The Sound of Songwriting: with Travis Morrison of The Dismemberment Plan

“There’s this great quote by Stravinsky: If you can copy, you can do,” Travis Morrison tells me. He’s full of poignant quotes like this related to art and finding inspiration. He takes a brief pause and then adds, “All the people who are art legends talk freely about how they were veracious imitators. Then you eventually have to find what your own personal synthesis on it.”

Morrison believes that one of the best ways to learn the art of songwriting is by studying other people’s songs. Not only by playing covers: but by making knock-off songs of the artists you admire. “Occasionally a songwriter will come along and I’ll really want to learn every single thing they do,” he tells me.

This used to be a great tradition of apprenticeships in the arts. A painter would train in the studio of an artist in order to absorb the techniques used by the master. Morrison elaborates, “People like Picasso, Miles Davis, they always talk about that. Picasso was an amazing copyist, he would do these reproductions of Diego Velázquez that were just mind boggling. And he could do Dutch masters perfectly. His modern paintings had these giant shrieking cubist horses, but he was like, ‘You’ll never be better the Velázquez until you’re as good as Velázquez.”‘

Last month The Dismemberment Plan reunited for a brief run of sold-out tour dates to celebrate the vinyl reissue of their acclaimed release Emergency & I. Back in 1999, a Pitchfork reviewer wrote of Emergency & I, “Nothing else you own sounds like this record, yet everything you own echoes throughout.”

With a blend of erratic grooves that fold into catchy choruses that would make Rivers Cuomo jealous – Emergency & I helped crystallize the Dismemberment Plan’s unique sound. Often cited as an influence for the New Wave revival which followed their career, The Dismemberment Plan helped re-introduce synths and dance-beats to rock, inspiring the likes of bands like Bloc party, Passion Pit and Hot Chip.

Despite Morrison’s self-declared status of being “Retired” (according to his website) he is still studying the craft, and still playing music – most recently with Matt Walsh of The Forms on a project dubbed Time Travel.

Ten years after writing music with The Dismemberment Plan he admits that he is more analytical then ever about studying songwriting. And then in almost the same breathe he affirms his belief that songwriting isn’t something that should be over-intellectualized. Ultimately I get the sense that he never wanted music to feel like work. “You know, songwriting is not the only thing to do in this world. There’s a lot of fun things to do while you don’t have ideas.”

Can you take me through the process of writing songs with the Dismemberment Plan?

Sure. I would make pretty full demos, and then we would not use those.  [laughs]

 I would play them for everyone, they would stare at me and they’d be like, “What do you want us to do,” or they’d be like, “Ok fine, so that’s your demo.”

Sometimes they’d even try to play [the parts] and it would just sound terrible.

 So instead, what happened is we’d just be playing, jamming or whatever, and some jam would come along and remind me of a song that I had written. And so I’d think, “Oh screw it, I’ll just sing my song over this.” And that was almost always how it was. I’d have some [early] vision of how it was supposed to go, but it just wasn’t happening. But it was kind of good, because sometimes a song – at the conceptual level – transcends the actual music itself.

 And, I think most good songs can survive without having an E-minor in the turnaround.

You know you have a great song when you can play it utterly terribly, and it still sounds like a great song: if you can be out of tune, sing the melody wrong, and it’s still a great song? Now that’s a song!

I wonder why demos don’t translate well at a band practice? On a homemade demo, or in your head, the song might sound perfect to you. But then when you play it for your band at rehearsal there is this reaction where – as you said – they stared at you.

Why do you think that is?

Because they didn’t do it. It wasn’t them. You did it.

 Just in terms of writing music: a band is usually a collective creation. So, usually you have to start from somewhere, but you also have to leave the starting place and go to somewhere else. You can’t just stay at the starting place and be like, ‘Nope it was perfect, totally perfect!’ And if you want that Rock & Roll energy then everyone has to feel like they’re pitching into a moment. So I think that’s why. I think that’s why when everyone plays it [exactly like the demo] it sounds kind of flat, and you may say, “this doesn’t sound as good as my demo.” Well that right, it’s not your demo.”

