By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Revered '90s emo band the Dismemberment Plan has re-membered.
The quartet (singer Travis Morrison, guitarist Jason Caddell, bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley) is back together for one more go-round, a tour celebrating a classy vinyl reissue of the band's best artistic achievement, 1999's "Emergency & I."
That does not mean they'll be playing the whole album in concert.
"I hate that! I hate that!" Morrison cries. "Who would want to see that? Who, who would want to see that? I don't want to go see a band play the album start-to-finish. What kind of parlor trick is that? Why not pay $30 to hear them play longest to shortest, or alphabetical, or group them by key? Part of the joy in seeing a band live is seeing all the places they've been over time all scrambled up. Hearing them young next to old — I love that. What they have to say now adjacent to what they were doing then. Any band that reads this that does that album-in-concert thing: I am no longer a fan!"
It's so like the Plan to tour behind an LP release of a 12-year-old album. Granted, it's a supreme package: four bonus tracks, color photos, new and in-depth liner notes, a gatefold, and the whole thing's pressed on 180-gram audio-nerd-grade vinyl. "Oh, yeah," Morrison says, "if it weren't for the vinyl, we wouldn't be doing this [tour]."
This was a band, after all, that practically skipped through its career as if everything was a lark, and then abruptly shut down eight years ago, eventually tossing out a belated retirement announcement. The band, Morrison insists, was always an excuse to travel the world (they just returned from another week playing in Japan). The lack of ambition created a more creative space in which they were able to spice their jagged post-punk with dub and dance without too much worry over commercial concerns. That lost them a record deal, of course, but it also then produced "Emergency & I."
In conversation, Morrison is easygoing and remarkably carefree, and here are his takes on a few salient points ...
On looking back over the band's catalog: "I think we're lucky. Yeah, lucky. Lucky that we wrote songs that don't totally embarrass us at this point in our life. I think [they have] emotional intent that we're comfortable with. I don't want to get too pompous about it. We wrote songs we can still relate to. Not all, some are really juvenile. The more emo ones from later on seem a little much to me. But for the most part there's a core of songs that we still feel good about playing, and that's what keeps us together when we come back together."
On vinyl and the reason for the tour: "We had always been longing to do vinyl, but vinyl was a dead medium for about 10 or 15 years. Then people started to bring it back to life. We always pined to do vinyl, always wanted to hear our music and I think just really hold a vinyl record with our music on it. It's such a great medium to hold and feel and lick, if that's the kind of person you are. It's beautiful. It flatters anything that's on it. The offers we got while the medium was on life support were not attractive; they needed money to pay for half the production, and it just never appealed. Then vinyl came back and we started talking to people and were suddenly able to consider things we'd never been able to before — gatefold, double vinyl, liner notes. Then we had this beautiful product [from Barsuk Records] that cost a lot of money. We owed it to the people paying for it to help them sell it. I mean, that's not the only reason we're playing shows. If shows felt like a root canal, we wouldn't have done it and would have scaled back the product. But it was easy to say, 'Of course,' if playing some shows gives us the opportunity to put this out."
On why the band ceased: "We weren't too keen on the songs we were writing. We could feel the call of real life at that point in each of our lives. One of the things I've been proudest of is that we made that decision. You know when a group of musicians is on fire? It's phenomenal: You walk in and leave with four incredible new riffs and grooves, and you come back the next day to work on those and come up with four new things. That's the head space bands should be in when they're writing. Some bands shoulder through because they're committed to the life choice and want to find their way over that hump and regain their creative chemistry, by hook or by crook. For us, it just felt like when that energy waned it was better to stop."
On the chance new music will be written: "Uuuhhhhhhhh ... no. [A beat.] No, no, no. I think we are enormously focused on playing the old stuff well. There's been none of that head space. If we were to enter that head space, we would all go for it. But we're not going to will it into being just to have a fifth thing to sell."
On his obsession with Gladys Knight: "She's a very emotionally intelligent singer. I just think she's great. I always learn so much from her. Those songs are really smart, yet they don't sacrifice emotional resonance. People who think analysis has no place in art, especially rock 'n' roll, that the conscious mind has no place in rock — you want both. You want the feeling and the analysis. It's a challenge to make art that has analysis but also a visceral thrill. So many of her songs are these incredible, intelligent analysis of human relationships. Not many people have that going on. It's more common in country. She's really a country singer. For that reason, I've always locked onto her heart."
THE DISMEMBERMENT PLAN
with JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound and Kid You'll Move Mountains (Feb. 19); Maritime and the Forms (Feb. 20)
♦ 9 p.m. Feb. 19, 7 p.m. 20
♦ Metro, 3730 N. Clark
♦ Sold out
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
David Lowery has a way with the college kids. A quarter century ago, his first band, Camper Van Beethoven, kept '80s college radio stocked with smart stoner songs ("Take the Skinheads Bowling," "Pictures of Matchstick Men"). He capitalized on that formula for the upper classmen with his next band, Cracker, dipping a toe into the mainstream ("Teen Angst," "Low"). He still tours — with both bands, frequently at the same time — and this week he releases his first solo album, "The Palace Guards," out Tuesday.
