Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Death versus Dismemberment: a conversation with Travis Morrison and Ben Gibbard

Seattle’s Death Cab For Cutie and Washington D.C.’s The Dismemberment Plan were in similar places in 2002, playing medium-sized clubs and tickling the indie underground’s fancy. The Plan had recently released Change, the follow-up to their masterpiece, 1999’s Emergency & I, and they would decide to call it quits (for a decade, anyway) soon after. Death Cab For Cutie had come off a difficult year in which they almost split up, but instead ended up writing and releasing 2003’s Transatlanticism and launching into the mainstream. A mutual admiration led to the cleverly named Death And Dismemberment Tour, on which the two bands co-headlined and became fast friends. We tried to re-create that magic for this year’s A.V. Fest/Hideout Block Party by booking both bands, but unfortunately schedules didn’t allow them to play on the same day. Death Cab will play Friday, Sept. 5, while The Dismemberment Plan will play Saturday, Sept. 6. We did the next best thing to getting them on the same stage, though: We got their frontmen on the phone for a catch-up chat. Before The Dismemberment Plan’s Travis Morrison joined on the call, we began to catch up with Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard, who had his mind on the almost-completed new Death Cab album, due out next year.

The A.V. Club: While we wait for Travis, what are you up to?

Ben Gibbard: We’re just mixing this Death Cab record, and I’m really happy with how that’s going. I’m in this creative holding pattern. It’s kind of tough to work on new things until you’re done with the thing you’ve been making. I’m trying to start new projects, but it’s kind of difficult while I’m making mix notes and thinking about all the things you’ve got to think about when you’re making a record.

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AVC: What’s the vibe of the new record?

BG: It feels like it’s a much more powerful record than we’ve ever made. We’re working with this guy [producer] Rich Costey. It’s all of the adjectives that one would use for a well-produced record, but without “slick” as one of them. Everything sounds so fucking good, so crisp, but broken where it needs to be broken. Everything’s just right in your face. I don’t want to jinx it, but I think it’s the best record we’ve made in a while. I’m hoping that people feel the same way. You want me to text Travis? [Does a pretty good Travis Morrison impersonation.] “Oh, forgot! Interview today!”

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AVC: On the Death And Dismemberment Tour, was Travis late to shows a lot?

BG: I don’t know how he could be late, because we were all kind of caravanning together. We didn’t have a road crew or handlers or anything like that, so it’s not like he could be off doing something else and his assistant would let you know that he’d be late. But now I kind of wish he did have an assistant, some nice young lady with a clipboard and an iPhone who could say, “Mr. Morrison, you have an interview.”

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AVC: I just got an e-mail from Travis saying, “Hey, this isn’t working, I’ll try again.”

BG: You mean like your relationship? He’s breaking up with you? You had a good run. This is all very Travis. This isn’t surprising to me. I’m not pissed about it or anything. [Laughs.] I love him. The whole pretending to talk shit about somebody thing isn’t something you do about somebody you don’t like.

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AVC: Sarcasm doesn’t work well in print, so be careful.

BG: That’s one of the many reasons I decided to get off Twitter. I quit in the spring. I have a Twitter account just to read the news, but I don’t think such a reactive media is good for somebody like me, who’s very reactive. It’s a medium that can bring out the worst in people—I found myself using it when there’s something I wanted to bitch about. Or when there’s a sports event I’m watching that nobody cares about and I’m yelling. This is not information people need to have. I think there’s something about Twitter—people need to go away. When you have somebody who’s constantly tweeting about everything, you never get a break from this person. Even if they might go years between records, you’ve never been given a break as to what’s on their minds. I’ve certainly destroyed a lot of the mystery around my own life, via social media and otherwise. Part of being a creative person is getting out of the way and letting other people express themselves. And then when you have something to say, and you’ve formulated your thoughts, then step out in the world and say something. Say things around the thing that you made, not just tweeting 20 times a day about random bullshit. I don’t want people to burn out on me because I’m tweeting all day.

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AVC: Is there pressure being in a working band that tweeting is something you’re supposed to do?

