Tag Archives: post-punk

Interview with Travis Morrison

When I last dropped a line about America Is Just A Word, I mentioned that I’d be interviewing a few different artists who’s bands’ narratives are either barely known or not given the proper coverage. One of those groups is The Dismemberment Plan, fronted by Travis Morrison. Of the three groups mentioned in the previous post (the other two being Mineral and Drive Like Jehu), The Dismemberment Plan have had a little more coverage, media exposure, and lifeline over the years, playing together for a full decade and receiving considerable notoriety among music fans. The Plan’s sound is an excellent mix of the cathartic stop-and-go guitar work of DC first-wave emo, hip-hop, electronica, and post-punk and the band are well known for having put on some fantastic live sets.

In the first of many correspondences to come, Travis answered all of my odds ‘n’ ends questions I tossed his way – poor guy. Here’s a small dose of the interview:

*What got you into music? What made you want to pick up an instrument in the first place?

Travis: “It’s hard to say. I was always very attracted to music. I sang along to Beach Boys records when I was really little. Talking Heads were probably the band I wanted to be in when I was 10-11-12.”

*How did you and Eric [Axelson, bassist] become friends? What made you decide to start a band with him?

Travis: “He was in a punk band at my high school called The Milk Carton Children and being in that band was a bandmate with one of my very close friends, and we stayed in touch as we went into college–really came to be better friends then, we were acquantainces before–and  we just started talking about playing.”

 

Image from DCist

Image from DCist

*Growing up in Bethesda, I always felt this ominous spirit of-sorts in relation to D.C.’s music community before I was ever really aware of Nation of Ulysses or Jawbox of Fugazi. When you were first starting up The Plan, did you ever feel the impact of that spirit, especially considering the year you guys formed?

Travis: “Sure. We loved all those bands. Still do. So inspiring to see bands like that on local stages. I look at YouTube clips of Fugazi, especially on the Repeater tour, and they were just amazing, like Zep. I cannot believe I was able to go see a band like that for five dollars at a church.”

*When The Plan first got started, did you feel welcomed by members of the D.C. music community at first, or did it take a while?

Travis: “You mean like older folks? I kinda got the sense that MUCH older folks thought we were a hoot, really punk and snotty, and that the people immediately above us were a little more doubtful or hesitant or just found us annoying. But I don’t know, I was 21 and stupid. I would never trust my recollections of my social standing then. ”

*The Plan is pretty well known for putting on an active, exciting, and fun live set. What initially made you think to get people up and really dancing during your set? Was it difficult at first trying to do this, simply with the idea of approaching potentially-complete strangers to open up and dance in public?

Photo of D Plans last show by Shawn Liu

Photo of D Plan's last show by Shawn Liu

 

Travis: “Well I mean rock and roll was originally dancing music. But I dunno, it’s become such a cliche now… I don’t even expect dancing per se, I just want them to wake up. Heckle us, dance, throw things at us, give us a cake with pornographic icing… all these things have happened and it’s what I think we really wanted. Interaction.”

*How much of your own innovation also comes from your interactions with other bands in the D.C. community? I know you guys are pretty well known for incorporating a strong hip-hop sound into the post-punk mix, but (for example) Smart Went Crazy were also doing something of a similar notion but to a bit of a different effect. Were you and Smart Went Crazy particularly close, in terms of musical interaction, friendship, etc?

Travis: “Oh, your peers are immensely important. We learned so much from the bands around DC. Hoover‘s weird time signatures… Smart Went Crazy’s tunefulness and colorful arrangements… and outside of DC, Alkaline Trio’s blend of gallows humor and heartfeltness… there’s many examples of that.”

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Opera, Rotten Butter, and Words

*The Onion had a great “archival” issue online, which featured this hilariously-poignant piece on the “dangerous” lyrics of an opera performance:

Onion article

Onion article

The Onion always has a great way of not only poking fun of society but media as well; I would be cramming the point down the provincial throat if I were to further explain how this relates to emo today.

*Last week, The Guardian reported on a curious advertisement: John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) shelling out butter.

