As a band, Dashboard Confessional represented the emo era, thanks to sappy-sweet poignant songs that resulted in longer car rides, loss of virginities and the knowledge that somebody else in the world felt vulnerable too. Chris Carrabba, an unapologetic emo icon in his own right, penned the lyrics to many unforgettable songs which have remained relevant (Taylor Swift even had the singer perform “Hands Down” at a party as a nostalgic gift to a friend in 2015) even though everything else—the industry, the band and the fans—aged.
The members of Dashboard Confessional embarked on a too-long yet much-needed hiatus, but after being amazed by the turn out they received at 2014’s Riot Fest, they decided to get back to their musical roots. The band is currently weeks away from going back out on tour and they have already spent time in the studio making a new album that will be released in 2017! I had a chance to speak with Chris before he hits the road—and was surprised to learn that he is even more reflective, humble and wise than I originally thought.
What has Dashboard Confessional been up to lately?
We’ve been writing a lot, recording a lot, rehearsing a lot. I’ve been playing songs I haven’t played in years and messing around with some covers I just recorded. I’ve just kind of been submersed in music of all kinds.
I heard “Heart. Beat. Here” and loved it. What kind of feedback have you gotten for that song?
Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t get any feedback by design. I don’t look at those comments. Not out of lack for preference of what my fans think, but just because we are still in the process of making a record. And I don’t want to suddenly feel like I’m shaping the record around somebody’s first impression of a song—but I can say in general the response has been fantastic.
You guys are about to head out on a new tour.
We’re about to head out in a couple of weeks—just around 2017, good riddance 2016! Goodness.
I mean we lost Prince, Bowie, and we got Donald Trump. The whole thing seems like a black cloud kind of hanging. Who knows, all we can do is start over next year.
How has Dashboard Confessional adapted to the present music scene?
The scene we came from was, we were forbearers to what is happening now. We were sharing music freely and we were digging to discover music when it was harder to do so. Our scene deserves a little credit for setting that up and I think we as fans were ahead of the curve on a lot of that.
In anticipation of this interview, I re-listened to TheSwiss Army Romance and The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most. I was immediately transported back to my teen years. How does it feel to know you play such a big part in people’s nostalgia?
There are bands like The Cure, for one, that made a mark on me. Sometimes I use it to relate to however I’m feeling that day and other times it’s like time traveling. It’s like the easiest vacation. You’re just on a trip to where you might have been, experiencing it again. So I guess honored would be the way I would describe it.
I always wondered who your musical influences were.
They’re vast. Everyone from Steve Earle, Paul Simon, The Cure, Jawbreaker, The Smiths, Morrissey, R.E.M., Operation Ivy, Green Day, Elvis Costello, The Promise Ring, Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral. The list is long, that’s just to name a few. And then stuff that sort of didn’t make sense to our scene but made sense to me, like Counting Crows. They really sunk their teeth into me with their second record. It’s still a really important album to me. There was just a well-spring of incredible music happening at that time and I’m so happy to have access to them.
How do you get into a mindset to write?
That’s a good question. There’s no tried-and-true methodology for how I do it. Sometimes I pick up a piece of paper and write what I have in my mind and weeks later, chords kind of fall into place and suddenly it’s a song. Most of the time I just pick up the guitar, rattle off a few chords and start mumbling until it sounds like things that start to sound like words. It almost feels like my job is to be the decoder for whatever the rambling is. I’d say the closest I have to a methodology is, there’s two times a day I seem to write or write well, and that’s shortly after I wake up in the morning and have a couple cups of coffee. Or when I wake up in the middle of the night and go pick up a guitar.
It’s been said that Dashboard Confessional was the face of the emo generation. How does that make you feel?
I think it’s great and I’m honored that anyone would think we were a part of something that was broader than our own intention. There were two periods where I thought that term didn’t apply. The first was when they first called us that, I believed that term, that tag, referred to a scene that already existed before our peers and us. So I felt like, “Well, we’re influenced by Sunny Day and Mineral,” these big bands that we thought sounded emo, “But we don’t sound like them.” We didn’t think we were as good as them but once I got over that and realized like okay, the definition of it has changed and even though the word is the same, the relationship is still there. And it’s probably a linear one, but then I accepted it and was proud of it. I wasn’t bothered by it. Any catch phrase or something like that starts out neutral, then it becomes a claim to fame. Like when I was part of the scene, we were called scenesters. Then the next generation of those kids when I started with my band, they were called emo kids. It was like a point of pride for them so it was a point of pride for me.
