Interview with Chris Carrabba | By Jameson Ketchum
It’s been nine very long, very tense years, since the last Dashboard Confessional record, 2009’s Alter the Ending. Their future was uncertain, and—in the mind of frontman and founder Chris Carrabba—there were times when it bordered on nonexistent.
Thankfully, for those forever chained to a deep love for Carrabba’s extremely raw and emotive vocals, multiple records have been released in the interim. In 2011, he released a covers record entitled Covered in the Flood, which gleefully held fans over until 2012 when they rejoiced over Penny Black, the first release with Carrabba back in the driver’s seat for his former band, Further Seems Forever. Finally, listeners were treated to his folksy side with a self-titled EP and full-length from Twin Forks in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Though it could be argued that Carrabba graciously kept creating great music and maintained a healthy touring schedule during Dashboard Confessional’s up in the air period, there was always an underlying rumble, a call to action for a true-blue Dashboard record to reemerge.
Carrabba cites the era of his fourth record, Dusk and Summer, as a major turning point in the band’s trajectory. Far from the VFW Halls and basements in which he began honing his solo skills, Dashboard Confessional had become something else altogether. The quiet and personal wailing of breakup anthems like “Screaming Infidelities” gave way to monster hits gracing blockbuster soundtracks. Epic tales of first dates were overshadowed by radio darlings and mainstream exposure. The fans’ private little secret band now belonged to the world at large.
With the recent reach for nostalgia, sometimes before the original product has reached the finish line, bands are walking a difficult tightrope. How can a band like Dashboard Confessional—one so intensely aligned with an entire generation of emotional wrecks—craft both a tether to the past and a fresh and relevant record for today’s audience?
The answer is Crooked Shadows, a triumphant return and the first great record of 2018, released Feb. 9 via Fueled By Ramen.
Led by the single “We Fight”—which features Carrabba, flanked by longtime friend and Dashboard Confessional bassist Scott Schoenbeck, guitarist Armon Jay, and newest member Chris Kamrada on drums—Crooked Shadows summons past Carrabba charm in order to subvert longtime expectations of what a new Dashboard Confessional record may sound like. Sonically, it’s not a throwback, but if you dive deep enough into the mindset of its author, you’ll manage to pinpoint aspects of the band’s divergent roads.
If you still aren’t convinced, New Noise took the plunge for you.
Is it true that this record is supposed to feel like a callback to early Dashboard Confessional? We’ve been waiting a long time on this one…
I’ve been waiting on this a long time too [laughs]. I would say that’s true with the caveat being that my approach was: “Let’s say I’m that guy, and I’m making my first record with the skills that I’ve developed and the tools at hand that didn’t exist or I didn’t know about when I was making my first records, could I still be as expressive and be as decisive as a songwriter while using these new tools?” That’s not the barometer of success for a record, unfortunately, but if it was, then I would say I succeeded.
What elements of Crooked Shadows point to older material for you?
I think that would be too difficult for me to identify. I let myself feel deeply in the moment when I was singing the songs. I let myself not worry about production quality or all these things that got in the way, but I just thought about the spirit of what I was saying and how I wanted to convey it. Sometimes, you want to convey it by just rasping out and not holding anything back. Though that may not be as pretty-sounding, it may be more appropriate. Other times, the song deserves the full monty of your best voice that you can give.
Was that something that got lost along the way as Dashboard Confessional changed and grew?
I went from Vagrant, which was a label that said, “We signed you to do what you do, the way you do it. Go do it, and let us know when it’s done so we can put it out,” to Vagrant’s partnership with Interscope, which led to a lot of people with very good intentions giving a lot of advice. As somebody who is a student of songwriting and production, I want to get better. I thought that these people would enable that, but I think what happened was that you can’t take everyone’s advice and [trust] your own instincts when they’re all so vastly different.
