The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich (In Life Experience)
For any career-focused parent, learning that your child will make his or her way as a touring musician quickly raises its own flags. Your best-case scenario might include this young one penning a hit, lugging platinum-record cash in tow on a jumbo-sized tour bus. On the opposite end, there’s a ghastly vision of a mattress making its way into your basement or those thoughts of cyclical, burned-out talks on managerial missteps and solo albums that never happened.
But if you’re lucky, your kid might have followed the trajectory of a member of The Dismemberment Plan—a beloved, off-center staple of Washington, D.C.’s punk movement in the late ‘90s that now boasts four guys immersed in the professional world as computer programmers, teachers, marketing managers, audio engineers and NASA robotics engineers. Sure, the guys never did “get rich,” at least monetarily, off their tunes released between 1995’s ! and 2001’s Change. Their single status was defined more by the tunes fans sang back loudest—“The Ice of Boston” or “The City,” if we’re measuring by volume—compared to time spent on non-college radio waves.
But in the early 2000s, when the band stopped playing its songs that were defined by frazzled time signatures, frantic drums and frontman Travis Morrison’s sometimes too-close-to-home lyrical admissions, its members’ momentum didn’t brake with the tour van.
“I think it makes a difference that everybody has established themselves, gone out into the world, gotten kicked around a bit, and come back together,” guitarist Jason Caddell says about the band’s 2003 breakup. “I think that makes a big difference.”
In Morrison’s case, he traded those lyrics for more efficient, less up-to-interpretation lines of computer code at The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. Bassist Eric Axelson was an English teacher for years before joining CapitolOne as a marketing content manager—“It’s oddly pretty relaxing work,” he says in an interview after a shift. Caddell’s work in audio engineering, maybe the closest to the roots of the band than anyone else, still had him upping his professional game with work at 2012’s G8 Summit and several presidential events. And while drummers get a pretty good ribbing on the matter between their ears, Joe Easley shut up pretty much anyone who might speak up by securing a job over at NASA—where he’s still a robotics engineer.
“I always had this weird nerdy thing, I wanted to do this engineering stuff,” Easley explains about his early experiments robotics, before he’d completed his degree in aerospace engineering. “I toured until the end of The Plan, but there was never enough time off from tour to get a job, so there wasn’t enough time to do that. I kept myself busy with nerdy projects. I built gas-powered helicopters and flew them around and added computers to them. I built a large-aperture telescope. There’s nothing better to do when all of my friends are at school or working their day jobs.”
Sure, it is true that you can easily swap tour-ragged jeans for khakis or beer-stained tees for oxford button-ups, but the same idea gets complicated when considering the minds that once kept time to The Plan’s off-kilter rhythms; music unsurprisingly never left the members’ lives. Morrison kept busy early on with his own solo material, later infamously “taking himself off the marketplace” and moving to New York in order to focus on pursuits that were simply more fun at the time, including a spot in a church choir. “Not having anything to enter in the marketplace is very different from not being involved, really really different,” Morrison says of his time away from producing tunes commercially. “I was still involved in music, I just didn’t have anything to offer the marketplace, which was a first-time thing for me since I was 19 years old. And within 18 months—and that’s how long sabbaticals are—I was pretty in charge.”
Caddell’s work as an audio engineer left him EQing and manipulating soundwaves daily, and he mentions it’s still difficult to picture living in a house without a tucked-away recording space. Axelson joined members of The Promise Ring to form Maritime, a band he’d have to leave in 2005 to pursue a career in teaching, and later started Statehood with Easley. “We did a record, we didn’t tour a lot,” Axelson says of his second post-Plan endeavor. “Our singer [Clark Sabine] passed away in 2009 [after a battle with cancer], and at that point we had written between five and eight songs, so we talked about trying to finish the record up, but it wasn’t quite the same. We decided to hang it up. When you think about making a band in high school, you never thought about having to break up the band because someone dies.”
But somewhere between the weight of Statehood’s loss, the birth of Easley’s kids, Morrison’s marriage and Caddell capturing audio across the globe, The Plan found itself back in action. The guys started with baby steps in 2007, when they reunited for a benefit show for Callum Robbins, the son of longtime producer J. Robbins, who was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. A reissue of the essential Emergency & I would pull the professionals back onto the road in 2011 for a short tour, which included a spot on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. “Everyone [at work] thought that was the coolest thing,” Easley says. “But I’ve been trying to not step on toes at work and play shows on weekends.” The fun of one-off shows aside, rehearsing old tunes wouldn’t cut it for long with these four notoriously creative guys, and in preparation for some of those weekend gigs, they took to crafting some new songs in Easley’s basement. Before long, they’d hammer out what would become Uncanney Valley—their first studio album in 12 years—armed with some beer and the familiarity that years on the road brings.