The only other time it kind of bothered me was when I didn’t recognize the music anymore that the bands were putting out and calling emo. It was more like, “I don’t belong”—not like I rejected it, but more like, I don’t see how we fit in here anymore. After a while, I realized like, “No, no, we still do.” I didn’t pick the term and it’s s still neutral to me. I hold the opinion that most of the people that listen to our music call the music they like emo, they call us emo, they call themselves emo and there’s no snarky subtext. It’s said with pride, so who am I to grandstand and say, “Oh no, no. That’s not who we are.” We are. That’s who we are.
I never understood why there was negative connotation with the term “emo”. When did being emotional and having feelings become a bad thing?
I don’t know that it did but I think a lot of bands came out that were called emo that sucked. Like I myself, I put out records that weren’t as well made or well thought out or well done or fully realized as I had before. The quality of it suffered and I’ll take a certain responsibility for that. I kind of lost…I don’t know if I lost my past, but I was exploring different things. It’s an unpopular thing to say or an uncool thing to say, but I like my older stuff better.
I like all of my records and I like PARTS of all of my records more than or as much as I like my old stuff. But the whole idea with this new record is just kind of accepting that I like my old stuff better and thinking about what made it that? I’m not that person now, but what made it that? And trying to wait patiently for those moments to arrive and chase that influence when it comes.
Anyway, every name from every scene has gone through being something awesome and overly known to something that had major backlash. When people say “hipsters”, people were proud to say they were hipsters and now that’s the worst thing you can say about somebody. It’s the new insult. At first it was a radical shift like, “Hey, we’re into weird stuff and we’re not embarrassed by it” and now people are like, “Well you should be.” And that’s stupid.
People are always going to look for things to pick apart…
And you know what, if our scene had never become popular, nobody would have ever taken shots at it. It’s just because they want to take the people at the top down a peg or two and deservedly so. I’m glad things are reciprocal, but there should be change. Music needs change, the culture of music needs change.
And so do we.
And so do we.
I love interviewing the bands I grew up listening to because now, it’s a decade later and many bands are reuniting. It’s interesting to see how everyone has changed.
I agree. This is something I’ve discovered just from talking with people who listen to my music and also from being a music fan, we were young and passionate and insatiable in our chase for music and live music and that identified us. That gave us identity to some degree. But then other things gave us identity. Real life gave us identity because we started to live it and then we realized after a while that what music did was give us escapism and joy and freedom for the couple hours that we were at the show. And in our busy lives, we made it a point to remember that. Every year there’s a new batch of 17-year-old kids who are always going to be discovering music for the first time that gives them identity—and that’s magical.
Out of all of your albums, which ones means the most to you and why?
Oh man, oh man. Obviously I’m proud of all of my records. The first three EPs are from a very specific time and place for me personally but with that being said, The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most. There’s a reason that record holds a special place to me. With The Swiss Army Romance, for one reason or another, the label that had bought it from another label—when I decided to sign to a different label—shelved the record. My career was doing well because I was getting shows and at that point, you needed a CD, record or EP to be a legitimate band, you needed something to sell. So I wrote The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most in almost no time and I remember when I signed to Vagrant, I was like, “Okay, there are conditions, the other record just got taken away from me, it’s not mine anymore”—or that’s how it looked at the time. So I said, “I’ll sign with you guys if I can go make the record tomorrow and you guys can have it out in three weeks,” and so we did, and that part of it seems miraculous to me.
There are two songs from The Swiss Army Romance on there. I think I knew since the other record was gone for good, I knew there were two that I was going to take from that record and re-record. Basically I had to write two more songs that night and go into the studio the next day and record the whole thing and then I delivered it and went back on tour. So it was a big victory for me. That record and the making of it represented that I made the decision to not go some place that wasn’t going to be a good place for me. They kind of did something a little vengeful, or maybe not, I don’t know what happens within a label, but they pulled it. I realized in that moment that I would forever hold the keys to my own future. I would sign short record deals and I would not worry that all is lost when things look like all is lost. So The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most taught me how to be aggressively hopeful and positive.
And business-savvy. How devastated were you when they shelved that album?