BG: I don’t like to use Twitter for promo either. It’s obnoxious when people use Twitter to re-tweet people saying how great they are. It’s just kind of gross. “I was at the show last night, you guys were amazing!” Re-tweet. Why are you doing this?

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Are you here, Travis? I’m going off on Twitter.

Travis Morrison: Kill it!

AVC: How do you feel about it, Travis? You’re still tweeting.

TM: I haven’t tweeted in a couple weeks, though. I’m making a record here in New York with a band I play with called The Burlies. I decided to not log on to Twitter. I started to suspect that it fucked up your poetics a little bit. For one thing, you blow really good material on Twitter. You should put it in a song if it’s that funny or cool. And then the feedback—there’s favorites and likes and you start getting coked out on that metric, that feeling. It can distract you from being like, “Do I think the song is good?” This tweet got a lot of likes, so it must be good! I look forward to getting done with this record and rejoining the party, but the experiment has helped me. I think it’s going to be a regular practice, to go underground. I still use Instagram.

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BG: With Instagram you’re creating something. I’ll go on a trail run and take a photo of a mountain, because that’s a beautiful thing to share with people. But nobody wants to know about how I’m frustrated with Mariners closer Fernando Rodney! We’re all frustrated with Fernando Rodney! I just notice this trend among some musician friends of mine who are over-tweeters—they get writer’s block. “I haven’t written a record!” Because you’re burning all your creativity on witty observations about the Kardashians! Fuckin’ write a song! If you have any kind of narcissistic tendencies, and I think all creative people do to a certain extent—before these outlets, if you wanted to be in front of somebody, you had to go out into the world and share the thing you made and kind of get off on the adoration of a crowd. But now that crowd exists in your pocket. Whenever you’re feeling like you need that validation from people who already think you’re great, you can just go online and people are like, “You’re amazing!” It’s cut out the need for people to actually be out in the world sharing their creativity with a crowd, because the crowd is already there. If I can just go on my phone and make witty observations while I’m watching the Emmys, I don’t really need to finish that song that I was working on, because I already did some creative things today. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, but it’s definitely affecting people. I’ve seen it too many times.

TM: It also rewards a certain communication pattern. I’m very careful about what I say online. Artists explore uncomfortable psychological states and contradictions and irony and unhealthy appetites, but social media doesn’t encourage that. You’ll just be pummeled if you say the wrong thing. In art, you can put a light on it. You start to say things that are just social-media appropriate, and that can be bad for a lyricist. Maybe for somebody who’s just a straight singer it makes sense. For a writer who’s digging, social media can be like, “Don’t dig there! That’s inappropriate! Just say the right thing and we’ll all like it!” You want to get into a more ambivalent space, as a writer. Maybe there’s a way to take that new paradigm and do something with it, but I wouldn’t know how to do it.

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AVC: Should we take this conversation back to a much more innocent, pre-Twitter time—2002, to the Death And Dismemberment Tour?

BG: Let’s take it back! Back in the day.

AVC: How did you guys meet? Obviously not on Twitter.

BG: Travis, did we meet before that tour?

TM: You e-mailed! The irony is that we met online. I came out to see you guys at the Metro in D.C.

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BG: And I had seen you guys at The Crocodile before we knew each other. Then I e-mailed you, and we met, and we started talking about doing this tour together. So yes, we met online. Like many long relationships, we met online, and we moved in together. That’s how it goes. We moved cross-country to be together.

TM: I was just happy that Ben didn’t lie about his height. They all add two inches, but Ben was good.

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BG: Better to be honest about these things.

AVC: It was a weird intersection in your careers. It was the second-to-last Dismemberment Plan tour before you essentially split up, and Death Cab would soon record Transatlanticism, which was really the big breakthrough.

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BG: Yeah. We had pushed the band pretty close to breaking up in 2001, and then going into 2002 we were starting to really recommit to what the band was going to look like moving forward. I was writing songs for Transatlanticism around the time we did the tour with The Dismemberment Plan. That tour is one of, if not the, best times I’ve ever had on the road with another band. Both of our bands were about the same size. We were kind of swapping off headlining. I felt a real mutual respect from the bands. That entire process felt like we were on tour with a band that we shared a lot of similar experiences as bands and people with. We both weren’t party bands—those guys know how to throw a party. I just really enjoyed that whole tour. Finally, we can go on tour with a band that we can have conversations about other things in life with.