That’s an interesting idea: “They didn’t do it.” Do you think it has something to do with the ego? Or is it just not fun, is it unnatural to be told to play other people’s music exactly as they wrote it?

Sure. I mean, of course you can write music for other people, but I think the key is you have to keep it simple. You can’t dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s for them. But you show them something, and they start playing it and within two minutes it can flower into something else where you say, “Oh I didn’t think of that.” But to say, “Play this here, then play this like this, etc” doesn’t work for me.

When you’re writing songs do you consciously try to write songs? Or do you find yourself being inspired on the subway and stumbling to jot down ideas?

Generally I find it’s [the latter], especially as I get older.

 I think that when you’re younger there is a certain excitement to just finishing the puzzle, or “finishing the hat,” as Stephen Sondheim says. It’s all very exciting, and people can feel that. It’s inspiring unto itself. “Guys I finished the song” and you play it, and it’s like, “Wow that’s great!” And it’s almost like that is the subject of the song – just that you finished the song. In that moment that is the most exciting thing about it. Eventually, you’ve finished enough hats, and you really can’t communicate any more excitement because it’s just another hat. And so then it becomes a question of how inspiring the subject matter is to you.

 I know for me, for that reason, whenever I consciously try to start with a topic and then I’m filling out a puzzle [hangs on the word puzzle and then continues very slowly] …it doesn’t feel very exciting.

 Craft comes into it at the end. I think the songs that lasted for The Dismemberment Plan, and the ones that are true of this, were kind of an agglomeration of radar messages from another planet [laughs]. We were kind of like, “Whoa, what was that idea?”

Actually, when I listen to The Plan stuff I think a lot of it is pretty schematic in terms of the lyrics: there is kind of an aggressive theme and a little bit of puzzle solving.

And that’s a beautiful thing, but I wish there was more material in our arsenal that made more of an elusive, or more subliminal connections.

I actually think that some of the Plan stuff is really… literal.

“Like ‘You Can Call Me Al’ by Paul Simon, what is this stuff in the chorus? What is ‘You Can Call Me Al?’ But in your gut it just feels so right. Like, you know what he’s saying, but you don’t’ know what he’s saying!

We only had ‘You know what he’s saying…’. [laughs]

 I wish there was more of that stuff in some of our material. I really focused, and I got the song done and it says what I wanted it to say, but I think the best songs are the ones that seem to be blasts of inspiration. So I mean, to go way back to your original questions, I actually try to avoid working, quote ‘working’, on songs. I try to wait until something comes along.

 Neil Young says that whenever he feels he’s working on a song he stops. He says, whenever he gets that feeling of “I’ve got to work on this song – I’ve got to find a lyric.” Nope. He just gets up and stops playing guitar. And I think that’s really great. You got to let it be cool.

Do you have a way that you try to spark ideas? Something that is inspiring?

I think you just have to live life. You have to have a real life and you have to be in tune with the sublimities of it.

[He pauses to think] ”…sometimes I’ll write fake [copy songs]. No one will ever hear them.

Is there a songwriter in particular that you’re thinking of? 

I got really into that last National record [High Violet]. And so I learned the whole album and I kind of wrote a fake National song, based on one of the songs. It’s like… really analytical. And no one will ever hear it. I’ll never play it live or anything like that. The person I want to do it with now is that disco woman Robyn: I think she has a lot of incredible songs. So I study the form, but to a certain extent I don’t want the intellectual pursuit of songwriting to overshadow waiting for stuff to just fall into your head.

Do you remember which National song was it?

[sings to himself] ‘Stuck in New York with the rain coming in…’ What’s that song called? I think it’s ‘Conversation 16’? That’s such a New Order thing to do: the lyrics are not in the song title. 

