October 08, 2001

The Dismemberment Plan: An Interview

On their most recent website, Dismemberment Plan lead singer Travis Morrison posted a very open, very general, and very scathing letter to the major labels of the world, and saying, in no uncertain terms, what their problems are. It was a very interesting and highly insightful message, and it reminded me of my own interview i did with the Plan boys back in 2000, sitting in their warm van, talkin' about their then-recent label hassles. It was quite an interesting chat, and I enjoyed speaking with them. Originally, this ran in the debut issue of Lois Is My Queen, but I felt it was worthy of inclusion here. Late last year, they released their fourth album, Change, to much well-deserved praise and critical acclaim.

So, how's it going?

Travis: Pretty good. Tour's really well...Usually on tours, at this point, I will have had a night where I completely detest making music and life and so far, in 11 days, there hasn't been one of those. So, by my standards, that's pretty good.

Maybe tonight's that night?

Travis: Uh....thanks! (laughter) (laughter from Joe Easley, drummer, who had been sleeping in the back seat)

Hey, I just got dumped, so I'm Mr. Negative. (laugh) So, what happened with Interscope? Was it just that you guys got caught up in the whole merger thing and were just a casualty of that?

Travis: (yawning) Yeah. I really wonder how things would have gone down had the merger not happened and I wonder what the different result would have been but yea they really became a really different company and as such...it's almost kind of weird to say that this company that signed us "dropped" us. It was kinda more like the company that signed us forgot about us. Like pod people or something.

So, when you signed, did the label make a lot of promises to you or was it just like, "hey, we could work something out together where you can develop artistically," or were they pushing you to be like the next thing?

Travis: It was pretty low key. I don't think there was any real objective. I don't' really know what kind of success was envisioned on the part of the people that run the label. There was a great deal of attraction towards one particular song that we had on the second record and I could take a leap and say that they saw us as a potential Beck or a potential Talking Heads or any one of your "arty" pop bands throughout history that have made records that have both challenging and out there material and more accessible material....but that's me. That's what I would figure the major label saw us as. I don't know. So, you know, to a certain extent, it was taken very slowly, one step at a time I think...well, you know, there were TWO steps, there was one step and then it stopped. (laughing)

Joe: more like that unforeseen cliff that suddenly appeared! !

Travis: We were like.. (mockingly cautious) "ok..now...move very slowly...ok there ya go! Great!....next!" Yeah. (laughing) I think i can say by fact this is gonna sound weird, but certainly, there were factors. Like, our recording budget, which was fifty thousand dollars, was PLENTY of money by indie label standards, but not for a band like Smashing Pumpkins, or, say, even Rufus Wainwright, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his record., so when they spend that kind of budget on us, I think they were looking at us as a long term, low-yield investment, the opposite of N'Sync.

Something that could be developed over time, and pick up that "cult following" status, like, say, Phish or Built to Spill.

Travis: I think they thought more of it like "feed 'em a little dough every year and they wont break the bank, and, hell, maybe they will get a hit" (laughing) I certainly don't think they had the five year plan for the Plan, or even a five day plan.

But, I guess, to be a little fair to Interscope, they were always a little more edgy. I mean, they did sign Brainiac.

Travis: Yeah, totally--like with Brainiac, you know, it's weird. no one ever did nail down what major they were gonna sign to. People at Interscope really, really claimed that it was gonna be them, so I wouldn't be surprised, but there were also people at Elektra who claimed "I thought they were signing with us" and I think that Brainiac might have ripped a page out of the Girls vs. Boys' "toy with the majors" rulebook. But, yeah, they were certainly very, very interested in Brainiac. But then, they also had like Clawhammer, Rocket from the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, and....you know, they had seen a LOT of success with Primus (amazed). I mean, Primus is a WEIRD fucking band! It boggles my mind that that band sells so many records!

Joe: (mumbling, from the back seat) Who would have ever thought that gay funk metal band would ever....

Travis: (laughing) The singer sounds like a cartoon duck! His bass playing sounds like a cartoon duck! They'd probably make the drum playing sound like it if they could!

Yeah, it's a weird band to be on a major label.

Travis: Well it's a really weird band, to see the kind of success that they've had. Yeah, I mean, I think they might have seen us as a potential Primus (laughing).

Joe: Great, now I get to be the duck!

Travis: Yeah, but they {Interscope} did have an edgy side to them and they were a well rounded company. Now who is to say that that's the best business model? I think that perhaps it would be better for that record label to just concentrate on massive hit records for--and I don't wanna say anything that puts those bands down--but bubblegum, you know? Assembly line made music that is meant for the lowest common denominator. I'm not saying that I don't enjoy some of that music---I really like Ricky Martin! Someone's gotta.

It's "pop" for a reason!

Travis: Yeah, exactly! Popular! (laughing)

That's what people forget about the word "pop"!

