and he and his girlfriend went there for a trip. I have no idea how the shows are going to do, to be honest. The label site over there, they’re booking them but I hope it’s an extension of what we’re seeing here.
I saw the teaser video thing…
EA: Oh yeah, from the old shows?
EA: It’s fun over there, people at the shows go berserk and then the second the song ends it’s like dead silent. On the first tour it was kind of creepy, it was like we didn’t know how to react, then you get used to it and you know that it’s going to be kind of quiet, and then maybe why Travis learned some Japanese was because it was there was blank space.
Though you don’t get the same banter as last night at Webster Hall?
EA: Not a lot of drunks yelling at you, and when they are, it’s Americans. When you’re at a show in Japan and someone’s heckling you, it’s an American at the back basically. It’s not a Japanese kid, it never is. I think last night one kid would be like “TRAVIS, IT’S BEEN NINE YEARS!”, you don’t get that in Japan. What you do get is that after the shows, they are, or they were then, really into autographs. One show we were signing textbooks and cell phones. It’s nuts, fun though, love the food!
How was it recording on Fallon?
EA: We had never done TV before, we did a cable access show in Minnesota years ago, but we hadn’t done network TV so it was a little surreal. When you come down to it, you’re just performing for two hundred people which is not different than a club, but the fact that you’re set up and there’s these five cameras that are floating around you, getting up close, then there’s fifty feet and the seats where the people are. It feels a little bit weird but it feels like it raises the stakes because you know that they’re taping it to be national later. It was fun though, the people running the show were very accommodating and super pro and nice like there’s no pretence. The Roots were fantastic, we got to the show and we geeked out on music with The Roots.
?uestlove has been tweeting about you.
EA: We’re flattered, you know? You never know what other bands think of your stuff and to have someone be that vocal about it, especially a hip-hop group. We played some shows with some hip-hop acts back in the day, but it was more like underground, experimental, noisy stuff, not mainstream so it’s cool to see someone of that world get to enjoy it.
With this tour being on the back of the vinyl release of ‘Emergency & I’, are we likely to see any more vinyl reissues of your back catalogue, and why this album in particular?
EA: Um, this one?
TM: It sold the best.
EA: [laughs] Yeah, it was the best selling, to put it bluntly, it sold a lot more than the other records. It’s the most popular and as far as tracks that get requested, it skews more to that record. We’re not against more vinyl, but we want to get this done. This is a lot more work than you bargain for at first. Getting all the art files squared away, getting all the tapes together.
TM: It was ambitious and we wanted it to be right, we wanted it to be really good. I don’t think we’ve ever put that kind of super intense scrutiny on a product before, which was cool, but we were also a little like…
EA: It was all brand new.
TM: It was brand new that level of super hardcore focus.
EA: Travis was always going back and forth on proof reading the liner notes, or Travis and the art guys are going back and forth like checking the colours and matching it and Travis came up with a problem three times to work on arts stuff. We had to put together the photo collage… We were really happy with it though, there was this moment where they were shipping us the promo copies and it was a bit baited breath. Then we opened it up and I remember Travis with it in the practice space - I mean, I had already seen it and knew it was cool - but he was kind of like really intense so I was looking at him thinking “please be right!”. We have a history of having fucked up things happening to our stuff. With ‘Emergency & I’, the first few pressings all had different covers, they were folded different ways and when they finally got the cover right, the CD was the wrong finish, the colour was wrong. You can’t catch a break in the artwork but this time it was 100% right.
TM: Oh, it’s 100%.
EA: It’s gorgeous, exactly how we wanted it to be, in the liner notes there’s no typos and it’s all there and it’s awesome that people are buying it. I don’t even feel cocky saying it like “you’re gonna love this, it’s gonna sound good, it’s gonna look good, it’s exactly what you think it’s gonna be”. Also, going into it, we didn’t cut any corners. We knew the higher end we made it the less money we’d make, but we were like “fuck it”, we just wanted something that’s going to look and sound right and we may not make any money from it, but that’s cool.
I suppose the music industry now, has changed a lot since the album originally came out.
How are you adapting to the changes, I notice you’re integrated into social networking a lot this time around?
EA: It is different, when we were around there were a lot of things happening, Myspace was just coming out, Twitter definitely wasn’t happening. I dunno, I’ve been out of the game more than most. We’ve always had a plan for the band to talk later but as far as vinyl and all that, we’re only considering it now.
Looking back at your recordings, is there any particular era you’re drawn to more?
EA: This record’s my favourite by far. Well, I won’t go that far, but I mean, I think it’s our strongest work of the four records. I like them all for different reasons but the first two records, when I listen to them, it does seem that there are a lot of moments like “what the fuck are we doing?”, not in a bad way, but there are a lot of really out there concepts musically. I don’t know what we were doing, it’s crazy. Even this record we relearned all these songs and there are moments like “why did we do that?”, that ending, that chord change. But we just did it. We were younger people then and it was different.