I also did one on ‘Personal Jesus’. [laughs to himself] So, basically it’s a knockoff song. Because that’s what a lot of those people did back in the day, to learn. That’s what Lou Reed did. And a lot of those Rock & Rollers: Paul Simon, Carol King, they started as staff writers and there would be a hit and their boss would be like, ‘Write me one like that’. They were kind of copying it. It was exactly like it, but different enough so that they didn’t get sued.

And so you write National knockoff songs that no one will hear?

Yeah. And I’d like to think that if I put it out The National wouldn’t sue me.

Oh here’s another good one: Hunter S. Thompson typed ‘The Great Gatsby’, he re-typed the whole thing because he said, “He wanted to know how it felt to write a masterpiece.”

 Some people lose that humility and they start to think it all came from them. They loose the humility that you need all through your life to study.

Hunter S. Thompson wrote some really incredible things. Did he write something that was [identical] to F. Scott Fitzgerald? No. But he certainly he wrote things that had the similar structural elements… but with a lot more snorting ether. [laughs]

Which Dismemberment Plan songs are you the most proud of?

I love the song ‘Spider in the Snow’ from Emergency & I.

 ’The City’ is great.

 ‘The Face of the Earth’ from Changes. That’s kind of a collective favorite within the band. The main accomplishment there is Jason; it’d be nothing without the incredible samples he’s got. Just beautiful, beautiful samples that he’s playing in there. Generally as I get older I like the one’s that are less self-pitying, you look back and you’re like, ‘OK come’on you didn’t have anything to complain about.’ So I like the ones that are funny, but also humane.

 I really like ‘Do the Standing Still’. It’s kind of like this parting anthem from very early on. It’s very much about what’s going on in the clubs: I’m this young guy, going to rock clubs, its kind of boring and it’s pissing me off – so I wrote a song about it.

Was “Do The Standing Still” a reaction a particular show? Maybe the strip-mall show in Fargo that you mention in the lyrics?

No the thing is, that show I describe was like the first 110 shows we played. Did it happened in Fargo? Yes we did play a strip mall in Fargo, that did happen. But the thing with six or seven kids at the show? There was six or seven kids at all of our shows for three years. So it wasn’t unique to Fargo.

At a recent live show, during the song “Ice of Boston” you had over 100 people singing and dancing with you on stage. Somewhere along the line your fans stopped doing the standing still?

Yeah that’s a tradition. We heckled them enough and I think they got it.

The Sound of Songwriting: with Keller Williams

“I’m a music lover first, musician second, and songwriter third”, Keller Williams admits. He pauses for a moment continues, “Yeah, that statement says it pretty clean and clear, I’m in it for the love of music, and for love of performing the music I love, and songwriting that’s next.”

With each bar of music Williams has written, you can feel his sincerity and gratitude for having the opportunity to live his dream as a professional musician. “Starting out, the object was to play music and make a living no matter what, and once I started to do that I started to really appreciate that”, he tells me. Later explaining that his inclination to play solo shows serendipitously came from the fact that earlier in his career it was more cost effective “rather than splitting $150 four ways”. Now almost twenty years later, Wiliams has led a prolific: including 16 albums, a variety of side-projects, and the musical curiosity to navigate unfamiliar genres (distant from his bluegrass roots) such as like techno and children’s music.

In regard to songwriting he tells me, “I’m lucky for the ability to come up with these songs that some people like, but at the same time it’s more about performing.” Indeed, Williams is probably best known for his live shows. At a Keller Williams show he almost always performs solo, playing half a dozen instruments one after another and looping these sounds, all of which consummate in a wonderfully orchestrated live rendition of the original album recording.

A common thread throughout all of Williams’ music is his desire to write songs that not only entertain his audience, but can simultaneously amuse himself: a song like “Bob Rules” hilariously imagines what it might feel like to be a contestant on The Price Is Right. And then there’s “Doobie in My Pocket” – a song about boarding a plane with the realization that you may have left marijuana in your suitcase (along with the paranoid assumption that the TSA are onto you!). “You’ve got to pay attention, or you’ll miss the punch line”, Williams warns his audience prior to performing “Doobie in My Pocket” live for the first time.

