Man with the Plan
For a guy who takes the Christian Right to task on his new album and refers to Dubya as "Monkey Boy" on his website, Travis Morrison doesn't seem terribly dismayed by last month's election results.
"I'm fine," he insists, speaking by phone from the bluest of states, New York. Fine? He sounds downright sanguine. "It was a bummer, but it was also a signal to everybody that after years of sitting around and putting down the other guy for not being smart, the world is basically the same. Maybe everyone needs to grow up a little bit and think of more constructive ways to improve the world." Ouch! Suddenly, whiling away the day preaching to your inner choir at blackboxvoting.org and sorryeverybody.com doesn't sound terribly useful, does it?
Perhaps Morrison is ready to move on because he already vented all over Travistan, the album that marks the beginning of his solo career after a decade fronting the decidedly apolitical and vaguely emo Dismemberment Plan.
Travistan began while there was still a Plan and grew into a collaboration with Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla. The first song Morrison wrote was "People Die," which just might be the first response to September 11 that doesn't suck or come off as trite. And here's something refreshing: Morrison is smart enough and conflicted enough to recognize the futility of the song's very existence. "Then you go hit the white zin, 'cause people die," he sing-songs over synthetic hand claps and ominous percussion. "Believe it or not, I'm trying to cheer you up, and I can see it's not succeeding. Nobody here's got what you're needing."
After he wrote "People Die," the decision was made to dismember the Plan. "We were still down; we just got tired of the band," he says. "We started to work uphill." In early 2003, Morrison trekked from his Washington, D.C., home to a New Hampshire lake house and started to write, responding to the daunting morality questions that arose after the dust of 9/11 settled. And as the political climate continued to grow more "abusive and mean-spirited," as Morrison puts it, he realized love songs were absolutely out of the question.
If all this sounds like the second coming of Springsteen's heavy-handed The Rising, Morrison is well-served by a characteristic he shares with John Kerry -- nuance. Morrison personalized the political until the lines started to blur -- which, he asserts, "is a good thing. Songs that are directly about elections are not such a good idea."
Neither is complacency. Morrison may be measured in his own reactions to world events, but he's less careful when discussing his own kind -- musicians -- and their place in the world.
"One of the sad things of this day and age is that there's a vast amount of confusion on the part of pop musicians as to what the hell they can do," Morrison says. "There are some art forms that are responding to the times beautifully. There's an incredible surfeit of graphic novels that are emotional and hard-hitting -- stuff by Joe Sacco, [Marjane] Satrapi, and Art Spiegelman."
"But," he adds, "I remember what most pop musicians did [after 9/11]. They canceled their tours and stayed home. That is the exact opposite of what a pop musician can bring -- boldly and stupidly going out there in the world, even though everyone is scared, and saying, 'Look, don't be scared. '" (For the record, the Plan refused to cancel their tour plans and hopped a plane for Europe.)
Sadly, Morrison doesn't see most of his peers changing anytime soon. "It would be great if Beyoncé went to the Middle East and played Damascus," he says, only half-joking. "But it's not happening, and that's a melancholy thing."
But Morrison is changing -- and rapidly. While Travistan's funky beats, delicate acoustic structures, and historical jokes (Thomas Jefferson evidently liked his booty wide) represent a departure from the Plan's relatively serious marriage of early Talking Heads funk and XTC-ish melodies, Morrison signals that he's ready to move on yet again. He's already working on new material -- "I'm trying to write songs about adult realities that aren't insipid"-- and says another album could be ready to record in the spring.
"The new band has really caught fire quickly," he says, clearly psyched about the prospect of a new collaboration. "Our first practice was September 2, and our first show was two days later."
The next album will be recorded by the revamped group, but first the band has a tour to finish, and Morrison is excited about the live show -- no Plan songs, just Travistan material and a few choice covers.
"It's much more of a dance band than the Plan was," he says. "It's more elegant and rhythmic. The shows actually gain energy as they go on."
Of course, covering Ludacris' "What's Your Fantasy" certainly helps boost the energy levels. Just check out the song's "tap that ass" refrain: Morrison comes off like a modern-day Thomas Jefferson doing his best to piss off the Christian Right.
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