But now he's back talking to college kids again — only this time, there's going to be a quiz.
This spring, Lowery is teaching a class on pop music business at the University of Georgia. He previously had been a guest lecturer in the school's music business certificate program. When we caught up with him, he was making his lesson plan, and he said something that's pretty much all an aspiring musician or label exec needs to know: "I can make more money teaching than playing live shows, in general."
Even as concert ticket prices have begun to approach the levels of college tuition, Lowery has written eloquently on his own blog (300songs.com) and others in recent months about the real struggles of working musicians. Sure, as was recently reported, Dave Matthews made half a billion dollars during the last 10 years, much of it from constant touring. But, as Lowery points out, not everyone is Dave Matthews, nor do they want to be. The valid and valuable musicians playing for fewer than a guaranteed several thousand ticket buyers each night still have to crunch the numbers to make it work.
"As an artist, you have to really learn about this stuff in order to make a living. But I tell students, the model doesn't really work based on live stuff. First, there are not enough slots for people to go out and play live — everybody can't be on the road at once — and expenses are really high. There are a lot of holes for the money to go down. There are buses and hotel rooms, and you figure that — we don't do this, but a typical artist does — you're giving 20 percent to a manager, 10 percent to an agent, and 5 percent to a business manager. That's 35 percent of your gross to start with. The actual cost if you go into a theater starts out around $10,000 just for the staff and the PA and the security. ... When we go out with Camper, we're taking 10 people with us every night. You do make money, but you've got to be smart about it."
Lowery is smart about it. His California college career focused on math and business. This isn't the first time he's explained his independent music business strategies to college classes. He's got a head for business all the way around, in fact — Lowery was on the board of advisors for the company that eventually became America's newest online buzz word, Chicago-based Groupon.
In December, Lowery explained how it began in a letter to Bob Lefsetz, who writes a popular online column about the music business: "In 2008, I was appointed to the board of advisors of a small web startup called thepoint.com. The site, the brainchild of Andrew Mason, was a 'tipping point' mechanism, a social networking site that allowed people to 'commit' to taking group action. In particular the hope was they would take group action for social change. The investors quietly noted there was not a clear way to monetize Andrew's experiment. However, they hoped that by watching the way users used the tipping point mechanism, a viable way to monetize this website would present itself. I was asked to start a campaign on thepoint.com, 'to get a feel for it.' Not being very socially conscious, I decided that I wanted to use The Point for my own narrow self-interests."
He used it to gauge fan interest in a festival that the two bands, Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, put on each year in a remote part of California.
"I was in the right place at the right time. That's the case with my music career, too," Lowery said. "I mean, here we are talking about all this business, but it's inevitable. It's also fine to drive around in a '78 van eating mushrooms outside the university in Columbia, Mo., but eventually you have to figure out what's going on and make a business. I got more serious and learned about these things. I still find time to smoke pot."
Lowery describes "The Palace Guards" the way most bandleaders do of their solo albums. It's just a batch of songs that didn't feel like they fit with the band. Each member of Camper Van Beethoven has made his own solo record over the decades, but Lowery's been building up to it gradually. Even with two bands, Lowery said, "eventually I stopped trying to fit songs that didn't naturally work with either of them into the box." The leftovers collected until they looked like an album.
One of Lowery's other business moves years ago was to establish his own studio, called Sound of Music, in Richmond, Va. He has a base of musicians there that help with the studio's projects, which have included the Sparklehorse debut. Some of the same players were recruited to be "The Palace Guards." The title song sounds like an Elliott Smith nursery rhyme. "Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me" could have fit into the Cracker box just fine, save maybe for its soft, psychedelic refrain. "I Sold the Arabs the Moon" might have been a nice foil to Camper's "Sweethearts."
"The songs here are softer, a little more mad — as in crazy," he said. "I mean, not always softer, because I do a lot of screaming on 'Palace Guards' and 'All Those Girls,' but softer as in sort of introspective in tone. More Skip Spence than Syd Barrett."
The bands have fallen prey to the concert industry's latest gimmick. At a recent joint show, Camper played the "Key Lime Pie" album in its entirety while Cracker played "Kerosene Hat."
"We just wanted to do something different on these dates we traditionally play in the Northeast in the dead of winter," Lowery said. "People have been calling for Camper to do 'Key Lime Pie' for a while. Cracker's played 'Kerosene Hat' before. We tried to figure out if there was an anniversary with it. I think it was the 21st for 'Key Lime Pie.' That doesn't sound as good as the 25th. But the band used to have this obsession with the Illuminati [a legendary secret society]. On the blog, we were joking about the formula that makes a Camper song. It has to refer to the Cold War, or communists or a dictator, or acid and psychedelic drugs, or a conspiracy theory of some kind like the Illuminati. Their number was 23, so maybe we should tour on the 23rd anniversary. That would be a very Camper thing to do. Great business move, don't you think?"
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.