At a crowded mid-town diner in New York City, Williams and I spent a long lunch discussing his inspiration for writing songs, as well as the stories behind some of his fan’s favorite song such as “Kidney in a Cooler” and the enigmatic “Multisylabic”.

When I inquired about the meaning of some of the words in “Multisylabic”, Williams veers from his train of thought and begins recounting the lyrics to me from across the table, “Multisyllabic, Sans-linguistic pro-fantastic, Slyly systematic…”. Before diving into the story, Williams pauses to sip his coffee and starts chuckling, “Remember what I said in the beginning about songwriting? So… I’m probably a lyricist fourth.”

What is your process for writing a song?

A lot of my songwriting stems from the chorus. I start with a chorus and then once I have the chorus the verses fall into place. And then if I get lucky, a bridge falls into place.

Do you write at certain times?

Before I had kids, I’d spent three or four weeks on tour and come back with 2 weeks off. And the first week I’d just get used to being off the road and decompressing, and then the second week is when the boredom kicks in, it’s like a kid. You get used to the routine of being on the road.

So that second week, that’s when the bulk of my creative juices start flowing. But after I started to have kids there was less and less boredom time. All the time was being focused on them, and then when they would go to sleep I’d have my creative time. Or sometimes I’d get up at 5:30 and 6 in the morning.

Where does inspiration come from?

Sometimes songwriting stems from conversation with really interesting intelligent people that I have in my life, and I might stop and say, “Hey can I have that? Can I use that?” hopefully they say yes – sometimes they say OK but you’ve got to cut me in on it. So maybe I’ll give “executive producer” credit.

Is there a song you’re thinking of in particular?

My friend Cam, he was on the management team, and we gave our selves the writing assignment of trying to come up with super intricate words, that are really smart intelligent words, that are not in my personal vocabulary, but yet trying to create a song with it, and not necessarily have it mean something. What we came up with a song called “Multisyllabic” [Dream].

Do you find yourself gravitating toward a writing formula?

We’ll it’s almost impossible to write something that hasn’t been written before, although we all strive for that, we strive to write something that lasts longer than we do. And that’s kind of my ultimate goal too.

I can’t really deny the formula I came with as far, chorus, verse, chorus, jam section bridge, verse, chorus. It’s hard to stray away from something like that.

What I have noticed is that the older I get, I give myself more writing assignments, which push me creatively.

What do you mean by “writing assignments”?

I give myself writing assignments, for example: ‘write a bluegrass science fiction song.’ I’ve never tried to do that before, it’s not something that totally hasn’t been done before, but it’s something I’ve never done before.

Can you give examples of songs where you may have strayed from writing such positive songs?

Once I tried to step aside from all this good that is happening to me try to focus on something that is a different emotion – so I wrote about an ear infection. And that was real-time writing – during the ear infection. It’s a real physical kind of pain. That song was written in the 4th hour after taking my painkillers [when all the pain comes back].

I’ve never gone political, but I came up with this one song kind to poke fun at Rush Limbaugh – I guess there was a time when he was on the news saying “I Hope You Fail” talking directly at Obama, so I took his words and spun them around, and wrote a song with his words about him, with the focus being on free speech, and how Rush is the alpha male of free speech and able to say almost anything he wants and the country thrives on that and gets off on it.

And so whether you agree with him or not, it’s here to stay because he’s totally allowed to do that. And this song was kind of the same thing, taking his mentality, not necessarily his right wing political views, but just free speech in general and using my right of free speech to make fun of Rush Limbaugh. So that’s kind of my songwriting,

I wonder about “Odd”. I wonder if it has to do with this new writing regiment you talked about, because I feel like the songs at this period in your life are become more serious, and less comedic.

Which in a way, is odd.

Exactly, is that why you named the album “Odd”?