TM: It’s a lot like a couple being friends with another couple. Couples like to hang out with couples, but sometimes couple friends are the worst. Sometimes they’re fighting, or one’s just going off on the other one. They argue about who has to pay for the bill. But when you get good couple friends, it’s so satisfying. It really adds to your relationship. You learn from them, about how to be a couple, the things they do.

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AVC: Did you pair off the way that couples do?

BG: Singers dinner, guys! Nobody else is invited.

TM: We had a key party.

BG: Yeah, a lot of stuff we can’t talk about. I think Travis’ analogy is rather apt. Traveling around in vans, we had two crew members—a front-of-house engineer and a merch person. And we were just kind of sharing the same experiences together. Getting up in a Motel 6, driving six or seven hours together, then walking to get food together, then after the show getting a bottle of whiskey and some doughnuts and going back to Motel 6, then waking up and doing it again. Since then, that’s not been a part of my reality. I think that’s why I look back so fondly on that tour. Both Death Cab and Dismemberment Plan were down to share those experiences together. And the kind of tour it was necessitated that. We kind of needed to stick together.

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TM: I think everyone was more or less chummy. Both bands had classic bassist-with-briefcase figures. Eric [Axelson] and [Nick] Harmer kind of had a special something themselves. It wasn’t just the singers.

AVC: Have you all remained in touch?

BG: As time goes on it becomes more difficult. We see each other every once in a while. Usually it’s when we’re going through on tour or whatever. People have kids or obligations. I’m not out seeing bands four nights a week anymore. If I see four bands in a month, that’s a banner nightclub month for me. As you get older, it becomes a little more difficult to keep in touch with people. I don’t think we have any outstanding beefs to squash, which is good.

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TM: I’m glad we could have this call, in case there were.

BG: This is the perfect beef-squashing forum.

AVC: Well, we tried to make it work with our festival so you could play together, but it’s going to be ships in the night, I’m afraid.

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BG: It’s always the way.

AVC: Do either of you have any specific memories about shows on that tour, or even conversations, that stand out?

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TM: I remember a lot of really great conversations about values. I think both bands wanted existences that were neither self-defeating nor totally corporate. I remember conversations about which independent promoters were great. It was nice, because at that time you’re talking to people who just want to make deals, or who just have this obsessive “fuck the man, fuck commerce” nihilism about the decisions, which gets you nowhere. We wanted to do things that were positive and constructive. Those for me were very important and affirming. My favorite Death Cab show, for whatever reason, was in San Diego.

BG: Was that that all-ages place, in a strip mall, kind of?

TM: Yeah! It was a little raw. That was the best Death Cab show—so great. Those are the things that I really remember about it.

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BG: Going back to what we were talking about before, both bands had the same agenda at the same time. That’s something that you could never be 100 percent sure of. Given the kind of tour that it was, and the kinds of conversations we had about things that were important to us, we were very much on the same page about how these shows should go, and what was just in the world of being a touring indie-rock band. For me, I think one of the things that I took away from that tour—and I hadn’t been putting this into practice myself—Death Cab has always been a pretty uptight band, about things that in the grand scheme aren’t that important.

I remember specifically a show in St. Louis at the Creepy Crawl, and we were playing before Dismemberment Plan, so they were closing. For whatever reason, the PA was in mono—it was a weird little club—it was not up to our standards. [Laughs.] I remember the show being fine, but we put on a face about it. Backstage we were complaining about the fact that the PA was mono, and this speaker was blown, blah blah blah. Unfortunately, I feel like our band sometimes wants to hold rock ’n’ roll to a higher standard than I think it wants to be. We should just not hold rock ’n’ roll to a higher standard, but we were that night, and we had kind of a weird show.

