From the mid-1980s through the mid '90s, Washington, DC's music scene flourished with the remarkable talents of bands supplying angular and energetic punk rock with a message to the youth of America. Under the umbrella of the Dischord label—spearheaded by political stalwart and musician Ian MacKaye—bands like Minor Threat, Fugazi, The Nation of Ulysses, Youth Brigade, and Rites of Spring set their political beliefs to music, and in turn, brought the attention of the music world straight to DC. But, in the late '90s, around the breakup of important DC bands like Jawbox, Hoover, and the Make Up, as well as the random activity of Fugazi, the DC music scene seemed to quietly get swallowed up by the underground rock happenings in Seattle, New York, and Chicago. That is, until the quirky punk/funk/pop group known as the Dismemberment Plan gave the DC music scene somebody to champion again.
Like many indie outfits, the Dismemberment Plan started from humble beginnings. Made up of bassist/keyboardist Eric Axelson, guitarist/keyboardist Jason Caddell, singer/guitarist/keyboardist Travis Morrison, and drummer Steve Cummings, "The Plan" as they were affectionately referred to, started on New Year's Day in 1993. At the time, the DC music scene was still vibrant, but losing a bit of the steam it had been running on throughout the '80s. Taking a cue from like-minded bands like Brainiac, Fugazi, Trenchmouth, Talking Heads, Prince, and XTC, the Dismemberment Plan produced a sound that was as atonal and manic as it was danceable and pop-influenced. Practicing in Axelson's mother's basement in Springfield, Virginia, the Plan released their debut 7″ single/cassette tape called Can We Be Mature on Alcove in the spring of 1994. The 7″ contained the songs "Can We Be Mature?," "Wouldn't You Like to Know," and "When I Write" (the cassette featured the bonus track "When Ever Have I Been Known to Say No"). The band soon started playing shows around the DC area, making a name for themselves based on their energetic live performances, catchy and disjointed songwriting, and Morrison's whip-smart and witty between-song banter. In early 1995, local label DeSoto Records (helmed by former Jawbox bassist Kim Colleta), offered to release the debut album by The Plan, aptly titled!. Featuring a few reworked versions of songs that appeared on the initial 7″ single release, and a new drummer in the form of Joe Easley, the album contained hyperactive tracks like "Ok Jokes Over," "Fantastic!" and "Onward Fat Girl." Ed Howard of Stylus Magazine commented, "it's a pure adrenaline rush of a record that hits harder and spazzier than anything else the band ever did."
Following the album's release, the band started to venture outside of the confines of the DC music scene, and started the process that would come to define the Dismemberment Plan for the rest of their existence: touring. Once home, the band took to rehearsing material that would end up on their second album for DeSoto. Released in 1997, The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified offered an alternative to the brash hardcore that had always populated music made by DC bands, and instead delivered an up-tempo dance album, informed by Gang of Four, Talking Heads, hip-hop, and the emerging DC "go-go" scene. Jonathan Cohen of Nudeasthenews.com said, "Musically, Is Terrified runs the gamut from the grating, hyper-active grind of DCscene forefathers like Fugazi, Jawbox and Shudder To Think on 'Bra' and 'One Too Many Blows To The Head,' to solemn odes to regret like 13-minute closer 'Respect Is Due.' There are some positively incredible individual passages throughout, the kinds that one wishes would just go on for eternity."
One thing that did seem to go on for eternity was the band's touring schedule. After the release of the album, the band toured all over the United States, promoting their enthusiastic live show to small clubs and basements alike (something the band still enjoyed doing, well into their more successful years). In 1997 the band also released a new single, "What Do You Want Me To Say?" b/w "Since You Died" for DeSoto to bring along with them on tour.
By 1998, the hard work seemed to pay off, as the Dismemberment Plan was picked up by Interscope Records. As a teaser for an upcoming album, the band released the Ice Of Boston + 3 EP on Interscope in October of that year. Though the band spent a good four years of their existence as an "indie" band, signing to a major label was a risky move for any band, especially if they happen to be from Washington, DC, the birthplace of do-it-yourself underground rock.
However, as Morrison told Stylus Magazine, their decision was based on the labels varied roster and artist-friendly approach. "They had everyone from Drive Like Jehu to Dr. Dre, they had Primus, and Ron Sexsmith, everybody was completely weird. And they had a really unusual and effective corporate structure, and everyone knew each other there, it was a small company, and it just seemed like the company was at a really special place in time. It just struck us that it would be really interesting to work with them."
The band's enthusiasm, however, would soon subside, as Interscope underwent a restructuring that would cause the Dismemberment Plan's recorded future to linger in limbo for the next year. Having already recorded their next album, paid for on Interscope's dime, the band underwent negotiations to get out of their contract, and to release the album elsewhere. Truth be told, the band just wanted to put the album out on whatever label they could.
Finally, in October of 1999, the band released Emergency & I on DeSoto Records. Ironically, after being dropped from a major label, the album proved itself as the Plan's most accessible release to date, equally informed by their spastic punk roots as it was their infatuation with modern day R&B. It also contained a certain amount of sadness that the band only slightly hinted in their earlier releases. Morrison told Aversion.com, "We were always pretty good about saying 'This album is going to be about this' and then going there," Morrison says. "We were actually remarkably sophisticated at an early age like that. I remember being in a car when we were mixing Terrified and talking with Eric. We were both like, 'The next one, let's not do wacky. Let's do more melancholy and explore the R&B arrangements that we've always been big fans of.' Back then we were huge fans of urban contemporary and Mary J. Blige."