Yeah if you listen to my music I go from these happy go lyrics that I usually have, and then you hear this and it’s definitely odd, that’s kind of where the concept came from. We tossed around words like “Wack”. Like, ‘This whole record is “Wack!”

“Odd” works much better than “Wack”

Yeah I agree. Also I think the album artwork kind of scares people, it’s a very Meatloaf 80’s metal type of imagery. Which is what I was going for: the Fabio, black light Spencer’s Gifts thing. I was going for funny – the only way I can have abs and big monster pecks is to draw them in.

Much of your live show is solo with instruments looping, so when you’re writing songs I wonder if you’re playing with loops at the beginning of the writing process?

No, writing is just on a guitar, or in a notebook. The looping is pretty much spontaneous, and on stage.

The albums are definitely studio, we’re actually in the studio playing the instruments, playing to a click track. After the guitar track, put in a bass line, play it all the way through, there’s no looping when we do it live, I like to use humans.

Who is the first person you share a new song with?

My wife, Emily.

She’s your producer?

I definitely value her opinion, and there’s some stuff that I know that she won’t like and I might not show her those, because I know that I like it, and so whenever I write something new, whether it’s ready or not, I’m going to play it at the next show. I’m so excited to have new material that I definitely don’t wait around until it’s perfected. And she definitely has a problem with that. She wants me to work on stuff – sometimes I won’t have the words fully memorized. But my way of thinking is that it’s my song, it’s my way of thinking is that it’s my song… it’s the first time I’m playing it, I can make up words as I go along too. [laughs]

But I value her opinion. I usually run everything by her, and she gives me writing assignments too. I have a fun times twisting those writing assignments around and having fun with that.

And she knows when there hasn’t been a song written for a while!

She takes some of the stuff that I say too, she’ll point out little sayings that I say and stop me. She might say, “Oh that would make a great kids song”

When I posted on Facebook that I’d be interviewing you about songwriting today, I received an overwhelming number of replies from your fans. So, I’d like to ask you about a two songs in particular that kept coming up.

My fans are the best. Sure.

“PORTAPOTTY”. Did you ever fall in love with the girl in the Porta-potty line?

I think in general there’s been a lot of Porta-potty sightings, I did Grateful Dead shows, and Phish shows from 1987 until around ‘95. At the time I was in my early twenties and going to a lot of shows, making as much money as I can to buy a bunch of tickets and going out for 2 weeks with The Dead.

In the late 80s, up until 1990, they were letting people camp in the parking lots at Grateful Dead shows. They would do like 3 nights in one venue and then a day off, and in that day off people would leave that parking lot and go to the next parking lot where the next show was. And you could stay there for three days. And of course it turned into this whole village. Going into the show was the last thing on some people’s minds. So this is where I was when I wrote Port-a-potty.

You’re curious if it’s true? It wasn’t one particular girl, but a type of girl that you see.

Kidney in the Cooler, is it true?

100% true. On the way down to Deep Ellum, a section of Dallas, we broke down in Perry, Oklahoma and we got towed.

That line about “Little America”? That came when we were driving through Wyoming: on these big billboards we kept reading: “Little America! 100 miles! Hot Dogs! Swimming Pools!”, and then “80 miles!”, “20 miles!”

So you eventually made it to “Little America”, and what was it?

Little America was this giant oasis of a truck stop in the middle of the Wyoming wide open. Giant multi-acre hotels, showers, and a 24 hour auto-repair garage. And that’s what got us! We had a leaking radiator at the time and thought, “ok we’ll just go get this fixed we’ve got a day or two to kill.” And that took a whole 28 hours, which put us off schedule a day.

So we’re driving south, and two days later we break down in Oklahoma. They couldn’t work on our car because there was a woman delivering a kidney who’s car had broke down as well. She had this kidney in a Playmate cooler and was on her way to Oklahoma City. So they all had to work on her car first. We stayed in that town for three days!

Kidney in a cooler? You can’t make that stuff up.