Choir boy

Travis Morrison and his Hellfighters
By MIKAEL WOOD  |  November 15, 2007

CHURCHY: Morrison wanted to bring his experience with the choir of Washington’s National Cathedral to the context of a rock band.

Travis Morrison Hellfighters, "As We Proceed" (mp3)
Former Dismemberment Plan frontman Travis Morrison has a new album, and though he says it’s not a solo disc, you’d be forgiven for thinking so. It’s called All Y’All (Barsuk), and it’s credited to the Travis Morrison Hellfighters, an ensemble that includes Saadat Awan, David Brown, and Brandon Kalber, all of whom receive writing credit and all of whom play a variety of instruments. (Former Dismemberment Plan guitarist Jason Caddell produced.)

Morrison, now 34, released an honest-to-goodness solo album in 2004 called Travistan (Barsuk) that didn’t quite capitalize on the groundswell of support the Dismemberment Plan had earned with their last several records. (Pitchfork infamously gave Travistan a 0.0, a topic Morrison has been fielding questions about for the past three years.) Speaking over the phone during his lunch break outside the offices of the Washington Post, where he works on on-line ad scripts for the newspaper’s Web site, Morrison (who brings his Hellfighters to the Middle East this Saturday) says that Travistan’s mixed reception wasn’t what inspired him to try something new with the Hellfighters. But he does admit that it caused him to think about where his musical passions lie.

One result of this self-examination was his joining the choir of Washington’s National Cathedral, which he calls “the greatest volunteer choir of all time.” Performing with the group afforded him a taste of “the pro-musician vibe. You go, you sing, you grab a doughnut on your way out the door to your next gig. That’s diametrically opposed to the model in which you play music with people you’ve known since you were 13. But sometimes when we sing together — especially when the material is right — the music is beautiful.”

Morrison wanted to try something similar within the context of a rock band. He’d always admired the role of the bandleader — “not the songwriter, but the musician who collects other musicians to make something.” As examples he cites Miles Davis, James Brown, Sly Stone, Duke Ellington, Bob Marley. “Hmm, I’m only naming black people,” he says with a laugh. “Elvis Costello with the Attractions — he clearly knew how to ride that tiger.” But he says the artist “closest to my mental reality” is Madonna. “She’s so good at marshaling other people’s creative talents.”

Morrison started assembling his current collaborators through various connections — from musical and social contacts to Craigslist. “The rock world has this real stigma around personal ads, like it used to be a suggestion of weakness. But I didn’t know what to do, so I gave it a shot. Of course you get dingbats, but you can always not let them into your band.”

All Y’All doesn’t sound like the work of dingbats. Full of brainy funk-rock jams about love and inner-city playgrounds and adopting a three-legged dog named Apollo (then renaming him Zeus), it hews much closer to the Dismemberment Plan than did the folkier Travistan. Morrison understands why people say that — “There are certain instincts that aren’t gonna go away” — but he also says he doesn’t really know what it means: “The Plan was all over the place.”

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