A lot’s been said about Lydon’s performance, most of it being negative. Seeing as how Lydon isn’t exactly known for making friends, it’s easy to see why people have hung their head in shame for the nostalgia of 70s UK punk. In all honesty though, this is an act not exactly out of the ordinary (but not exactly ordinary either) to see Lydon pull; the militant value system that punk sometimes folds itself into that sees its followers create inner turmoil and dissent daily is something that Lydon himself never complied to and has defied from the beginning. Remember, the Pistols were on a major label (three to be exact – EMI, A&M, and Virgin), a fact that rebells against the intents of independence that many people believe exemplifies true punk. Let’s not forget the fact that Lydon’s post-Pistols group, Public Image Ltd., were themselves a revolt against punk aestheticism, the perfect namesake for post-punk. Lydon never really aligned himself with any school of thought, always pissing on this or that for whatever reason. In affect, the Country Life butter commercial isn’t some terrible attack on the ten commandments of punk, but another individual and odd choice in the life of one of punk’s predecessors; the role is just another quirk that gives more heft to the argument that punk is a flexible, amorphous term.

GRE terms:

*Mollify: (V.) Soothe

“Both volumes of The Appleseed Cast’s Low Level Owl have an ambient texture that works to mollify more than depress, as the stereotypical ideal for emo music is concerned.”

*Dirge: (N.) Lament with music

“Emo music is often played in TV shows as a dirge to represent a sad moment in the life of one of the characters.”

Yes, I Can Help You

I apologize for the recent lack of posting, but its been a blizzard of fun these past few days. Despite the archaic weather, Boston is in the full swing of things, and I mixed my time between numerous concerts, the Boston Silent Rave, and general tomfoolery.

tagged Newbury Comics logo

tagged Newbury Comics logo

At the center of much of the whirlwind of excitement for the weekend was Newbury Comics‘ 30th Anniversary bash, which featured a wealth of artists performing at numerous locations. In spite of the recent downturn of the economy, the bash seemed to be a success – at least, it seems successful when you can hardly see the members of Passion Pit play (but still hear the emo-esq highs of their falsetto-voiced singer). For some odd reason, Newbury Comics trudges on seemingly undeterred by the shaky economy, and appears to rise above the vapidity of consumerism despite being a place that sells goods.

That could be the fact that they are such arduous supporters of their local community; most of the acts slated to perform this past weekend are all homegrown, from choral-rockers Bang Camaro to post-punk icons Mission of Burma. And if that still seems like a shameless ploy to bring in an extra buck, that was least of all apparent with Apollo Sunshine‘s set on Saturday in Harvard Square. The local band relished in their performance, pulling out five-minute long jams that did not bore or disappoint. Afterwards, the trio abandoned their instruments, choosing to mingle with the crowd and point fans in the direction of krautrockers Can rather than pack up and leave. Newbury Comics may be a brand in New England, but they’ve got the feel and ideology of a community-minded Mom and Pop store. Now there’s something you can get behind.

Apollo Sunshine

Apollo Sunshine

Apollo Sunshine have recently released Shall Noise Upon, and are finally getting some much-deserved respect. From the sound of it, their third album has blossomed into Beatles-esq pop without abandoning their homegrown jam-cum-fuzz-rock sound that made them such an irresistible band in the first place. Pick it up where you can!

Apollo Sunshine – 666: The Coming of the New World Government (free download)

Apollo Sunshine – Today is the Day (video):

Mission of Burma – Peking Spring (live):

Passion Pit – Sleepyhead (video):

Bang Camaro – Pleasure (Pleasure) (live):

The Revolution Will Be Produced

It’s always nice getting some sort of personal email, especially when it’s in the form of a musical reunion between David Byrne and Brian Eno. Well, “personal” isn’t quite the right word, but I certainly took the message as a sincere and direct one:

It’s with great pleasure we offer you a sneak peak by sharing an MP3 from the album. The song is called “Strange Overtones”.