Travis: It's like what Madonna always said in interviews, when asked about what she thought of "alternative" music, she'd say, "what do you mean, music that isn't good?"

Alternative to what? Pearl Jam is number one, and alternative to what?

Travis: that's a very good point. Like, you know, some of these "alternative bands" sure are popular.. So I mean, yeah, they became a different company, and they did jettison a lot of their...although, again, Limp Bizkit certainly is edgy, Limp Bizkit is not easy listening. Umm I find it impossible to listen to Limp Bizkit, although I do love "nookie!" (laughing) So I mean, you know, I think one important thing that you have to remember is that there were too many bands signed to major labels at one point. The gold mine that came out, after the CD reissue type of thing..it was a one shot deal, and the record industry lived it up, signed all these bands and thought it was really fun, but eventually that had to end. Too many bands were on majors, you know? and you know, a lot of those bands that moved to majors probably would have been better served by staying on an indie and maybe selling 70,000 records which, if you sell 70,000 records on an indie label, you make a good chunk of money. You don't have to have a day job. If you sell 70,000 records on a major label, then, you know, they are bringing in a outside songwriter, cuz you're in trouble.

You know, it's funny, listening to your record, and then listening to other bands in the same boat, like Spoon, you almost have to wonder if the joke is on the majors, because not only is this like the best stuff the band has ever done, but you think to yourself, you could hear this on the radio.

Travis: Well, you know, that stuff is so hard to predict, though. You never know. You can never really have an idea. I mean some of our songs could be on the radio that are on this record, but here's what you have to remember about that. We are seeing that from our vantage point, we're people that are really into like a lot of underground music. I think the thing to remember, as someone whose tastes are like our own, they can hear a band like us or maybe the Promise Ring, and think, (excited) "Boy, these guys are like the ultra! They are the poppiest! They will sell a million, billion records cuz they're so POPPY!" and then you put us on a major label, and then normal people hear us and they are like, (valley girl accent) "dude...this is weird!" (laughing) Everybody used to think that Shudder to Think had these great melodies and got a great singing voice...but jesus christ! Shudder to Think is the weirdest fucking band to ever walk the face of the earth, and no one was ever gonna listen to them. And there are more obvious examples than that. The Promise Ring have said in interviews "Look...Davey can't sing! we are a very, we're like a very underground pop punk band...what normal people would be into us?" From our vantage point, we may think that it is just the poppiest damn thing to come down the pike, but it's just cuz that is our little perception, looking from a very arty plateau. I really have no idea what the kids in the parking lot in Peoria would think of it. I can imagine it would be like "uhhh, whatever"

You never can know with a band. Like, I always hated Sunny Day Real Estate, I never cared for them, but now they are somewhat huge.

Travis: Yeah, but would they sell that much more if they were on a major label? I tend to think not, but i dunno. I think bands like that need to be on labels the size of Sub Pop.

When you signed, you got a fifty thousand dollar recording budget, and for an indie band, that's a large chunk of change. When you went in to record this record, did you go in with the idea of "we have got this money, we might as well as utilize it" or were you more like "let's try to make the record that we would have made had we done it on DeSoto in the first place?

Travis: Nope, we spent every cent of it! (laughing) We actually had to kick in a tiny bit of money on our own in the end, but we spent all fifty thousand! It's like the Peter Principle. You know, the more time you have to do something, the longer you wait to do it all at the last minute. We still ended up pushing the deadline, pushing the money. I think the money mainly went towards taking the time to focus on the performances, to get them spot on, to the degree that was never possible on an indie label. You know, for indies, when you finish recording, you literally have got only like four or five chances to get the song done, and then on the fifth time, you just have to say, "Yeah, we meant it that way." When you on a major label, you can actually say, "no, that's not how we meant it, we actually want it to go this way." Certainly, I do think for all of us, like when you are a musician, when you're a young musician, you have this part, you play it, and sometimes you think, "Well, i have to fix this or that" but you don't really think too much about it. Then, when you get into the studio, you record it, you hear the first playback, and then you go, "OH NO!!!!" (laughing) You are in such denial! On a major label, with the money we had, we had the time where we could have that moment of denial, and THEN really nail some things down. And, certainly, as a singer, there were always those moments where I was telling J. "oh, no no no, I meant to mispronounce it that way," and it was like, "Well, that's too bad, because we are gonna fix that now!" and boy i hated it at the time, and I did not like how the record sounded at the time, but now I thank J. Robbins for whipping my ass because I can now totally see how he took the songs away from our greedy little mitts and made them stand up on their own. I mean, we didn't use our fifty thousand dollars to hire turntable players or a string section. It was pretty much to take the time to really focus and make the record as tight as possible.

So was their any label intervention at the time you were recording, like, "hey, guys, polish this up, we really like this for the single?"

