I guess that was coming right off of a pretty long writing and recording process for Alter The Ending.
Yeah, that’s kind of an understatement. (laughs). It was like a hell shift. It was long but it wasn’t laborious. It was just long. Every bit of it was enjoyable, although I had some tough things going on in my family which slowed us down—that wasn’t fun—but in terms of just writing and recording, it never seemed like it was taking forever, it just kept seeming like it wasn’t done.
Any particular reason? Did you just not have enough songs?
(laughs). No, we had enough songs, believe me. I do this every time. One of these days, I gotta compile my b-sides, it’d be a quadruple record. Or not b-sides, that’s unfair, my never-made-its. Piles of ‘em.
I was on the pursuit of something—on a couple of different levels, I was looking for something specific without knowing what it was. I knew that the band had gelled in a way where we hadn’t had the opportunity to do that before. Because the band came into an unusual situation—I had two records already done by the time they were in the band, and we had done countless touring and there had been a couple of different line-ups that I knew were temporary.
They were in a predicament for a while. I think A Mark, A Mission was reflective of them essentially just playing my parts in the style I would play them. Then I think Dusk And Summer was us learning a little bit more about how to play together as opposed to just exemplify what I had demonstrated—I’m trying to paraphrase as I’ve heard Johnny explain it—and Shades Of Poison Trees was this eureka moment where it was, ‘Hey you know what? I know what’s been missing. We need to go and make a record just the way I did in the old days in the manner I made it and let you guys experience alongside me what that’s about and let’s all do that together.’
I think that was a moment of clarity. There were no expectations. We just went in, and I had written the songs a couple of days before, we never practiced them, we sat down and said, ‘What’s natural for the songs?’ And so they got to experience something similar to what I had experienced for the first couple of records.
So having said all that, we were in this place as a band where we were really a band, and when we played a song together, it had characteristics that were unique to the four of us. If there had been another guy there, one less guy, or somebody different, it wouldn’t have been the same or close to it. And that’s what a band record should sound like. So we found our way.
Now, I needed songs that I thought were good enough to really showcase that. On the other hand, this was my sixth record. Plus I had made the Further record and done all these EPs and I felt I had told a lot of stories. Some of which were great storytelling, some of which were more revealing truths or things that I wished were true about myself, and I really wanted to make sure that I was writing things that had uniqueness to them, that weren’t retreads. And I think that that’s hard to do when: one, you’ve made so many records; and two, when you’re a hard touring act like us, when you’re literally playing these songs every night, and they’re always fresh in your mind. It’s hard to not unconsciously be influenced by them in terms of ‘These are how songs go,’ ‘These are how stories should be told,’ ‘These are the stories you should tell,’ and ‘This is the subject matter that is important to songs.’
It took a lot of songwriting to find my way around them. Then also, when you have that in mind, you will inevitably go too far away, when you’re telling these oblique stories that mean nothing. You can’t have these opaque stories. I kind of wish I was in a ‘90s alt-rock band so I could have some nonsensical stuff and just sing and not have so much weight put on the stories I tell, for good or for ill. But I’m not. I’m in this band. (laughs). It is what it is.
Anyway, so as long as it took me to explain that to you, now you can extrapolate that over how long it took to figure it out for our ownselves and to write it and record it.
You ended up using Butch Walker to produce this record.
Well, we started with Adam Schlesinger, and we did quite a lot with him. We did about a song a day for about 15, 18 days. A lot of that material is still on the record. And when we decided we were going to keep working, Adam was onto his next project. And I can’t remember if it was Tinted Windows or Fountains Of Wayne or if he was producing something, he was unavailable, although I think we all wanted him to be available but it just didn’t work out. And among his suggestions was Butch Walker. Which was great, because they respect each other. So going from one producer to another and knowing that they’ll take good care—me as the guy who is recording with both guys—knowing that they’ll care for each other’s work, at least I know that. That’s a tough one. We didn’t finish it with this guy, but the other cat’s gonna understand where it’s supposed to end up. They didn’t work together per se but they make a good team anyway.