“We practiced a lot in 2011, and you have to be in a certain shape to play in front of a lot of people,” Easley says. “We worked really hard and spent a lot of time in the basement, trying to get back up to snuff. In that time, you get bored playing the same songs again. We got pretty anal—well, I am now—I record every practice we have on a 16-track recorder, and we go back and mine the practices for little bits. There’s something that ends up making it back into songs, and that’s the part of the recording process that we were pretty tight about.”
“To come back after almost a dozen years and to just start to play—not practice, not to learn any new songs—but to just play, to just plug in and play new songs and makes some sound effects, it was immediately apparent to me that there’s something particular and extraordinary and very special about the four of us in a room together,” Caddell says. “And people pay lip service to that all the time, with chemistry, this, that or the other thing. But it’s fucking totally true. Not to sound like an idiot, but to get back together in a room with those guys was a bit of a revelation in terms of the level at which humans can communicate and the level at which we can develop a bond that is, in a way, timeless.”
Of course, getting four professionals with mixed schedules and Morrison’s New York residence wasn’t without its complications, so while The Plan worked diligently at new tunes during monthly rehearsals, they did so without any big expectations.
“We didn’t want to have any pressure to make a record, we knew it may not happen, so we wanted to make some sounds,” Caddell says. “We stayed together, just had fun, drank beer. If nothing happened, at least we got to hang out, and that’s cool. By Christmas 2012 we already had three songs together and we kind of realized we’d have more stuff coming down the pipe.”
“I’m sure there’s some pressure, but never at this point in making a record did I feel like ‘Oh shit this isn’t working, what now?’” Axelson says. “If it didn’t work, we’d just be like, ‘Eh, I’ll see you guys next month.’”
Uncanney Valley, a Robbins-produced album that’s out today on Partisan Records, is a shockingly immediate result from the band—one that trades the apparent dissonance of songs like Emergency & I’s “The Jitters” or Change‘s “Time Bomb” for casual strolls through 4/4 time, twangy leads and wide-open space for Morrison’s lyrics that still leave you laughing along with your own discomfort—most clear on tracks like “Waiting” or the familiar-but-new meditation on loneliness, “Invisible.” “Alienation, when you’re young, is sky full of strange clouds,” Morrison says of “Invisible.” “But when you’re older, it’s just like a single cloud cast in front of the sun, if that makes any sense,” he chuckles. Notably and most directly, Morrison shines unashamed light on marriage—and true love—in “Lookin:”
“I went jogging to test it out in that context, and I thought when I was developing that song just how good it was to run to. It has real spiritual elements," Morrison says. “And I think the lyrics are great, they’re true and uncomplicated…I think this and ‘Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer’ are the shockers of the album. The other songs I love just as much, like ‘Yeah this is an extension of us,’ but those two songs are like ‘oh shit. Like, they just blew into a new era.’”
But this week in early September, members of The Dismemberment Plan (or The Plan, or The D-Plan, if you’re into that whole brevity thing) haven’t only been practicing. Instead, the guys been using their precious moments away from work, or family, or music, to field calls from journalists like me, dissecting Uncanney Valley and their return to the indie spotlight. So it’s to be expected when I got in touch with Easley—The Plan’s NASA robotics engineer, dad and the man behind the skins on epic drum parts like Change’s “The Other Side” and Emergency and I’s “Gyroscope,” he’s feeling the wear while we discuss Uncanney Valley. After all, it’s clear now that while care and patience was soaked into The Plan’s latest recording, it’s still a carefully planned puzzle piece of each individual’s personal life that requires some logical shifts to make work.
“I haven’t been getting a whole lot of sleep lately,” he laughs, taking my call just a little after putting his kids down to sleep. And for a man who’s kept time for Morrison’s startlingly direct, honest and earnest musings, he’s reflecting some of those same qualities himself after a long day—no, week—oh hell, year—of a man wearing so many hats.
“The program I work on, we’re doing a bunch of robotic demonstrations on the international space station, and we have opportunities to do some work… whenever they say we can do something, we take advantage of getting on a launch opportunity that we have this year, and we have one next year. There’s a crush of work when that happens, so there’s been a lot of long days for…well," he laughs, pauses, and says with what surely sounds like love: “a long time now.”
But for these guys, the labor of love is well worth it, especially with this excellent new full-length under their belt. They’re ready to hit the road behind it, but as for more albums? Longer tours? Caddell says it’s wishful thinking, but not impossible:
“I think the path is open for growth, certainly, from a creative standpoint,” Caddell says. “Whether or not the logistics work or whether or not we’re all totally exhausted when these shows are over—there’s so many variables.”