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And then Dismemberment Plan got up. I could always tell they were having a great show when Jason [Caddell, guitarist] was really rocking out on stage. Jason and Chris [Walla, Death Cab guitarist] are the canaries in the coal mine of whether the show is really great. Neither of those guys move a lot on stage, and Jason was throwing some shapes that I’ve never seen him throw before. It was hot, it was sweaty, but it was clear that these four guys didn’t give a fuck that the PA was mono, they didn’t give a fuck that the tweeter was blown or whatever. In that moment on that day, they just blew us out of the water. It was one of those moments where afterward we were talking among ourselves, like, “This is something we need to be better at.” Not that we shouldn’t be concerned about these things; we should expect the club to have microphones that work! [Laughs.] But if you show up and the monitors don’t work, what are you going to do, not play? Be a dick about it? Just do the show. We’ve not always been great about that, but seeing The Dismemberment Plan pull that off was a real eye-opener for us.

TM: I would say that we learned the inverse of that. Death Cab was great at what they were trying to do. If Ben watching us learned how to not worry about a busted monitor, I learned that maybe I should get a little more upset about a busted monitor. [Both laugh.] The framework was sometimes great for operating with lower expectations. But I left that tour resolving to have higher expectations. It’s very interesting that Ben says that, since I had the inverse psychological lesson.

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BG: That’s probably why the tour worked, because we were both coming at it from very different places as far as what our expectations were and how to deal with them.

AVC: Is there a circumstance under which a second Death And Dismemberment Tour could happen?

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BG: I could definitely see it happening! I’m curious, though, Travis, how much touring you’re going to be doing given that there are scientists now that need Joe to help move astronauts to the Space Station or whatever it is he’s doing now. [Dismemberment Plan drummer Joe Easley is an engineer at NASA.] I don’t know how available you are for a monthlong tour…

TM: Or a single show! The negotiations that go into us booking any show is unbelievable. We went on a weeklong tour of England this time around. That’s classic Plan logic. If you guys are willing to tour France for two weeks, we’ll do that.

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BG: A couple summers ago, we had never played in France outside of Paris, and the Paris shows were always fine. But we did three other shows in France and they were all woefully under-attended. At this point we can fill a decent-sized theatre in pretty much every major city in Europe. But these were like 150 people. For us—very small shows—and they were a blast. The food was amazing. The best meals I’d had in years were backstage at clubs in France. So we’ll swing through, do four days, do the Death And Dismemberment version.

TM: We should just do emerging markets.

BG: We’ll play in Zagreb. China. South America I hear is really jumping right now.

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TM: Outside of Paris, we had some pretty wild shows. They were modestly attended—but definitely Lyon and Marseilles—there was so much chaos. Paris was cool, but I felt like a fool playing in Paris.

BG: It’s like playing in Brooklyn. There’s a disaffected, detached coolness. People are not going to let you know if they’re enjoying it or not—because they probably aren’t. Because the kind of music that we play is not necessarily cool in Brooklyn. And Paris is like London. Whenever you got to the biggest city in any country, you’re going to deal with the most detached people, I find.

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AVC: Anything else?

TM: I feel very satisfied.

BG: Are we missing each other by a day, is that what’s happening?

TM: Yeah.

AVC: They’re on Friday, you guys are on Saturday.

TM: I may be there for your set! I am flying in at 4 p.m. So I might be able to catch you guys. I can’t speak for the other guys. Hang on, we have a calendar! We’ve really professionalized. I will be in Chicago. I will see you there. Are Sylvan Esso playing Friday or Saturday?

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AVC: Saturday.

TM: Oh god, are we going on after Sylvan Esso?

AVC: Not immediately after.

TM: Okay. Nothing’s more awesome than playing after the band that’s blowing up.

BG: We played after HAIM at Outside Lands. We have seven albums, and they have one album, and everybody knows every song on that album. You can’t win when you’re going up against a band with one album that’s very popular. [Laughs.] Every song they play, everybody’s going to know that song.

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TM: We got moved to the end of the night at Coachella. I have my theory of who wanted to play at 4:30 p.m., in the heritage zone, that got us bumped, but I won’t say who. In the heritage zone, we’d do good. But instead, we played at the same time as Skrillex, Nas, Pet Shop Boys, and Muse.

BG: You’re fucked.

TM: So we’d finish a song and I’d hear bits of “West End Girls,” then we’d finish another song and I’d hear bits of “The World Is Yours.” It was a nightmare. I’d never done the festival circuit, it’s fun! You see the same bands again and again. Did you ever discover an artist and get to see them at another festival?