I felt genuinely heartbroken. And eventually it didn’t take long to mend fences and as a matter of fact, I would consider those people friends but it was all so tenuous. I wouldn’t say anything negative. Like I said, I don’t run a label, but all I know is, I had this thing and it was gone. Eventually I got it back. I own that record again.
It’s like they asked you to pour your heart and soul into a project and then they ripped it from you. That’s a pretty shitty thing to do to somebody.
Well yeah. It’s such a belittling thing to do and in the case of this moment, it was presented to me as if “We’re going to destroy you.” Like, “You were about to have a career and we’re going to destroy you,” so that’s why I made The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most. It’s me saying, “Nope, I won’t be destroyed.” I had the good fortune of being on Vagrant Records, not only being on the label I always dreamed of being on, but just finding out they were fantastic people. The owners, the people who ran it, and so many of my friends’ bands had signed there…just a wonderful place to be.
Sounds like you joined into a family.
It was weird. I was already a part of that family. Between us, The Get Up Kids, Saves The Day, Alkaline Trio and Hot Rod Circuit, we were already touring together constantly. It was like a family of gypsies that found their home in Vagrant.
How was it being back out on tour for Riot Fest and Taste Of Chaos?
Riot Fest is the thing that brought us back together as a band. It was an absolute shock to have so many people come to our stage, so we decided to be a band again. We did a co-headlining tour with Third Eye Blind and we played amphitheaters and it was just amazing. The next summer we did Taste Of Chaos where we had The Early November, Saosin and Taking Back Sunday, so it was like a rolling summer camp of old friends.
So Riot Fest inspired you to get back together?
When I got home from the amphitheater tour, I started thinking about a record and started writing and recording. Then after this tour, I started saying, “Now I’m making a record.”
When is the record going to come out?
How did the lapse in time between 2009 and 2014 affect the sound of your music and mindset within the band?
Well, I think we were burnt out so we stepped away. We’re not the kind of band who can phone it in and get away with it. You phone it in even once and the audience is like, “Okay, thanks for all those good times, that’s that.” So we said, “Does anybody else feel on the verge of running on empty?” We all agreed it was time to take some time off. So we all played in other bands, we played in each other’s bands too, but we all did other bands. I think that had a big effect. I started Twin Forks and started touring 140 days a year. At my core, I’m a scrappy guy who believes in what he does and will happily chase it no matter how hard.
So I think we came back to such a great reception and to each other, like let’s appreciate this. But we actually verbalized it: like every single day, we need to take a minute to just feel lucky, because we are. We really are lucky. Sure we’ve done a lot of hard work and earned whatever we earned, so what? It’s like we won the lotto—twice. Stopping was for our creative health but you can bet everything you got that our accountants didn’t agree with our decision, so we paid a price for doing that. But to come back and see that it had been worth it because we came back with vibrance and purity of intention recaptured. Or not recaptured, because we never lost it, but we walked away before it could be lost and then we recaptured it in droves.
So even with Twin Forks, you’ve always been touring. Do you ever get a break?
No. I feel like I need more shows. I think the people who love me would like me to have more of a break but they don’t understand that some people are wired a certain way. I’m not running myself ragged, I’m up there being lucky enough to play music.
It’s a piece of who you are.
It’s the biggest piece.
What do you want Dashboard Confessional’s legacy to be?
Nobody has ever asked me that. I feel that as a band, because we started early, we have a long way to go. It’s never crossed my mind but I can tell you a goal of mine from the beginning, what I hope I’m remembered for. Although I like the mystery of the band being “the band” and being untouchable and unapproachable, I myself, as a musician, wanted our band to be approachable and erase the line of division between the band and the audience to the degree that we could. This is long before social media. Social media is imperative, an important and useful way to connect, but I mean to really be standing there so people could come say hi. Like our sing-a-longs at shows, it’s kind of hard to describe unless you’ve been there but it’s not someone just singing that one line that they know, it’s every single person singing every single song.
So that was my hope: that we could maintain—for the entirety of our career—this approachability, this true relationship with our audience that transcended them just knowing our music. I want to know them as much as they want to know me.
Check out Dashboard Confessional at Irving Plaza in New York City on Jan. 19, 20, and 21, and the Theatre Of Living Arts in Philadelphia on Jan. 23 and 24. For more information, go to dashboardconfessional.com.