Travis: No, I think they'd already started to forget about us! (laughing) To be totally honest, our main A and R guy was the VP of A&R, who is now the VP of everything at that company, and I think he obviously knew that the deal was going down, and he had much better things to worry about. He had already slopped us off to some lower level A&R people, like we hadn't talked to him directly in months and months. He would say things to the woman who was managing us, like, when we were talking about a release date, and we didn't know what was going on, he would say things like, "you know what, I tell ya what, I got a three day weekend this weekend, I'm gonna sit down and really listen to the record" We had recorded it like a month and a half before, so he wasn't like "man, I can't wait for the Plan record to come!" (laughing) So, no I think because he was obviously worried about this big earth-shattering merger, why would he be worried about, "i think you need to cut this bridge out so that we can really make this sellable?" I think he knew that we were dead wood.

So, did you guys know about it? Did you have any feeling about it coming?

Travis: No. I think I read about it in the paper or something. I can't remember how I found out, but I know a lot of employees found out that way. Jason, how did you hear about it?

Jason (Caddell, guitar/keyboards): Certainly not from Interscope, that's for damn sure. It really seemed like just the upper echelon of management, probably even above the vice president level, like the president, CEO's and their handlers actually knew for a fact it was going to take place. A lot of people lost their jobs without any warning at all, but that's how things at that level work.

Travis: So, no, no feeling, but there never is. There were probably only three people at that company who were involved in it, probably the guys that founded it, Wally, Ted Field and Jimmy Iovine. A lot of people lost their jobs throughout the whole thing.

I guess the thing that makes the whole story amazing for you guys is that you were lucky enough to get your record.

(Silence, followed by looking at each other and nervous laughs)

Or is that another story...??

Jason: Yeah, that's probably another story (laugh)

Travis: I think we were lucky enough to have the wisdom to carry on with our lives, and uh, uh...

Joe: We have the tactical skills to bust in, become a SWAT machine, to enter in, and retrieve our masters unscathed, and release them on an independent label!

Travis: Joe is gifted with the skills of martial arts, and I knew a lot about nautical infiltration, cuz they have a lot of explosives...I tell you what, Michael Penn was fucked, he's been doing all this survival stuff in Montana, but where's that gonna get him? See that is how we handle questions that we are a little afraid of! (laughing) But I'll put it this way, everything didn't get completely nailed down, but we were such a fly in such a big pool of ointment, I don't know what we would have had to have done for them to care.

Well, it's good that you guys have the record out...

Travis: Yeah, it's great that you're alive as opposed to dead! (laughter)

Jason: Yeah, we pretty much escaped pretty well from this whole mess simply because people over there aren't staying. I mean, from what I've read, even the Stings and the Sheryl Crows are over there saying, "well, what about me?" But there is SOOO much chaos over there, all that bureaucratic insanity, that people that still have deals with that conglomerate are fucked, I mean there's not going to ever be any hope for their records being released, or they will just poorly supported or poorly deployed or whatever.

Travis: I think that one major way that we are lucky is that we come from an underground punk world where there is a very developed social network and a much more developed sense, where one would do it at a weird...

Joe: A storage space in Lubbock? (laughter)

Travis: Yeah, like, that "yeah, it can just be my hobby if i want" kind of level, and that's got its downside, but one of the upsides to it is that some of the people who are like the kind of people who move to LA, get a record deal, and do a lot of things that they are supposed to do it in the industry, they don't play here (pointing to the warehouse) , they don't have this kind of big family to fall back on, so that when they get dropped they just freefall, they dont have anywhere to land.

Jason: Or they just get another major label record deal.

Travis: They don't have the resources to kind of just shrug at the whole thing. Like, there used to be one guy in this band called School of Fish, who had written 43 songs and they kept telling him "no, thatÕs not a hit single, go write another one."

Is that the guy who just died recently?

Travis: (blankly) What? The lead singer of School of Fish died? Maybe it all just got to him (laughing). (interview devolves into conversation of recent celebrity deaths, including, at this time Tom Landry, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and Charles Schultz) Anyway, that guy from School of Fish, after the whole merger thing was over, he was kind of whimpering, "look, can I have my songs and just go away?" and the label was like "HELL NO, those our OURS, your 43 unsellable songs" so yeah, I guess that would kind of induce arrhythmia in anybody, yeah, but I didn't know he died! Really? How? Suicide? Holy shit!! ( it was health related, not self inflicted--ed.)

So,what's in the future?

Travis: Touring, touring, touring!

Put the loop on, write, record, play,

Travis: Yeah, it kinda got stuck there for a bit with that whole, um, you know, label thing. We're a band, ya know. We've been working on our flashpots for the....

Eric (Axelson, bass/keyboards): No! You told him about that? SHHhhhhh!!!!

Travis: Well, can't do it now! Sorry, Lubbock!

--Joseph Kyle

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