November 19, 2002

The Dismemberment Plan has that indefinable quality

Traditional descriptions fail a lot of bands, but they are especially faulty in regard to Washington D.C.'s Dismemberment Plan. I've seen them described as emo, as latter-day torch-bearers for the early- and mid-'90s D.C. punk scene, as a frat-rock jam band, and as a jazz outfit. It doesn't take an indie rock aficionado to realize that these descriptions don't add up, and saying that the band manages to be all of these things is, I am afraid, just as unhelpful a cliché. The most truthful definition is reflexive: the Dismemberment Plan sound exactly like the Dismemberment Plan. Uninformative on its face, I think this description goes about as far as any description can. The Dismemberment Plan has released four full-length albums, each one the genre-bursting sum of the interests of its constituent parts. The band thus doesn't defy categorization so much as it refuses to be limited by it; their sound is in fact whatever happens to come from the combination of Travis Morrison's reedy, hyper-literate vocals, Jason Caddell's punchy guitar lines, Eric Axelson's looping bass, and drummer Joe Easley's freewheeling percussion. It's a combination that's made them something akin to stars in the alternative universe of independent music.

I recently spoke by phone with bassist Eric Axelson. After a series of delays caused by a power outage and the MAROON's evacuation from Ida Noyes Hall, I got through as the band was en route to a show. It was, apparently, a stroke of good fortune, since reaching the band via cell phone any earlier may have been a problem. "You may not have gotten through to us, since we were in the mountains all day. It's all for the best," he said after I apologized for calling after my appointed time. The band was just pulling into Boulder, at the mid-point of a tour through the west and Midwest that follows closely on the heels of tours through Spain this summer, and through the East Coast this fall. Spain, apparently, was especially interesting.

"It was kind of like a vacation with gigs," Axelson said. "We could spend the day eating really good Spanish food and drinking cappuccino, and then the shows would start at 1 or 2 A.M." It was a vacation made possible by two of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed independent albums of recent memory: 1999's Emergency & I and 2001's Change. While quite different in sound—the spastic rock of Emergency & I gave way to the brooding atmospherics of Change—both albums have managed to considerably increase the band's popularity with college-rock audiences at home and, apparently, abroad. "It was good. People definitely knew who we were," Axelson said when asked about the band's reception in Spain.

College audiences in the United States are likely to be familiar with the band, and a good many college kids are likely to have recently become followers. "The audiences get a little bit bigger every time we go out," as the band gradually gains more and more exposure. They're now at the point of doing the sort of multi-leg, multi-city tours that make some bands long for their early days of playing smaller shows to crowds of sparse but devoted followers. Axelson considered his response when asked about his preference for playing larger versus smaller venues. "It goes both ways. There are pros to playing bigger rooms. It just sounds better. Although smaller clubs, where everything is a bit more intimate, can sometimes be more fun. We like them both for different reasons."

Understandably, Dismemberment Plan shows can be as difficult to describe as Dismemberment Plan albums. They're planned as a departure both from the usual stand-in-the-corners-with-your-arms-folded rock concerts, and the chaotic pit-brawls of larger shows. The material can be genuinely unpredictable. "We don't do set lists," Axelson explained. "We'll plan the first two songs and then we'll just sort of go clockwise around the stage and let everyone throw out a song. Obviously, there are some things that we'll play every night, and there are a lot of requests that get thrown in, too," but the shows are, in a manner of speaking, deliberately spontaneous.

The current tour comes right in the middle of the band's efforts to record a follow-up to Change. "We have about a half-dozen songs written, so we need to write a few more." Axelson added that the group's current approach to songwriting varies. "Lately Travis has had a lot of ideas, so he may come in and we'll add melodies and chord structures. But it might be that Jason will come in with sample settings, or Joe will come in with a beat, and then we'll work from there." They are also in the process of finding a new label now that DeSoto Records, the independent, D.C.-based label that has released each of their albums, is being retired. "We're not in a hurry to pick. We're waiting for the album to be done and then to take that to labels." Although they had briefly spent time signed to Interscope Records—just long enough to release The Ice of Boston EP—they're not necessarily looking to transfer their success into a major label deal. "Majors don't really know what to do with us."

There's one additional matter of special concern to Chicago fans, the matter of a concert at the Fireside Bowl a couple of years ago that, according to current and former MAROON editors, still looms large in the minds of Chicago music fans. Are the rumors of a DVD release true? "There's talk of doing that," Axelson said, although releasing the concert on DVD was not originally part of the plan for the show. "That concert was basically one big dance party, and it was one of our favorite shows, and we'd think, 'Man, it would be great if more people could have seen that,'" but it wasn't until someone came forward with a videotape of the show that the idea of a release began to be kicked around.

I ran out of questions—in another instance of precise timing—just as the band pulled into the venue's parking lot. "Now it's time to unload," Axelson told me, a final reminder that many bands have tour hassles far beyond hen-pecking road managers and venues that screw up their rider lists. Whether the Dismemberment Plan will ever reach the first-class and limo stage of touring, or even if they'll simply have someone to unload their van for them, is an open question. For now, they seem content to stick to their own vision of what the band should be.

The Dismemberment Plan will play at the Metro on November 21.