When The Dismemberment Plan released their seminal album, Emergency & I in 1999, it was critically applauded; Pitchfork even gave it a 9.6/10. Twelve years later, the album was re-released and Pitchfork gave the re-release a 10/10 (because all things get better with age). I managed to catch up with Dismemberment Plan bassist, Eric Axelson on his walk home from work. Over the course of his walk we discussed Emergency & I‘s legacy, Dismemberment Plan’s reunion and future, and the upcoming release of the band’s first ever live record, Live in Japan 2011.
MP3: The Dismemberment Plan “Ice of Boston (Live)”
Who approached who about reuniting?
Well, we started talking about doing the reissue of Emergency & I and our friend Josh Sorell over at the Onion kept calling me about it. So when we started talking more about the reissue, we started hanging out more. And as we started hanging out more, we started playing a little music. The more we played the more we thought “well, let’s play a couple shows.” Our initial idea was to play three shows around the re-issue which were great. But that turned into a bunch of shows in the states and five shows in Japan and now, two more festivals. So it kind of snowballed quick once the interest blew up.
Earlier this year, you reissued Emergency & I. The album is considered by many to be your masterwork. Do you feel it is your best album?
People seem to like it the best. The CD seemed to be the most popular back when we sold it at shows and I feel like those are the songs that get most requested at shows. It seemed pretty obvious if we were going to reissue anything on vinyl, it would be that.
What is your fondest memory from the recording sessions of Emergency & I?
Oh man, I have got a lot of them. It was a lot of fun to record because we were this small band from DC that recorded our first couple of albums on shoestring budgets; the first record we paid for ourselves and the second, we had a small budget from DeSoto. Suddenly, we had this big chunk of cash from Interscope which wasn’t as big as most major label bands but for us, it was massive. We had three weeks to record. It was a treat to take the time to record. We stayed at the studio; it had apartments at it. It was just fun. We took our time and got the songs right. It was up in Hoboken, NJ so when we weren’t recording, we went out and had really great food. It was during the World Cup, so we watched a lot of soccer. Lots of good memories.
Re-listening to the album, is there anything new you have noticed about the album?
Nothing new but when we made the record initially, we knew it was going to be a CD so it was mastered a very different way. But when we reissued it, we had the luxury of going back to the studio and listening to the original tapes, hoping on the mixmound and listening to it on analog speakers. It was amazing because you can hear so much more on the original tapes than on the CD version. In some ways, the vinyl reissue is a middle ground between the CD and the actual master tapes we have. There is a lot more definition, the bass is a lot warmer and bigger. There is some air behind the guitar and more breadth to the vocals. It just sounds a lot more alive. I mean, I like the CD but its just a lot more squished than the vinyl version.
That’s how CDs always are, right?
I guess. I’ve always heard that and I kind of knew it. I helped out at Dischord briefly a couple years ago and I remember hearing a Fugazi LP next to a Fugazi CD and really hearing the difference but it stands out when it is your own songs. You know the songs intimately and to hear how they sound differently is pretty astonishing.
Do you have a favorite song on the album?
I wouldn’t say there is one. I think I like the whole record. I know it is a cop out but they are a group of songs we liked and wrote together. I feel like “The City” is an on going favorite but…I guess “The City” or maybe “Spider [in the Snow].”
I know young bands go into the studio and record every song they have written. Did you write Emergency & I as an album or was it a collection of songs?
I don’t think we conceptualized it as “hey, this is an album.” I feel like it was a time in our lives where that was how the songs were coming out. I have a pretty good memory for where we wrote the songs. We had a hole-in-the-wall practice space back then. I remember some of the seeds of the songs but I think a lot of it was just what we were living through at the time being influenced by that. Being influenced from being able to tour all the time and finding a new found confidence from that. That influenced how the songs came out but I don’t think we really sat down and determined “we are going to make an album that sounds like x.” It was more like here are some songs from a period in our lives and then when you step back to record it you see what they look like as a group. Does that make sense?
Some people write records with a concept in mind. Sea Change by Beck comes to mind. It clearly sounds like he set off to write a morose record about breaking up. It is clearly influenced by the Red House Painters. My guess is most bands don’t do that and in most cases, its just writing songs and a collection of them go well together.
You are releasing your first ever live album. How did the idea for it come about?
It kind of snuck up on us. We were in Japan and our A&R person in Japan hired someone to record a couple of the shows. We did five dates in Japan and one of the nights was just us. We were the only band. Some of the nights we played a half hour or 45 minutes but that one night he was like “you’re the only band and its for your die hard fans and you can play all the songs you want tonight.” So we played a really long set. The live album has got to be an hour 40. We stretched out and just played and played and played. Luckily, we had a really good night; I feel like the performances are good and we’re not spazzing out and playing too fast or too sloppy. I think at the time we weren’t sure we were doing a record but he started sending us tapes and talking about it and it seemed like a good idea.
Had you ever played an hour and 40 minute set before then?
Yeah, on the last tour in ’03. Every night, we just took requests all night. We didn’t keep a clock on stage so we would just play until we got tired. I remember a couple of nights after shows talking to our sound tech or merch person and we did an hour 45. I remember one night–I think it was in Anaheim–we did almost two hours. It was a little self-indulgent but people kept requesting stuff so we kept playing it.
Even the reunion shows, a lot of those nights we at least an hour and a half.
You have two dates left on the reunion tour.
We do. We have the Roots fest out in Philly and the Pitchfork fest out in Chicago.
So I assume those will be shorter sets because they are part of fests?
Yeah, The Roots, all the bands get a half-an-hour. Pitchfork, we’re playing second to last so a lot later in the night. Our set there is around an hour. So in neither case will we be playing an hour and a half to two hours.
So this transitions well, do you think your hour and 40 minute set playing days are behind you or are there further plans?
We talked about it. There are two minds. One thing is: we hadn’t played in a long time and a lot of people who came to saw us either never saw us or hadn’t seen us in a long time so a good chunk of the crowd wanted to hear everything. So you want to make sure everyone feels satisfied because it may be the last show, we don’t know. This might be the last time we do club shows. At the same time, it is a long ass time. There are plenty of bands I love to pieces but I would be hard pressed to sit through two hours of. So I don’t know, we’ll find a middle ground. But if we start playing club shows again, we’ll have to readdress that and at that point, we may have forgotten what we learned this time.
So do you think a new album is in your future or anything like that?
We’re keeping kind of an open mind about everything. Going into this and even now we all have very different lives and different ideas about what we want to do. But as far as shows, but as far as writing is concerned, everyone is pretty open to seeing what happens. We’re not scheduling time to write a record. To be honest, we played that last show in Seattle and everyone got so busy with work that I haven’t seen a lot of those guys for a month and a half. Everyone’s careers are so busy. I would think once things slow down we might mess around in the basement but we’re well aware we don’t want to force anything. We broke up in ’03 because we didn’t want to force a record out and the writing wasn’t coming strongly. We want to make sure we don’t forget that and if we start writing that things feel really good.
I understand, don’t want to tarnish the name?
Yeah, a lot of bands go a lot longer than they need to. I can see why because playing live is a lot of fun but at the same time, you want to feel like you’re putting out stuff that is always your best work and always essential.