So we ended up with Butch, and I find Butch to be really very inspiring. What’s unique about working with both of these guys to me in a way I hadn’t experienced before in making records is both of the guys are accomplished songwriters. And everybody I worked with who was a producer, [they] were accomplished producers, masters of sort of the sonic realm, and maybe having an instinct of how songs are arranged. But not true songwriters. So I felt like I had a higher bar and somebody who would really be able to tell me—and I would really believe—when they said, ‘That’s not the right thing.’
Well, establishing that trust is very hard, which is why I was curious that you didn’t use Don [Gilmore] again.
I think we’ll work with Don again. Actually, we were just about to record a song and Butch wasn’t available, and we were going to go in with Don. But we had made two records with Don, and it’s not a hard fast rule but I think after two records, I begin to figure out before the producer brings their ideas what their ideas will be because you get a symmetry going there.
That was kind of the simple reason we decided to look beyond Don. You couldn’t find a better pedigree than Don. And I loved the way he made our records sound and the fact that he could do records as different as Dusk and Shade Of Poison Trees. I can’t say enough good things about that. But I just figured I needed to be in a new space. I had made two records with him just as I had made two records with James [Paul Wisner] and decided to move in a new direction.
I kind of hope we get to make our next record with Butch. I feel I’ve got a lot to learn from him still.
Why the decision to record, for the deluxe edition, an entire set of acoustic tracks?
I don’t know that we made a decision. We were just kind of doing it. When you record a song, there are hours and sometimes nights and nights of building the song up from different angles until it’s a complete thing. And you don’t know how it became complete. You don’t know what parts are essential. So the way we always try to do it is we sit down with acoustic guitars around a coffee table and start to play and sing ‘em. ‘Hey, what’s missing?’ ‘Oh, there’s that high thing. I think that’s more important than that thing.’ ‘Okay, I’m gonna play that.’ Because there are only so many hands. And you’re inevitably going to record—even if it’s a little bit—more than you can humanly play. On occasion we like to run some sound loops and stuff but we don’t really like to run tracks—you can read that as we don’t really know how to run tracks (laughs)—so we just don’t, we just pick what’s most essential.
So we were sitting around doing that, and somebody had the wherewithal to say on the first song, ‘Hey, let’s record that so we don’t forget it.’ Okay, so we put a couple mics up, and we all kind of played around. And we’re in the studio, so the mics were great, so when we finished that song and we listened back, we’re like ‘Whoa, that’s cool.’ And so we did another one. And we did another one as we were learning the record. Then there were ones that didn’t need it, because we knew how we were going to do them, and John said, ‘Hey, well why don’t we just do this?’ He was sort of the cheerleader for the whole thing. I think in the band of his mind he was like, ‘We’re going to have a nice keepsake here.’ From just a night’s work, we’re going to have a nice little thing to look at later. That’s kind of how it came to be. And when we were putting out the record, it’s always like ‘Target needs extra songs, and iTunes needs extra songs, and Wal-Mart needs extra songs.’ Everybody needs more.
We said, ‘Well, we’ve got these.’ We didn’t expect the label to say this but they were like, ‘Oh, well, that’s just something you can keep altogether and make one deluxe record.’ I don’t think it would have come out the same way if they told us that they needed a deluxe record, and then we set out to do it. I don’t think it would have been as good. I wonder what we’ll do next time because I think now people will—and I’m not sure of this—but I kind of expect that people will say, ‘We want it both ways’ or ‘We want a deluxe record.’ That’ll be on our minds next time. I don’t know how we’ll do it next time, or if we will. This time we kind of got away with not knowing that we were onto something.
Dashboard Confessional performs at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square on March 26 and Starland Ballroom on March 27. dashboardconfessional.com.