The album in question is Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, and it’s the first collaboration from the two post-punk minds in decades. The duo last came together with the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. However, that album was overshadowed (and probably will always be overshadowed) by Byrne’s main musical artery, Talking Heads. Yet, Eno was a central tenant to the Talking Head’s success, as his role in the producer’s seat for three of the Heads’ best albums (More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light) was as vital as any other performing member of the band. It was because of Eno’s previously-unforeseen creative control over the band – which according to the book Rip It Up And Start Again hit its tipping point when Eno and Byrne got writing credits for Remain in Light ahead of the other band members, who were simply written down under the umbrella of “Talking Heads” – that his relationship with the Talking Heads and Byrne deteriorated.

Talking Heads

Talking Heads

It took me quite a bit of time to realize what an impact certain producers have over the final musical product. I always assumed that the final version of a song and album was simply a record of what the musicians themselves had originally created. And in many cases, that is true, especially in the world of underground music (and on the flipside, with mainstream, conglomerate pop, there’s the tendency wherein the “musicians” have less control over the final sound – or even the original sound to begin with). But as I became more interested in music, its with the “behind the music” stories so to speak, that I realized what a fundamental role producers play. The most famous stories I can think of involving the influence of a producer are all about Rick Rubin, the man who transformed the Beastie Boys into a fully-fledged hip-hop act and brought guitars and turntables together with his idea to do a Run-DMC/Aerosmith collaboration.

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin is the kind of guy who blends a musician’s sound with his own distinct style. His style is not quite overbearing, but you can hear distinct patterns and ideas in songs such as Jay-Z‘s “99 Problems”; with it’s big, chunky guitar riffs broken up by break-beats, its in the same ballpark as “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” or “Walk This Way.” It’s something I tend to notice coming out of my favorite producer today – Danger Mouse. Despite the fact that DM works with a diverse number of genres and artists, there’s a certain reliance on futuristic-soul (a bit faster than old skool soul) with a twist that flows through most of his repertoire. Don’t believe it? Take a quick listen to the Black Keys‘ “Strange Times” and compare it to Gnarls Barkley‘s “Go-Go Gadget Gospel.” They’re both excellent songs, but they share a pop-friendly downbeat and have the same hand-clap filled start.

Strange Times:

Go-Go Gadget Gospel:

It is partially due to production that emo transformed from an obtuse and ambiguous umbrella term for DC based post-hardcore, into a tangible genre. In its infancy, many of the bands who were tagged as “emo” simply produced their own records, or had friends produce their records. Everyone from Rites of Spring to Beefeater (note – their friend “Gumbo” MacKaye is said to have produced their overture) to Fugazi to Lungfish to Jawbox had band members working on both sides of the soundtrack. Hell, Happy Go Licky, the post-Rites of Spring group in a slightly different formation, only has one album, and its a collection of live recordings. The first wave of emo’s lack of a singular mode of production allowed for each act to create their own sounds uninhibited by any outside forces.

Happy Go Lickys Will Play

Happy Go Licky's Will Play

Enter the second wave of emo and there are noticeable changes and formulations drawn out that inevitably impact the future of the genre. The 2nd wave basically has two distinct halves: the spread of the DC-inspired sound to particular parts of the country in a small number of bands (Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker, etc), and then the immediate spreading of “emo” under the influence of the previous 1st and 2nd wave bands (most notably throughout the Mid West). Of all of the groups in emo 2.1, Sunny Day Real Estate had the most influence, and yet, they themselves have two distinct parts in which their sound developed due in part to the band’s relationship to two producers: Brad Wood and Lou Giordano. Wood produced the first two Sunny Day albums (Diary and LP2), and the production value brought out a certain aural dissonance derived from the feedback of the band’s dual guitar-work. Considering the band found an instant fan base (albeit, rather small) isn’t unbelievable as their produced sound shared numerous qualities with grunge, which was still popular at the time (Wood worked his alterna-sweeping grunge sound into the work of other artists such as Red Red Meat, Hum, and Smashing Pumpkins). And yet, on LP2 you could sense that the band wanted to achieve something more powerful than the immediate gratification of sonic blasts, as songs such as “J’Nuh” delved into succinct, taught patterns. When they reformed, Sunny Day grabbed Giordano, who helped relieve the band of its excess dissonance in favor of sparse melodies, a concept which has carried on into the band members’ post-Sunny Day work (The Fire Theft, Enigk’s solo work). Sunny Day held their own individual sound throughout their career, but with the help of two different folks created two distinct portraits.