If it were one guy leading the charge—if it were me, or if it were [Interscope cofounder] Jimmy Iovine or something like that—I would have just said, “I’ll do what this guy says.” I think I could have learned more. I’m grateful, because I learned a lot from all these people. It was like they were teachers of different subjects. I did my best to make coherent growth but carry with me what I thought was important, but I’m not sure that I liked it as much [laughs]. I took guitar lessons here and there, but I’m self-taught, so the mystery of it is what I like. Maybe that’s the way I learn. Maybe “right” isn’t perfect. Maybe “wrong” is perfect sometimes.
To a lot of fans, Dashboard Confessional is that exact sentiment. Bright Eyes would be in that category too, where it wasn’t polished, it wasn’t perfect, and we weren’t used to that. As fans, we had to figure out why something we weren’t used to hearing was connecting so strongly.
I think I had to figure it out later, because I can’t be a fan of my stuff. I can be a fan of Bright Eyes, though. We’ve been talking for years about music—my music, yes—but music we both like in general and the connection we have because of it. I think that one thing we both identify with as fans is when the presenter of the music is fallible somehow.
Yes, I do love Christina Aguilera—she never misses a note, and its super powerful—but then, I’ll listen to Phoebe Bridgers, and her voice is not Aguilera’s voice, but there’s a fallibility in her presentation. While she’s a beautiful and fantastic singer, there’s a fallibility in her that makes me believe. I think that’s, perhaps, something I focused on myself, having learned the lesson that these guys were trying to guide me to sing perfectly, to write perfectly, and to record perfectly. I think I do my better work in the margins.
You’re hired because of your existing talent. Then, you’re told how things need to change in order to keep being successful. It’s gotta feel like a push and pull of what really makes your art both yours and unique.
Those lessons were great. It was great to understand convention. When I was a young songwriter, I didn’t know the rules of music theory, so I broke them all the time without knowing it. Sometimes, it was impressive that I didn’t know what I was doing. Then, I understood the conventions of music theory and song structure, and I kind of stuck in that lane. Maybe it produced the same powerful result of connecting on an emotional level or maybe it didn’t. Then, you understand music theory, so you know how and when to break the rules. There are two things you can do: you can manipulate the song and the listener—which is something I don’t care for—or you [can] understand that “My instincts are telling me to go here. I know it’s not right, but it’s the right kind of wrong.”
You hadn’t done a Dashboard Confessional record in almost nine years. How do you bridge the gap from what you accomplished last and move forward?
In that regard, there wasn’t a lot of debate or worry or wonder, because I knew I wanted to go back to that place. That place was a specific place. There are some things on Dusk and Summer that are representative of the first three records, and that was the result of me listening to some advice. Basically, I came to this fork in the road around the time of Dusk, and I went one way. Instantly, and always since, I’ve wondered, “What if I went the other way?” Can you go back and recreate that? Not exactly, but that’s the objective of this record: “Where did that road lead?”
I believe I did find that place, and I think I’m on that road now. It’s a far more rewarding road. At some point, other people’s concerns about my commercial success made me feel a responsibility to be successful commercially, even though my own internal barometer might say I’m a little headstrong in that I like the songs the way I like them, [and] I don’t want to compromise that. When I was making Dusk and Summer, I wasn’t compromising it, I was just learning something new. A little later on, I felt compromised. That’s one of the two major reasons we took our hiatus, and the other was sheer exhaustion.
Do you mark that time as a mistake, then?
I don’t think so, but had I never made this record, then I would have. I guess it proves there is a time and season for all things. I didn’t regret that path as I made this record, but I think, somewhere down the line, had I never made this record, I would have come to regret it. I wouldn’t have regretted all the songs; there are songs on those records that I absolutely feel a huge amount of conviction about and uncompromised.
People might assume that it’s the songs that got on the radio that I feel compromised about—absolutely not. Those ones are pretty much the ones I wrote out of sheer instinct, but it’s what surrounded those. They wanted me to write “Vindicated” over and over again. The closest song I’ve ever written to “Vindicated” is maybe “We Fight.” I know I can pick up an acoustic guitar, go down to my basement right now, record a record, and it’d probably be the biggest record I’ve put out in a long time, because there is a contingent of people who want that guy—but it’s not where I’m at.