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BG: It’s happened a couple of times, for sure. A couple of years ago I was on this solo tour in Europe, and I was playing on the same stage as this band called Stealing Sheep, from Liverpool. Their music is so weird and interesting and really great. I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m so happy that I was on this festival and saw this band.” Because as you get older that happens less and less. You’ve heard a lot of music. There was a time in my 20s I listened to music every waking moment. But at a certain point the moments of elation and being blown away by a band just happen so much less frequently. I look forward to those moments because they don’t happen as much as they once did.

TM: I stumbled on Courtney Barnett at Coachella and we ended up on the same circuit, and I wouldn’t miss her. She had this incredible three-piece rock ’n’ roll band. Washed Out live I really enjoyed, too. It was almost like they were on tour with us—they played right before us at like four different festivals. I didn’t meet either Courtney Barnett or Washed Out—it’s kind of a big difference from the Death And Dismemberment Tour experience—but I was really getting into the idea of, “Oh, I can go see them again!” So now we play festivals. We don’t do 20 shows in 30 days.

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BG: I often find myself onstage at a festival, though, feeling a little bit old. And looking out at—I don’t want to be out there. I’ve aged out.

TM: It’s not for the weak.

BG: I don’t spend weekends on psychotropic drugs. I’m an old man now. In rock ’n’ roll years, I’m like 70.

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TM: You really have to have stamina to go to a festival on LSD. I went to very few festivals growing up, like the very first iteration of the HFStival. It was like, Kula Shaker headlining—not a blue-chip lineup. It was the immediately pre-Nirvana rock of the day, some of which was kind of questionable.

BG: I went to Lollapalooza in ’93 to see Dinosaur Jr. and I stumbled into seeing Mercury Rev, who ended up becoming one of my favorite bands of the ’90s. It was one of those moments where you’re trying to kill time when Front 242 is on the main stage, inexplicably, at 2:30 in the afternoon. “What a great idea! Let’s put Front 242 on a stage in the desert at two in the afternoon, and give them a light show!” There’s strobes going off in the middle of the day. It was dumb. Front 242 is fine, it was just an ill-advised booking. So on the side stage was just a wall of guitars, and somebody playing a flute—kind of, I think I can hear that—and somebody singing but you can’t hear it because it’s just this wall of feedback. At that time in my life, I really hadn’t been exposed to that kind of stuff, so it really did something to my brain at 16. “I don’t know what’s happening right now, but it’s pretty great.”

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TM: My memories of the festival I went to are kind of dull, but the memory of the first club show I saw—some mid-level D.C. band, nothing too exciting—was the happiest day of my life. The intensity was overwhelming. Maybe because it was so easy to go see shows at the clubs in town—I wonder if I would’ve gone to more festivals when I was younger if I didn’t have those. That said, I really wish I had seen some of the early Lollapaloozas. I really fucked up. Some of those lineups were unbelievable.

BG: I missed the ’92 lineup for a really stupid reason. It was like a thousand yards from my parents’ house. That was Ice Cube, Jesus And Mary Chain, Pearl Jam. That was the one to see. In clubs, did it blow your mind that bands were setting up their own equipment, then playing, breaking down their equipment, and then selling T-shirts?

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TM: Oh yeah! I would watch bands set up, like, “What are they doing? How are they doing that?” Obsessed. Like they were setting up an artillery gun and they were going to fire it off. I’ve always felt since then that you can tell if a band is good just from watching them set up.

BG: I had that experience seeing Polvo in ’93. I think there was a 45-minute changeover, because Ash Bowie had 15 pawn-shop guitars that he had to tune for the Polvo show. I was like, “What is going to happen next?” I’m in the front waiting for Superchunk, and this guy is tuning guitars for 45 minutes! What type of music is going to come out of this band? They were great. There’s a moment that you realize that the world of music you’ve been exposed to via television and radio—that there’s a whole other world underneath that that’s so much better than what you’ve been exposed to for your entire life up to that point. Being a kid in the suburbs in the ’80s, having classic-rock radio—it’s like, how can you be a musician if you don’t look like the singer of Whitesnake? When you’re 12 or 13, you can’t believe it: You can just write your own songs, then rent out a grange hall and do a show? That’s something you can do? It seems unfathomable.