Sunny Days final form

Sunny Day's final form

As emo spread throughout the rest of America and bands began to share musical ideas, producers helped sift through the sounds to create something resembling a conglomerate creation. And the two people who had the most impact behind the bands themselves are Mark Trombino (former Drive Like Jehu drummer) and J Robbins (former Jawbox frontman). Trombino is best known for his production work with Jimmy Eat World, most notably on the album Clarity, a record which traded the band’s pop-punk leanings for ambient experimentation. Trombino’s relationship with Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Knapsack, and Boys Life no doubt formed a core aesthetic for emo which mainly highlighted the band’s talents by simply teasing out the volume, focusing on the intertwined guitar flurries, and highlighting the singers’ vocals. It’s a style of down-tuned production that no-doubt has influenced countless pop-punk and emo bands today, many of whom Trombino has worked with.

J Robbins

J Robbins

As Trombino fiddled with certain bands’ sounds, J Robbins mostly covered the bases of bringing the bands to the studio. In the case of many J Robbins’ produced albums (most recently, his work on Ponytail’s Ice Cream Spiritual has gotten attention for bringing a notoriously hard-to-record-but-excellent-live band into the world of recorded sound), Robbins leaves much of the musicianship up to the band, but makes sure to twist the production knobs in a way that it gives each group the kind of pop-friendly gloss they were hoping to achieve. Even in the case of Texas Is The Reason (Do You Know Who You Are?), Robbins has been able to flesh out the noise-fetish in order to create approachable pop. In fact, Robbins’ work with one band in particular helped drive emo into the bubblegum chew of pop perfection: The Promise Ring. After TPR were upset with the sonic outcome of their debut, 30 Degrees Everywhere, they turned to Robbins for a little quality control. And that’s exactly what Robbins did, delivering the band’s two poppiest records; Nothing Feels Good and Very Emergency. It’s with Robbins that certain aspects of the emo “sound” manage to stand out, because he managed to make the sounds all stand out; rather than bands being lost in a caterwaul of noise, Robbins’ produced material (from the Dismemberment Plan to Jets to Brazil to Braid to mewithoutyou) sounds clear and conscience, making the band stand out. And in music production, that’s what counts.

Brian Eno and David Byrne – Strange Overtones (fan video):

Chabon’s Amerikan Dream

It’s taken 8 years, but I’ve finally picked up Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. All I can say is I cannot believe it hadn’t found its way into my hands sooner. The writing is superb, the delicacy and attention to detail is amazing, and the narrative is vivid in ways that most books only dream of becoming. And the fact that it’s a story romanticizing (in description, at least) the creation of super hero comic books is simply great.

Kavalier and Clay

Kavalier and Clay

What I find particularly spectacular, aside from the attention paid to the backgrounds of the background of a fake (but purely realistic portrait of one) comic book character, is Chabon’s words are drenched in art, literature, and history of all kinds. A call back to the Golem was purely imaginative and a great tale to weave into the role of Judaism in the background of comics. The image of the Statue of Liberation – hoisting a sword high above her head – in the comic-book world of Empire City, is pure genius. When Franz Kafka was writing Amerika, he described the Statue of Liberty with a sword instead of a torch, which for all intents and purposes was factually correct to Kafka (who had never traveled outside of Europe). As Chabon’s finely-tuned attention to detail brings that much more reality to a piece of fiction, there’s no question that Chabon had Kafka on the brain when he placed a sword in the hand of a fiction-within-a-fiction landmark of Western freedom and named his Prague-descendant character Josef Kavalier (strikingly similar to Kafka’s go-to character of choice, Josef K).