Press for the album started to pour in, and the band was heralded as purveyors of experimental pop amongst their less adventurous contemporaries. Pitchforkmedia's Brent DiCrescenzo gave the album a rating of 9.6, saying, "I could spend pages examining this record. Everything down to the art is stunningly unique and perfectly appropriate. Even standard guitar pop numbers like 'What Do You Want Me to Say' hit like a high-strung Weezer. A full range of emotions—or-gasm, loss, confusion, uncertainty, resignation, rage—ooze from The Dismemberment Plan. Paradox is woven throughout—the alien and the nostalgic, the nascent and the classic. It's unfortunate that the term 'new wave' is still linked to the early 80s. Bands like Jets to Brazil are unimaginatively trying to revive that new wave sound. But The Dismemberment Plan is truly, unequivocally, the new new wave."
As the band hit the road to promote the album, with contemporaries like Juno, The Promise Ring, and Compound Red, they saw their fanbase rise in conjunction of their critical acclaim. Now playing larger clubs, the Plan's live show was able to flourish to new heights. Of their live show, Ink19.com said, "I cannot more heartily recommend that you see this band live. I think that even if (for some insane reason) you didn't appreciate their music, you'd be won over by their sheer enthusiasm and energy in a live setting. This is easily one of the best bands in existence at the moment, and their live skills are at a peak few could hope to match. Miss them at your peril."
For the Record …
Members include Eric Axelson, bass, keyboards; Jason Caddell, guitar, keyboards; Steve Cummings (left group, 1995), drums; Joe Easley (joined group, 1995), drums; Travis Morrison, vocals, guitar, keyboards.
Group formed in Washington, DC, 1993; released debut single, early 1994; released debut full-length! on DeSoto Records, 1995; released The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified, 1997; signed to Interscope Records, 1998; restructuring of Interscope caused them to be dropped before a full-length was released; returned to DeSoto Records and released Emergency & I, 1999; released Change, 2001; group broke up, 2003.
Addresses: Record company—DeSoto Records, website: http://www.desotorecords.com, email: [email protected].
Following the release of a split 7″/CD with Seattle's Juno, the Plan struck again, with the release of 2001's Change on DeSoto. Slightly less aggressive and more sensual than their other releases, the band again picked an apt title for their new album, which sounded like a scrappy punk band's version of The Talking Heads' Remain in Light mixed with Paul Simon's Graceland. Following the release, the band toured overseas with Pearl Jam, and back in the States with Enon and Dalek. As 2002 rolled around, the band hit the road with up-and-coming indie act Death Cab for Cutie (dubbed "The Death and Dismemberment Tour"). Although the tour was a success, the band felt that their hard touring and recording schedule was taking its toll. The band announced a farewell tour that would last through most of 2003, commencing with the release of The People's History of the Dismemberment Plan, a remix album done by mostly fans that contributed tracks via the Internet.
The Plan broke up in 2003, playing their last show on September 1st at the legendary 9:30 Club in Washington, DC. After the demise of the group, Caddell continued to pursue his calling as a producer, mixer and recording engineer, working with groups like Troubled Hubble, CEX, and So Many Dynamos. Bassist Axelson joined the band Maritime, who also featured members of former touring partners The Promise Ring. Easley went back to school, entering the University of Maryland to pursue a degree in Aerospace Engineering. Morrison did what many lead singers of prominent indie bands do, and pursued a solo career, releasing Travistan on Barsuk Records in September of 2004. He also toured with his band The Hellfighters throughout 2005.
Can We Be Mature (released on 7″ vinyl and casette), Alcove, 1994.
!, DeSoto Records, 1995.
The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified, DeSoto Records, 1997.
Ice Of Boston + 3 (EP), Interscope, 1998.
Emergency & I, DeSoto Records, 1999.
Change, DeSoto Records, 2001.
The People's History of the Dismemberment Plan (remixes), DeSoto Records, 2003.
DeSoto Records, http://www.desotorecords.com (May 23, 2006).
Dischord Records, http://www.dischord.com (May 26, 2006).
"Dismemberment Plan," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 26, 2006).
"Dismemberment Plan," Ink19.com, http://www.ink19.com/issues/june2001/liveInk/dismembermentPlan.html (May 26, 2006).
"Dismemberment Plan Interview," Stylus Magazine, http://www.stylusmagazine.com/feature.php?ID=124 (May 26, 2006).
"The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified," Nude as the News, http://www.nudeasthenews.com/reviews/423 (May 24, 2006).
Dismemberment Plan Official Website, http://www.dismembermentplan.com/ (May 23, 2006).
"Dismemberment Plan: The Things That Matter," Stylus Magazine, http://www.stylusmagazine.com/feature.php?ID=62 (May 26, 2006).
"Emergency & I," Pitchforkmedia, http://pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/d/dismemberment-plan/emergency-and-i.shtml (May 26, 2006).
"Final Dismemberment (Dismemberment Plan)," Aversion, http://www.aversion.com/bands/interviews.cfm?f_id=219 (May 26, 2006).
Travis Morrison Official Website, http://www.travismorrison.com/ (May 22, 2006).
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