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TM: To actually be in the presence, especially back in the day when no one went to see the best bands in the world—back then, to see the best bands in the world, there were 40 people there and it was $5. Nobody cared about the truly great artists. I think truly great artists by and large get a little luckier these days. It’s easier to find them.

BG: I think this is truly the best time ever to be a musician. There are certainly some things that we have lost in the last 20 years, since we started playing music, like how communities and local scenes developed. The Internet is the local music scene. I saw Animal Collective at The Wiltern, which holds 2,400 people, they were doing two shows and it was sold out. It was this moment where I was like—name-drop: I was standing next to Lou Barlow, and we were both looking at each other like, “This is incredible, right? That 2,400 people showed up to see this weird band?” And they’re a weird band. I’m a fan. They’re fucking weird! And a fact that a band like that has found such a massive audience—the Internet has proved that if you give people access to this music, a lot more people than you think are going to connect to it. Pre-Internet, it was like, “Fugazi is the greatest band ever, but only a thousand people in this town know about them, so they can only be so great.” If Fugazi was out now, they’d be playing arenas, because people would know about it!

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TM: The Animal Collective example is a really good one. I’d compare them to Brainiac, who I saw with like 45 people. And they’re like, “We’re doing better, some places there are 200 people.”

BG: That’s a criminally overlooked band.

TM: They’re one of the bands that kids ask me about. For influence-diggers, I get a lot of questions about them. Hissing Prigs is the craziest record. I played it the other day, and it’s alarming. I think their legend hasn’t died. I always felt like it should’ve been more popular. Take something like System Of A Down. It’s totally insane, but there’s something to relate to in its insanity. Now, someone like Animal Collective doesn’t slip through the cracks. It’s a beautiful thing. I hear people whine about the lack of scarcity, but I think this is kind of better.

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BG: I don’t know if there are more bands now, but we’re given the impression that there are more bands now. Every band has a presence online. I feel like there are very few truly great things that will fall through the cracks now. I would say that T.W. Walsh’s last record is one of those things; it’s a truly phenomenal album that people just don’t know about. I really feel like we’re living in this era now where if what you’re doing is interesting and there’s an audience for it, there are too many people trying to discover new things that you won’t not be discovered. There’s a bitter pill that bands need to swallow now, which is that if you’re not gaining any traction, there are no politics around that. Nobody is holding you back. It’s just: Does an audience want to listen to it?

TM: It is easier to pop now. I saw some interview with St. Vincent where someone asked her about how much easier it is to get music out there, and she kind of scowled and said, “So many dabblers. They’re destroying everything. I can’t stand the dabblers.”

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BG: The dabblers aren’t taking away from Annie! She’s more successful than ever.

TM: I’m sympathetic. She’s someone who cares very much about the craft of being an artist, being a musician. The bottom line is that the vast sea of dabblers who have a presence, it’s not a problem. Unless you have some weird compulsion to listen to each and every one of them.

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BG: Blog culture is basically people getting paid very little, or trying to get paid very little, to be the ones kind of sifting through all that for you. Right now there are thousands of 21-year-olds on their computers trying to discover the next Courtney Barnett, to be the ones who can say, “My blog was the first one to post this person’s music.” There’s a particular cachet in that. As long as there’s that, there will be people who sift through Bandcamp for hours on end, searching for something.

TM: Thank God for those people!

BG: I’m certainly not one.

TM: They’re doing the lord’s work so we don’t have to.

BG: I got too much running to do.

TM: Here’s the deal: I’m going to train for an ultra-marathon, you’re going to look for the best new music.

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BG: I’m heading to the Pacific Crest Trail. When I get back in cell range, I want 10 new artists on my phone.

TM: These are the demands you’ve got to make! You’ve got to delegate!

BG: Travis, let’s get on the phone and have an off-the-record conversation soon.

TM: When I get there Friday, I’ll track you down.

AVC: I’ll find you guys a quiet place to talk.

BG: Behind the backstage port-a-potties. I’ll be there.

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