Kafka

Kafka

The world of alternative music is well known for its avid crew of bookworms. Chabon may not be alone in the literary world when he took inspiration from Kafka, but the Scottish post-punk group Josef K certainly stood out for their book-worn noses. The same can be taken notice of in the world of emo. While a whole realm of artists certainly know a thing or two about books, Gatsby’s American Dream make their love of literacy (or their love of one book) stand out. The Seattle-based band has four albums under their belt and are currently on a bit of a hiatus. Despite their hazy future, they’ve garnered quite a past, releasing two albums through emo-friendly label Fearless Records and have played Warped Tour. Although their sound may not exactly conjure up images of F Scott Fitzgerald or The Great Gatsby, their work shows a good grasp on third wave, hard-leaning emo musicianship.

Gatsbys American Dream

Gatsby's American Dream

Considering their rise to mild-popularity coincided with the continual rise of emo as a cultural phenomenon, it’s easy to see how the band has sparked something of a fan base. But for me, they’re merely another emo act that works to fill in the spaces of a multi-headed musical juggernaut that emo has turned out to be. And in such a cultural sphere, you’ve got to do something to stand out. Gatsby’s American Dream caught me with their creative – if not dorky – nametag. Unfortunately, unlike the well-paced words of Chabon or the name-recalling influence of Fitzgerald, the band’s sound left me yearning for a dream to complete such a well-thought band name.

With that, I’ll sign off with a video duel of the two literary-based bands.

Gatsby’s American Dream – Theatre:

Josef K – Sorry For Laughing (live):

Building the Playing

Down in New York for the weekend, I decided to take a break from some ear-shattering concerts (short review: Deerhoof rocked Prospect Park, Parts & Labor absolutely killed it at Siren Music Festival) to check out David Byrne’s Playing the Building exhibit at the Battery Maritime Building in Manhattan. The instillation is a wonderful little experiment. Byrne rigged up an old organ and attached each key to a tube that then sets off a sound within different parts of the building. Each key either triggers the sound of banging, whistling, or vibrating in different portions of the structure, thereby creating the concept of “playing the building.”

There are various ideas encapsulated within the instillation that resonate within emo and numerous punk and post-punk genres, to which Byrne himself has been such a vibrant part of since he was a founding member of Talking Heads. The instillation is meant to be an exploration of music in that the sounds emitting from the organ are in no ways linear by classical standards of tuning or performance; while classically-trained musicians will find frustration in the process, those without any musical background and “non-musicians” should potentially use the opportunity to explore making music on such an open template. Whereas knowing how to play an instrument versus a lack of experience or knowledge is the first of many boundaries that helped create the olde world rock status that punk revolted against, Byrne’s installation destroys all those boundaries. If anything, it shifts those boundaries against those with formal training, making it frustrating for those individuals to attempt to create the kind of compositions they’re used to.

Aside from that, Byrne’s exhibit makes it able for anyone with access to said exhibit and patience to wait in line the temporary ability to try their hand at making music (or just plain noise) for a temporary amount of time. Part of what makes emo (and other punk genres) so appealing is that it’s focused on allowing every individual to make music by their own means (or rather, any individual who is up to the task of doing that). But hey, instruments aren’t like penny candy, and those are usually the first resources to grab in order to make music. With Playing the Building, all you need is a Metro card and the ability to sign a waver and you have your chance to make your own noise.

After a 20 minute wait, I tried my hand at “Chopsticks” and fooled around with the keys before quickly getting up, taking a good-humored bow for the patient folks who were behind me. Look out Lil Wayne, I’m about to grab your spot on Billboard.

EXTRA EXTRA:

TV on the Radio

TV on the Radio

More good news from the land of upcoming releases. TV on the Radio have announced the release of their next album! Due out at the end of September, Dear Science, should be another great addition to what has been a wonderful array of noise, punk, and art-rock releases for 2008. Never mind my usual attempts to discuss hype, but whatever you want to call this collection of underground music bubbling up around the country it’s looking to be big. The new new alternative? Maybe. Whatever the case may be, it sure sounds great.

