The indie rock cult heroes, back with their first album since 2001, talk staying alive online and leaving their "alienation" behind.
When the Dismemberment Plan turned off the lights a decade ago, the Washington, D.C. indie act didn't expect to come back to a packed house.
"It was really shocking how many people came out," frontman Travis Morrison told Billboard of the band's return to touring, which began with a string of sold-out shows in 2011. "We were definitely creatures of our time, we liked adventurous music. I don’t think it ever occurred to us that we were trying to write hits."
But for a growing cult audience, songs such as "The City" and "The Ice of Boston" have become anthems, and a toe dipped into the reunion waters has become a dive. On Oct. 15, the group will release "Uncanney Valley," its first studio album since 2001's "Change." The band broke up in 2003, saying goodbye with the next year's "A People's History of the Dismemberment Plan": a fan-made remix album that served as an early crowd-sourcing experiment. The return of the Dismemberment Plan has come in pragmatic stages: an appearance on the deftly booked "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" to kick off 2011, a run of East Coast dates, a week-long tour of Japan and a performance at Pitchfork Festival, the annual Chicago event arm of the website whose reviews helped albums such as 1999's "Emergency & I," reissued in 2011, reach their devoted following.
That album -- intended for release on Interscope before the band's two-album deal sputtered -- wound up on D.C. indie De Soto, and much of the band's promotion was left to online word of mouth, with music passed through file-sharing networks and message boards. Not that the band didn't put in legwork: their 2002 "Death and Dismemberment Tour" found them sharing dates with Death Cab for Cutie, soon to be a household name thanks to Fox hit "The O.C.," but then still a group touring behind sales of 17,000 for "The Photo Album."
"[File-sharing] was crucial, because we were such an odd band so the only way to really like us was to kind of hear us. And it was hard to hear us," Morrison says, adding that digital access left the door open on the band's return. "There are more people who have heard our music because of the advent of streaming and piracy. We just didn’t disappear into a pit, unfindable."
However, support wavered from one corner of the Internet after the group's break-up: Morrison went solo and Pitchfork panned his debut, "Travistan," with a devastating 0.0 score in 2004. 2007's "All Y'all," released as Travis Morrison Hellfighters, didn't fare much better. The two albums didn't come up in a Pitchfork interview earlier this year, and asked by Billboard what his solo work had taught him, the musician shied away from his official releases.
"I sang in the church choir," he says. "So I learned a lot about harmony and melody. We were very much a groove and repetition-based band, back in the day."
For a band that closed its last studio album with "Ellen & Ben," the story of the quiet end of a relationship, "Uncanney Valley" doesn't sound like a record of frustration. The album explores lyrical darkness, but unlike the claustrophobic, socially stymied narrators of the band's past work, Morrison's characters are more open, even bright-eyed. The music relies less on dissonant lead guitars and more on major-key hooks; beyond his stint in vocal music, Morrison named groups including the National, tUnE-yArDs and Battles as recent influences, but the band's own signature rhythmic athleticism remains intact.
Single "Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer" seems positive until the chorus accepts the weight of familial responsibility: "Daddy was a real good dancer/until he had me/then he put his dancing shoes away." Elsewhere, he's cracking jokes: "You hit the space bar enough/and cocaine comes out/I really like this computer!" he goofs to open "No One's Saying Nothing." "Uncanney Valley" even offers what might be the band's first love song, "Lookin," with a sweet lyric about getting lost in a partner's face. It's the work of accepting adults, not nervous kids.
"There's moments of resentment, moments of anger, moments of introspective anguish on the record. But I think that [as] you get older, you start to realize that alienation is pretty much on you," Morrison says. "You can only mine that for so long until you start to sound a little self-pitying."
After the group's first run, bassist Eric Axelson joined a pair of fellow '90s expats, the Promise Ring's Davey von Bohlen and Dan Didier, for two albums with Maritime, before playing in Statehood with Leigh Thompson, Clark Sabine and Dismemberment Plan drummer Joe Easley. (Statehood's burgeoning career was cut short after one album after Sabine's death at 33 after a cancer battle.) Axelson's now a school teacher; Easley work for NASA. Guitarist Jason Caddell became a producer and engineer, working on "All Y'all" and Statehood's debut, among other albums. Morrison himself worked for the Huffington Post and moved to New York, where he's at work on a tech start-up for bands, Shoutabl. But for now, their energies are back on the Dismemberment Plan.
A few summer festivals behind them, the band kicks off another tour in New York on Oct. 18 after the album's Partisan Records release, heading to Los Angeles and other West Coast cities for their first dates there since splitting up. And then? One step at a time.
"We’re going to go play shows and making some videos," Morrison says. "That’s really exciting, we never really did that back in the day. Those are the two things we’re focusing on right now."