“When you finish a record, there’s this period where some of the songs quickly join the party,” he says, describing the process of adding new material to the set list for his reunited indie-rock band, the Dismemberment Plan. “But some of the songs take a little while, y’know, [and] hang out in the kitchen. Some songs RSVP to your Facebook post and then never show up. Fuck those songs.”
Give Morrison a platform to talk (or 40 minutes on record) and you’re bound to hear him expound on everything from driving in D.C. to his favorite bodega in New York City. He’s playful and quick-witted, like your town’s favorite standup comedian after a triple espresso shot. But after numerous diversions, he’s also honest about why he “retired” from music for a few years before getting the Dismemberment Plan back together for a tour and a few jam sessions that ultimately turned into Uncanney Valley, the band’s first album in 12 years.
“It’s easy to think music is terrible when you’re not interested,” laughs Morrison over the phone from Brooklyn, where he moved five years ago after living somewhere between Williamsburg, Va., and College Park, Md., for 35 years. “After I took a break from music, I immediately started going to shows a lot more. It was an interesting psychological thing going on there. I saw myself more engaged with art as a fan and as a civilian.”
After a decade in the scene, Morrison and the rest of the Dismemberment Plan—guitarist Jason Caddell, bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley—needed to detach and enjoy being normal dudes. Morrison got a job at the Huffington Post, began singing in a church choir and tried to distance himself from his first solo record, Travistan, which received an infamous 0.0 rating from Pitchfork. Easley works for NASA, and Caddell and Axelson continued to play and record music.
The band formed in Washington, D.C., in the early ’90s, but it mostly toiled in regional obscurity, playing shows to “kids dressed in weird costumes even when it wasn’t Halloween” until breaking through with 1999’s Emergency & I. In a sea of polite, erudite indie-rock bands, the D-Plan offered an alternative. Its songs were kinetic, spastic and angular, full of colorful keyboards, awkward come-ons and sexual frustration. It absorbed the sound of all the great D.C. hardcore outfits—Fugazi, Bad Brains, the Nation of Ulysses—and tossed it in a blender along with Morrison’s love of modern R&B and hip-hop. You could say the Dismemberment Plan predicted both the dance-punk movement of the early aughts and the way that we listen to music today, when it’s not unusual to go to a dance party and hear “Party in the U.S.A.” immediately after a Joy Division track.
Emergency & I is a perfect document of what life is like for so many of us in our 20s: bored with work, anxious about growing up and looking for love in all the wrong places. It’s a showcase for Morrison’s indelible wordplay, and his talk-sing delivery hits its peak on the nervy “Gyroscope” and heartbreaking “The City.” But it’s also driven by the band’s secret weapon: its rhythm section. Axelson and Easley’s playing is both incredibly dense and in the pocket, and the band’s focus on groove injected some much-needed swing into a relatively stale indie-rock scene.
Despite the long absence, the Dismemberment Plan lost none of its quirkiness to middle age. In fact, Uncanney Valley is looser and, well, goofier than anything the band did during its original run. Morrison opens the record’s first song, the chiming, sleigh bell-led “No One’s Saying Nothing,” singing, “You hit the spacebar enough and cocaine comes out/ I really like this computer!” The whole thing is full of weird asides and jokes, and though nothing hits quite as hard as the band’s peak, tracks like “Let’s Just Go to the Dogs Tonight” and “Invisible”—which details the anxieties of moving to New York, hoping for a job in Midtown and settling for a spot on the 7 express train—come close.
When asked how the tour has been going, Morrison is quickly back on his game.
“It’s not like all of a sudden old women or metalheads are coming to our shows,” he says. “Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to name my autobiography The Golden Girls and Metalheads.”
SEE IT: The Dismemberment Plan plays Wonder Ballroom, 128 NE Russell St., with Telekinesis, on Sunday, Dec. 8. 7:30 pm. $25 advance, $28 day of show. All ages.