UGK vs TV on the Radio – I Was an International Player (Hood Internet)

A Word on Words

Hey folks,

Gonna make this one quick and then I’m going to take the weekend off. I recently recieved a comment for my Coheed & Cambria post that was not only in poor taste, but horribly written, argued and against the entire point of this blog. This blog is about an openness towards the entire idea of emo in general, and is made in response to the close-minded view of emo. Calling someone an “emo bitch” is basically reiterating all of the negative stereotypes of our society in general, and are a simple sign of frustration at an inability to create any arguable concept. I’m all for creating a conversation about the topic (that’s the point of this blog), but outside of that, attacking me as an individual and not my argument is just poor. So a few thoughts here…

1) The comment attacked me for my supposed sole love of emo. For anyone who knows me or has read even a hint of this blog, I’m a lover of any and all genres. In fact, most of the music that I discuss that is made within the recent past is in fact not emo. Hip-hop, art-punk, indie… it’s a mish-mash of genres.

2) On Coheed & Cambria being emo: to me, emo is of relatively loose definition. If you want a straight up definition, here it is: a subgenre of post-hardcore originating from the mid-80s DC punk scene, where musicians subverted the rule-based notions that plagued hardcore by imbuing it with ambiguous and outside notions of music and lyrics. Much like post-punk, the definition of post-hardcore relies on reliving the original concepts of hardcore (ie punk to its outer extremes), and the what separates emo from other post-hardcore genres is a strong focus on multi-dimensional lyrics that are meant to connect to all who are welcome to the ideas present (ie building a community) and are based in the personal predicaments of the maturation of the lyrics’ writers (everything from politics to yes, love).

So when I hear that Coheed & Cambria are not emo, I have to laugh. They do confine to the flexibility of the genre’s essence. The infamous commenter noted that they are prog and metal, which is true, they do make use of that. But somehow that makes Coheed not emo? False. Clearly this person only has a close-minded interpretation of emo overall, which was why I established this blog in the first place – to combat that. Clearly this person has never opened their mind up to the mind-numbing emo-cum-art-punk of Happy Go Licky (featuring all four members of Rites of Spring, the originators of emo), the exhilirating combination of funk, metal, go-go, emo, classic rock, and a touch of hip-hop of Fugazi, never thought to pick up the later work by Sunny Day Real Estate (or their follow-up, side project, The Fire Theft) which drenches the sound of early 90s emo in a great lake of progressive rock. These acts and individuals made emo such a vibrant, creative, and ambiguous force against the tyranny of definition that has carried the genre/culture/whatever to its current state. And Coheed’s combination of third wave emo (the aesthetics that mark Thursday, Taking Back Sunday, Brand New, and tons of others – cathartic punk-based musics derived from the original DC aesthetic) with progressive and metal is no different. They just provide a different musical melenge from their peers, which set them apart in their community; Coheed toured with these bands (on various treks and the usual Warped Tour) and particiapted in the community forum of the record label (Equal Vision is one of the largest independent labels supporting emo in its third wave, releasing albums by artists from Alexisonfire, Saves The Day, Armor For Sleep, and a host of others). To say that Coheed is not emo would break the very ideas that continue to make emo so hard to define in the typical concept of a musical genre.

3) So how come I can enjoy Coheed’s earlier work and not their later work? Because if I only supposedly don’t listen to anything but emo, according to the infamous comment, I shouldn’t be able to stand to any of Coheed’s music at all. Period. What a fallacy of an argument. Seriously. The reason I can barely listen to the newest Coheed album isn’t because it isn’t emo, it’s because it just isn’t that great.

Finally, this is meant to be a forum for positive reaction about one of the most negatively associated genres in music/cultural movements today. So, if you would like to provide a fluid and well-thought argument, be my guest. But if you walk in with close-minded assumptions about emo and can only take out your frustrations on the author, well you’ve obviously come to the wrong place.

So, excuse me for that, but I made this blog in an attempt to create positive change – please take your negative concepts elsewhere.

Have a great weekend! I promise more cultural insights and how they relate to emo quite soon. Until then, goodbye!