Being a songwriter for other artists, one would assume, would largely contribute to that feeling.
I like the process of being a songwriter and a craftsman. I like the idea and feeling when another person is singing a song I wrote, and they’re finding a different kind of depth in the song than I had intended, so that’s very rewarding. I do it with an incredible lack of consistency, but I do write for other people; it’s not my go-to thing, though. What I do have is two other bands that I’m in, and that is where I get to have an escape, because there are trappings to Dashboard. If I’m not careful, I could just write within that framework, and people would like it, because I know how to write a Dashboard song. But I’m not sure I would like it every night, over and over again.
Had you chosen that other path, we may have never seen a new Further Seems Forever record or Twin Forks at all…
There’s a reason for everything, and we’re not meant to know it, right? If that’s the reason, then I’ll take it. Reconnecting with the Further guys has been phenomenal. My tenure in Twin Forks continues to be something that’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, and it’s a group of my closest friends. I imagine it’s like adults’ once a year golf trip where you just embrace every moment. We enjoy making music more than anything else. We love our friendship more than anything else, so we find a way to do it. Twin Forks is unabashedly euphoric; we’re not afraid to be happy together in front of people.
Was there ever a time where you thought Dashboard Confessional may have just left you completely?
Yeah, I think that’s why I was able to do Twin Forks with everything I had. I was content. It wasn’t like I was waiting for my old girlfriend to show up. I was really happy with where I was. If Dashboard was done, it was inarguably a great run. I know it’ll define me maybe more than anything else I do. If its legacy we’re talking about, I would have been proud of it. There wasn’t a point where I hoped it wouldn’t come back, but if it didn’t, it didn’t mean that music was over for me. Frankly, that’s more important to me than anything else. If Dashboard gets taken away, if everything gets taken away, I still get to play guitar in my house.
You talk about waiting for Dashboard Confessional songs to come to you. Once Crooked Shadows began to hit, was it a flood?
It was a flood of epic proportions. Once I had the first song that felt like new territory, it was just a flood of inspirations. Here’s the rub: I write, like, 20 songs, and I think I have a record. I thought, “If I write one more song, then this record is done.” Then, I write “We Fight,” and I’m doing cartwheels, because I’m done. I listen to it a few more times, and I realize that the song is not the last piece of the puzzle, it’s the first piece of the puzzle, and these [other] songs have got to go. Some of them found their way back. Generally speaking, everything up until that point was just a warmup.
In a Rolling Stone interview, you talked about how “We Fight” started out as a song about your thoughts on the music community in which you grew up.
There’s never one thing, ever, with any song I have. When I write, I either keep the news or SportsCenter on. I need some slight distraction, I guess, so I don’t get bogged down. I’m not writing an essay, I’m not sitting there poring over every comma. This frees me up somehow to just let things be wrong for a minute. I can always come back and revise. I’m watching the news and writing this song. The song is ostensibly in my mind about the way I grew up, the music scene I grew up in and the social politics it taught me, but concurrent with the news that’s on to my left.
I don’t remember if it was “We Fight” or another one, but Sally Yates was testifying to Congress, and I remember just how tenuous everything had become and how all these progressive strides we made were seemingly being undone and in these broad fell swoops. I knew that influenced the song, and the more I sang the song after it was finished, the more I realized it was more about taking action for social change than my experience of an introduction to social politics in the music scene.
It’s gotta be strange to have a song’s definition change once it’s out of your hands.
That’s not the first time that a song’s definition has changed. I think this came from inside and me being more in tune to the song and the happenings around us. There are a lot of other songs where I realized the listener had it right and I had it wrong. It’s a weird thing. Of course I know what the song is about, I wrote it, but I write so fast, and I allow myself to race through it and come back and revise. I think that’s where it leaves it open to interpretation.
Photo by Jim Trocchi