Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.

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

8 min read

“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.

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Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.